Saturday, September 7, 2013

In The Gym: Pushups

Lately I have gotten several questions about strength work (what I do, how much, when, why, etc.) so I thought I would do a few posts on some of that. Strength work is something I've usually done to some extent or another since I was like, I don't know, ten or something, as part of whatever organized sport(s) I was participating in at the time, though I've definitely gone through phases of being more and less organized about it, more and less consistent, and more and less purposeful depending on lots of different things. Over the last few months in particular, all the treatment and rehab for my sartorius injury that I've been through has helped me learn to be intentional & directed about it in ways that will hopefully keep me from re-injuring it.

Before we get to the fun stuff, a few of the usual caveats:

  • I'm not a doctor, PT, coach, trainer, or any other kind of fanciness -- I am not pretending I'm an expert here. (Although most of what I know has come from working with doctors, PTs, coaches, and trainers who have a background in working with runners and endurance athletes and whose judgment I've come to trust. I'm not, like, cutting & pasting bullshit off of or anything.)
  • Obviously most of it has come about through conversations about my specific injuries and struggles. I think most of them are pretty common ones so they're probably applicable for a lot of people, but how useful or appropriate it is for you obviously depends on your own stuff.
  • I don't think there's anything perfect or magical about the details of how much I do or when. For the most part I fit it into my life where I can and assume that's better than, y'know, not fitting it in.
  • There are some things where I think it is not the world's worst idea to get some professional instruction.

Cool? Cool.

Today, we are talking about PUSHUPS!!

Pushups are hawt.

I think pushups don't get the respect from runners that they deserve because we tend to think of them as primarily an upper body exercise. AU CONTRAIRE, MON AMI!

Although they're fantastic for your upper body, properly executed pushups (and proper execution is key) are one of the most effective core exercises runners can do. Deceptively, the most important pushup muscles are abs and glutes, and if those muscles are doing what they're supposed to, the upper body part becomes surprisingly easy. The sticky point is that many recreational runners have weak abs or glutes, or have some issue with getting the muscles to fire correctly. So, they either a) avoid them or b) do lots and lots of shitty pushups & the abs & glutes don't get any stronger.

Reading about the importance of pushups for runners is actually how I initially found Coach Nate. Earlier this year I stumbled onto a pair of great articles he wrote about the importance of pushups for running, the connection between good pushup form & good running form, & tips on how to begin working pushups into your strength routine:

"Better Pushups For Better Running"

"Pushups tell us a lot about how we run. It’s important to have good posture when performing the pushup in order for the shoulders to be strong and stable. A “soft” butt and belly destabilizes the pelvis, the low back arches, and our shoulders become unstable....Runners who perform “soft” pushups with overextended posture [arched lower back] also tend to run soft and overextended. This disconnection contributes to a whole host of problems, including low back pain, IT band pain, collapsed arches and a clipped running stride. Performing a better pushup addresses these issues."

"Strength Tests For Runners: Where Do You Fit?"

"Beginner runners who struggle to do less than five pushups tend to lack the postural strength to run with the upright posture and quiet upper body needed over even short distances. Instead, these weaker runners over-rotate in the upper and lower body, and arch or round in the low back. These runners simply lack the core strength and shoulder stability to run upright....Runners who lack this positional strength also tend to see the most hip, knee, ankle and foot strike problems....For more advanced runners, we expect 10-15 pushups with a 25-pound plate (for women) or a 45-pound plate (for men) on their back."

(15 pushups with the 25 pound plate is my "green light" for being strong enough to safely marathon train again; at this point I can do maybe 3 of those, soooo....yeah. There's some work left to do.)

For a detailed discussion of proper form & execution, I (again) refer you to Kelly Starrett's amazing work, Becoming A Supple Leopard, but here's the tl;dr version:

  • At the top and bottom of the pushup, your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor. (For most people this seems to mean moving their hands backward from where they're used to.)
  • Arms should stay in close to your sides the whole time (except at the very top of the plank, obviously). You don't run with your elbows out to the side like wings, so doing pushups that way is counterproductive. (For many people this means your hands may need to be closer together than you're used to. Which makes them harder.)
  • Create a strong, stable shoulder by spreading your fingers out & "screwing your hands to the floor" (outward).
  • Squeeze the abs & butt as tightly as you possibly can. (This is probably the most crucial piece, so really be sure to stay aware of what those muscles are doing.) I've found that the number of good pushups I can do in a row seems much, much more strongly tied to how long I can keep my abs & butt squeezed than it does to arm strength.
  • Straight back, both lower and upper. Watch for sagging in the lower back & rounding of the upper back / shoulders. (It's helpful to start off doing these with feedback, either from someone watching or near a mirror, since for most of us there is often a gap between what we *think* our bodies are doing vs what they are *actually* doing.)
  • Look straight ahead, not at the floor. Looking at the floor tends to cause people to round their upper backs.
  • Chest all the way to the floor or it doesn't count.

If you can't do a pushup properly yet, resist the temptation to do them on your knees -- knee push ups do not use your core and can actually be bad for your back and elbows. Instead, try one of two things:

1) Place your hands on a raised surface like a box, chair/table, or wall and continue to work squeezing the abs & butt:

As you get stronger, you can gradually lower the surface where your hands are until you are ready to start mixing in a few at floor level. (Likewise, you can make them harder by elevating your feet. See handstand pushups. Yes, that's a thing. :) )

2) Start in the proper plank position & lower your chest to the ground in the normal way, & then sort of "cobra" back up into the plank:

Try not to get too frustrated if you find that once you've got the right form, you can't do very many. When I first started working with Nate I think I could do maybe 8 really good ones at a time, and now I'm up to sets of 12. (Without the plate, of course.)

Of course he does. BUT NOT YOU! You know how to scale them [make them
accessible relative to your ability level] appropriately, because you are a rock star.

If you can only do a few, try making an interval workout of it -- do a few, take a 30 second break (or do some other exercise), do another set, etc. Just as with running, it will let you get in a decent number of total reps while also gradually making you strong enough for longer sets.

I try to do some pushups every day, but most of the time I succeed in doing them maybe five days a week -- maybe 2-3 sets at karate on Monday and Wednesday, usually 4 sets at the gym on Tuesday, Thursday, and/or Friday, and whenever else I happen to think about it. I have a friend who consistently does 100 every day (spread out in sets of 5 or 10), and while she IS still amazing and baddass, this is actually a lot more doable and less insane than it sounds. That said, it's not something I personally feel the need to do; I figure if I try to do several sets on most days and gradually increase the number I can do in one set, I'll keep making progress and sooner or later that 25 pound plate will be my bitch.

Do some pushups, runners!!!


  1. Thanks for this post. I find doing a proper push-up is one of the most difficult components of my training.

  2. Great post, Angela. I didn't realize that you're supposed to look forward, not down. I also didn't know about the importance of the abs AND the glutes -- I figured core would be involved, but I didn't know how central they were. Thanks for the info and looking forward to more strength posts!

  3. Very informative post. Years of doing pushups and this is the first time that I have heard about the benefits of looking forward during a pushup. I will be incorporating this into my next set tonight.

  4. I agree - pushups are a great exercise for runners (I am one), and they are a regular part of my martial arts training. However, I have always been taught that the proper stopping position on the way down is when the elbow forms a 90 degree angle. My chest does not touch the floor at this point. I suppose it depends on arm length.

    1. I think "chest to floor" is probably impressionistic -- I don't think it necessarily means you're supposed to smash your chest into the floor (at least I don't). I bet for most people getting upper arms to 90 degrees gets the chest reasonably close enough to the floor to count.

  5. I did a good chunk the 100 Pushups program a couple of years ago -- got up to 65ish before, honestly, getting bored -- and so I've considered myself somewhat decent at pushups, but good lord. Following all these instructions, I could do ... two without stopping. Weirdly, it was my triceps that seemed to be giving out, but I think that's probably resulting from trying super-hard to keep my lower back from arching on the way back up and THOSE muscles not being strong enough to do it on their own. Very interesting.

    1. Right??? I went from being able to claim 30-40 at a time to like 6. I grumbled a lot. :-/

  6. I am so bad at pushups. With all my strength training I can now eek out one big girl push up. 25 lb plate??!! Gah!