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Drop and Give Me Twenty! Why Pushups are Good for You.

Posted July 5, 2013 by Melissa diLeonardo in Life After Five

When I start working with a new client, I notice a look of concern and fear when I first utter the word pushups.  Many times after I mention working on this skill, I hear, “I can’t do pushups.”  I share that this age-old exercise is good for your entire body and can be modified for any skill level.

Pushups go back to the 5th century and have been a fitness staple ever since.  Fitness guru Jack LaLanne set a world record of 1,033 pushups in 23 minutes in 1956.  Images of actor Jack Palance dropping some one-armed pushups at the 1992 Academy Awards and actress Demi Moore’s training scene in G.I. Jane (1997) are etched into our collective memory. Why pushups?  Quite simply, they give you a big bang for your proverbial buck.

Pushups have been around for a long time because they work. A gymnastics standard, the pushup is performed by assuming a high plank position, lowering your chest to touch down between your hands, and then pressing your body away from the ground back to the starting position.  There are many variables as to how close your hands are to the torso, the angle at which the elbow flexes, and the depth or range of motion for the movement.  Pushups strengthen muscles in the upper body – pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, and triceps – but also recruit abdominal muscles, quadriceps (front of thigh), and hip flexors.  Ultimately, the pushup is a full-body, equipment-free exercise.  (This is a good thing.)

Many women assume they are unable to take advantage of all the pushup has to offer.  However, the right modification can tailor pushups to safely fit your body and strengthen and tone the upper arms, upper chest (bra overhang), and your core.  The following progression is a great way to get started:

  1. Wall Pushups—performing a pushup against a wall is a great way to introduce your body to the movement.  This method will allow you to work on stability through the shoulder joints, keep your lower back supported, and apply safe form and alignment.
  2. Inclined Pushups—the closer you move the exercise to the ground, the more body weight you need to lift. After mastering wall pushups, kneel on the floor and place your hands on a bench or step. This will permit you to move more of your body weight and increase strength.
  3. Modified Pushups—place your knees on a mat and your hands on the floor (modified high plank position).  This variation is important for all bodies, especially when you are working on lowering your chest to the ground safely. Some people call these “girl pushups.”  Personally, I think that’s inaccurate for two reasons: many men need assistance with the exercise and should also work in this position, and many women can get their knees off the ground.  (Let’s not sell ourselves short, Ladies.)
  4. Standard Pushups—begin in a high plank position (hands outside chest and toes tucked) then lower and raise the body to and from the ground.  Ideally, your chest should touch down between your hands.

Again, there are many variations for hand placement and range of motion.  Remember, you are working toward getting your chest to touch down between your hands, while maintaining support in the lower back. Fitness professionals and quality online tutorials can provide you with greater detail on proper form and variations.  A few key tips:

  •  Breathe: Inhale as you lower your body toward the floor/wall, exhale as you press away from the ground.
  • Maintain Your Midline: Keep your abdominal muscles lightly engaged to prevent arching the lower back or sticking your butt up in the air.  Lead with your chest, not your belly button or your face. Don’t sag or shrug.
  • Wide Hands: Keep your hands on the floor/wall, about a thumb’s distance outside the shoulders.  Try to avoid turning the wrists in or lifting the index finger and thumb off of the ground.  As you press away from the floor/wall, imagine you’re pressing your hands toward each other without actually moving them.

Pushups are a quick and efficient way to get strong and strengthen your entire body.  With so many options, you have no excuse.  Love yoga? Pushups will help strengthen your practice and assist with downward facing dog, sun salutations, and arm balances. Feeling strong means feeling empowered.  Be sure to consult your physician prior to starting a new exercise regime, and get started today.

About the Author

Melissa diLeonardo

Melissa is an East Coast native who has made Chicago her home! She has worked in the health and wellness field for over six years and lives to bike, hike, run, lift, and play. As a ReebokONE Brand Ambassador, Certified Personal Trainer via the American Council on Exercise, and a Registered Yoga Teacher, Melissa is down with good health. Voted “Best Personal Trainer” in the 2013 Chicago Reader’s Annual Poll and selected as a global finalist in the 2013 Life Fitness Personal Trainer to Watch Contest, Melissa instructs fitness and yoga classes throughout the north side of Chicago (spinning, boot camp, strength training). She a proud member and assistant coach at CrossFit Chicago and Master Trainer for Life Fitness Academy . Co-founder of the Chicago-based wellness collective, true-2-life.com and Program Manager for Corporate Movement at Life Fitness Corporation, you can follow her on twitter @mdsapphire. Now let's dance!