The rise of pushups: A classic exercise that can help you get stronger

The rise of pushups: A classic exercise that can help you get stronger

By Matthew Solan

Harvard Health Blog

The morning of my 50th birthday in May I did something I had not tried in a long time. I dropped to the floor and did 50 pushups, one for each year. I had to break it up into sets and the last few where shaky, but I did it.

And it felt great.

As a new member to the 50-plus club I realized this bread-and-butter exercise still works wonders as a snapshot of your fitness. “How many you can do at one time offers a real-time measurement of your strength and muscular endurance and is an easy tool to help you improve,” says Edward Phillips, M.D., assistant professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. “You can do them anywhere and at any time. All you need is your bodyweight and a few minutes.”

The perfect exercise

The pushup engages your body from top to bottom. It works several muscle groups at once: the arms, chest, abdomen (core), hips and legs. Pushups also can be modified as needed. “By adjusting the speed you perform a pushup, the angle of your body, and even hand placement, you can add more or less intensity, or focus on specific muscles,” says Phillips.

A study published in the February 2016 issue of the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that the chest muscle activity was greater when pushups were performed with the hands placed halfway inward from their normal position. Hands placed outward work the triceps more.

The perfect form

To maximize what pushups can offer you should perform them correctly.

–Begin in a full plank position with your arms extended, palms flat and just below shoulder level, feet together or about 12 inches of apart, resting on the balls of your feet.

–Keep your back straight and your weight evenly distributed.

–Look down and lower your body until your elbows are at 90 degrees (or go to the floor to rest, if needed) and then push back up to complete one rep. Try to take two seconds to go down and one second to go up.

If this is too difficult, perform from a hands and knees position. You can also do inclined pushups where you place your hands on a counter or wall and lean forward at a 45-degree angle. “You can still engage the core and work your arms and chest, while you place less weight on the wrists and shoulders,” says Phillips.

With a regular pushup, you lift about 50 percent to 75 percent of your body weight. (The actual percentage varies depending on the person’s body shape and weight.) Modifications like knee and inclined pushups use about 36 percent to 45 percent of your body weight.

Establish a foundation

To find your starting point, perform as many pushups as you can while keeping good form. It could be 10, five or even two. Focus on hitting this number at first with a rest day between sessions. As your strength improves, add more reps, or move up to a full pushup position (if you’ve been bending at the knees or doing pushups against a wall) or build up to doing two to three sets.

Because they provide instant feedback, pushups can be a great motivator. Pushup challenges are trendy. Can you do a certain number in a week, or in 30 days? Can you perform 15 to 20 nonstop?

“Challenges are a fun way to set up mini, short-term goals, which many men need to stay focused,” says Phillips. Create your own pushup challenge and see if you can reach it. Begin small and once you achieve it, set the bar higher.

My challenge is to do 50 pushups every day for the entire year. So far, so good. I knock them out before I brush my teeth in the morning, and can now do 30 nonstop. Pushups have taught me that when it comes to improving my fitness, I can still rise to the occasion.

(Matthew Solan, is an executive editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch.)