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The science of the pushup

The pushup is the most basic, but also the most versatile, workout. Here’s the right way to do it

Pushups work differently for every body type and fitness level. (Photo: istockphoto)
Pushups work differently for every body type and fitness level. (Photo: istockphoto)

When you type “how to do a proper” on a Google search bar, it automatically offers you “a push up” as the first choice from a list of popular search terms. A little more digging will tell you that most fitness researchers credit a certain Jack Revilla with making the pushup a mainstream exercise in the early 1900s. There is the older form of the exercise—most notably the Hindu pushup or the dand, which is a popular yogic-athletic movement from downward to upward dog. Legend has it that Roman emperor Constantine I was a big fan of the pushup and passed on the exercise to the Roman legion.

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The one thing that remains true is that humans have had a long love-hate relationship with this popular exercise. Those who can do pushups love doing them. As if it wasn’t enough to lift your body in a closed chain horizontal push, they will do explosive clapping pushups, one-arm pushups, pushups on a ledge, and even hand-stand pushups.

Pushups work differently for every body type and fitness level. But they are also the best exercise to experiment with. There are many ways to do them, and they improve muscle tone and strength in the upper body, apart from giving you improved cardiovascular health and healthier joints.

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Most people struggle to do 10 basic pushups. Even fewer get it right—which probably explains the popular Google search term. It is not unusual to see someone in the gym struggling to get their pushup form right session after session. Trainers struggle to make them understand as the trainees huff and puff and curse this age-old military punishment exercise which dares to make a mockery of their fitness.

“The most common mistake is either the butt is high in the air, or the core just caves in when you go down in a pushup. Beginners will flare their elbows wide, rather than keeping them tucked in. This can damage the shoulders and elbows. Even in knee pushups—which is the scaled-down version of the pushup—beginners tend to get their form wrong. It is a slow process. And the progress is different for everyone,” says Shalak Nelson, a banker-turned-fitness trainer based in Vadodara.

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“Some people will go from zero to 10 pushups in a month. Some will go from zero to one. Most will be able to crack it within three weeks of working on it, and that is when the fun begins,” adds Nelson, who has been training a dozen people online during the pandemic, and has now started visiting people’s homes to train them. The pushup is one of the first exercises he teaches.

Come what may, most fitness practices and sports—be it Pilates or yoga, conventional gym training or CrossFit, boxing or football or cricket—will include the pushup in their routine. You simply cannot ignore it.

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Once yo've mastered the pushup, try more difficult variations. (Photo: istockphoto)
Once yo've mastered the pushup, try more difficult variations. (Photo: istockphoto)

“The pushup is a strong fitness basic because it hits the chest, the shoulders, the arms, and most importantly, increases the core strength. Then there are multiple variations which one can do to affect even more muscles—like just the triceps,” says Saurabh Dubal, who has been a CrossFit trainer in Delhi for eight years and is a member of the senior India rugby team.

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The clincher is that the pushup doesn’t need equipment. There is simply no excuse for someone not to do it if they are remotely interested in fitness. But there seems to be an information overload on how best to exploit the pushup.

Nelson mainly does pushups as part of his warm-up routine. “Forty partial repetitions before a heavy day of upper-body lifting is how I use pushups in my workouts. That said, it is such a flexible exercise that I can write you an entire week’s routine using just various forms of the pushup.”

Mixing this with a time-based pushup workout can do wonders. An example of that would be to do as many reps as possible in 30 seconds, then take a 30-second break, and repeat for a few rounds. “One must make sure not to get carried away with hitting as many reps while doing time-based pushups. Always remember, form is more important than the number of pushups you do,” says Dubal. There are a few popular ways to incorporate the pushup in your routine. The general advice is to mix and match these ways. The first one is the most basic of course: rep-based pushups. One example of this would be five sets of 10 pushups each. This is probably the best way to make slow and easy progress, without overload. Beginners tend to start this way.

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One of the more interesting pushup workouts is the one developed by Jeff Cavaliere, the popular celebrity trainer who runs the ATHLEAN-X channel on YouTube. Cavaliere has come out with a 22-day pushup workout which promises to increase the number of reps one can hit in a single set, along with significant chest and tricep gains.

Cavaliere’s first tip in the video is “trading quantity for quality”. The workout is broken down into testing days (where you do as many pushups as possible in one set), followed by three non-testing days.

On a testing day, one does a set of max basic pushups to failure, that is, till the point where you don’t have the strength to do any more, followed by 2-minute rest. Let’s say you manage 10 pushups in the first set. After the rest, you would do one-and-a-half times that number (15 pushups in our example),resting between reps without placing your knees on the floor. That basically means that while you can rest midway through this second set, you cannot come out of the basichigh plank position. Cavaliere calls it a “grinder style” rest. Shaking out one arm at a time would work here, stabilizing breathing as well.

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On non-testing days, Cavaliere shows a pushup variation, including the popular diamond pushups and the pike pushups: The reps of this set should be equal to or just shy of the number achieved on the most recent testing day (this would mean 7-8 reps in our example). After a2-minute rest, you will do another set of standard pushups. The number of reps in this set will be determined by your test day number (10) plus 10%. That would be equal to 11 reps. Three such non-testing days will be followed by a testing day. Day 22 would be your final test, and Cavaliere promises an up to 50%increase on this day to your initial max rep pushup. The workout is an ideal combination of time and rep-based challenges, with set goals and an easy way to measure progress—and the added challenge of interesting pushup variations.

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When the legendary Muhammad Ali was asked how many pushups he did, he said: “I don’t know. I only start counting when it starts hurting.” Pushup science has evolved since. “It is the only one exercise that constantly changes in its application. In all these years of training people, the squat or the bench press or the dead lift have all remained the same. The pushup, however, is unique in how it keeps evolving,” explains Dubal, who prefers explosive pushups that help him keep his muscles tuned for rugby.

It can be daunting at first, especially if you can’t do a single pushup, but as Cavaliere says: “It doesn’t matter where you start. What matters is where you finish.”

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    11.10.2020 | 08:00 AM IST

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