Help me improve my pushups.
January 18, 2008 3:35 AM   Subscribe

Help me improve my pushups. I've been doing martial arts 5 nights a week (M-F) for 9 months now. We do anywhere from 30-150 pushups a night, but I'm incapable of keeping up with the rest of the class and have not really improved much since I started.

I've been doing martial arts 5 nights a week (M-F) for 9 months now. We do anywhere from 30-150 pushups a night, but I'm incapable of keeping up with the rest of the class and have not really improved much since I started. We do 4 different kinds of pushups regular, hands facing inward, fist, and fingers. On the other hand I've improved greatly with the leg exercises. I've never in my life been able to do a lot of pushups.

I have a few theories as to why I haven't improved. First I'm unable to do all those pushups within the time constraints and rarely do them to exhaustion. I also do them regularly which doesn't give my muscles any rest time except the weekends. Possibly the fact that I'm vegetarian plays into it, but I've gained about 10 lbs since I started and now weigh the most I've weighed in my life so I don't think I'm having a lot of trouble putting muscle on.

I've read a bunch of things online on how to improve, but they don't take into account that I have really no choice about resting and during my martial arts I have to do them.

I'm 25 male and in pretty good shape. Any advice anyone can give me would be great.
posted by bindasj to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The one weird thing that helped my pushups was increasing my shoulder flexibility. If you have flexible shoulders, then you don't have muscles fighting each other, and you don't tire your muscles as quickly.

This requires more precision than the usual pop crap that's out there. You need to get at your internal and external rotators and just about everything else.

A relatively cheap book that has everything you need is the Wharton's Stretch Book. A more expensive book is Active Isolated Stretching by Aaron Mattes. (I think Mattes might have a cheaper book too called Stretching For Everyone.)

Second, your pushups might not be effectively engaging secondary and stabilizer muscles. I recommend Active Isolated Strength by Aaron Mattes.

Finally, you should check your form. The best book on pushup form that I know of is The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline. There are pages and pages of tips. At the same time, the book is pricey and fluffy, though, and there might be other stuff out there.

Oh, last thing--I know someone who had to get shoulder surgery because she was basically forced to do too many pushups in training. I've hurt my shoulder and my wrists because of pushups. Listen to your body, and go slow!

(I would also say eat more and give your muscles--and joints and tendons and ligaments!!!--longer to recover, but it looks like you're already aware of those things.)
posted by zeek321 at 3:59 AM on January 18, 2008

Firstly, I think you need rest. 150 pushups a night is a lot. But you said you can't get rest, so....

a) experiment with hand position relative to your shoulders (if you can get away with it). For example, normal hand position would be level with, or slightly above, your shoulders, and greater than shoulder width. Try moving your hands closer to/further away from the midline of your body (ie outwards) and/or above/below your shoulders. This will change the mechanics of the pushups and will fatigue different muscles: hands below shoulders and close to your body, for example, will fatigue triceps more than pectorals. Hands far away from body and at 'normal' position will fatigue pecs.

b) maybe? have a checkup and see if you're iron deficient. If so, get a recommendation for an iron supplement and take it as prescribed. I am not a doctor.

c) accept the fact that you can't do this. I can do about 12 chinups before I collapse. I can do 12 hugely-weighted chinups before I collapse. Regardless of the weight, I just can't do more than 12. Go figure :(

d) do you stretch your pecs & triceps (and forearms) at all? Have a look at this pec stretch. Try it, and also try this variation (eg for the left pec):
i) Stand close to a wall, facing the wall.
ii) Raise your left arm to a 45 degree angle and place your palm against the wall.
iii) Press the front of your left shoulder against the wall.
iv) keeping your left shoulder pressed against the wall, rotate your body backwards so your right shoulder is moving towards your left hand.
You should feel a stretch from your pecs, possibly right up into your wrist.
To increase the stretch further, keep your wrist against the wall, and raise your fingers.

The rest of the ExRx site might help, too, with other stretches.

e) get some massage oil and give the fatigued muscles a good kneading several times a week.

I hope at least some of this helps!
posted by flutable at 4:20 AM on January 18, 2008

Although I thought it was pretty brutal, I could never keep up in judo exercises. Then my instructor flat out told me that I needed to do more conditioning outside of class. Some of those five days to do weight training, and the pushups will get easier. You certainly can get as strong as you like doing them, but you probably will make faster gains with other conditioning methods.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:51 AM on January 18, 2008

Training makes you weaker; having enough rest after training makes you stronger. So I'd try alternating days with a lot of push-ups with days of either rest or training other muscle groups.
posted by jouke at 4:58 AM on January 18, 2008

You might also want to look into doing a bit of bench pressing -- once you can bench above a certain amount, it becomes much easier to do a push-up, since they use similar muscles.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:16 AM on January 18, 2008

You can't rest? Rest is what permits you to get stronger. More work isn't going to help. Less work is.
You also don't say how big or small you are. Someone with long arms has a greater distance to move their body (and conversely, the kid who could do hundreds of push ups/pull ups in high school was always a little kid around 140ish)
posted by filmgeek at 5:32 AM on January 18, 2008

Yeah, to add to what everyone else is saying -- doing that many pushups everyday will probably build conditioning and mental toughness but it will not really build strength, because (a) you're not resting enough, and (b) you're doing the same thing everyday, so you've hit a plateau. If you ever have a month off from your martial arts, I would rest for a few days or a week and then try benching every other day, trying to increase weight rather than doing so many reps. You could also dips as an alternative. Or you could try benching alongside your martial arts, but that might just lead to overtraining.

Are you sore in your chest and shoulders all week?
posted by creasy boy at 5:45 AM on January 18, 2008

When you do that much of a chest workout, you are literally tearing the fibers of your muscles apart. They get stronger as they rebuild themselves and add to their mass, but this takes not just appropriate rest, but also appropriate nutrition. My strong suspicion (unless you're eating a ton of beans) is that as a vegetarian, you're not getting enough protein following your workouts. Consider a yogurt, some cheese sticks, a glass of milk, anything. You need to mix up your proteins, but this is still do-able without consuming meat.

1) Drink a ton of water, all the time.
2) Consider the above tips at rest (alternating days, etc.)
3) Work on your arm muscles on the days you give your chest a break
4) Supplement your diet with sufficiently more protein when doing any kind of muscle-building exercise.

As a martial artist myself, I'd add one more thing - my do jong didn't start encouraging strength training til my third or fourth year of study. The basic theory is that you should foremost focus on technique, then speed, then last of all strength. This was demonstrated to me very early on by being tossed about like a rag doll by a 65 year old Korean woman who was about a foot shorter than me. Not sure that it will change your situation much, but its something to think about. If you are in good shape and have a relatively healthy diet, perhaps learning good technique will be more beneficial than an increased bust size.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:59 AM on January 18, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for everyones input, there's a lot of good advice here.

To answer some questions we rarely stretch arms, chest, shoulders.

To clarify we do between 30-150 pushups a day. 60-70 is the average and on tough days a couple times a month we hit 150 or maybe more. And on easy days, which are even rarer we do 30.

I'm 180 cm tall.

I'm rarely sore during the week usually only after those 150+ days. This is mainly because I usually don't have enough time to do the pushups. We just do them straight and fast just like we're counting 1-2-3-4. By the time we're at somewhere between 20-30, i'm doing girly pushups cause I can no longer lift myself. If we have any kind of break I can recover and do another 15 or so straight, but usually we don't have that break.

Thanks again.
posted by bindasj at 6:03 AM on January 18, 2008

The thing that helped ease push-ups for me was focusing on incline push-ups/benchpress. If you're practicing them at home, put your feet up on a chair or couch arm.
posted by sanka at 6:12 AM on January 18, 2008

Maybe on days when you feel good and not sore, you could take two identical chairs, put them back to back about shoulder-width apart, weight them down with dictionaries (so they don't flip on you), and then support yourself on the backs of the chairs and do dips. Then drink soy milk and rest the next day (maybe you should only try this on Fridays). Dips are harder than pushups but work approximately the same muscles. So by doing something harder but with less reps you might break out of your plateau.
posted by creasy boy at 6:37 AM on January 18, 2008

I wouldn't worry about it as long as you're pushing yourself. The routine is probably set to challenge the people who can do them all (fast). As long as you're challenging yourself -- and not getting hurt -- you're doing a good thing.

Seconding core strength exercises....
posted by powpow at 7:00 AM on January 18, 2008

As others have noted, that schedule won't necessarily lead to conditioning improvements . It serves other purposes for martial arts training.

Totally nonintuitive advice, but this broke the pushup code for me:

Think of pushups differently. In martial arts training you may have already experienced the increase in punching power if you use your body rather then just swing a fist. Pushups are the same. If you consider them a total body exercise, they suddenly become easier. I used to imagine the pushup as a kind of inverted bench press, involving only muscles above my ribcage. I would focus on the view between my hands and the two feet I had to travel. This led to too much tension in my back, neck and shoulders, and rapid exhaustion--I was often fighting my own muscle tension, especially in the shoulders.

There is a better way.

Imagine the pushup as posture exercise. Keep your shoulders back, shoulder blades flat, and close together, elbows in. Focus on keeping your body rigid, with your lower abs engaged to pull your navel in toward your spine. Take any arch out of your back by rolling your tailbone down. Take some tension out of your neck. You'll have a sense of your body elongating. When doing the pushup, if you really feel yourself hinging at the toes, and lowering and raising your whole body like a plank, you're doing it right. You'll discover that pushups are actually a total-body exercise using core strength and that your shoulders and arms aren't actually as important to the process as you thought.
posted by Phred182 at 7:10 AM on January 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

No matter how much protein you're eating, it's not enough. Not if you're working out 5 nights a week.

I was a vegetarian too until I started training martial arts, but after 8 months I noticed that while my arms were stronger, I was disappointed with what I had to show for it. At first I started adding half a package of tofu to my diet every day, like medicine. The results were so favorable that I finally broke down and started eating meat. I noticed an immediate difference in my energy level in class, and my muscles have grown.

I'm not saying you have to compromise your veggieness, but it is something to keep in mind.
posted by hermitosis at 7:18 AM on January 18, 2008

You need rest and protein, definitely. But as for exercise I can think of 3 things that would improve your push-ups:

Dips. Start with arms fully extended, dip until your elbows are at 90degrees and then back up.

"Tabata" push-ups. You might need a fancy watch, but basically do as many push-ups as you can in 20 seconds, break for 10 seconds, and then push-ups for 20 seconds, then break for 10. Do this until you've done 8 sets of push-ups. Eventually push-ups will become an endurance activity.

"ring" push-ups. Using gymnastic rings, or at a gym rig up a chain and handle so you're doing push-ups with holding the handle/ring a few inches off the floor.
posted by nameless.k at 8:36 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend adding some resistance, and alternating between high-rep/low-weight (regular pushups) with fewer reps and more weight. You could do this with a bench press, or put something on your back between your shoulder blades. If you want a challenge, use a medicine ball and hold it there with your shoulder blades and head. (This is good because it forces you to keep your head up and looking forward, not down; good posture.) Or if you've got three friends handy and no equipment, you can do 4-man pushups.

When I was trying to increase my Army PT score, I quickly ran into a 'wall' just doing pushups; I broke through it by using more weight and increasing the fast twitch muscles. That allowed me to bang out more pushups in a shorter amount of time when I wasn't using resistance, allowing me to do more before fatigue set in. To me, it always felt like the amount, of time I could do pushups continuously was constant (about 60-90 secs before I'd run out of steam and have to start thinking about each one) ... but by getting stronger I could do them faster and get a lot more out before they started to get really painful.

Also, you really need to figure out some way to rest. If you want to keep going 5 nights a week, that's cool, but do your high-resistance exercises on the 6th and rest on the 7th, so that your muscles will have a chance to rebuild. Otherwise you may not see results.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:47 AM on January 18, 2008

If all you're doing for strength training is pushups you're not going to be able to do more and more of them because you're not working everything you need to to improve. Do a full body workout with weights (squats are a must) two-three times a week, even if all you can do is thirty-forty minutes each time you'll get a big boost. Also, you should really try to supplement your protein intake, eat more food and drink more water. Protein powder is really the easiest way to do it (for veggies and non-veggies), supposed experts say that whey protein is the best for recovery, but if you're not comfortable with dairy I suspect even soy would be better than nothing. Try to avoid doing any extra cardio outside of your training (jogging, biking, etc) to give your body some more recovery time.

Also, this site is a great fitness forum if you want more tips.
posted by Craig at 9:46 AM on January 18, 2008

Everybody above is giving you great advice in terms of exercise and rest. Something to keep in mind also, especially as a vegetarian, is that you are probably not getting enough protein to keep up with your workouts. You're working your muscles a lot, which means your body needs a really good amount of protein to repair and build. I'd recommend adding whey protein power to your diet. You might want to keep away from soy, as the jury is still out on how good/bad mega-amounts of soy are for you. Also, since you're not eating meat, you might not be getting enough creatine in your diet. Sounds like juice, but it's actually a necessary mineral in muscle growth. So, if you're not queasy about supplements, you might want to try adding a serving or two of creatine into your diet every day.
posted by General Malaise at 9:57 AM on January 18, 2008

- Take Wednesdays off of martial arts. Or, even better, take Tuesdays & Thursdays off. Jog or bike instead -- something cardio to let your muscles rest, recover, and grow. This is important if you want your strength to improve.

- Eat more protein, as much as you can stomach. Lots of hard-boiled eggs (unless you're straight-up vegan). Snack on nuts. Protein bars. Eat protein 5 or 6 times a day, every day. Never be hungry. (I'm assuming you don't have a problem with excessive weight.) And you may want to add some fiber (Metamucil, whatever) in there as well.

- Judging by my own past experience, most of the people are probably "cheating" at their pushups by hunching their shoulders and not going through the full range of motion. There's a big difference between doing 50 good pushups and 50 crappy ones. Keep your proper form and accept that that's a partial reason you can't do as many. You're doing this for yourself, not them.
posted by LordSludge at 10:18 AM on January 18, 2008

Oh, and as a fellow veggie I used tofu/milk protein shakes. One thing in a veggie diet that's easy to overlook is that building muscle means more myoglobin, which means iron. Typically you will have enough iron in a veggie diet to sustain your losses (which are minimal) but maybe not enough to support a lot of growth. Supplement iron a couple times a week. If it constipates you, cut the pill in half (or give up). If you have hemochromatosis in your family don't do that, obviously.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:50 AM on January 18, 2008

Before starting martial arts, I did knuckle push-ups on a hardwood floor very morning from 1998-2006. I started at 35 and eventually worked my way up 72. Push-ups are a good exercise, but I now realized that my conditioning and strength would have been much better if I had traded a few push-ups for some burpees and squats.

As some people have mentioned above, doing 150 push-ups every night doesn't really help you be a better fighter, at least not directly. In many martial arts, push-ups are used as a warm up, or when they're used for conditioning, they're part of a circuit of other bodyweight exercises.

When they want you to do 150, you're being asked to do them out of tradition, because the instructor is filling time, or for the purpose of building your mental discipline, or some combination of the three. There are better and more functionally applicable ways to build your conditioning, and much better ways to build your strength.

I am very opposed to slacking when it comes to activities that will make you a better fighter, but in this case, you may want to evaluate how seriously you take them. Try to sneak a look around during push up time. How's the form among the students, particularly the senior students? Is the instructor doing this along with you? If people are cheating, I'd just do as many as I could with good form and just stop when they stop regardless of how many you've done. You'll get more out of the time than they did.

If you still want to be good at these, I'd recommend bench presses. I did these every so often, and when I recovered from the, I'd get a boost in push-up power.

What everyone else says about resting is true, but you don't necessarily have to take a whole day off. The most important thing is to get a full night's sleep after each night you work out. I've gotten sick as a result of overexertion, so I've been wary of overtraining, but I've found that going to class every night if you're not sick and are sleeping and eating well isn't necessarily too much. In fact, I've gone to a martial arts class every night this week, ranging from mildly intense to brink-of-passing-out intense, and I've peaked, conditioning-wise.

Good luck!
posted by ignignokt at 1:40 PM on January 18, 2008

« Older Snow shoeing from the bay area?   |   Brokeback Desert Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.