What push-ups can do for you

Push-ups aren’t just for men. Here’s how to make this timeless strengthening exercise work for you

What push-ups can do for you

Source: Best Health Magazine, November/December 2008

The push-up is no joke; it’s a demanding exercise,” says John Vivian, owner of CrossFit Toronto. And the New York Times has called it “the ultimate barometer of fitness.”

Master the push-up—also called the “press-up”—and you’ll be doing yourself a big favour. That’s because its benefits are numerous: Push-ups are a fast and effective way to build upper-body strength—something many women neglect in the pursuit of cardiovascular fitness. Push-ups work a whole array of muscle groups, engaging the arms, chest, abdominals and other core stabilizers, and they are a functional exercise, meaning that they mimic movements of everyday life.

Ease yourself into doing push-ups
Yet, for many women, push-ups represent a form of punishment (let’s face it, they’re not exactly easy to do), and they are seen as a decidedly male exercise. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The trick, says Vivian, is to ease yourself into it. The number of push-ups you can do isn’t what’s really important. “The real benefits come from moving through the full range of motion,” he says. Here’s how to add this deceptively simple exercise to your fitness routine.

The basics of push-ups
Start in the plank position: Stretch out with your hands and feet on the ground and your arms straight and supporting you, making sure your shoulders are over your wrists and your whole body is in a straight line. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keeping your back straight and your abdominal muscles engaged, lower your entire body toward the floor by bending your arms, then lift back up by straightening them. To ensure proper form, Vivian advises using the “chin-chest-thigh-rule”: Your chin, chest and thighs should all touch the floor simultaneously when you’re lowering your body, and they should all leave the floor together when you push up again.

Push-up variationsIf you can’t lower yourself all the way down to the floor and lift up again without breaking form, find a variation that works for you. Start by doing push-ups in a standing position against a wall. If that’s too easy, try them halfway to the floor by pushing up from a box or bench. When you’ve mastered that, switch to push-ups from your knees. “This is not called a ‘girl’s push-up’; that doesn’t exist,” insists Vivian. “I train a lot of guys who start with push-ups from the knees and a lot of women who start from the toes.” The technique that’s right for you depends solely on your upper-body strength. If doing a couple of standard push-ups is a snap, keep going until your muscles get tired. Whether you manage two or 20, what’s important is to maintain good form and to challenge yourself to do a few more every time you work out.

Challenge yourselfHere are a few ways to increase the degree of difficulty of push-ups:

  • Use push-up handles—a set of grips that sit on the ground—to raise your upper body by a few inches. (They’re usually available at the gym, or you can purchase them online.) They make the push-up more difficult by increasing the range of motion.
  • For the ultimate push-up, use rings suspended from the ceiling. (Caution: These are not for beginners!) Rings are unstable so they add another dimension to the exercise, engaging more muscles and making it much harder to do. In fact, new research from the University of Waterloo has shown that suspended push-ups work the abdominals much more than the standard form.

No cheating!To get the full benefit of your push-up routine, avoid these common “cheats”:

  • Letting your hips sag at any point during the exercise
  • Sticking your butt in the air
  • “Reaching” down with your head
  • Snaking: letting your lower body follow your upper body as you lift back up
  • Not dropping all the way down to the floor, or not pushing up all the way

This article was originally titled "The Classic Conditioner," in the November/December 2008 issue of Best Health Magazine. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!