It’s been almost 20 years since Demi Moore starred in G.I. Jane, but that crazy-inspiring scene in which Moore (as Jordan O’Neill) pumps out push-up after push-up has stuck with me. I’ve always wanted to be able to do that.
Why? The classic push-up comes close to a perfect exercise, challenging multiple muscle groups in the arms, chest, back, and core to build overall functional strength. But let’s just say my upper body has never been my better half. On a good day, I could eke out maybe eight push-ups max—and they weren’t pretty. I have—or had, I should say—a long way to go.
Last summer, I decided to see just how far I could get. I called New York City-based Master Trainer Shaun Zetlin, who is something of a push-up guru. Earlier this year he published a book all about this body-changing move (and its many variations) called the Push-up Progression ($16, amazon.com). Zetlin suggested a goal—50 reps in a month’s time (gulp)—and outlined the 30-day plan below. “This is totally doable,” he promised, as I stifled a guffaw.
I was grateful for this gentle warm-up period because it gave me a chance to focus on my form. I’d start each session in a straight-arm plank and run through a mental checklist of Zetlin’s tips: Find a neutral spinal position—so shoulder blades align with upper back and glutes. Engage those glute muscles. Draw abs in. Keep hips from drifting up, and elbows from flaring past wrists. And most importantly, breathe.
Zetlin describes the push-up as a “movable plank,” which was a helpful image as I lowered myself down. All week long I did my reps as mindfully as possible, until the movement started to feel natural.
I can’t say I ever considered push-ups fun in the past. (“Torturous” and “depressing” are better words.) But during week two, I began to enjoy the challenge. Hitting my target each time was surprisingly motivating. And knowing the jump from one workout to the next was never more than 2 or 3 reps made the process feel feasible.
Week two is also when I began to appreciate the convenience factor of this old-school move: It can be done anywhere, any time, in virtually any clothing. And as the mom of a 18-month-old, I am all about squeezing exercise into small pockets of time. That often meant banging out my reps in my pajamas, after my little guy finally fell asleep—or in my work clothes, just before he woke up.Follow Us on