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Functional Movement 101 – The Push Up

functional movement push up strength training Apr 15, 2024


By Carla DiGirolamo, MD, CFL1


The push-up is right beside the squat among the most foundational of the functional movements. This movement requires the recruitment of many muscle groups, including the muscles of the shoulder, rotator cuff, pectoral muscles, muscles of the upper back, and, of course, the muscles of the core of the body.


When we think of “functional” in terms of longevity, the strength in the musculature required for the push-up helps you to get up from a chair and in the unfortunate case of needing to get up off of the floor after a fall. A foundation of strength within this musculature is critical for continued longevity and vitality into our 80s, 90s, and past that century mark, a milestone that 1/3 of us alive past age 50 today will actually achieve!


For athletes, the fitness gained from incorporating push-ups into their training will be realized for any sport requiring strength, mobility, and agility of the upper extremities and core musculature.


One more awesome aspect of this movement is that it can be done anywhere, with minimal to no equipment, and can be scaled to accommodate every fitness and ability level.


Warm Up


TABATA – 20-sec work/10sec off; 12 rounds, 6 minutes. Perform each movement sequentially for 20 seconds of work, then 10 seconds of rest for a total of 4 rounds of all 3 movements.

  •  Jumping jacks 20 seconds of work/10 seconds of rest, then…..      
  • Mountain Climbers 20 seconds of work/10 seconds of rest… then…
  • Easy push-up 20 seconds of work/10 seconds of rest) .. then back to the jumping jacks!


Movement Practice


Watch this video closely, paying close attention to the instructions on the mechanics of execution. I cannot overstate the importance of this step!


Scaling Options


If you cannot do strict push-ups from the floor, then you are likely in the majority. The best scale for this movement is to perform the push-up with the hands elevated on a STABLE box, table, chair, or even the wall, depending on your mobility and limitations. Avoid doing push-ups from your knees. This modification decreases core muscle engagement as compared to push-ups on your toes.


Setting Your Workout Repetitions


Take 5-10 minutes to find the push-up elevation option that allows you to do 5-10 repetitions in 20 seconds confidently. Your goal is to maintain 80% or better adherence to mechanics for all repetitions. Pick a number that you can maintain for the 10 rounds of this workout.

You have the entire minute to get your selected number of repetitions done. Stick with your selected number and when it gets tough, take short breaks and do whatever is needed to get the reps done within the 1 minute intervals.

TIP: The magic of this movement is in achieving full range of motion, that is, touching your chest to the floor (or box, bench, etc.) at the bottom of EVERY repetition!

If shoulder mobility is an issue, set a plate or a book under your chest as a target and touch your chest to this object at the bottom of each repetition.


Options for the Push-up Ninja


If you can do 5, perfect strict push-ups fairly easily, try these modifications to add a challenge:

  •  Increase the repetitions to 10 repetitions for the 5 sets.
  •  Tempo push-ups: Descend for a slow count of 3, hold for 1 at the bottom (chest touching but not resting on the floor), and rise for a count of 1 for all 5 repetitions.
  • Deficit push-ups: Elevate your hands on barbell plates or other equal and stable objects (height of 1-3 inches) leaving space between the plates to touch your chest to the floor at the bottom of the movement.




EMOM 10 (Every minute on the minute for 10 minutes). Set a timer and starting with 0:00, perform your selected number of push-ups. Rest for the remainder of the minute. Repeat at the turn of each minute until you have completed 10 minutes.

Strict Push Up:

Your selected number of push-ups and elevation (5-10 repetitions)


Core Accessory


Perform each movement in sequence for 20 seconds of work then 10 seconds of rest for 4 rounds of all 4 movements, a total of 8 minutes.


Cool Down

15-minute Yoga for Chest and Shoulders

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