13 February 2012

Rediscover the humble push-up

One thing is certain: for sheer intensive upper-body workout, few exercises beat the much-maligned push-up. It builds upper body strength quickly and takes a couple of minutes.


He had the wispy, pubic moustache of a teenager and a pathological hatred of anyone with more brains than him – namely 99 percent of humanity and 88 percent of all bivalves.

He was your PT instructor and he taught you to hate push-ups. Now it’s time to revisit them.Try to put away the memory of the pain you suffered at the hands of the sadistic little gauleiter, because one thing is certain: for sheer intensive upper-body workout, few exercises beat the much-maligned push-up. It builds upper body strength quickly and takes just a couple of minutes.

In fact, you can combine skipping, pull-ups, crunches and sit-ups to make a superb workout in a confined space. This is why so many prisoners use them. But for now let’s concentrate on the pushup.

The nice thing about push-ups is that they’re accessible – just add gravity. Even poor old Mark Shuttleworth has access to that most of the time. The problem – and here all reference to our beloved afronaut ends, is that most blokes approach push-ups in the same way as they imagined lovemaking in their parents’ cars when they were 15 – too shallow and too fast.

While there are many variations to the push-up, there’s really only one way to start correctly.

  • Put your hands flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart, with your elbows in. Keep your legs straight behind you.
  • Keep your back straight and your head forward. Keep your stomach tucked in.
  • Starting with your arms in the fully extended position, lower yourself slowly to the floor, until your chest touches. Don’t lie on the floor.
  • Pause, then slowly push back up to your original position.
  • Repeat this sequence. Count two seconds up, two seconds down. Breathe in on the way down, out on the way up, not the other way around.

How many push-ups should you be able to do? Not many, if they’re being done properly. If you can do more than 20, slow down and make them more strenuous. There are blokes who compete, seeing who can do the most push-ups in a minute – that’s just impetus and bravado, not fitness or stamina.

There’s a sound reason for this: your muscles respond to how long they’re stressed for, rather than the number of repetitions. Check your progress. The easier it gets, the slower you should go. Try four seconds up and four seconds down. If you’re doing them properly you’ll only be able to do push-ups every second day, which is how your body will get the most benefit.

Make them harder
When you become bored, or very fit, try these variations:

  • One-armed push-ups really test the arm muscles and your sense of balance. In the standard push-up position, keep you hand on the floor and the put the other behind your back. Keep your chest centred over you hand and do as many press-ups as you can.
  • Feet pushups put the pressure to perform on your deltoid muscles, which are on your shoulders. Doing enough of these can make your deltoids look like cannonballs. You’ll need a sturdy chair on which to put your feet, while keeping the standard pushup position. Now continue as normal. Your deltoids will notify you of their concerns this evening, but especially tomorrow morning.
  • For sheer show-off value, the clapping push-up is a winner, but it’s value as an exercise is debatable, unless you’re a boxer. You just do your push-ups very fast, so that your upper body is airborne, during which time you clap your hands. Hint: if this appeals to you, you may also like cars with spoilers and skirting on them.

Focusing on specific muscle groups

  • Try fingertip pushups to build wrist and hand strength. This may be handy for sports such as golf and tennis, where a strong grip is important. Alternatively, if your brother-in-law specialises in bone-crushing handshakes, this’ll help you crush right back. To do fingertip push-ups, find a non-slip surface (like a towel) on which to support yourself on your fingertips, rather than the heels of your hands.
  • The further apart your arms, the more of a workout your chest gets.
  • To target your triceps, put your hands together on the floor, with the tips of the thumbs and index fingers touching to form a triangle.

As we said, combine push-ups with pull-ups and crunches for a good workout, and do them every other day. You needn’t wait until you’re in jail or have a Neanderthal PT instructor shouting at you before you do.

(William Smook, updated December 2011) 

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