I have heard that the push-up is the best overall exercise for toning and strengthening the upper body. Is this true?
There is no perfect exercise -- but the push-up is pretty darn close. It doesn't require any equipment, it conditions several muscles at the same time and it can be done almost anywhere.
Because it uses body weight as resistance, a push-up is considered a strength-building exercise, and strength exercises can improve muscle tone and bone density while reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
The primary muscles used during a push-up are the chest, front shoulder and triceps muscles. However, because the push-up requires you to hold your body in a stable, horizontal position against gravity, you also engage your neck, core, hips and legs with each repetition.
Although the push-up is a simple exercise, many people do it incorrectly. Consider these push-up tips to minimize the risk of injury and maximize the benefits:
* When pushing away from the floor, focus on using your arms and keeping your body in a straight line throughout the movement. Avoid lifting your butt higher than your hips or hunching your neck and shoulders. Go slowly and exhale on the upward phase of the exercise.
* Don't allow your chest to actually touch the floor when you come down. Instead, stop the downward portion of the movement when your chest is 2 to 3 inches away from the floor. This will protect your shoulders and still provide plenty of range of motion to make the exercise effective. Try placing a book, rolled-up towel or tennis shoe under your chest to remind you when to stop lowering your body during the exercise.
* If you are unable to complete a full push-up, execute the exercise from your knees and/or place your hands on the edge of a sofa or bench (instead of the floor). These positions will make it less challenging, and allow you to build your strength over time. Then progress to a traditional push-up when you are able to complete 8 to 12 repetitions of this easier version of the exercise.
* If push-ups bother your wrists, try holding onto small dumbbells on the floor instead of placing your hands directly on the floor. The dumbbells will allow you to straighten your wrists and minimize pressure on them while doing the exercise.
* Though push-ups can strengthen several muscle groups, it is important to do some exercises that emphasize the "pulling" muscles such as pull-ups, pull-downs or rowing exercises. This will ensure balanced upper-body strength.
Jay Blahnik, a Laguna Beach-based personal trainer and IDEA Health & Fitness Assn. spokesman, has appeared in more than 25 videos and is the author of "Full-Body Flexibility." He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.