How to Do 40 Pushups When You Can’t Crack One

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Pushups are big news lately. Harvard Health followed 11,004 firemen over 10 years to see if they could find a way to predict cardiovascular disease risk without expensive lab tests.

They did. It was the lowly pushup.

Pushups turned out to be even better than a standard treadmill stress test as a predictor for the risk of future incidents of CVD.  And performing pushups might be a lifesaver.

The firefighters who could snap off 40 pushups at a good pace had much lower rates of CVD incidents during the study.  So now, the big question is this: what if you can’t do a pushup? Are you in trouble? Can you reverse that?

First, relax. Even the ability to perform only 11-39 pushups coincided with lower CVD risk. More than that. Also, the study did not determine that doing zero to 11 pushups put anyone at higher risk than the general population. The study didn’t include women, older people, or inactive people, either. Those topics are ones the researchers hope to follow up on because the 10-year study proved so valuable for active men that it may apply to even more people.

It’s unlikely that pushups in themselves were the agent that lowered CVD risk. Rather, the researchers believe they are a reliable surrogate for a type of good conditioning that is associated with a healthier heart.   

But whether you are firefighter-fit, older, female, or a current couch potato, well-executed pushups are worth learning to do.

That’s because pushups require a certain kind of whole-body conditioning that has multiple functional benefits. You need a strong core. That translates to better balance and stability and helps you perform most daily actions better. You could build impressive upper-body muscle strength doing a series of down presses, flies, curls, and rows with heavy weights. But the core involvement in doing a pushup right achieves broader benefits. Pushups strengthen the lower back and ab muscles. Keeping the perfect form also requires engagement from the gluteus and major leg muscles.

Technically, a pushup is a “compound” exercise because it engages several large muscle groups at once. This requires your heart to work hard to pump oxygen-rich blood to all those busy muscles.

Now here’s how to achieve pushup perfection, even if you can’t manage to lift off the floor today…

The usual approach of lying on the floor, trying and trying to push yourself upward is worthless.  You will probably hurt your back, and you will make so little progress you'll give up.

For many women and out of shape men, the basic upper body strength to get started needs some help. If you can already do one pushup, then you can practice your way to 40 pushups. But if you cannot do even one in correct form, you simply start somewhere else. Essentially you’ll begin with  some pre-pushups

The usual advice for doing this is to begin with a pushup from the knees. I  object to that. It may work for some people, but it never worked for me. Despite strong hands, back, knees, and legs, I couldn’t perform a real pushup ever. Not even as a teen. No amount of doing pushups from my knees got me a bit closer to the real, plank-style regular pushup.

I believe that was because omitting the lower body was counterproductive. And that is exactly what happens when you do a pushup from the knees, you take the lower body out of the exercise. You perform several knee pushups and think you’re on the way, then you try it from your toes… nothing. At least not for me.  

By chance, I came across advice to begin with wall push-aways. Then to gradually step farther and farther back from the wall as you get stronger.

That worked. Each time I did 10 push-aways with ease, I moved back.

Perform these push-aways in standard pushup form. You are vertical and eventually, you will take it horizontal with the exact same motions. Starting this way simply lessens the weight that your arms must control until they get strong enough to support your full body.

As you practice your push-aways and continue stepping back, eventually, you will be too far from the wall to go back any farther. At that point, you switch to pushing up from something like a countertop or sturdy table. Don’t go to the floor yet. You’re working your way down. But do execute your pushup using the standard form.  Once you can do 10, move your support lower. Then lower, then lower. You may have to search all over the house for something at the right height. Eventually, you can move down to the floor.

And do a real pushup. I promise.

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