Hired Guns! Pushups
Could a pushup a day keep the arm flab away? WH associate fitness editor Marissa Gainsburg volunteers her triceps (shown here!) for a 30-day challenge—and reaps total-body rewards and one unexpected perk.
There’s a reason military sergeants demand pushups as a form of punishment. They are being hard, can knock even the fittest of their feet—okay, toes—and seem to be designed to reveal weaknesses. So much so those fitness editors have been guilty of blowing of the classic move. My go-to excuses when they pop up in a class or training session: “I’m too sore” or “My elbow hurts!” But! They’re also one of the all-time exercise MVPs, no question. Pushups are mega-eicient multitaskers—working your whole body in every rep. With fitness streaks (a month of repeating the same exercise every day) being all the rage, we wondered: Could committing to a pushup streak finally change our feelings toward the little guys, all while chiseling our muscles? Ready to rid myself of my own cop-outs and make something of my average arms, I signed up to find out.
First step: I called personaltraining connoisseur Tony Gentilcore, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Boston, to help me devise the plan. Modified (or “girlie”) pushups—which so many of us drop into to up our rep count—were out of the question; they don’t build strength in the full range of up-down motion, so they’re no help. But no need for tons of reps, anyway. Our protocol called for just 10 pushups each day. “Ten is the minimal efective and sustainable dose,” Gentilcore said—meaning, it’s just enough to induce noticeable changes in upperbody strength and appearance without overloading you to the point of quitting. Even then, “take as long as you need—or split them up over the day—to make sure you’re completing high-quality reps,” he told me. As someone who works out six days a week, I thought, Ten pushups? No prob—I can knock those out after my workouts or while I’m cooking dinner. But the first few days were unexpectedly tough. Since my typical routine had mostly consisted of exercises like biceps curls and shoulder presses (muscle-isolating moves) and occasional boxing, my upper body parts weren’t used to working together to hoist my body weight. And while this new daily stress on the same muscle groups never left me can’t-wash-my-hair sore, I definitely shook through the end of my set on Friday. Still, things turned around fairly quickly: On day one, it took me five minutes (and several breaks) to get through 10 polished, chest-to-the-floor reps. By day 15, it took me under three minutes. On day 30, it took me just 27 seconds. “The more you do something, the better you get at it, because you’re improving communication between your neurons and muscles,” explains Gentilcore. Not only did my pushups become easier, but everything else I did in the gym—planks, ball slams, battle ropes—felt less taxing too. “A lot of people think the best way to measure progress is through brute strength—where you test how much weight you can possibly move for one rep,” he says. “But a far better gauge of progress is whether you’re less fatigued after completing the same amount of work.” Awesome-sauce. Now let’s talk about the other kind of progress— the flexed-muscles kind. Did I go from meh muscles to dope guns? Not quite. Turns out, unless you are a genetically blessed muscle gainer, per Gentilcore, 30 days isn’t exactly long enough to develop lasting definition. Muscle growth and fat loss—the combo that lets those babies shine through—usually takes a bit longer, at least six-ish weeks. What I did see after the month? Noticeably more sculpted shoulders—to the point that my tops started to fit higher up on my chest—and slightly more pronounced biceps and triceps. I also saw a very welcome bonus: flatter abs. “To do a clean pushup, your core has to engage to keep your hips level throughout— hence the tighter stomach.” 1 2 3 5 6 4 And here’s the best change: When I walked into NYC boxing-meets-HIIT hot spot Rumble last week and had to crank out 30 pushups, I didn’t spit out an alibi about the previous night’s margs or throw my gloves in the instructor’s face. Competence is a crucial ingredient to confidence—which, as Gentilcore puts it, “is the secret to not only maintaining an activity, but also enjoying it.” Perhaps that’s why 15 days post-challenge, I’m still going strong—and not as a punishment, but as a reward.
How to Master the Pushup
- I learned quite a lot in 30 days. My knowledge, now yours:
- I started with my hands wider than my shoulders for max stability. I tried to bring them closer to better target my tris (a tweak research supports), but it never felt comfortable.
- At first, pushups bugged my wrists. By the end, I could feel my muscles do the heavy lifting, sparing my joints the added stress. A tip from Gentilcore that helped: grounding every knuckle (“corkscrewing” my hands) before I began.
- My initial set took so long to finish because I didn’t realize how hard I had to brace my core and glutes to prevent my hips from dipping. (The answer is: very hard.)
- Dropping your head is a common faux pas. (I often did it, ironically, to check my form.) Every day, I had to actively think about my head position (chin, not nose, to floor).
- While you can separate your feet to make the move easier, I kept mine together for the added challenge— except on days when I was super sore.
- My elbows never got closer to my body (another triceps boost), but they didn’t flare out either (I kept them at Mr. G’s 45-degree sweet spot). Still, I was able to drop lower before hauling back up. That’s success, he says. Yay! Q