Pushups matter more than we thought. They may even predict your risk of suffering a heart attack in the next 10 years.
Harvard Health followed 11,004 firemen over 10 years to see if they could find a fast, low-cost way to predict who was at risk for heart attacks without turning to expensive lab tests.
The lowly pushup proved to be just as accurate as the standard treadmill stress test.
Risk of heart attack was strongly correlated to how many pushups the firemen could do. The risk for men who could do 40 or more was 22 times lower than it was for the men who could only do 0-10 quick, consecutive pushups.
Because the men’s ages and the number of men in each performance group varied, the study made an apples-to-apples comparison by putting results into person years. For instance, if three people live 40, 42, and 59 years that adds up to 141 person years. This study converted actual results into the equivalent number of heart attacks that would occur in 100,000 person years.
That not only makes the results easy to interpret, it makes it obvious how important the ability to do pushups is for long-term health.
For men who cracked 40+ pushups, the risk was 79 heart attacks per 100,000 person years. For men who could only do 0-10 pushups it was 1,757 heart attacks.
Why Would This Pushup Test Work?
That’s plenty of motivation for finding a cheaper, reliable alternative to assess the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
A standard treadmill test costs an average of $300 per person for the lowest-tech version. An echo test runs to $1500 per person.
Pushups are free, and there’s a good reason they actually work to assess CVD risk. That’s because, apart from things like smoking or alcohol abuse, CVD risk is strongly related to your physical condition. We all know that aerobic capacity is good for heart health, but muscle strength by itself is also related to a lower risk for CVD.
Pushups require whole-body conditioning that gives you multiple functional benefits. You need a strong core. That translates to better balance and stability and helps you perform most daily actions better. Pushups also strengthen the lower back and ab muscles. Keeping the perfect form also requires engagement from the gluteus and major leg muscles.
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 being able to do 11-39 pushups coincided with lower CVD risk. Also, the study did not determine that doing zero pushups would put your risk higher than that of the general population. The study didn’t include women, older people, or inactive people, either, which researchers hope to address in the future. It would be likely that women might see benefits with fewer than 40 pushups. Ditto senior citizens.
And it was not likely the pushups themselves that lowered CVD risk. They are probably a reliable surrogate for a type of good conditioning that is associated with a healthier heart.
Other exercises, such as holding a plank position might have the same ability. The important point is that a pushup is a “compound” exercise because it engages several large muscle groups at once. Doing pushups requires your heart to work hard to pump oxygen-rich blood to all those busy muscles.
Start Where Success Is Guaranteed
If you can already do one pushup in good form, 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.
Now here’s how to do it.
The usual approach of lying on the floor, trying and trying to push yourself upward is worthless. Worse than that. You could easily hurt your back, and you will make so little progress you'll give up.
I also find the usual advice for doing this is to begin with a pushup from the knees to be safer, but worthless as well. 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 deal.
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.
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.
Eventually, I did a real pushup. Then two… So here’s your strategy:
Perform your wall pushups in standard pushup form. The only difference is that you are vertical. 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.
You begin by standing close to the wall. People often start at arm’s length or about two feet away. But if you are as pushup-impaired as I was, you can begin closer and gradually work your way back as you get stronger.
Your feet should be shoulder width apart.
Place your palms flat on the wall and be sure your pinky is pushed hard into the wall because this helps activate upper body muscles you need.
Keep your core muscles tight, including your butt. Now bend elbows and go in for your first pushup. When your nose nearly touches, push back to your starting position.
Once you can do 10 pushups at full arm’s length, you can move your support lower. You might find the back of a couch is a good height.
Conquer that, and move to something lower again. Then lower, then lower. Just be sure that whatever prop you use it is stable. You don’t want it sliding away from you.
You may have to search all over the house for something at the right height, but eventually, you will be able to move down to the floor.
And do a real pushup. I promise.