Exercise Filter: “A mind that's a-weak and a back that's strong”
July 9, 2019 9:55 PM   Subscribe

I want to do pushups. To do this, besides building up my arms, I also need to strengthen my back and possibly my legs.

About a week ago, I started a minimalist exercise routine. One of my goals is to do push-ups. I can now do only wall push-ups. If I do 20, or don’t start with my arms perpendicular to the wall, or do a push-up on the kitchen counter instead of the wall, it hurts my back.

So then, I thought I would strengthen my back by doing the plank exercise. But I can do that only on my elbows and knees. If I try to extend my legs and put the weight on my toes, my legs give out after a few seconds.

So, should I:
* Do another exercise to strengthen my back? Maybe Supermans? In addition or instead?
* Do the planks on my knees?
* Work up to the regular planks by doing them, progressively, against a wall, counter, chair and floor?
* Something else?

My other exercises are (for now) 10-40 reps total for each of the following:
* dumbbell rows (very low weight)
* jumping jacks
* jumping rope
* the aforementioned wall pushups

I plan to do only one or two exercises in addition to the list immediately above.

I also sometimes walk about a mile, carrying a low weight in each hand.

Other possibly relevant info about me:
* Female
* 56 years old
* 67 inches tall, 165 pounds
* Fairly sedentary
posted by NotLost to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I’d keep doing the wall pushups for a while longer. I did some PT for my shoulder a bit ago and did very low weights for a long time. My PT person started me on wall pushups and had me do them for quite a while before going to counter pushups. I think it was maybe 2 months. Hang in there!
posted by kerf at 10:47 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]

A push up is essentially a plank in motion, so I don't think you'll necessarily resolve the back pain during push ups by adding in planks.

Instead of doing push ups, you could do dumbbell bench press. The linked example shows the exercise on a bench, but you can do it lying flat on the floor with your legs extended (or bent, if that feels better - see also barbell floor press).

There are a lot of possible causes for back pain, so if you really want to push ups you may need to do some troubleshooting.

It may just be because you aren't conditioned to the exercise. If this is the case, you would expect the pain to decrease with training. For instance, if it hurts to do a set of 20 wall push ups but 15 feels okay, spend a couple of weeks just doing 15 at a time (or a couple of sets of 10) then increase gradually, like to a set of 18 or a couple of sets of 12. Assuming you work out two to three times a week, it should get easier. When you're doing the maximum number of reps you want to do, you can progress to bench push ups and see how that goes.

However, if you are unable to increase the number of reps without pain or you actually get worse (start experiencing pain at a number of reps that was previously pain-free), there's a problem you'll need to address if you want to do push ups.

If you have the resources, seeing a good physiotherapist will be the fastest and easiest way to work through it. (I think physiotherapists are called physical therapists in the US.) A good personal trainer would also be able to help you, but trying to find a good personal trainer is an even greater gamble than finding a good physiotherapist.

If you can't or would rather not see a physio, I'd recommend incorporating the McGill Big 3 into your routine (PDF link, non PDF link). These are exercises designed to promote core stability, and will also help your proprioception (awareness of your back's position). Stuart McGill has also published several books on spine health and back injury prevention if you wanted to do a deeper dive.

I wouldn't recommend picking one back exercise at random, because depending on what the cause of the pain is, the exercise could do nothing to help or could make it worse.

I'm not sure what you mean by your legs giving out when you do a full plank. Is there some part of legs that gets fatigued very quickly so you end up dropping to the floor? Regardless, jumping jacks and jumping rope will strengthen your legs so you don't necessarily need to do anything extra.
posted by aussie_powerlifter at 11:05 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]

You're off to a great start! Push-ups are an excellent exercise for your whole body. At this point, it sounds like you should keep doing wall push-ups (no planks for now) and focus on proper form. One of the most important things you'll learn as you develop a routine is that a laser-like focus on form is what really helps you make progress in every exercise and, just as importantly, keeps you from injuring yourself. Is it possible to work near a mirror at least part of the time so you can see how your form looks?

As you do wall push-ups you should concentrate on maintaining a neutral spine. Make sure your back is neither arched nor sagging at any time. Check that your hands on the wall are even with your chest and that they aren't too high. Also be sure you're leading with your chest and you're not bending your neck and tilting your head towards the wall (it's all about keeping that spine straight).

It's possible that you may be starting off with proper form but as you go on you're letting your lower back and hips sag a bit and that's why your back starts to hurt. Keep your lower spine from moving too much by flexing your abdominal muscles, lower back muscles, and quadriceps -- working these muscles is part of why you're doing push-ups in the first place! Perfecting this form and strengthening those sets of muscles will be really important for when you eventually do horizontal push-ups.

Some of the back pain may also be because your feet are a little too far away from the wall at this stage in your progress and you should stand a little closer for now. As you perfect your form and gain some strength you can start moving your feet further back. As you do this you'll start to get closer to horizontal and find that you're working your arms, shoulders, and chest more and more.

When you eventually arrive at doing horizontal push-ups, even if you start by doing knee push-ups, you'll find that a huge component of doing them correctly comes from core strength. The proper form that you work on perfecting now will help develop that core strength.

Good luck!
posted by theory at 11:41 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]

Just to agree and expand on theory's answer - this is a pretty decent push up tutorial. The guy is doing floor push ups but it also applies to wall push ups and everything in between.

I would recommend taking a video of yourself rather than trying to watch yourself in a mirror, so you can focus on how the movement feels and compare against how it looks. For instance, my posture is fairly hunched so I have to exaggerate the feeling of back extension to get into a neutral (flat back) position.

The 'cat and cow' stretch/exercise can be helpful because going through the extreme range of motion from spine very extended and pelvis tilted way forward to spine flexed and pelvis tilted back can help you work out which way you're more inclined and which way you need to shift to get your spine into a neutral position.
posted by aussie_powerlifter at 2:19 AM on July 10

You've got some great push up advice here! In addition, I'd second (third?) the recommendation to see a physical therapist, even for just one or two sessions if you can swing it. I was having lower back pain after amping up my sedentary lifestyle, and one thing the physio really helped me with was identifying my transverse abdominus, the very lower abs that wrap around into the back and help with stabilization. While I was working on strengthening my back and legs, weaknesses in those muscles were leading me to overextend during back exercises. I went through the whole months-long cycle because my insurance covered it and why not, but really just the first two sessions where a trained professional watched me move and walked me through the muscles involved and the exercises to improve them were invaluable.
posted by theweasel at 6:11 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]

One thing that might help in strengthening your glutes and core (which will help support you in planks and push-ups) is adding squats to your routine.
posted by TwoStride at 7:15 AM on July 10

I was never good at pushups until I started doing them with a pilates circle under my sternum and now I do ~50 a day.

Also, sounds like you would like Pilates in general. Very good for building core strength.

Good luck!
posted by wowenthusiast at 7:37 AM on July 10

My instinct here (woman about your age) is that you're probably closer to doing real planks (from your toes to either elbows or hands) than you think you are, and that full planks are probably what will help most. You say:

If I try to extend my legs and put the weight on my toes, my legs give out after a few seconds.

So, hold the position for a few seconds, then drop to your knees, rest a bit, and do it again? This is guessing, but I'm thinking that the legs-giving-out experience isn't exactly weakness, but more physical unfamiliarity with the stress of the plank position, and if you just keep making the attempt you will fairly rapidly get to where you can hold the position for a reasonable amount of time, ten seconds or so. And then you can build up from there.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:08 AM on July 10

If you're hurting your back, my guess is you actually need to strengthen your abdominal muscles. Your back is hurting because it is sagging, and the thing that holds up your back in that position is not your back but your abs.

One really great, low-impact ab strengthener is to lay on your back with your legs up in the air, knees bent. Place a yoga block against your knees and push against it with both your hands and knees as hard as you can. Remember to keep breathing. This seems like a nothing exercise, but it really, really works.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:58 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]

I just got this 2-dvd Viniyoga series on alleviating lower and upper back pain. If you have some money to throw at the problem, these yoga sequences might be useful. They are geared for the beginner, with some very simple but effective moves. I'm a huge fan now. I randomly checked them out from the local public library.

I agree that cat-cow stretches might help. So would a modified bridge pose. I think a sphinx pose would be a way to ease into superman sets? Some of these other poses for back pain might be too much at this early stage.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:22 AM on July 10

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