I Love Push-Ups and So Should You. Part I

Remember how I love pull-ups? As it turns out, I also love to do push-ups. As with the pull-up, I would evaluate my ability as (well) above average and I’m willing to bet that you are pretty miserable at them. I’m going to follow the same general format as the pull-ups post, so let’s start with a definition of the standard push-up and then build a foundation. In addition to this foundation, I intend to question conventional wisdom surrounding the push-up.


NOTE: As with the pull-ups, this upper body strength work is NOT exclusively for men. EVERYBODY can benefit from being stronger. I have had several spectacular successes in the past training men AND women to be much stronger than they ever thought they could be. Again, I want to emphasize that becoming stronger does not lead to a “bulky” physique for women. Cupcakes do that.

On to the definition of the “standard push-up.” Put your hands on the floor, shoulder width apart, fingers pointing forward. Position your feet close together and get up into a plank with a flat back. This is the “up” position. Bend at the elbows and lower your chest to the ground (keep your back flat!). Some standards would like to see the elbows bend at least 90 degrees, but I think this is kind of hard to be honest about unless you have a spotter. I prefer to go low enough that my chest and chin brush the ground – that way I know for a fact that I have broken 90 degrees at the elbow. This is the “down” position. Simply alternate between up and down and you’re doing push-ups. Most all of us have experienced this at least a little bit in a PE class or something somewhere along the line.

That is the standard push-up. Going back to my previous assumption that you probably are not very good at push-ups, let’s dial it back a bit. The simplest way to accommodate a lack of strength here is to put the knees on the ground. There is nothing wrong with doing it this way; we all have to start somewhere. In fact, there is a great deal of honor and integrity involved when a person recognizes their weakness and insists on fixing them at the most basic level. Do not “add strength to dysfunction.” Learn to do it right, right now.


If what I have talked about so far is a significant challenge for you, stop here. Work on these basics until you get it right, then please come back and continue to advance. A solid foundation is absolutely essential to continuation training. I would say that being able to rep out 10 solid push-ups with a flat back and without significant shakiness is a bare minimum to continue.

If you can knock out more than 10 standard push-ups in a row, who cares? Seriously. The ability to do 100 push-ups in a minute has a certain cool factor, but ultimately lacks utility. There was a point in my life when I cared about being able to do such high reps, but that cool factor immediately fizzled when I simply asked “Why?” It is a useless skill. Let’s play a mental exercise: What is the push function of the human physique for? Does being able to move one’s body from the ground to slightly above the ground a whole bunch of times apply?

Let’s explore that push function. Why do we have it? Why would we want to improve it? As I have alluded to, there is little to no utility to being able to go from the down position to the up position over and over again. Why would you ever do that besides testing your ability to do that? Therefore, training to get better at standard push-ups only makes one better at push-ups. It becomes a self-licking ice cream cone. One with inherently limited use. So now what?

The push function of human strength has several uses:

–       To propel the body from one position to another

–       To arrest a face-forward fall

–       To throw an object

–       To punch

Arguably, there could be some use to lots of repetition when it comes to punching, but doing lots of push-ups trains the body for maximum efficiency. Punching needs power, not just efficiency. In fact, all four functions I mention require a great deal of power. Given how all real-world applications for the push function fall into the four abovementioned categories, and all four require power to be useful, let’s focus on power.

Starting with propulsion, you will never need to propel yourself arms length from the ground 100 times in a minute. So let’s just forget that standard opinion of push-ups as something to do over and over again in a short period of time. Can you push yourself from one precarious position to another? Probably not. Even the guy that can do triple digit push-ups will have trouble going from the prone position to standing or from a prone position in one spot to the prone position in another. Imagine having to reach across a ravine or something feet first, and then having to shove the rest of your body across to catch up. This will require a one-shot, powerful effort.

This same power harnessed in propulsion will be used to help you arrest a fall. Simply imagine running in compromised terrain and tripping. As you fall to the ground face first, you need to be able to put your arms out in front of you and slow your fall enough to not get a bloody nose. Again, efficiency is not the key to this maneuver, out right power is. If your arms are too weak to deal with your body weight falling at 9.8m/s/s, you’re going to have a bad time. You have to be able to channel all of your strength at one single moment and hopefully it is enough to preserve your beautiful mug.

1321_basketball-passingNext, consider the possibility that you will have to throw a large object. I’m not talking about throwing something overhand like a baseball, but let’s say a rock or a log of something of significant weight that will require a two-hand thrust from chest level – not unlike a pass in basketball. You may have to do something like this in order to get a heavy object across a gap, throw a large object off of yourself, or even throw an object offensively. Again, repetition is totally unnecessary and pure power will be more desirable.

Finally, punching. It is certainly possible that a confrontation that requires punching will require many punches, but again, unlike the standard, repeated push-up, each punch will require power and not just efficiency. If you are going to punch something, punch it like you mean it. I don’t know about you, but if I have decided that something is enough of a threat that I’m going to throw a fist, I want to disable it, not piss it off with quick, efficient thrusts. Punching is a whole different art in of itself that should be discussed elsewhere, but the point of the matter is that the standard push-up at high repetition simply does not apply.

Ok, enough rambling, let’s revisit the mental exercise from earlier. Why do we push?

outline700It’s not to do something useless like this.

This is a two-fold answer. First of all, we don’t push to get better at push-ups. Second, we do it do apply our strength and power to the four applications mentioned above. In either case, doing tons of the standard push-up – per typical misconceptions of how to train the human push function – simply has no utility. For now, dear reader, I want you to focus on gaining a strong foundation in the push-up. As I mentioned before, build that foundation and do a small amount with power and confidence. Once that foundation is built, we can move on to Part II and build some serious power.

Roving Packs of Dogs

On the ever growing list of threats to my health and safety, I now add roving packs of dogs. This is the first addition since dengue fever bearing mosquitoes, added about a week ago.

The backstory is this: inspired in part by Movematt, I decided that one of my goals during my time in Costa Rica is to become a physical specimen of a human being, able to jog up flights of stairs and rearrange living room furniture.

To that end I’ve started a twice a day workout schedule that includes a combination of running, swimming, sprinting (sand & hill), and pullup and pushup variants. 3 of those activities take place on the beach (running, sand sprinting, and swimming), which is conveniently located 2 blocks from my house. I drag myself out of bed every morning make my way down to the beach and begin my routine, and generally by the end, I feel pretty good in a terrible, gasping for air, utterly exhausted kind of way.

But today was different; today, towards the end of the jog segment of the run when I begin to transition to sprint intervals, I looked up to find that loping along besides and around me in a not-unthreatening manner were about 3 medium sized black dogs who looked like clones of each other, (a white 4th dog seemed to be a bit of an outcast and was also much less preoccupied with me). My 3 surprise running companions jogged easily alongside me darting in and out at my legs and dashing away when I turned to face them. You’ve probably seen this behavior in nature documentaries where large ungulates are being pursued by seemingly lazy wolves.

Now, the dogs were definitely in semi-play mode, but the thing about roving packs of dogs is that they play rough, and if you show any sign of weakness they will begin “playfully” biting your face off.

Thankfully, I’m not totally ignorant of dog psychology, so I realized that speeding up would probably be a bad idea. Contrary to what you see in movies and TV, outrunning dogs is one of those things that doesn’t happen in real life unless you have a very substantial head start and a safe end point. Instead I slowed down a bit, which helped to ease some of their obvious agitation at my quick movement, and began doing my best to exude alpha vibes. Alpha vibes is my term for a subtle shift in carriage that is meant to say 2 things: 1: “I am your superior,” and 2: “if you mess with me, it will go poorly for everyone involved.” I got a lot of practice with this growing up in New York.

The dogs were fairly incorrigible but, after a few minutes of my extra lazy jogging pace, they lost some interest in me and went back to dive tackling each other across the sand. My mind was still on my workout, and not wanting to lose my momentum at that critical moment I made the snap decision to begin my first sprint then.

70 heart pumping meters or so later, I looked up and angling in gleefully were the black dogs, slavering jaws wide, white teeth gleaming against the sand. One was right next to me and took a bounding nip at my left thigh…

Druid wolf pack chasing bull elk; Doug Smith; December 2007

Now, admittedly, this was my fault. Sprinting like that in plain view of these obviously aggressive dogs was just asking for trouble. Still, if I let roving packs of dogs dictate my workout, where does it stop? What if next time they want to borrow some money, or take my girlfriend to the movies? Where do I draw the line?

The leaping nip was an obvious test of my alpha-ness. If I let it slide the next step would be a full on bite and would likely be proceeded by my being dragged around the beach loudly lamenting my ongoing mauling.

Well, I don’t know about all that, but I definitely knew that I didn’t want strange dogs thinking it was cool to bite me. So I stopped cold and turned on the nippy dog and yelled “hey!” in my most forbidding voice, as if to say, “you just crossed the line, dog!” that got his attention and he backed off. I walked him down a few steps just to drive home my point and that seemed to get my point across. They almost instantly lost interest in me and sped off down the beach to harass some guy sitting in the surf.

At no point in time was I overly afraid of being attacked by these dogs. But I was worried that they would totally mess up my workout which would suck. If I had gone sprinting down the beach like a frightened deer, as wolf evolved predators, the dogs wouldn’t really have had a choice but to chase me and eventually try to take me down. It’s instinct (see video above). So I had to address the situation before it got out of hand.

All told, this should add an interesting element to future workouts, for better or for worse.

I also got chased by a French bulldog a bit further down the beach, but that was less worrisome.


Last Night Aikido Saved My Life

I’ve been training martial arts for most of my life. I’ve done karate, jujitsu, Brazilian jujitsu, aikido, and some tai chi chuan. Despite all that (or maybe because of it) I’ve only been in one real fight in my life.

Well, I guess it depends on your definition of a fight. I reflexively punched a younger kid in the face as a grade schooler over some perceived slight during a baseball game. As a freshman I was once given a bloody nose by a high school pal during a friendly bout of slap-boxing which didn’t feel very friendly. I’ve sparred a lot during my years of training martial arts, but that doesn’t really count.

No, I’ve only ever been in one real fight, where, as an adult man, another adult man actively attempted to do me harm. Well, actually, adult “men” would be more accurate, there were 4 or 5 of them. So I guess technically, I was jumped.

In that case, I’ve still never been in a fight; I’ve been jumped. Once.

It sucked, as you might expect, but it was also a great experience. If I’d ended up with my skull bashed in by a bottle I might not think so, but since I made it out none the worse for wear, it was a worthwhile learning experience.

Maybe I should just relate the story:

It was Valentine’s Day 2011 and I was out with my girlfriend at the time in the popular bar district in Beijing, China. Following a nice meal and some drinks, we ventured into a nearby yet infinitely seedier section of bar street to have a drink and dance, at her insistence.

We ended up in a bar called Butterfly, which was one of the many places on that particular street where dreams went to die. The entire area has since been walled over with concrete, which is for the best. In typical fashion, the bar was packed to the gills with rowdy expats and Chinese aficionados of the species. Rather than braving the dance floor immediately, to build our resolve we stood at the bar for a while chatting and having a drink (poured from a bottle within which was definitely NOT the alcohol advertised on the label).

Suddenly an arm pushed between us with deliberate malice. A hand reaches down into the stool that we were using as a hat rack, grabbed my hat, threw it aside, and a gruff voice said in Mandarin: “This is my chair.” I look up and there is a tallish, smirking mouth breather making “come at me bro” eyes at me.

My girlfriend immediately began gathering our things and pulling me towards the door, eager to avoid a confrontation. Somewhere beneath my instinctive male ire I found this interesting because her insistence implied that she thought that I might be inclined to chest puff and monkey dance with the guy. For the record, I don’t do that, partially out of maturity and a general disdain for posturing and showmanship, and partially due to cowardice and a general self-preserving desire not to be accidentally beaten to death.

Still, in front of my girlfriend I had to keep a little bit of face, and I WAS annoyed, so I give the guy my best smirk and “If-it wasn’t-for-my-girlfriend-I’d…” look and slowly followed her out of the bar. A helping hand guided me on my way as I turned to go.

Now, despite being a coward and general pacifist, I also have a rule that goes like this: don’t touch me. So I knocked Mr. Helpful’s hand off of my back, which was exactly the signal that his 3 or 4 friends were waiting for to attack.

What follows probably lasted for all of 10 seconds, but when I replay it it feels like 5 minutes. Long story short: I was separated from my girlfriend and attacked from all sides; I dodged a few poorly thrown haymakers and managed to grab a guy and commenced using him for Operation Human Shield. Thankfully the genius squad attacking me was using the tried and true “movie ninja” method of attacking one at a time, so I was able to keep them at bay, make my way to the door, and throw my trusty shield back at his friend before exiting the fine establishment with my girlfriend and beating a quick retreat to a waiting taxi.

Now, I’m a fairly small individual. I stay in good shape and am pretty athletic, but I’m not tall or large. And as my fighting experience outlined above (namely the lack thereof) might tell you, I’m definitely not a battle hardened tough guy.

Therefore I attribute my general success in the encounter to a combination of 3 things: the fact that it was well past drunk o’ clock which rendered my attackers’ already inept fighting skills useless; the fact that at the time I was training several martial arts regularly and thus had somewhat increased physical and situational awareness; and the fact that after the plan A of immediately dragging me to the ground for a head-kickfest failed, the plan B of actually slugging it out with me seemed less attractive.

I managed to make it out of the encounter entirely unscathed. My then-girlfriend also made it out fine. Thankfully the attention was all on getting to me. She stayed out of harm’s way pretty easily once they swarmed. Being from Korea where pugilism is anything but irregular she was also almost completely unfazed by the events of the evening.

I, on the other hand, had an adrenaline dump going that kept me up until the wee hours. During that contemplation time, some things about situations like the one that had just transpired were highlighted in my mind. One was that the vast majority of people in the world don’t know how to fight. Even in places where fighting is common, there are very few people who really learn to fight. The other was that most people, even assholes who want to participate in a good old fashioned jumping don’t really want to fight. Oh, they want to beat someone up alright, but they don’t want to actually risk anything for it… hence the underlying conceit behind jumping.

The last thing had to do with my martial arts studies. I’d been mostly studying Brazilian Jujitsu and Aikido at the time, and I could definitely feel the usefulness of my Aikido studies.  Especially in today’s MMA saturated world, lots of people denigrate Aikido as overly exaggerated and useless in practical application, but it was probably the only reason the situation ended up as well as it did. While staying entirely defensive also probably helped keep the situation from escalating, knowing how to move around multiple attackers, knowing how to keep an opponent off balance while maintaining my own, and knowing how to respond to the various angles presented helped keep me safe that night.

My petty desire to have cracked at least one of those clowns in the teeth not withstanding, I couldn’t have asked for a better first brawl.