The press-up exercise is a great movement for increasing the flexibility and overall health of the spine. I was first exposed to press-ups as a student in physical therapy school where I learned about the use of these back extension exercises as a treatment for back pain as part of the popular McKenzie method of therapy. What makes the press-up exercise special is that it puts the body and spine in the exact opposite position that many of us spend the majority of the day in: sitting.
Looking at the position of the spine in sitting you’ll often find:
- the upper back (thoracic spine) is flexed with an increased forward curvature of the spine
- the lower back is rounded causing a reversal of the normal lumbar curve
- the lower part of the neck is flexed forward causing a forward head posture
- the upper part of the neck gets tilted back into extension so that we can maintain a level gaze
- the hips are flexed causing a shortening of the muscles that cross the front of the hip joint
The problem with sitting like this for several hours a day is that the body becomes adapted to being in this posture, meaning it becomes harder to straighten out again when we are not sitting. This forward flexed posture has been identified as an indicator of poor health when we get older.
I remember as a kid being able to spend hours on end lying down in front of the television on my stomach propped up on my elbows. Ask the average adult to spend 30 minutes in that position and they’ll likely end up in the emergency room. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I can say from my experience working in the clinic that many adults have difficulty maintaining, or even just getting into, an extended position from lying prone. The main reason why is that our spines lose flexibility in the motions we don’t use on a regular basis. The press-up exercise is a great way to make sure that we hold on to flexibility and maintain good posture as we age.
The Press Up
The press up movement is a very simple exercise. The idea is to get into a fully extended position by lifting the chest off the floor and straightening the elbows. This exercise can be done in repetitions (i.e. hold the position for 10 seconds, relax back down the floor then repeat 10 times) or in can simply be held for a set amount of time.
Comparing the press up position to sitting you’ll see that:
- the upper back is being moved away from the forward flexed position
- the lower back is going into extension
- the lower part of the neck is in good alignment with the rest of the back
- the upper part of the neck is held in a neutral position
- the front of the hips are open, stretching the tissue crossing the hip joints
This movement is very similar to the Cobra position in Yoga, except in the cobra the hands are usually placed directly under the shoulders. Moving the hands out in front I feel helps to generate more extension through the upper part of the back. The most common mistake I see with the press-up is keeping the shoulders hiked up. To avoid that, try to focus on keeping the shoulders pulled down away from the ears.
The Half Press Up
For someone who finds they don’t have enough flexibility to start right into the full press up, a modified version called the half press-up is a good option. Instead of straightening out the elbows, with the half press-up both the hands and the elbows are kept on the floor and the lifting of the torso is done by pressing through the forearms. This is also a good option for someone looking to hold this position for anything more than just a few minutes.