Demo Slam of the Day: How I Teach Pushups

Authors Note: The Demo Slam is a quick way to share an instructional tip, strategy, or tool. Its origins are outside of the PE world, but I do think Collin Brooks and I may be responsible for popularizing it with the PE community at SHAPE America National Convention in Seattle in 2015. The purpose is to crowdsource ideas quickly so think of it as a tip of the day. 3-2-1-SLAM!

I absolutely LOVE teaching students how to do pushups. It seems pretty basic, but it’s something I’m very mindful and passionate about because…I was terrible at them! As an adult, I now know why. I was always the tallest or second tallest person in my class and I have ridiculously long arms for my height. In the sports world, we hear it referred to as wing span. Well, I’m 6’1 and my wing span is about 6’9. So the point is, pushups (and pull-ups…and bench press) were always incredibly difficult for me and I never understood why. It was embarrassing year after year to be put on display during fitness testing (my experience was not a model Physical Education program) and feeling inadequate as a learner and athlete. I never once successfully did a pull-up in K-12 physical education. I share this story with my elementary students every year when teaching pushups. Here is my current thinking around them.

I want to identify 3 big keys for my current thinking when teaching pushups.

  • I have 2-3 learning keys I use with students. Yes, I use the words, “learning keys” rather than learning cues because it is easier to use visuals to help students “unlock their learning.” I have used numerous “keys” throughout the years (straight back, arms at 90 degrees, etc.) and I really have never liked any of them. I have settled on a couple that I really like at this point in my teaching. The first is straight body. The visual is a straight line drawn down our body from our head to our heels (or point of contact on the floor). The reason I use this instead of “straight back” is it helps to prevent the student who has a straight back but bends at the hips. The second key is bend your elbows. I explicitly teach students how we want a full range of motion to be able to build muscle strength. Sometimes, I have to be more explicit and use bend your elbows fully. I sometimes explicitly add a third key, sometimes I don’t–but, I do use it to give specific feedback and that is, hands under shoulders. I’ve considered different language here (I’ve used shoulders stacked on hands and other various descriptors), but this one is pretty easy for students to understand.
  • Language around how we talk about pushups in class.

    First, if you are still gendering pushups, FULL STOP!

    Side story here: I had a 5th grade girl ask me this question towards the end of the school year on why the pushups she did are called “girl pushups.” At first, I was blown away because I haven’t used that language for years. I was a little upset because I felt it may have come from another student so my only response was, “Where did you hear that?” Turns out she heard it from a youth sports team she was on. I actually used that moment to have a whole class discussion in giving students a little mini history lesson–and why those words don’t even make sense. It actually turned out to be a really beautiful thing–what was most beautiful is I had this 5th grade girl who asked this question out of genuine curiosity because she had never heard that term referring to her pushups in her entire life! The outside world sucks sometimes, but we control what we can control.

Where was I? Oh yeah, language around how we talk about pushups in class. I no longer use language like Full or Half, Regular or Modified. I don’t think these capture what we want either and there is some implied meaning in those words that I do not like. I teach students three different types of pushups they can choose from. I teach 4-point pushups, 6-point pushups, and Super Hero Pushups.

4-point and 6-point are pretty easy. 4 points of contact with the ground (hands and toes) or 6 points of contact with the ground (hands, knees, and toes).

Super Hero Pushups are an evolution for me over the past year. They are the pushups formerly known as “Hand-Release Pushups”. When the student touches the ground and releases the hands from touching the ground, they then extend their arms fully in front of their body like they are flying, then return them to under their shoulders before they push up. I like this evolution because it makes students slow down and be more mindful about form.

  • The final key is something that is newer for me, and that is moving away from explicitly telling students the challenge progression (Super Hero–>to 6-point–>4-point). I am moving this way for several reasons. First, I think students are capable enough to feel the difference themselves. Second, when I am the one who identifies which one is most challenging (4-point) and least challenging (Super Hero), I have placed value on and elevated one of the choices over another. Even though this is not my intention, what is more important is how students perceive the action. If a student asks me, I will tell them what is more challenging, but I will tell them through the lens of what is more challenging for me. Outside of that, I really am encouraging anyone who reads this to consider doing the same. Because, the fact is, “challenge” can be very fluid depending on the day. I feel pretty strongly that we want to get away from placing value on a certain type of pushup being “better” than another. Because the truth is, the important thing is, we want to give students choice–and not invalidate that choice with a hierarchy. All three choices will help students build muscle strength!

So that’s it! You have probably read more on thoughts around pushups than you ever thought was possible. Leave me your thoughts in the comments, share how you teach pushups, or challenge my thinking so I can make my teaching even better!

3-2-1 SLAM!

5 Comments on “Demo Slam of the Day: How I Teach Pushups

  1. Your writing and thought provide me a deep opportunity to reflect on teaching components and pedagogy not only for me but to teach my preservice students. (This, Physedagogy is the perfect name!) While I may not be teaching push-ups, I can certainly relate and teach a variety of methods to my students.

    I am not completely sold on keys vs cues for my taste, but it does give food for thought to explore. I hope you will continue to write!

    • Thanks for your thoughts Kymm. Clearly, I agree that Physedagogy is the perfect name–I wish it wasn’t so hard to say! Hah, where is Matt Pomeroy when I need him!

      It is funny on the keys vs cues thing as it kind of just gradually happened for me in my teaching. I’ve always used the language “learning cues” or just cues, and then about 5 years ago I started to try out this concept of “keys for learning” with several visuals and a magnetic whiteboard. So then I found myself using “learning cues” and “keys for learning” at the same time….and then slowly but surely, they kind of just merged one day and I shifted to using the term “learning keys” or “keys for learning” interchangeably. Obviously, I know that keys are really cues–but, at least my perception is that “keys” with the appropriate visual are easier for kids to understand–and especially language learners.

      It also helps me think about teacher language that I use with students when helping them with their learning. For example, I can say things like “Ok, let’s slow down and think about what are our keys for learning with ______ skill?” or, “We’ve unlocked the learning for _______, tell your neighbor what one of our keys was?”

      These are just off the top of my head, but it gives you an idea of how I use that language while teaching.

  2. Great post! I especially appreciate your thoughts and direction in moving away from telling students the challenge progressions. I think you nailed it in identifying that they are capable of distinguishing between the progressions and also that some things feel more or less challenging to different people. I’ll be sharing this with my students!

  3. Always felt PE teachers needed to understand that exploration of movement to better enable learners to reason through what best fits their body types related to fitness, learners can decide for themselves.
    There are so many pushup/weight bearing variations that lead into doing a traditional pushup – shoulder taps, coffee grinders, walk hands to feet/walk feet away from hands & reverse, turnover, crab (try crab kicks too!), wave one arm then a leg/ wave an arm & leg at the same time, side planks, planks, downward dog (pushup bridge), back bend/table, etc etc etc. Students “challenged” to bear weight should have the ability to experience it with success where they are at in their learning as opposed to one specific and correct pushup. Sure fitness testing requires the traditional 90 degree angle pushup however leading preparation should include students being excited about wanting to try in order to give their best effort.

    • Thanks for your thoughts CW! One thing I do want to make clear, is that I don’t teach push-ups as a lead up for fitness testing.

      That is a blog post for another day, maybe several, but I actually don’t think fitness testing is appropriate in a PE class…really ever…and I don’t utilize it.

      I agree that there are lots of different exercises to teach children about bearing weight and muscle fitness.

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