Category Archives: pushups

I don’t care about your Ultra… How big is your ROTI?

How big is your ROTI?   —> click to enlarge 🙂

You participated in an ultra race and, quite rightly, feel pleased about it. But, there are many reasons I do not care much about it. Here’s one reason – tell me, have you thought about how big your ROTI is?

When I tell people that “I spend less than 30 minutes per day on exercise” or that “I spend less than 20 minutes per day on running” they look at me disbelievingly. Just like when I said I never do an ab workout, they think I am making up ‘facts’. But the ‘fact’ is that I am very passionate about time efficiency.

A few months ago, I took part in a reasonably tough 10km race. I was fortunate to come second. (As you probably know, I enjoy a podium finish but don’t care about it too much.) The friend who came first, deserved to. He was noticeably faster than I was and faster than I will ever be. A brief conversation around then revealed that his weekly running mileage was between 4 and 6 times what I was clocking in a typical week. Although the reason for that incredibly high mileage was justified because he was training for some very long races, it struck me that so often we spend too much time in the wrong way and produce time inefficient results.

Let’s go back to the very simple idea
The Denominator

Time is a severely constrained resource

It is clear that the one thing that all of us always wish we have more of is time! Getting sufficient hours of sleep is very important for our well-being and what we all look forward to is to have many more alert waking hours in our typical week. And, we look to have many healthy and happy years ahead of us. In all cases, it is natural to want the same return for less time invested. That would leave us with extra time to invest in other ways we desire.

Unless you are one of those sad people who is happy having no real friendships, you are likely to have a bunch of things in life that you are interested in. First there is spending time with your family – grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, cousins, spouse, siblings, children, nephews and nieces and grandchildren…and I’m out of breath! Then there are your friends – recent friends, old friends, new friends that you will make, work colleagues, romantic partners. And then there are activities that you enjoy, sedentary and those involving some physical movement – sleep and rest, prayer and meditation, indoor and outdoor hobbies.

All these that you enjoy need you to invest time in them for an appropriate return. Would it not be great to have sufficient time for all of them and to get the most from each of them with whatever time you could invest in each of them?

The Numerator

The return can be captured neatly with the branches of the Wellness Tree. If you are not foolish enough to be chasing money (medium maximization) and wise enough to be enjoying the experiences that your money buys, then your focus will be on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.

When it comes to recreational distance running, the primary focus when investing time is to improve your cardiorespiratory endurance and muscular endurance. You also hope to have good flexibility, not lose absolute muscular strength and benefit from an improvement in body composition. (You may already know my thoughts on why you need not run.)

Numerator over Denominator

The refined question to then ask is – given the amount of time being invested in recreational distance running, how much are you getting back in terms of the primary goals of the activity? It is worth answering this question relative to your GPF (Genetic Potential Fitness), given that time is a severely constrained resource and there are so many more life enhancing activities that it could be invested toward.

Keeping Track

If you are going to maximize your return from any investment then you need to keep track of how much you are investing not just what you are getting back in return. Specifically, how much time are you investing in exercise? And, I have spoken about recording information in the past.

Smart investing

What is a good return on investment?

If you have been following my conversations over the last few years you will not be surprised to hear that I have no absolute recommendation for this question. What is more important to focus on is measuring it, and then trying to improve it. Remember, your GPF (Genetic Potential Fitness) plays an important benchmark here.

Less than 20 mins a day!

I want to stress again, that chasing higher absolute returns is a decent activity, but what will make it super for you is to also consider the returns relative to the time invested. If you are spending twice as much time on something for only a tiny improvement in results, it is time to rethink your strategy! Remember, Balance is True Mastery!

It may be that if you are in the early stages of a particular activity that your ROTI is high and that as time progresses and you start to get closer to your GPF, your ROTI drops. In that case my simple and effective advice would be this – consider just staying close to your GPF with a sensibly small amount of effort.

If you run, swim or bike an ultra race every once in a while, but the average stranger on the street does not look at you and think “athlete” then there’s something going wrong. Balance is True Mastery!

Consider your Capital

Whenever investing it is worthwhile to examine the promised (or expected) return from the deployment of capital. That capital need not be just financial capital, but could be human capital too. This human capital you invest could be physical effort (actual physical labour, or even exercise) or intellectual capital, or even emotional capital. And, I would like you to also think of spiritual capital.

[Read about Time Optimized Living]

The variable being considered in today’s conversation is time which translates almost directly to the physical labour capital. Given that good health is multifactorial, it is worth stopping and thinking if, perhaps, less time could be invested in the activity for better results. Or if time in that activity could be replaced with an improved focus on one of the other input factors. For instance, the fact that I achieve what I do in terms of fitness is clearly not only about the time I spend on exercise, but also the details in the many other things that I pay attention to in 24 hours  – including french fries.

It does not matter how many hours you spend with your head buried in books – what matters is what comes out of your head when it matters.

It does not matter how many hours you spend in Church – what matters is how you treat the world around you when you are out of Church.

I do not care about your ultra – how big can you make your ROTI?



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.

Get a 6-pack without ‘ab workouts’

Ab workouts not required

A year from now I’ll be in the 50th year of my life. For my age and lifestyle (minimum exercise, mostly sedentary days, and daily consumption of large amounts of fat and sugar in many forms) it seems unusual that I ought to have a noticeable set of abdominal muscles. They happen to be visible to the public because, when I run, unless it is too cold, it is almost always without a top on. (The reasons for that, some other day, soon.)

I receive a quizzical look in response when asked “Sir, how do I get a 6-pack too?” because my reply typically starts with…

I never do ab crunches or set aside any time to do an ab workout”.

Wait a minute! What did I just say? Yeah, just that – I never set time aside for an ab workout. The last time I did ab crunches with any seriousness was almost 35 years ago in Karate class! (And now you’re probably thinking that this sounds like my earlier conversation about why you need not run.) So, clearly any vaguely visible or distinctly discernible 6-pack needs some questioning! That is what today’s chat is about.

[see Why I am not a Fitness Freak]
[see The Accidental Wisdom of Pain Seekers]

These days even some women want a 6-pack (I’ve been approached by more than a handful with that request, and a couple of the ladies I mentor are a fair way there) but whether you’re a guy or a gal, it’s worth considering what it involves. So, let’s go through the following questions together:

What is a 6-pack?
What’s the use of it?
Did you know you have a 6-pack?
Why can’t you see yours?
Will you ever be able to see yours?
Why is doing ab crunches wrongly directed action?
What should you focus on instead?
What kind of effort do you need?
Who will have easier success with it?
OK, so you have a 6-pack, what next?

What is a 6-pack?

What’s happening underneath

Your muscles work when they contract. In your front abdominal region, there are many muscle groups performing different functions (e.g. twisting, bending side to side). The 6-pack that has captured the public’s attention is simply one of those many muscles, technical name, rectus abdominis. The reason it catches your attention is simply because it is the outermost muscle in that region. The other muscles that lie below it and perform different but equally important functions (e.g. internal oblique muscles) do not get the same media attention!

Bands of connective tissue traverse your rectus abdominis. These separate your rectus abdominis into distinct muscle bellies – the ‘packs’. In your abdomen if you are someone with low body fat, these masses of muscle can be viewed externally and are commonly referred to as “four”, “six”, “eight”, or even “ten packs”, depending on how many distinct muscle bellies were created in the first place by the connective tissue traversing across.

Not a 6-pack!

The lower your body fat, the more likely that the lower muscle masses will be seen. Six is the most common – and having more than six does not mean you are fitter or stronger – it is just about how many bands traverse your rectus abdominis. If you see just one pack – that’s a family pack – and it’s fat, not muscle. However, the good news is that you can convert it into a 6-pack.

Of what use is a 6-pack?

When your rectus abdominis contracts, its pulling action is at either end, between your chest and groin. So, the use of your 6-pack is primarily postural – for bringing your pelvic area towards your chest or, equivalently, for preventing your torso from tipping back. It also assists in your breathing and for forceful respiration when you exercise.

Did you know you have a 6-pack?

Yes, if you lead a reasonably active life then you probably have a rectus abdominis that is of decent size and strength.

Why can’t you see your 6-pack?

Family pack still gets you love!

If your 6-pack is not visible, the reason will be obvious to you by now. There is a layer of fat between the outermost layer of your skin and those muscles. Doing 1,000 crunches a day will not make them more visible! You will need to chisel the fat away. You don’t burn much fat at all doing 1,000 crunches!

Will you ever be able to see your 6-pack?

Yes, of course you will. It all depends on what you do for it. And what you stop doing. The details matter!

Why is doing ab-crunches not effective?

Although the classic ab crunch works your rectus abdominis, it is not the most effective in terms of stimulating those muscles. In fact, far from it.

6, 8, 10 – does not matter!

Have a look at this research report by San Diego State University. Specifically, the classic crunch is rated 11th out of 13 exercises examined. The ab crunch is also not a functionally useful movement – it does not appear in your activities of daily life. Also, in the same way that you would not put your spinal cord at risk by bending over repeatedly and rapidly when standing [remember all those tips to “bend your knees” when lifting objects off the ground?] – the classic crunch is not very different a movement for your spine housing your spinal cord (you are simply lying on the ground instead of standing on your feet).

What should you focus on instead?

When I say “I don’t do ab workouts” what I mean is that I never specifically target that region. Instead, acknowledging that your abdominal muscles are ideally engaged and working when doing most of your activities of daily life, including various sporting activities is a great way to get started. And, to keep going! I do not do any of the 13 exercises listed in that research report by San Diego State University. But, I am definitely stimulating my rectus abdominis to grow in size with all the other activities I perform. That is what I encourage you to do too.

Who will have your back?

Having a strong core is important for various reasons. To prevent injury from normal daily activities. To prevent aches and pains as you age. To ensure your body can cope with anything vigorous you do for recreation at various stages of your life. Since the rectus abdominis is only one of many muscles of your core, giving it undue attention can lead to imbalances that will not serve you well in the long run. And as I tell those I mentor, “symmetry is a subset of balance”, so ensure that you have equivalent development in your back musculature too. Balance between your ‘front’ and ‘back’ muscles.

A strong body with good flexibility and high levels of endurance will automatically lead you to a state where your body composition changes and your 6-pack emerges, almost as if by magic. No specific attention required!

Having a 6-pack ‘for show’ is not of much use unless you need it for your job. The vanity that might come with specifically targeting only that will be short-lived. Instead of focusing on appearance goals, focus on the processes for performance goals – being stronger, fitter, faster, leaner.

[see what I said earlier about Health Based Measures of Fitness]
[see the widely followed article on Pushups for the Ladies]
[see the 1-arm pushups article if you want to take things up a notch without leaving home]
[see my approach to nutrition]

Will distance running get you a 6-pack?

Not the final solution

In my mostly widely read article on why you need not run, I described how you will not see most of the men and women crossing the finish line at recreational distance running races looking ripped and toned. The observation does not change when you move from half to full marathons, to ultramarathons. Conversely, if you go to a gym where the big strong guys look muscular with well-defined 6-packs, you might find that they cannot do endurance activities particularly well. Like, I’ve said before –  Balance is True Mastery!

What kind of effort do you need?

The effort needs to go only towards systematic execution of daily processes. Nothing big, nothing extreme. Just the many small features of daily life that will lead to a body that is a fine-tuned machine. The physical 6-pack is just ornamental. If you are appropriately focused on living each day of your life well, then besides the physical 6-pack, your mental state will also have developed its own (invisible) 6-pack. The same holds true for your emotional and spiritual planes. Perhaps you have a 24-pack and most people can see only 6!

[for a mind map of the areas that might work for your current stage in life see the Wellness Tree]

Who will have easier success with it?

Would have been easier 15 years ago

Men, younger men. Women typically have to work much harder for the same visual results because of their naturally higher body fat percentage and lower muscle mass. And because from the age of 30, even men lose about 1% of their muscle mass each year (assuming they did not make any changes to their lifestyle to get fitter or otherwise), younger men will find it much easier than older men. But, remember, difficult does not mean impossible. If you are an older woman and work at it, you can get there too, if you want it. And if you do get there, I’ll admire you like no one’s business!

So, you have a 6-pack, what next?

The great thing about having a 6-pack is that you will appreciate that it is your own effort to live as close to your natural state as possible. And, when I talk about effort, I am not even referring to any unusual effort. Just the simple effort of living as naturally as possible.

It’s always work-in-progress

Having got there, it is worth then asking yourself how you got there. To what extent did you stray away from what is natural? (pharmaceutical aids, poor sleep, free of chronic injuries or illness). Think about what you can do to fix those. Then ask yourself how you are placed vis-à-vis where you would like to be for the health and skills based measures of fitness I wrote about earlier. Then take steps to get there too. And going beyond the physical dimension, looking at the Wellness Tree, ask yourself how you can get a 6-pack in the dimensions of mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

A 6-pack is not a panacea for happiness – but working to have one will, perhaps, help get many other rooms of your house in order. Ab workouts not required!



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.

The 1-arm Pushup

Watch the video!

A few months ago, I spoke about Pushups for the Ladies and was serious when I said that it wasn’t only for the ladies. Now, I bring you 1-arm pushups, something that is definitely for the men! And again, this time, if you are a lady, please don’t go away – there’s useful learning in what I have to say that will translate into other activities of daily life that you might do. And, if you were disciplined in following the process I outlined and can do good pushups on the floor, you might enjoy the challenge of doing at least one good quality 1-arm pushup after a few weeks.

Chat flow – I will first tell you what the 1-arm pushup is, the benefits of doing it, how to get around to doing (first) a single repetition of the 1-arm pushup and (then) many repetitions successfully, as well as the potential risks to watch out for. As usual, I will keep unnecessary biology and physics out of this chat and focus on getting practical results safely.


What is a 1-arm pushup?
A 1-arm pushup is a pushup with just one arm at a time – the other arm provides no assistance!


Why is it good to be able to do a 1-arm pushup?

As with the pushup, the primary muscles worked are the chest muscles and the triceps. The reason that most of us do not want to try a 1-arm pushup is very simple – it feels very difficult. Indeed, it is difficult, because we typically do not need or require that level of strength for 99% of our daily activities. So, the muscle fibres that would typically be called into action to do that work are lying asleep most of our lives. Whether or not you do strength training at the gym, it is likely that you will enjoy the process and the final outcome of attempting the 1-arm pushup. And, of course, the relevant muscles will become stronger and larger.

Because of having no support from the ‘missing arm’, your entire body has to work to hold your posture. You will feel the maximum effort in those muscles that provide rotational stabilizing torque around your hips and torso.

Hero with Pushups – Zero with 1-arm Pushups
Here you can watch me doing 66 good quality standard pushups in a split set. But even if you can drop down and give me 50 good quality standard pushups with both arms, it is highly likely that you will not be able to do a single good quality 1-arm pushup. (Test my theory by trying one right now, and respond to this poll. Keep reading, of course…)

And if you can do only 30 (or 40 or 50) regular pushups, my bet is that in progressing to 1-arm pushups you will soon be able to do more than 50 of the regular kind!

Pointless Planks
You’ve probably heard me say that I don’t think much of doing standard or modified planks as part of a regular workout for the reasonably fit. As an isometric and static exercise, its functional usefulness is low. In Pushups for the Ladies I set planks as a prerequisite if you’ve been a couch potato or were doing what I called ‘sissy knee pushups’. The return on time invested in exercise is low with a plank – graduate to pushups if you haven’t already done so and make sure of success with regular pushups by reading my guidance on it.

For me, the beauty of the pushup is that it uses so much of your entire body while requiring no equipment. The 1-arm pushup just takes that beauty 5 notches higher!


What does it take to do a 1-arm pushup?

Complete FULL range of motion for the 1-arm Pushup

Complete FULL range of motion for the 1-arm Pushup

I would say that you should be able to do at least 30 good quality pushups on the ground before you progress to attempting the 1-arm pushup. Remember, the 1-arm pushup will make you stronger for the regular pushup so you could merge the progression of both. So, in sessions when you are not doing the 1-arm pushup, you might find that you are now able to do more regular pushups than you could.

Range of Motion
As with the standard pushup, it is important that you go all the way down, to ensure that your nose touches the ground.

Form & Technique
Excellent form and technique are important with any movement or static posture. The tendency to make errors when being pushed to the limits is higher so be extra careful with spine safety when doing the 1-arm pushup! I have highlighted these earlier.

Similar to my advice for the regular pushups, I can guarantee you success with the 1-arm pushup if you start with the ‘imaginary ground’ at a considerable height and then progressively lower it over many sessions.

Careful progress in load intensity over time

Careful progress in load intensity over many weeks

Remember, you should keep at least 48 hours between sessions and, whenever needed, an even longer gap. In the early days, most of the changes in your body are neuro-muscular as you ‘learn the movement pattern’. The smooth firing of neurons and muscle fibre units will take a few sessions to consolidate as the requirements are different from those of a standard pushup. Remember, there’s no rush – take it easy with progression, focus on the process not the outcome, and you will succeed. And remember, just as you expect to go lower as the weeks go by, within any given session, it’s OK to go higher for a second or third or fourth set.

Feet positions and Centre of Gravity
When doing a standard (symmetrical) pushup your COG (centre of gravity) was in the midline of your body. The base of support there was (roughly) the rectangle formed by your hands and feet. Now, with one arm withdrawn and not providing support, the symmetry has been broken and your COG is now shifted away. Fortunately, the shift of your COG is likely to be towards the opposite arm and leg. The vertical line of gravity is now not necessarily going to pass through the triangular base of support. There will be natural tendency to widen your feet position and that is fine – it’s still a 1-arm pushup!

Feet Positions, Base of Support and Centre/Line of Gravity

Feet Positions, Base of Support and Centre/Line of Gravity

Feet positions and Slipping
You will notice that if the soles of your shoes are even slightly slippery your feet will tend to skid when doing the 1-arm pushup. This can be unnerving but you can also use it to your advantage to find out the most stable body position thanks to that slack variable.

The Working Arm
The further your working hand is away from your head the greater will be the effort by your chest muscles. The closer it is to your head, elbow closer to the side of your body, the greater will be the effort required by your triceps. This was the case with the regular pushup too. Note that a narrow hand (relative to head) position and a narrow feet position will mean a smaller triangular base of support within which your line of gravity must be.

The Other Arm
I typically keep the free arm behind my back, but you have a choice of keeping it in the air in ‘alert position’ if you are nervous. The lowest ‘load contribution’ of that arm is when your hand is around your belly button (or lower back) and will be greatest when the arm is stretched out ahead of your head. You must, of course, develop the ability to do a 1-arm pushup with each of your arms, equally, not only your stronger arm. Whatever you do with the right arm, you must do with the left!


Risks of a 1-arm pushup

Joint Risk – Shoulder, Elbow, Wrist
Because the resistance you are pushing is both very high and very concentrated in terms of location you need to keep a careful watch out for your shoulder – a ball-and-socket joint that is highly susceptible to sports injuries. However, that should not stop you from venturing into 1-arm pushups as careful progression towards the ability to do a 1-arm pushup will mean increased strength and stability for that otherwise vulnerable joint. So, the trick is to shock your body safely! The wrist and elbow joints will have to deal with similar shocks so be sensible with progression – be conservative – in this case, it is better to take many weeks to reach your goal than not at all.

Face Smash Risk
The thought of sudden failure with a 1-arm pushup can seem scary because of your fear of smashing your face in the ground. However, what is more likely is that you will roll into the ‘missing arm’ and fall on its upper arm and shoulder – your face is likely to remain beautiful and unhurt! Fear not!

Anatomical Deformities
The ape-like imbalanced appearance of many gym rats can be easily avoided by maintaining symmetry along all dimensions (upper/lower body, left/right limbs, front/back). To balance the 1-arm pushup with its mirror movement, you could do the 1-arm row, either seated or standing (straight on a pulley system, or bent over with a dumbbell when hinging at your hip).

Seated Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

Seated Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

Standing Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

Standing Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

How long will it take to do a 1-arm pushup?

Progression is always a function of many things. But, my rough guess is that in as little as 12 sessions, spread over say 8 weeks, you can be doing at least one good form 1-arm pushup with very low injury risk. If you are one-third my age and naturally strong, you could probably achieve the goal in a couple of weeks. However, overriding your eagerness and ambition should be feelings of self-protection, so be conservative in your progression from zero to hero!

1-arm Pushup, then what?

Once you can do a 1-arm pushup with each arm, the obvious natural progression is to do more of them. The functional benefit of doing too many is limited especially compared to the risk to the shoulder joint. Unless you sense that you are genetically gifted I would say that doing up to 10 repetitions on each side is sufficient for developing excellent strength in a safe manner. Once you can do 10 with each arm, there is no shame in pulling back and just sticking to doing 5 with each arm perhaps once a week. For the next 40 years 😉 …heh heh!

Path ahead

I guarantee that if you internalize what I have said, and go through the process until you can do even a single 1-arm pushup, it will definitely change your perspective on life positively, even if just slightly. Go on, do it!

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.

Pushups for the Ladies


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

Knee Pushups - Ya whatever!

Knee Pushups – Ya whatever!

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

Core engaged plank-like in all positions

Core engaged plank-like in all positions

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

Hold a plank well first

Hold a plank well 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

Progressive overload across sessions

Progressive overload across sessions

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”.

Pyramiding down within a session

Pyramiding down within a session

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)

Opposing exercise

Row to mirror your pushups

Row to mirror your pushups

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.