A friend of mine recently started wearing a Nike FuelBand, a $150-plus device that measures the wearer's caloric output among other kinetic metrics. It bleeps furiously when he stands still, inadvertently dropping below some acronymical goal. He is poor company during cocktail hour. It made me think: how many products must come and go for us to collectively realize that we needn’t first purchase some gadget in order to improve or maintain fitness? There are no doubt useful fitness tools for the advanced enthusiast, but they are not required, and more often than not, find a way of failing us. Either literally failing because the thing has been cheaply manufactured, or on some metaphysical level where the object itself becomes a symbol of broken promises, and because the sight of it inspires guilt, is condemned to sit heavily at the back of a closet.
Perhaps because I value my closets, I have loyally relied upon a simpler technology for the basic maintenance of fitness. The measured advance and retreat of the floor has been my constant companion. I speak, of course, of the push-up. One might say it is a classic, but with that label comes the suggestion that it has retired from active service. That is nonsense; militaries around the world still break new recruits with the humble pushup. It is the push-up, not the bench-press, which is the great equalizer of men. Show me a muscle-bound and swollen-bellied bodybuilder that can do more than a handful. Strength, I have learned, is not correctly measured by girth or weight; the ability, or inability, to effectively move through three-dimensional space is a truer test.
But the pushup’s real merit is its long list of practical advantages. Is there another rigorous exercise as portable? Not really. Or as impressive to young children (who almost always want to see if you can still do pushups while they sit on your back)? No; children are never interested in yoga routines. Perhaps the most practical aspect of the push-up, though, is that it is endlessly variable. One can do them quickly, or slowly; smoothly or plyometrically; with two hands or one; on knuckles or fingertips; with a swoop, a hop or a clap. I have been doing pushups all my life; I am certain I have discovered only a fraction of the rich variety.
One must start with the basics though. Executed correctly, the push-up is a thrilling full-body movement, one-part Pilates and two-parts circus strongman. Rigidity is important; honesty more so. Your body must be stiff like a plank so as not to sap resistance. Your mind too must stay taught, not permitting anything less than a full advance and retreat to count. I’d rather see two honest pushups than a dozen head-bobs with sagging hips and static arms. If the movement is not challenging, you are cheating.
This is how a standard pushup is done.
1: Choose a level surface.
2: Arrange yourself in a tripod made up of two arms, shoulder width apart, and both feet, together. Your chest should be approximately parallel to the floor.
3: Tighten your stomach, back and chest so your body is stiff and still.
4: Articulating first your elbows, then your shoulders, lower your chest to the ground until it barely touches. Remain stiff.
5: Do the reverse of step 4, this time using your pectorals, deltoids and triceps to push yourself back to the starting position (step 2), again remaining stiff.
6: Repeat (for a lifetime).