Pumps and I have a long and complicated love-hate relationship. On the one hand, as a former personal trainer and having scheduled strength training for hundreds of clients, I am well aware of the benefits of push-ups: they build core strength and stability, and they also work the muscles. chest and triceps. Plus, they’re one of the best functional movements out there, says Lady Velez, MD, certified personal trainer and owner of StrengthWorks gymnasium. “I’m a huge proponent of functional bodyweight movements [such as] push-ups because they transfer into all areas of your strength and strengthen your joints,” she explains. “Anyone can benefit from push-ups and the amazing thing is that you can easily modify them to make them easier or harder depending on an individual’s level of ability.”
But despite all the proven benefits of push-ups, I never liked them. It’s kind of my dirty little secret. I can lift and squat hundreds of pounds, but my push-up game has never been stronger (pun intended). And when my personal trainer programmed push-ups into my workout recently, I had an unwelcome realization: not only did I still dislike push-ups, but I actually had more trouble with them, probably because of the rarity that I make them these days.
So I decided to take a radical approach to finally becoming proficient in push-ups: dedicate myself to doing 15 push-ups a day for at least 30 days.
How My Push-Up Challenge Began
Before I started my 30-day push-up challenge, I initially set myself a goal of 10 push-ups a day. After thinking about it (and a pep talk reminding me that I had strength training experience), that number seemed too small – so I upped my goal to 15 reps in a row, all on my tiptoes. Hey, I was optimistic. I didn’t necessarily picture myself crushing 15 push-ups with ease, but I also didn’t think 15 was going to be too much of a challenge.
However, on the first day of the challenge, I realized that I had been a bit overzealous with my goal of performing 15 perfect pushups in one strong, flowing set. About halfway through my rehearsals, I had to drop to my knees – and bruised my ego a bit in the process.
Even though I was a little discouraged, I persisted. And eventually, I realized that modifying movement and maintaining proper form is much better than pushing all the way with poor form, especially when it comes to lower back health; if your lower back sags during a push-up (as opposed to a flat back with your pelvis tucked in and spine straight), you put yourself at risk for lower back pain. Additionally, I wanted to focus on targeting the right muscles (think: pecs, abs, and back) because my ultimate goal was to actually get better push-ups – not just doing flimsy reps with potentially dangerous form in order to complete my challenge. Lesson learned: quality over quantity, especially when it comes to strength training.
Another problem I encountered early on was that I was putting off my push-ups every day. The most sensible thing would be to do them first thing in the morning and get rid of them, but I found myself doing push-ups at 10 p.m. because I had been putting them off all day. To be honest, most of the time I thought I would just skip them completely. Who would even know? Nobody. It was my personal challenge.
Regain my push-up strength
But after the first difficult week, I found my state of mind. I found a new resolution and woke up each morning and completed my push-ups as part of my routine. If I really wanted to get better at push-ups, I had to put my heart into it and give it my all.
After a few days of success knocking out my morning push-ups, I felt accomplished. But more than that, my muscle memory was kicking in and all those push-ups were getting a little easier. Halfway through the experience, I no longer needed to drop to my knees. Those last five pushups were still tough, and I definitely had to pause at the top of the movement and hold the plank position for a few seconds to give myself a break – but I was getting through them.
On day 30 of the challenge, I couldn’t believe how quickly the month had passed. But more importantly, I couldn’t believe that completing my daily 15 push-ups felt so much easier than on day one. In fact, I felt like I was at the point where I could probably start adding a few more – and that was a far cry from what I had felt for the first few days of the challenge.
What I learned from my push-up challenge
When I started this challenge, I imagined getting to day 30, celebrating that I was successful, and immediately ditching the daily push-ups. But now that I’ve reached the end, I’m actually excited to continue working on my functional strength (i.e. the movements and exercises that make daily movement easier) because it trickles down to the lives of every day. Whether it’s hauling all my groceries home or picking up and moving heavy boxes, functional strength helps prevent injury and builds strong bones, which becomes even more important as I age. What if doing more push-ups means I can move painlessly and live independently longer? Sign me up.
Although I’m much better at push-ups than when I started, I’m not even close to being one of those people who can do 50-100 push-ups a day. And if I’m being totally honest, I don’t even think I aspire to it. However, I continue to incorporate push-ups three or four days a week because I want to continue building on the progress I’ve made. Who knows, maybe I’ll change the love-hate relationship with the pumps to a love-only relationship.
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