This post was updated on February 18, 2019
The morning of my 50th birthday in May I did something I had not tried in a long time. I dropped to the floor and did 50 push-ups, one for each year. I had to break it up into sets and the last few where shaky, but I did it.
And it felt great.
As a new member to the 50-plus club, I realized this bread-and-butter exercise still works wonders as a snapshot of your fitness. In addition, it might predict your risk for cardiovascular problems. In a study of male firefighters published in the February 2019 issue of JAMA Network Open, men who could complete at least 40 push-ups over 30 seconds had a significantly lower risk of heart attack, heart failure, or other cardiovascular problems over the next 10 years compared with men who were able to complete less than 10.
"How many you can do at one time offers a real-time measurement of your strength and muscular endurance and is an easy tool to help you improve," says Dr. Edward Phillips, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. "You can do them anywhere and at any time. All you need is your body weight and a few minutes."
The perfect exercise
The push-up engages your body from top to bottom. It works several muscle groups at once: the arms, chest, abdomen (core), hips, and legs. Push-ups also can be modified as needed. "By adjusting the speed you perform a push-up, the angle of your body, and even hand placement, you can add more or less intensity, or focus on specific muscles," says Dr. Phillips.
A study published in the February 2016 issue of the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that the chest muscle activity was greater when push-ups were performed with the hands placed halfway inward from their normal position. Hands placed outward work the triceps more.
The perfect form
To maximize what push-ups can offer, you should perform them correctly.
- Begin in a full plank position with your arms extended, palms flat and just below shoulder level, feet together or about 12 inches of apart, resting on the balls of your feet.
- Keep your back straight and your weight evenly distributed.
- Look down and lower your body until your elbows are at 90 degrees (or go to the floor to rest, if needed), and then push back up to complete one rep. Try to take two seconds to go down and one second to go up.
If this is too difficult, perform from a hands and knees position. You can also do inclined push-ups, where you place your hands on a counter or wall and lean forward at a 45-degree angle. "You can still engage the core and work your arms and chest, while you place less weight on the wrists and shoulders," says Dr. Phillips.
With a regular push-up, you lift about 50% to 75% of your body weight. (The actual percentage varies depending on the person's body shape and weight.) Modifications like knee and inclined push-ups use about 36% to 45% of your body weight.
Establish a foundation
To find your starting point, perform as many push-ups as you can while keeping good form. It could be 10, five, or even two. Focus on hitting this number at first with a rest day between sessions. As your strength improves, add more reps, or move up to a full push-up position (if you've been bending at the knees or doing push-ups against a wall) or build up to doing two to three sets.
Because they provide instant feedback, push-ups can be a great motivator. Push-up challenges are trendy. Can you do a certain number in a week, or in 30 days? Can you perform 15 to 20 nonstop?
"Challenges are a fun way to set up mini, short-term goals, which many men need to stay focused," says. Dr. Phillips. Create your own push-up challenge and see if you can reach it. Begin small and once you achieve it, set the bar higher.
My challenge is to do 50 push-ups every day for the entire year. So far, so good. I knock them out before I brush my teeth in the morning, and can now do 30 nonstop. Push-ups have taught me that when it comes to improving my fitness, I can still rise to the occasion.