The Lost Art of the Push-Up

by Cameron Schaefer on March 15, 2008

push-upHere at Schaefer’s Blog it is always my goal to share with you lessons I’ve learned in living life well. Staying physically fit is a key part of living your best life, something most people know, but not everyone lives out. In my own life, the days I skip out on the gym or running are the times I feel the worst, both physically and mentally.

Going to a military academy made it so that physical fitness was not just a nice idea, but a survival skill. Much of my freshman year was spent with my face on the ground in the push-up position, or “front-leaning rest” as we liked to call it. The quality of my day was directly proportional to how many times I found myself in this position. As much as I hated it, the push-up helped mold me and keep me in incredible shape. In the process, it also found its way into my heart as an exercise that while not flashy, gets results.

You can imagine my surprise then, when I recently saw a New York Times article entitled, “An Enduring Measure of Fitness: The Simple Push-Up,” describing the classic exercise and it’s relationship with complete fitness (Thanks Ben). In an age of 5-minute abs, high-tech gadgets and best-selling fitness books, it’s nice to see such a simple exercise taking back the spotlight. From the article:

The push-up is the ultimate barometer of fitness. It tests the whole body, engaging muscle groups in the arms, chest, abdomen, hips and legs. It requires the body to be taut like a plank with toes and palms on the floor. The act of lifting and lowering one’s entire weight is taxing even for the very fit.

“You are just using your own body and your body’s weight,” said Steven G. Estes, a physical education professor and dean of the college of professional studies at Missouri Western State University. “If you’re going to demonstrate any kind of physical strength and power, that’s the easiest, simplest, fastest way to do it.”

In celebration of the reemergence of the push-up I present quickly the why and how of this classic body sculptor.

Why You Should Be Doing Push-Ups

1) Strength and Endurance
– Push-ups build strength not just in your chest and arms, but in your back, abs and legs as well. For anyone trying to improve their bench press, push-ups are a sure way to help get more plates on the bar. Aside from strength, by increasing the number of push-ups you do each few weeks you increase your endurance as well, both muscular and cardiovascular.

2) Age Fighter – Parker-Pope in the NY Times article explains, “Natural aging causes nerves to die off and muscles to weaken. People lose as much as 30 percent of their strength between 20 and 70.” I once had a middle school teacher that did 100 push-ups a day and had for the past 40 years. Age-wise he was over the hill, but his body made all of us macho-teenage guys hang our heads in shame. Push-ups had acted as an age fighter in his life.

3) Durability
– If you do any physical activity at all the chances of you falling or running into something is quite high. Push-ups build up the strength of your arms and wrists making it less likely you’ll break something if that moment comes. More from the article, “’What so many people really need to do is develop enough strength so they can break a fall safely without hitting their head on the ground,’” Dr. Ashton-Miller said. “’If you can’t do a single push-up, it’s going to be difficult to resist that kind of loading on your wrists in a fall.’”

4) Do It Anywhere – Push-ups are awesome because they can be done anywhere and require no equipment or gym. For people who travel a lot and find themselves in airports and hotels frequently, push-ups can be the exercise that help them stay fit despite their circumstances.

How-to Do a Push-Up (Properly)

1) Lie Face down on the floor with your legs together. Put your palms on the ground just more than shoulder width apart.

2) Look out ahead of you, not down. Keeping your head up and looking ahead is harder, but a better body position.

3) While pushing yourself up keep your back as straight as possible. Imagine a board running down your back from your head to your toes. Don’t stick your butt in the air and don’t go the opposite direction looking like a seal with your back arched. Keeping your back straight is key in working out your whole body.

4) As you reach the top, take a breath and then start down. Lower yourself until your arms are bent at a 90 degree angle, but don’t let yourself rest on the floor. Lots of people let their chest touch the floor, but this is a weak way of doing push-ups and your cheating yourself if you do this.

5) Repeat until you can no longer push yourself up. Going to failure is extremely uncomfortable, but nothing else will give you a more accurate indication of where you are physically.

For pictures on these positions look here.

**Bonus Tip for those who made it this far:
If you ever find yourself in a push-up contest the secret to outlasting the opponent is constantly switching the width of your hand placement. Start out normal, then try moving your hands out wider, away from your body, then back close when you get tired. By doing this you are using different muscle groups, the wider you go the more you use your back, the narrower you go, the more chest and triceps. Your opponent will most likely keep his hands in the same place, using the exact some muscles and will burn out much faster.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

J.D. March 15, 2008 at 12:08 pm

Great post!

As a former wrestler and kick-boxer, I completely identify with this. I hated push ups at the time, but the quality of my push ups was a key indicator of my strength, and indirectly, the quality of my life.

I remember my best gym teachers, young and old, could tirelessly crank through push ups.

The most amazing event for me was in Key West. An elderly guy (at least 60′s) was built like a gymnist. In the middle of the street, he challenged the most fit looking guy to a push up contenst. I think the the challenger did 20 push ups. The elderly guy then jumped into a hand stand and cranked out 25 push ups with his feet in the air.

He’s now my perpetual reference point that age is never an excuse. It’s one thing to see Jack LaLanne on TV. It’s another to see an old guy in the middle of the street, right before your eyes.

Lately I’ve relied on bench pressing, but you reminded me how push ups give you catlike reflexes and it’s a total body response (including your mind), versus just isolating your chest.

abskelley March 15, 2008 at 2:59 pm

Cam-

The lost art of the pushup; quite interesting. Though i do pushups only once a week, i do think they provide good value in the realm of physical fitness. One thing i think you forgot to add was the tremendous mental benefit you get from doing pushups: what you and i would call mental toughness. When you face the task of doing pushups to exertion (i.e maxing out) it is a rather daunting task to undertake physically and mentally. I have found that doing pushups to exertion, especially at the end of my workouts, builds mental toughness. We all have a voice inside our minds that says “no you cant” at different times and in various areas of life. Doing pushups, as ridiculous as this may sound, is an arena where i can practice overcoming the internal voice that tells me i cant do something.

J.D. March 16, 2008 at 1:40 pm

Tech question — do push ups build your rotators?

I met with an old workout partner the other day. He has the same problem shoulder. We used to bench a lot (a lot of wait and a lot of frequency.) He said the problem is we didn’t work out our rotator cuffs enough. We did shoulder exercises, we did some dips (on lawn chairs, like Rocky home gym), but benching was clearly our focus.

So, if I do push ups frequently now, will I build my rotator cuffs (by build, I mean develop)?

I know muscle developers faster than ligaments and cartilage, so I need to pay attention to details.

Cameron Schaefer March 16, 2008 at 5:04 pm

@J.D.

Sorry for the late reply, I was away with my family for the weekend and away from the computer. So glad that you enjoyed the post, that’s an awesome story about that guy in Key West! I love when stuff like that happens!

To answer your question, I wasn’t sure whether they worked out your rotator cuffs or not so I did a little research and it appears that they do. One thing a lot of rehab articles talked about was doing wall push-ups if trying to recover from a rotator injury or doing them against a bench at a 45 deg angle. But to answer your question: yes, doing push-ups will definitely help develop your rotator cuffs.

FYI, here are the muscles push-ups work: pectoralis major, deltoids, the scapular muscles and rotator cuff, triceps and the upper back muscles and other muscles in your core.

@Austin,

Thanks so much for the comment bro, so glad that you’re joining the discussion! Your input on push-ups being good for mental toughness is right on, I couldn’t agree more. The fact is, doing push-ups isn’t comfortable, especially to failure, or as you said, at the end of a workout. How’s your lifting going by the way? I miss my old workout partner!

-Cam

Dave March 27, 2008 at 6:19 pm

Push-ups, along with pull-ups/chin-ups and a good abdominal crunch, may just be the Holy Trinity of fitness.

Cameron Schaefer March 27, 2008 at 8:46 pm

@Dave,

I couldn’t agree more! It is amazing how great of a workout one can get by simply doing those three exercises.

Cameron

MTS March 28, 2008 at 10:44 am

Hi,
I’d just like to ask one question. You said that while doing push ups you should lower yourself until arms are bent at 90 degrees, but no more than that. I always thought the lower you go in the push ups, the better the exercise, so now I’m a bit confused reading this…
So, please explain that, thanks :)

Cameron Schaefer March 28, 2008 at 11:45 am

@MTS,

My main reason for saying stop at 90 is to keep people from resting their chests on the floor between each rep. If you go a little past 90 it’s not a big deal, just don’t allow yourself to use the floor as an aid, does that make sense? Some people do the other extreme and don’t go down far enough, which doesn’t help either. That’s why 90 is a good reference. Hope that helps!

Cameron

workout mommy March 30, 2008 at 1:41 pm

great post, I really like the bonus tip! :)

Tim March 30, 2008 at 11:53 pm

This is an AWesome blog, way to go stumble, i shall click I like it! THIS IS YOUR REWARD. Continue.

Michael March 31, 2008 at 4:34 am

Hey, good article. More people should be doing push-ups instead of benching all the time.

I must disagree with you on point 2 though. The head should not be up, but rather facing the floor. A lot of exercises are done in cervical hyperextension when you should be in neutral spine. With you rhead facing down your spine is aligned properly. This goes for other lifts like deadlifts and pullups too.

Mike
http://www.hotbodytraining.com

asdfg March 31, 2008 at 2:01 pm

you’re cheating yourself.

not your.

Cameron Schaefer March 31, 2008 at 8:45 pm

@workout mommy, thanks for the kind words, glad you enjoyed the bonus tip!

@Tim, so glad you like the blog, please subscribe and join in the discussions! Thanks for my wonderful reward also! I’m very appreciative

@Michael,
you may be right on the head thing…the main reason I had it in there was for non-medical reasons:1)it is harder, realize this may not always mean better 2) habit from the Academy, we always had to look the upperclassmen in the eye when they were training us. Thanks for the good information!

compton April 1, 2008 at 4:49 pm

Totally agree with this article, press ups really are a good un.

I know (?) you’re joking when you mention varying the distance between your hands to exercise different muscle groups and use it to somewhat cheat in a one-on-one, but from a serious point of view it’s worth changing this distance for different sets in order to get the most from your work out I think.

For instance, press-ups where a diamond is formed between the two thumbs and forefingers (the tips on each hand touching the tips on the other) is a whole different exercise to push ups where your hands are wide apart.

As you say, the push up really is especially brilliant for those times when you don’t have access to full equipment, such as travelling, or even at work!

As for letting the chest touch the floor, it’s a definite no-no. Personally I go down enough to only just touch the tip of my nose on the floor.

Nice article, thanks :)

Sean April 1, 2008 at 5:55 pm

I’m 48 years old with bad knee’s so no more running. About two years ago I decided on push ups. Two sets of 25 per day was enough. Now I’ m up to 500 to 3000 per week. I feel great, look better and pity the fool who thinks they will push me around.
Hey, drop and give me 50, 3 to 20 times a day is a great way to go.

Mark McCullagh April 8, 2008 at 11:20 am

I’ve recently started doing push-ups again because I’m working out in the exercise room at my condo and it has limited equipment.

Great exercise! I bought some handles that twist to add some variety and increase resistance.

Like Sean above, I’m 47 and in pretty good shape: 3-4 workouts a week, half an hour at a time. Plus I walk to work, to church, and around. Simple, effective, but you gotta be consistent and eat a sensible diet.

Herbalife April 12, 2008 at 6:03 pm

That’s a great write up of the benefits of push ups. Time to get out of my chair and give it a shot. The one thing that sticks out is doing them till you can’t any more, doesn’t that make you lose count or shouldn’t we care about counting the push ups at all?

Max April 14, 2008 at 9:35 pm

Very nice article.
I’m a student who had joined a gym to become fit but later had to leave it due to studies and exams. I had gotten myself in pretty decent shape, but then sitting at home and studying started getting me back to the way I was. There was no way I could squeeze out time for gym and I had to stay fit. So I decided on doing some push-ups daily. Now I do atleast 25-30 daily. It has really benefitted me. I feel fit and strong and also more active. Best part is that I don’t need to spend any money and can do them almost anywhere. Push-ups really rock! I’ll suggest everyone to do them regularly.

Personal Trainer July 29, 2008 at 9:03 pm

Great article. I always see people at the gym trying to use machines and bench press and they can’t even do push-ups properly.

Herbalife August 28, 2008 at 2:08 pm

Personally I go down enough to only just touch the tip of my nose on the floor. Very nice article.

Kiefer December 10, 2008 at 5:33 pm

Well for most people I think exercising is a lost art, but you are correct. The age-old basics are a nice addition to any exercise program.

If you want to work your lower body and take your cardio to a whole new level do squat thrust.

As good as the basic exercises are you must eat a healthy diet and do weight bearing exercise to really stay in top shape and beat old father time.

Im 50 and in better shape than most people half my age.

TomGreenwald December 5, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Great post.
Push-ups are the no1 exercise for practical strength training.

Tarver, David January 3, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Thank you for the tip. The only understanding I have is confusion about the 90 degrees and the chest to floor method. Many websites I have checked since I’ve gotten out of prison which had many opinions about one exercise. Some people say chest to floor isn’t cheating and some website say that chest to floor is cheating. I’m not trying to do an exercise wrong, and I not going to earn any points if I’m cheating. So if any sees this text, help a poor man out. Thank you for the information.

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