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A Quick Note on Programming Pushups and Core Together

Anybody watch Drew Brees pick apart the ‘Fins last night? Well, everyone told me I was crazy to take a tight end in the first round of a fantasy football draft. It won’t work, they said. That’s a waste, they said. Take Gronk, not Jimmy Graham, they said. Well, now he’s 10th in the entire league in fantasy points. BAM!

In high school (and even to this day) I always took the fact that I could drop to the floor at any minute and bang out 30 pushups for granted. Couldn’t everyone do that?

As I’ve learned, no. And oftentimes, a person’s core is a limiting factor. So, then, it doesn’t make sense to program a core exercise before we do our pushup sets.

Anyone that’s lived in Boston should understand this.

A common problem I see in programs is too much overlap in exercises, especially during giant sets or circuit style training. The worst case scenario of this is when I see intense core exercises being paired with major lower body lifts (i.e. squat and deadlift patterns). As you progress through your sets, possibly acclimating to a higher weight, you are tiring out your core.

Not only is this a terrible way to improve your squat or deadlift, but it also makes the exercise unsafe. However, I’ve also seen many instances of hypers or glute-hams being paired with those same lifts. Though this probably doesn’t affect the safety of the main lifts, it may, and certainly won’t improve your performance.

I don’t see this same overlap as frequently when it comes to upper body lifts, as there is obviously both a push and pull component to the upper body. Lower body exercises have a lot more overlap when it comes to separating knee-dominant/quad-dominant/hip-dominant/glute-dominant/hamstring-dominant exercises. There is no way to functionally isolate any of these muscles because the body was not designed to work in isolation (aka get off the leg extension machine).

Functionality at it’s finest.

One of the mistakes I see all the time, though, is a plank or some other core exercise being paired with pushups. For some, this can be a good compound set of assistance exercises. However, I find that a goal for many, men and women, is to simply complete a full pushup from the floor.

Clients always ask why I program my pushups and chinups in a low rep range. Everyone’s being taught that we should be doing some crazy workout program where, if we just do 35 mediocre pushup-things as fast as we can in 30 seconds, we’ll eventually be able to complete a perfect pushup from the floor. Not true.

In fact, pushups and chinups and other bodyweight exercises are inherently are strength-oriented. There is a base-line of strength that must be achieved in order to complete these exercises and they often need to be regressed before we can complete the real thing. A person who can only complete one full pushup or chinup is performing a max-effort exercise every time they do it. So, training for these goals involves programming the exercises at the beginning of the session, utilizing strength-oriented rep ranges.

So how does core come into play?

Usually, when somebody is limited in their pushup prowess, it is because of one of two reasons. Either their core fails them or their upper body just isn’t strong enough. When the upper body isn’t strong enough, most people tend to arch their lower back hard, pushing themselves into lumbar extension and then actually finishing the lift with their core.

Performing core exercises first, even ones as simple as planks, are contrary to the goal of performing a pushup. If you were attempting a max effort squat, would you do a quick set of heavy bulgarians first? Probably not. Whether you’re trying to perform your first pushup or training others toward their’s, here are a few ideas and suggestions for your pushup programming.

1. Pushups as a main lift

Consider the pushup as a main lift. A good program always starts with the heaviest strength work, when your neuromuscular system is fresh. Pair your pushup work with some rowing, scapular stabilization, or shoulder mobility. This will keep you primed to work hard during your pushup sets.

This is a good idea whether someone’s core is weak or not, as the proper attention must be given to challenging bodyweight exercises before they will progress.

2. Paired with a single-leg variation

Pairing your pushups with a heavy, single-leg variation saves the core a bit while still hitting the legs as hard, if not harder, than a bilateral lift. Mike Boyle has talked about the efficacy of single-leg work for years and I believe that no program is complete without it.

This is a great way to smoke your legs and upper body at the same time. I like to implement single-leg work before bilateral leg work for those with a history of lower back problems. Unless somebody’s goal is to compete, it’s definitely not necessary to perform heavy bilateral work.

3. Pushups as a pre-exhaustion method for the core

For someone who’s core is relatively weak, they may not be able to bang out many pushups before their lower back begins to look like you could fill it with milk and let a clowder go to town on it.

I believe five constitutes a clowder.

Try performing the pushups first and then moving directly to a front plank for extra core work. Pushups require greater core stabilization than a plank, so consider this a drop-set for the core.


Don’t trample your progress on pushups by draining your anterior core first. Pushups are a core exercise and should be treated as such, much like a squat is a knee extension and hip extension exercise.

By the same token, this is the reason that I do not like band-assisted pushups, especially where the band is placed on the hips. I would rather utilize different pin heights on a rack then throw a band around somebody’s hips and let it pull them up. I have found that after band-assisted pushups, the end result is a bunch of floor pushups that better resemble down-facing dog.

Good form!

I think that’s pretty much all I have to say about pushups at the moment. This post wasn’t meant to be a guide to your first pushup, though I think I’ve successfully inspired myself to write that now.

Happy looting!  (Just kidding. That was a joke. Seriously, don’t loot. Or pillage, ransack, ravage, or raid.) Hopefully the packs of stray, wild dogs don’t control most of our cities by tomorrow.

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