“Drop and give me 20!” There’s a reason that drill sergeants (not to mention boot-camp fitness instructors) love to use push-ups to get their recruits’ attention—the push-up is punishing.
But it’s also a fabulous way to assess and achieve total-body fitness. That’s because the push-up taxes muscles throughout your body. It takes a certain amount of strength to do even one push-up, since you’re working with your body’s weight. Start adding more repetitions, and you’ll quickly get a measure of how fit you are.
Randy Miller, director of the Physical Education program at Portland State University, told The FruitGuys Magazine that one of the main reasons exercise professionals consider the push-up a fundamental conditioning tool is that it “tests the ability to stabilize the spine front to back. It demands trunk stability while the upper body is in movement, which are essential components of a total-body exercise.”
According to Miller, the push-up is an exercise that is simple to understand and learn, and it can be adapted for people with the most basic level of fitness. In addition, Miller notes, it offers minimal risk of injury. The best part? Anyone can do it. And you don’t need expensive equipment—the push-up uses only your own body’s weight.
These qualities make it easy to add to your fitness routine. You can drop and do 20 anywhere—in your hotel room on a business trip, in the park you walk through with your dog, in your bedroom before you hit the hay for the night, in the underused hallway that connects the office supply closet to the copy-machine room, etc.
What’s the reward? Stronger and more toned muscles in the chest, shoulders, and triceps. A more stable trunk, which may improve your balance. According to Miller, “There is evidence to demonstrate that the…development from performing push-ups can improve everything from active posture while walking or riding a bike, to your performance in sports that involve swinging motions, like tennis or golf.”
How to do it:
Lie prone on the floor with hands palms-down, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Tuck toes under and push through the palms to raise your body off of the floor. Keep your body straight and use your core muscles to pull in your belly button. It’s a good idea to have someone watch you and let you know if your body is in alignment (spine straight, lower back neither convex nor concave).
Lower your body by bending your elbows until they’re at a 90-degree angle. Push through the palms to lift the body again. Repeat.
Having the proper form for this exercise is crucial. Miller again: “The key element in the push-up is the active recruitment of the spinal stabilizers and the transverse abdominus muscle by pulling the belly button toward the spine. Miss this step, and the efficacy of the exercise is compromised.”
Start with the knees: If doing them the standard way is too hard, start the push-up on your knees, and raise and lower your upper body only. Women often start with knee push-ups because they tend to have less upper-body strength than men. If knee push-ups are still too challenging, start by doing them with your hands against a wall.
Once you’re proficient, you can test yourself with this push-up calculator, which will tell you how you stack up against others in your age group. Revisit the calendar on a monthly basis to track your progress in getting fit as you gradually add more reps to your maximum.
Bored with vanilla push-ups? You can move on to more difficult variations, like the tricep push-up, the fingertip push-up, and the one-armed push-up. In fact, there are more than 80 different versions of push-ups you can try.
Miriam Wolf is the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter.