Go Back to This Exercise While Gyms Are Locked Down
Growing up, school was a painful experience for Herschel Walker.
He was slow, uncoordinated and had a stuttering problem. He was also overweight which made him “fresh meat” for bullies. They’d chant, “Herschel is a gir-schel!” and physically attack him. They’d thump him on the chest… hit him in the back of the head… or slap his books out of his hands. Or sometimes they’d just beat the living daylights out of him.
At first the chants were irritating, but after a while he got used to it… and then didn’t mind it… because it was at least some form of connection with his classmates. Others just ignored him altogether. They avoided him like the plague out of fear of being associated with him, which made him crave their connection even more. Some days he’d just stay inside during recess to avoid it all.
Other days, he’d take his spare change and instead of buying a candy bar… black licorice… or chocolate – he’d sneak onto the playground during recess, tap a classmate on the shoulder, stick his hand out with a coin, and say, “Talk to m-m-me?”
This bought him a little connection and made him happy. But for the most part, he felt like the kid who was “shuffled to the bottom of the deck”. Even when Herschel mustered up the courage to raise his hand during class – his teachers didn’t call on him. Maybe they tried to protect him. Maybe they didn’t believe he had anything to say. Either way, his teachers didn’t come to his rescue during this traumatic time in his life.
One teacher even took him aside one day at recess at told him, “Poor Herschel. Life is going to be tough on you. You ain’t going to amount to much in this life, child. Maybe you’ll get your reward later on.”
Eventually Herschel found solace in running. He used it as a vehicle to run away from the ridicule… the isolation… the physical beatings. He could escape it all. Then he started standing in front of the mirror repeating tongue-twisters like “she sells sea shells by the sea shore.” And then he devoted himself to working out vigorously every day. Over time he overcame his speech impediment, became valedictorian and started developing an uncommon level of athleticism.
By the time Herschel was in college, he became one of the most dominant running backs in football. He developed the strength and explosiveness to bowl over multiple players at once. Sometimes he’d even dive over players, land on his feet and keep sprinting down field. He brought this same level of dominance to the NFL and was later recruited for the US Olympic bobsled team. Today he is considered one of the greatest running backs of all-time.
If that wasn’t enough, what’s even more amazing about Herschel’s accomplishments is that he didn’t lift weights (until a few years into the NFL). Before that he never lifted weights! He only did bodyweight exercises which included an impressive push-up routine. In fact, he worked so hard at push-ups that he was doing 1,500… 2,000… and then 3,500 every single day.
The inspiring thing is that we can all build an impressive amount of strength with simple bodyweight exercises like this. Now maybe you don’t care to do 3,500 pushups. Maybe you just want to get more toned… increase your upper body strength… or shed a few pounds. Whatever the case, push-ups are one of the most underutilized tools in your arsenal for doing so.
The problem is, most people are so familiar with push-ups that they take them for granted. We've either lost sight of their effectiveness or we've never taken a good look at how they can really help us. Either way, with gyms being locked down there’s no better time than now to get cranking on these again. In fact, here are 5 reasons to bring them back into your workout routine:
Build Upper Body Strength Some exercises only work a few muscle groups. Not push-ups. When you do push-ups you’re working many muscles such as the chest (pecs), shoulders (deltoid) and back of the arms (triceps). And if you do enough of them and challenge yourself you can build impressive upper body strength. A perfect example is our friend Herschel. When he arrived at the University of Georgia he broke the school record at the time by bench pressing 375lbs – despite never bench pressing before!
Build Core Stability When you are cranking out push-ups you’re also training the core. Your core has to hold your body inline as you press your body off the ground. If your core is lacking (or not firing at the right time) you may peel off the ground instead of keeping the body moving as one unit. In fact, you can test your core stability by doing push-ups with one leg up (and straight) and then try with one leg bent. This can exploit any core weaknesses you may have.
Measure of Cardiovascular Health 2019 research published in JAMA Network Open discovered that those who could do more push-ups were less likely to have cardiovascular disease. Researchers found that male firefighters who could do more than 40 push-ups had a 96% less chance for heart disease, heart attack, or heart failure over a ten year period compared to those who did less than ten pushups!
Shoulder Health Think about throwing… punching… or reaching to grab something. All of these require the arm to move while the shoulder blades move too. When the shoulder blade moves with the arm (like in push-ups) the shoulder joint has more clearance which keeps the shoulder healthy.
However, when the shoulder blade and arm do not move together, you’re more likely to have impingement in the shoulder which can cause pain and rotator cuff damage over time. That’s one reason why bench pressing can be problematic because it involves the arms moving while the shoulder blades are pinned to the bench.
Versatile Exercise Push-ups can be modified in many different ways. According to a 2005 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, when you do regular pushups you are lifting 66.4% of your bodyweight and if you do modified (from the knees) then it’s 52.9% of your bodyweight. However, if regular is too easy you can elevate your feet… use a weighted vest… use bands… or do them with a 10 second lowering.
So how many push-ups should you be able to do?
According to the previous firefighter study 40 was the number where they saw significant reductions in cardiovascular disease. There are other general push-up standards as well. However, let’s set our sights higher and strive for standards of the elite:
Army’s 2-Minute Test (Basic Training Physical Fitness Test): Men (ages 17-21): 35 Men (ages 22-26): 31 Women (ages 17-21): 13 Women (ages 22-26): 11
Army Ranger’s 2-Minute Test: 49
Navy Seal’s 2-Minute Test: 42 (But top scores are 80-100)
Coast Guard’s 1-Minute Test: Men: 29 Women: 15
Air Force’s 1-Minute Test:
Men (under 30 years old): 33 Men (30-39 years old): 27
If these seem like a longshot, keep in mind how Herschel started. When he first tried push-ups he couldn’t even do one! But he kept at it until he could crank out 25… 50… 100… then gradually built his way up to thousands per day.
You can do the same. Stick with them. Look for the little improvements. And just keep bettering your best. Wherever you’re starting at, use this as an excuse to start taking this simple exercise seriously again.
“No matter what I have to go through, what I have to do, I will be good enough.” - Herschel Walker
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