In 2008, I came across an article in The New York Times on pushups. This piece made the case that an excellent indicator of wellness and health is, quite simply, the number of pushups a person can do.
The article read:
"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."
At the time I snorted and mumbled to myself, "Too bad I don't do pushups."
I also secretly felt that there was something elegant about this idea. It seemed intuitive that this simple, straightforward exercise could serve as a measurement of health. After all, I'd heard that pushups engage one's core and requires that fabled "upper body strength."
But again, with reality — I was not a pushups person. The phrase "drop and give me 20" was a cruel, unfathomable punishment that they force on the military in TV movies. Surely they must use stunt doubles. I wasn't sure that I'd ever successfully completed one real pushup.
Still, the article wormed its way into my brain. Years later, when a friend announced he was taking up a 100 pushups challenge via an app on his phone, I was even more intrigued. This friend was, like me, highly accomplished at lifting cans of beer to his face and then repeating. If he was attempting to get to 100 pushups, maybe it wasn't so outside the realm of possibility for me after all.
My first step was downloading the app. The one I used was, surprisingly, called 100 Pushups. But there are many more out there.
The app gave me choices to determine my goal and timeline and then laid out a plan for me to get there. Basically, over a series of time I'd do a series of pushups that gradually increased, with full rest days in between sessions, until I was able to do 100 pushups in one session.
When I started, I was on my knees.
Over time I did my first full pushup. It was difficult — but at that point, doable.
My app, and the handy Internet, taught me that proper form for pushups is the subject of a lot of debate and some personal preference. There are also myriad variations on the standard pushup. This includes the variation I started with before I was ready to do a full pushup. Another popular way to start is the wall pushup, where you essentially perform a pushup against a wall.
Form is important for many reasons — preventing injury, having a standard to repeat so progress can be tracked against the same movement, and of course getting the full benefit of the exercise.
Generally hands should be placed slightly more than shoulder width apart, with hands facing a direction that's comfortable. Feet can be placed anywhere that's comfortable, but for greater stability widen their distance apart.
The critical part (and something I admittedly am not terribly consistent about) is keeping the body in a straight line and arms relatively close to the body instead of winged out. When performing the pushup, it's important to maintain this posture and bring arms down to at least a 90 degree position to perform the full exercise, if not exceeding 90 degrees by touching chin or chest to the floor.
As with any exercise, breathing is important. Inhale on the way down; exhale during the push back up.
I didn't make it to 100 pushups using the app, but I did get all the way to doing 50 full pushups in one set. It was hard, but it turned out it was not cruel and unusual at all. I also really started liking the way my arms looked. Tragically, I knew that because I'm a mere mortal I would never have arms like Michelle Obama, whose arms I admired and aspired to at the time. But I felt proud of how far I'd come.
I still do pushups, although I haven't attempted 50 in one set for a long time. I do 20 a day, which is almost my form of meditation. They provide both a mental exercise in staying resilient even during life's knocks and punches and the cumulative knowledge that by chipping away slowly one can accomplish big things. Those 20 pushups a day add up to 7,300 annually.
And of course if I use that vintage New York Times piece as a touchstone. After each set of pushups I get to tell myself I'm incredibly healthy.
In reality I am told that health comes from many sources. But I still like to tell myself that I've found and at long last achieved the silver bullet in the form of that simple and timeless exercise, the pushup.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.