Take Home Points on Are Push-Ups Safe for Swimmers?
Written by John Matulevich a powerlifting world record holder in multiple lifts and weight classes, as well as a Head D-2 Strength Coach, and previously a nationally ranked college athlete. His concentrations are in sports performance, powerlifting, and weight training for swimming. To learn more about how John trains his athletes, check his Twitter page: @John_Matulevich. He can also be reached at MuscleEmporium@gmail.com with inquiries.
- Push-ups are a safe and effective exercise for swimmers with proper biomechanics and programming.
Questioning the safety of push-ups seems like it would make for a rather straightforward article, and
Is the Coach Qualified to Supervise a Push-Up and Do They Know What to Look For?
When I say ‘qualified’ I don’t mean certified in Strength and Conditioning, or having a background in exercise science, all I mean by this, is that the coach or athlete has a basic understanding of what is really happening during a push-up, and what contraindications to look for in their respective populations.
Some of the most common flaws in an athlete’s push-up pattern are: poor arm position (either too close or too far from the body), extended or flexed head position (looking up, or down too far), and the most common—sunken hips with an arched back.
When judging arm position the rule of thumb is to put 45 degrees of space between the torso and the upper arm. This 45 degree position prevents the athlete from flaring the arms out too far and therefore placing too much stress on the shoulder girdle, it also prevents the arms from being in too close, causing too much flexion at the elbow, and therefore acute elbow pain or tendinitis.
A flexed head position is caused simply by the athlete either looking to make sure the arms are in the correct spot or just general poor body awareness (very common in swimmers). The best neck position is going to be neutral, where the head is looking straight down; not down at the feet, but simply down at the ground directly below their face.
An extended neck position is the result of some poor mechanics lower in the body. When the head is hyperextended, it is generally following the rest of the spine. When the spine is hyperextended, it is generally a result of passive restraints dominating throughout the core and hips. To mitigate this, the athlete must be cued to squeeze the glutes, as well as the abs. This whole complex of muscles firing is one reason why I trust athletes who tell me they can do 5 push-ups more than those who tell me they can do 50—at this number, it is very likely that the athlete is relying on passive restraints (ligaments, tendons, and bones) rather than actively engaging the appropriate muscles, and likely shortening range of motion, as well.
If push-ups are done correctly, it is very possible for the abs and glutes to give out before the triceps or chest. This weakness usually subsides as the athlete becomes more experienced.
Does the Coach Understand What Variations May Be Best for Different Populations?
This question is crucial. Athletes have many different backgrounds, levels of experience, shoulder pathologies, leverages, and strength—all of which can drastically change exercise prescription. Most swimmers should stick with the simplest variations of push-ups, focusing on a tight core, as well as going through as large of a range of motion as possible (without pain). Even with a basic push-up many swimmers are not strong enough to demonstrate an entire set with decent form, and in many cases can’t even perform one single repetition. Many coaches here would have the athlete do push-ups from the knees, this variation however, tends to really hamper core activation, among other things, which drastically changes the movement. I prefer to have the athlete be assisted with bands. You can do this by setting up a large band around low pegs in a squat rack, then having the athlete lay over the band so that they are assisted as they get closer to the ground, and less as they get closer to the lockout, this is known as accommodated resistance. The further up the legs/torso that the band is placed, the athlete receives more assistance, the further down, less assistance is given. If a band is not available, a secondary option is to have the athlete perform a push-up to a bench or wall. Again, the more upright the athlete is, the most assistance they are receiving, so try to work the athlete to get close to the ground, and in the banded set up, have the athlete work at lowering the band placement each session.
Some of my favorite progressions for the exercise are: hand-release, clapping, foot-elevated, single foot, gymnastic ring push-ups. These are all rather advanced and should only be attempted after a mastery of the standard push-up is present. On the other hand, some of the best regressions are the aforementioned band-supported, and incline push-ups (to a wall or bench).
It is very possible that having the hand on the ground during the push-up can irritate the athlete’s wrist. In this case, I suggest using dumbbells, placing them slightly outside of shoulder-width, and having them turned so that the hands can be slightly supinated—this will further reduce pain/ joint problems. Dumbbells with hexagonal bells are ideal here because they won’t roll away from the athlete during the movement.
Is the Athlete Doing Sufficient Upper and Mid-Back Work to Balance the Effects of the Push-Ups?
Push-ups are partially so awesome because they can be done anywhere that there is the space to perform them, but what is not so awesome is that push-ups can make up far too much of a swimmers dryland program because there may be very restricted access to further equipment. Too many pressing exercises can pull the shoulder girdle forward over time causing pain, as well as poor performance. To counter problems associated with this, we must make sure that enough work is in place for the mid and upper back to keep the shoulder girdle in a neutral resting position. Many strength coaches go as far as saying that the ratio of pulling to pushing exercises should be 3:1, I however, think 1.5:1 is more reasonable, as long as the athlete already has a decent resting posture.
This back work should hit the lats, traps (upper, mid, and lower), rhomboids, and rear delts. Great exercises for this are dumbbell rows, pull-ups, chest-supported rows, rear delt raises, among others. There are thousands of variations to the exercises already listed, focusing on these, and variations thereof, will give you enough dryland programs to last for years.
Many argue that the demands on the back are high enough in swimming that there should be a reduction in back work during dryland to compensate. The work done by the back in swimming is usually too low in intensity/load to make significant hypertrophic differences, plus the fact that outside of the pool time, many athletes are in a state of flexion, be it at a desk at work or school, at home watching tv, or driving, which all needs to be accounted for (the 22 hours outside of practice are frequently overlooked during program design).
The push-up is a fantastic exercise for swimmers and should be a mainstay of a swimmers’ training programs. Proper coaching of the exercise is more likely to determine its safety and effectiveness more so than any other factor. Keeping exercises balance is another huge key to long-term athletic development and safety, so be sure to implement a full dryland regimen to improve body awareness, speed, and conditioning.