push-ups for seniors

Push-ups (for seniors)

Push-ups are a simple bodyweight exercise that improves your whole upper body strength. But are they good for seniors? Read on to find out.

Last time in my exercise bank -series I wrote about the lat pulldown for seniors. The lat pulldown is a great upper body exercise that activates almost the whole upper body but mainly targets the pulling muscles of the upper back and the biceps in a vertical plane.

The shoulder press is the perfect counterpart for the lat pulldown as a movement pattern but it has one significant shortcoming. It doesn’t activate the pectoral muscles optimally to improve horizontal pushing strength.

The push-up is the most natural pressing exercise in the horizontal plane. It uses all the pushing muscles of your upper body, including the pectoral muscles, the triceps, and the shoulder muscles.

Push-ups also require you to stabilize your whole body by contracting your abdominal muscles, glutes, and legs. This makes it a great and effective compound movement to improve functional strength.

By far the biggest fallback of push-ups for seniors is the fact that they require quite a bit of strength, mobility and body control to perform correctly. Especially shoulder pain and mobility can prevent some seniors from performing push-ups comfortably.

Fortunately, there are variations that require much less strength and allow you to improve your mobility and strength gradually until you can perform a full push-up.

What is a push-up

Push-up is a bodyweight calisthenics exercise that is typically performed on the floor or on the ground. The exercise involves using your arms to push your body off the ground.

While this sounds simple enough, there is a lot more involved in the push-up. The main goal of performing push-ups is to improve your upper body pushing strength.

To achieve this optimally and safely, your push up form needs to be good. Typical errors include flaring your elbows too far to the sides, compromising the shoulder joint.

Another very common error is to let your mid-section sink. A proper push up is performed with a tense midsection and glutes with the hips fully extended (your butt is not higher than your back).

Finally, the push-ups should be performed with a full range of motion. It’s very common to see people performing push-ups with a very short range of motion because of the lack of either strength, mobility or both.

The variations of push-ups that are suitable for seniors include the wall push-up, bent-knee push-up, and the regular push-up. If you are still relatively young and essentially a gymnast, you can also consider jumping push-ups or one-arm push-ups (these are something even most young and fit people can’t perform with good form so use discretion).

How to perform the push-up

The push-up can be initiated from either the top or the bottom position. Starting from the position you will lower your body in control until your either your chest touches the ground (or the wall in a wall push-up) or at least comes very close, depending on your individual proportions and technique. 

If you start from the bottom position you will start your chest touching the ground (or the wall). This will make the first repetition a bit harder to start because you will eliminate stretch reflex starting from a dead stop without any potential energy, just like in a deadlift.

Let’s look at how each variation is performed, starting from the easiest to the hardest.

Wall push-up

The wall push-up is performed standing next to a sturdy wall that can support your body weight. The wall push-up is the easiest push-up variation to perform because you only use a fraction of your body weight while standing up.

  1. Stand facing the wall about arm’s length away
  2. Put your hands on the wall in front of you, slightly below the shoulder and a bit wider than shoulder-width
  3. Keep your elbows pointed slightly towards your sides, not out, this protects your shoulders.
  4. Contract your abdominal muscles and glutes
  5. Lean into the wall until your face almost touches the wall
  6. Push your self away from the wall to the starting position in a controlled manner

Bent knee push-up

The bent-knee push-up is an easier variation of the actual push-up. It’s easier to perform because the leverage point is at your knees instead of your feet taking a large portion of body weight off the lift.

You should try the bent knee push-ups only if you can perform at least 30 consecutive wall push-ups.

  1. You start the movement on the floor on your knees
  2. Place your hands on the floor, slightly below the shoulder and a bit wider than shoulder-width
  3. Keep your elbows pointed slightly towards your sides, not out, this protects your shoulders.
  4. Contract your abdominal muscles and glutes
  5. Lower yourself down to the floor until your chest or face touches the ground
  6. Push yourself up to the starting position in a controlled manner

Push-up

The regular push-up is the hardest of our variations. They require a lot more midsection control due to the longer lever as well as significant upper body strength.

Don’t let this discourage you. Most seniors are perfectly capable of performing regular push-ups if they progress with the lighter variations first. You should try doing regular push-up only if you can easily perform 30 consecutive bent knee push-ups with good form.

  1. You start the movement on the floor
  2. Place your hands on the floor, slightly below the shoulder and a bit wider than shoulder-width
  3. Keep your elbows pointed slightly towards your sides, not out, this protects your shoulders.
  4. Contract your abdominal muscles and glutes
  5. Lower yourself down to the floor until your chest  touches the ground
  6. Push yourself up to the starting position in a controlled manner

Muscles involved in the push-up

The push-up uses almost all your muscles to an extent but they especially strengthen the chest, triceps, and shoulders.

Chest

The main movers in push-ups are the pectoral muscles pectoralis major. They are responsible for producing the brunt of the force in pushing movements.

Arms

The push-ups activate the triceps brachii muscles very effectively because they require you to extend your elbows when pushing yourself up from the bottom position. The triceps also control the elbow joint flexion during the downward phase of the movement.

The bicep brachii acts as a dynamic stabilizer during the movement. Meaning that the push-up activates also your biceps indirectly.

The anterior deltoids in your shoulder contribute to horizontal adduction during the push-up while the other deltoids function mainly as stabilizers of the shoulder joint during the movement.

Abdominals

The abdominal muscles function as a stabilizer for your trunk along with the glutes to keep your body from collapsing while performing the push-up.

Are push-ups beneficial for seniors?

Push-ups are very beneficial for seniors because they strengthen the shoulder joint and improve your upper body strength.

While pushing strength is not as important for day to day actions as for example lower body and core strength, it is very useful for many tasks and protects you from injuries.

It’s also important to strengthen all the muscles around the shoulder girdle and the shoulder joints to keep your shoulder healthy and posture in check.

Upper body muscular atrophy is especially common in seniors because the upper body is used less for strenuous exercise than the lower body.

You can generally keep your legs strong enough to be healthy simply by walking every day but we rarely do anything strenuous with our upper bodies in our day-to-day life if we don’t have hobbies that take care of this.

It’s important to have balanced strength in the pushing and pulling muscle groups and it’s very common to have some strength in your upper back from carrying stuff but very tight and weak pectoral muscles.

Performing push-up in conjunction with rowing exercises is the perfect solution for this.

Conclusion

I hope you found this push-up tutorial for seniors useful and will incorporate the exercise in your exercise routine. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask them in the comment section below. I’m happy to help!

If you are already performing strength training for your back and legs, itäs important to include a pushing exercise like the push-up in your routine to avoid muscle imbalances.

Having a strong chest and shoulders will also help you in activities like swinging a tennis racquet, a golf club or fishing pole or anything really that involves throwing or hitting.

Click here if you want a simple whole-body strength training routine

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See you next time.

4 comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your article.

    I’ve never had the strength to do a ‘normal’ push-up even when I was younger but since having lymph nodes taken out of my right arm, that side is very weak. After watching the videos you’ve provided, I know that I will be able to do wall push-ups to strengthen my shoulders and arm 🙂

    1. Great to hear you found it useful Lynn! Definitely, start to improve your arm strength on the operated side as soon as possible to avoid unnecessary muscle loss. I’m sure your physical therapist has already explained this to you. It’s wise to run any new exercises by your doctor and physical therapist while in active recovery. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of starting light and establishing a full range of motion before starting to add resistance.

      Btw it’s very common for women to be not able to perform regular pushups if they don’t specifically train them. That said women can very easily achieve sufficient upper body strength to perform several regular pushup with an intelligently designed strength training program. All the best to you!

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