I know you are a man, but don’t go away yet!
If you are a man, don’t think this chat isn’t for you. In my days managing part of a quantitative financial trading outfit I was shocked that 2 young men on my team could not do a single pushup. Interestingly enough, one was over 6-feet tall and skinny, the other was noticeably below 6-feet in height and far from skinny! So, although I have called this chat “Pushups for the Ladies”, you too can learn and benefit from it, bro!
Why do pushups anyway?
From a functional perspective, it’s easy to list a few reasons very quickly – closing stiff or heavy drawers, pushing a car when stalled instead of looking helplessly at strangers, pushing an attacker away when against a wall to open up a gap for escaping. If you happen to be a cross country skier or a long distance runner then the pushup and its mirror image exercise are superb relevant performance enhancement drills. Very specifically, the pushup’s major working (agonist) muscles are the triceps and the chest and, given how the pushup requires your entire core to be engaged, it’s a total body muscular strength and/or muscular endurance training exercise that is easy to do anywhere without additional equipment – you don’t even need a yoga mat!
Hiding the science
In order to focus on getting you there, and not losing your attention, I will avoid feeding you with too much science (anatomy, exercise physiology, periodization etc.) and keep this chat at a simple practical level to produce results for you easily.
Those knee pushups won’t get you anywhere
Often ladies or newbies at the gym are taught how to do what I call “sissy pushups” – pushups on the knees. These have some purpose and, sure, something is better than nothing. But this easy alternative to the “regular pushup” is limited in what you achieve, and so won’t help you get going much further, as progression from there to the regular pushup isn’t direct. As a result, it will keep you limited, you are then restricted and cannot move onto anything more advanced, explosive or fun. If you’ve been doing those, don’t worry – just forget about them for now and read on…
Anyone can do proper form, quality pushups
Just about anyone can do a regular pushup if they progress to it in a logical manner from super easy to apparently tough. I have taken many ladies from the inability to do a single pushup to being confident about doing many! Here is how you can too, and quite easily. All it requires is that you trust me and remain patient with the process. Even if you don’t believe in your ability to eventually get there, I do believe you can, so stick with the process. I promise, you will get there!
The 2 ends of a pushup
The start and end of the pushup, along with every point in-between, typically requires that your entire body other than your arms remain in the same position relative to each other. “Stiff, pretty much like a plank of wood” is how I like to put it. We have the lowering phase (going down gently resisting gravity) and the rising phase (pushing up against gravity). With your head, thorax and abdominal area ensuring that you maintain a ‘neutral spine’ position throughout, the idea is to go from the high point (arms straight at the elbow – plank position) to the low point (arms bent at the elbow, nose almost touching the floor) and back up to the high point.
Do not disengage between the start and the finish
Whether going down or back up, it is important to stay mentally focused on keeping your core engaged so that your entire body other than what is meant to move around the shoulder and elbow joints stays sturdy like a tree trunk. With the spine neutral and this rock solid core, one can imagine a long broomstick that ought to maintain contact with the back of the head, top of the upper back and your buttocks throughout the movement. Maintaining a stiff plank, by engaging all the muscles in your core is absolutely essential to good form of movement during the execution of a regular pushup. By ‘core’ we do not mean just the abdominal muscles, but everything other than the head, arms and legs. And remember, lack of good form is typically what leads to injury or pain. Have you heard of people with lower back pain from gym visits? This is what they failed to remember!
The journey of a 1000 pushups begins with a quarter step!
I strongly advise you to not skip any of these stages. Failing to do so might lead to problems at that time, or in the long run. Doing all the stages will ensure 100% success in time.
Stage Minus One – Be hot stuff
Warming up the muscles that will do the work of a pushup is important. If you are in a cold environment you will have to pay extra attention to this. A general warm up like a brisk walk or a light jog will warm up your body but, perhaps not the specific muscles of the pushup. If you have a very weak upper body, then even standing exercise drills that simulate pushups in the air, or against a vertical wall will help you break into a sweat. Do that, a specific warm up first!
Stage Zero – Plank it first
If you have never attempted a pushup before, it is best that you develop strength in your entire core by spending a few days, or even a few weeks, simply extending the time that you can hold the plank position for. And it is best to do the ‘plank’ (palms on the ground, arms almost straight) rather than the ‘modified plank’ (forearms on the ground, what many people incorrectly refer to as the plank). Only once you can hold the plank position for 30 seconds, without your body beginning to tremble, should you consider yourself ready to commence your progression to good quality regular pushups.
Stage Middle – The Most Important For Eventual Success
You’ve heard me speak earlier about how, in general, we can achieve high levels of success in anything we do – the money is in the detail. So, this stage is all about making things easy for yourself so that you do succeed in the end. It is the bridge between “oh, pushups are too tough” to “yaay, I can do 10“! Here is how…
Whether you are trying to correct your form or attempting to do your first pushup properly, it’s best to reduce the load being lifted by starting off with what I call “assisted pushups”. You do not need any special equipment for this. Simply find a horizontal raised surface for your hands e.g. kitchen counter or the trunk of your car! If at the gym, you can use a squat rack and its barbell rod. (Have a look at Mrs Arora in the photos below.) The key point to note here is that if your feet remain on the ground and your hands are placed on a surface above ground level, the resistant force to work against is lower. To understand this clearly, picture yourself standing straight against a wall and pushing against it – almost zero effort, super easy! But we don’t need it that easy. With the hand positioned sufficiently high, it should be possible for you to execute a good quality pushup and feel the effort of doing so. Remember, your nose now needs to go down to the level of an imaginary sloping floor that runs from your toes to your hands.
How high should your hands be placed? If you can manage 12 good form pushups at a certain height that is good. If you find it difficult to perform 12 repetitions, raise the level of your hands to a higher surface. If you find it too easy, lower your hand position.
Progression – is what we always look for
It is best to keep a minimum 48-hours gap between your pushup sessions. This allows your body to have recovered and adjusted to the load of the previous session by becoming stronger. How you progress shifting your hands lower and lower down the vertical height until they are on the ground will be a function of various factors (age, gender, weight, body fat percentage, to name just a few). Erring on the side of caution so that you are progressing slowly but surely will ensure that you do not develop any injuries. It may take anything between 1-6 sessions before you feel confident that you can “try one level lower”.
Within any one set of 12 repetitions, you may want to also have a 3-5 second gap, holding the plank position, to allow your muscles to refuel enough to execute 1 (or even 2) additional repetitions. When you pause this way for a few seconds, I call it a “split set” and that’s perfectly OK to do. By pausing and shocking your body safely with an extra repetition will yield benefits.
Pyramiding Down is also useful with pushups as you get fatigued within a session. This would look something like:
Set 1 – 12 repetitions on Level 1 (toughest)
Set 2 – 12 repetitions on Level 2 (tougher)
Set 3 – 12 repetitions on Level 3 (tough)
Set 4 – 12 repetitions on Level 4 (tough enough)
In order to maintain aesthetic beauty, and ensure harmonious development of opposing muscles, the exercise to pair this with is the row. This could be seated or standing (pulley machine). If you are in a playground with parallel bars (ideal for dips), you could also do the mirror action of the pullup there.
Dangers – Avoid Spine problems in the Cervical and Lumbar areas
There are many classic errors I see men commit at the gym. Some can be instantaneously dangerous while others can cause problems in the long run. Be a good lady, set a good example for those men. The most common errors I see men commit include:
- Moving their heads vigorously, looking here there and everywhere, especially at mirrors or ladies walking by, instead of looking downwards to keep the spine neutral; looking upwards (hyperextension of the cervical area of the spine) can be very dangerous in the short and long run
- Arching the lower back (usually because of a weak core initially, and then the habit persisting because of neuromuscular learning gravitating the body automatically towards that posture) so that the lumbar area of the spine (around the trouser belt line) is curved more than it normally is – this excess lordosis will often lead to lower back pain
Ah… push it…
I hope you will read this a few times in your journey to a series of good quality pushups. If you ever happen to catch me in person, don’t hesitate to ask me to check your form if you’re willing to drop down and give me 10!
Just push it!
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.