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Pilates Push-Ups with the Magic Circle


Let me show you a fun but challenging exercise to build strength in the shoulders for push-ups. I use the magic circle, one of my favorite tools to create core stability. The catch with push-ups is this: We assume that we can build stronger shoulders and arms by doing them. But that's not always true. If we lack a base level of strength in the upper body we will not be able to do a push-up correctly. This means, we’re not doing the push-ups correctly and will create wrong alignment and trigger compensation patterns, which make our shoulders actually worse.

Let me be honest with you. Push-ups are whole body exercises. They require the whole body to be strong. Most people I work with just aren’t that strong. Don’t fret, though. These magic push ups below, make it a bit easier.

If you’re now thinking “Oh, but I’ve been doing push ups for a long time. I’m fine.” Please read on anyway. Especially when you do push-ups on a regular basis, it’s even more important that your form is tip top.

When performing a push-up we often:

  • drop the head, - let the shoulder blades collapse together on the back, - let the elbows move out to the side (okay, I admit that obviously many people consciously perform wide push-ups, we’ll have to talk another time, why you should definitely include narrow push-ups too). - sag the hips.

The missing link most of the time with any of these issues is a lack of upper core strength. I’m talking about the muscles all around the ribcage.

Push Ups Will Not Get You Better Push-Ups

First, we have to do a different exercise to build up our strength. Then, once our strength is ready, we can do the full exercise. I've seen students with years of experience in Yoga or Pilates who are still doing the push up wrong. This means they've been hurting and straining their shoulders for years. With the use of the magic circle, we can help support some of the body weight while positioning our shoulders correctly, hence allowing us to build strength safely.

Learning the correct arm position

With your arms stretched out in front of you, bend the elbows so that your forearms aim straight ahead, palms facing out. Then press your upper arms really tightly against your body. Imagine that there's a piece of paper between your biceps and your ribcage that you're not letting anybody take from you. Keep your shoulders down and your head back, eyes straight ahead. This will give you an idea of the correct arm and shoulder position for the push up.

How This Translates To The Push-up

Now place the ring on the floor with the bottom pad down and the top pad facing up. Set your sternum bone right on top of the pad and your hands on the mat. Make sure your hands are aligned with the pads so they are not too far forward. Also make sure you're not rolling the chest back: keep the top pad of the ring right above the bottom pad and don’t let it roll backward. Push down on the pad with your sternum until you can squeeze your upper arms against your ribcage, just like in the earlier position. From there, step one foot at at time back to come into the push-up position.

Don't try to move or go anywhere. Just stabilize this position. For most people, holding this already takes a lot of work. As soon as you find that you no longer have any strength and your shoulders are pushing forward to your ears, it is time to come down and relax.

Practice this enough until you feel absolutely confident. Then, you can set up the same pose without the ring: hug your upper arms into the chest, step your feet back, and hold. This is much more difficult without the ring; the ring helps push us up to counteract the pull of gravity.

Should it feel easier to do without the ring, then you’re not engaging the whole body. Go back to doing it with the ring, and pay very close attention to each body part, how it’s working, and compare it when you do it without the circle. Everything should be working the same, but since you don’t have the circle to support you anymore, it should be just a bit harder.

This video is an excerpt from my online course "Return to Push-Ups". If you want to build up your strength to do Push-Ups correctly and successfully, check it out.

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