And why this challenge changed my relationship to push-ups forever.
Push-ups and I have a long and complicated love-hate relationship. On one hand, as someone who used to be a personal trainer and has programmed strength workouts for hundreds of clients, I know the benefits of push-ups well: They build core strength and stability, and they also work chest and triceps muscles. Plus, they're one of the best functional movements around, says Lady Velez, M.D., certified personal trainer and owner of StrengthWorks gym. "I'm a big proponent of functional bodyweight movements [such as] push-ups because they transfer into every area of your strength and build your joints," she explains. "Everyone can benefit from push-ups and the amazing thing is, you can easily modify them to make them easier or more challenging depending on an individual's ability level."
But despite all the proven benefits of push-ups, I never liked them. It's kind of my dirty little secret. I can deadlift and squat hundreds of pounds, but my push-up game has never been strong (pun intended). And when my personal trainer recently programmed push-ups into my workout, I had an unwelcome realization: Not only did I still dislike push-ups, I was actually struggling with them more, probably because of how rarely I do them these days.
So, I decided to take a radical approach to finally becoming proficient at push-ups: dedicating myself to doing 15 push-ups a day for at least 30 days.
Before I started my 30-day push-up challenge, I had initially set a goal of 10 push-ups a day. After mulling it over (and a pep talk reminding myself that I was experienced in strength training), that number seemed too small — so I upped my target to 15 consecutive reps, all on my toes. Hey, I was optimistic. I didn't necessarily picture myself crushing 15 push-ups with ease, but I also didn't think 15 was going to be too much of a challenge.
However, on the first day of the challenge, I realized I had been a little overzealous with my goal of completing 15 perfect push-ups in one strong, smooth set. About halfway through my reps, I had to drop to my knees — and bruised my ego a little bit in the process.
Even though I was slightly discouraged, I persisted. And ultimately, I realized that modifying the movement and maintaining proper form is far better than pushing through with bad form, especially when it comes to lower back health; if your low back sags during a push-up (as opposed to a flat back with your pelvis tucked and spine straight), you put yourself at risk for lower back pain. Plus, I wanted to focus on targeting the right muscles (think: pecs, core, and lats) as my ultimate goal was to actually get better at push-ups — not just do flimsy reps with potentially dangerous form in order to complete my challenge. Lesson learned: quality over quantity, especially when it comes to strength training.
Another problem I incurred early on was that I would procrastinate on doing my push-ups every day. The most sensible thing would be to do them first thing in the morning and get it out of the way, but I found myself doing push-ups at 10 pm because I had put them off all day. To be honest, most days, I thought about just skipping them altogether. Who would even know? No one. It was my personal challenge.
But after the rough first week, I got my mindset back on track. I found some new resolve and woke up every morning and completed my push-ups as part of my routine. If I was doing to be serious about getting better at push-ups, I had to wholeheartedly commit and give it my all.
After a few days of successfully knocking out my push-ups in the morning, I felt accomplished. But more than that, my muscle memory was kicking in, and all those push-ups were getting just a little bit easier. By halfway through the experiment, I no longer needed to drop to my knees. Those last five push-ups were still hard, and I definitely had to pause at the top of the movement and hold the plank position for a few seconds to give myself a breather — but I was getting through them.
By day 30 of the challenge, I couldn't believe how quickly the month had flown by. But more importantly, I couldn't believe that completing my daily 15 push-ups felt so much easier than they did on day one. I actually felt like I was at the point where I could probably start adding in a few more — and that was a far cry from how I'd felt during the first few days of the challenge.
When I first started this challenge, I imagined myself getting to day 30, celebrating that I made it through, and immediately giving up on daily push-ups. But now that I've reached the end, I'm actually excited to continue working on my functional strength (aka movements and exercises that help make daily movements easier) because it carries over into everyday life. Whether it's carrying all my groceries in the house or picking up and moving heavy boxes, functional strength helps prevent injuries and build strong bones, which becomes even more important as you age. And if doing more push-ups means I can be moving pain-free and living independently for longer? Sign me up.
Although I'm much better at push-ups than when I started, I'm not even close to being one of those people who can bust out 50 to 100 push-ups in a day. And if I'm being totally honest, I don't think I'm even aspiring to that. However, I am continuing to incorporate pushups three or four days a week because I want to continue building on the progress I've made. Who knows, maybe I'll actually change the love-hate relationship with push-ups into a love-only relationship.