the joy of strength training

Gubernatrix

June 22nd, 2009 at 9:14 pm

No more girly push ups!

push up

I have been to many circuit classes in my time and in every class the women are allowed to do ‘girly push ups’ – push ups on your knees.

This is fine for beginners and it is a fact of life that the vast majority of women, myself included, start off with a real disadvantage in upper body strength compared to men.

However I’ve also noticed that after months or even years of circuit training most women are still doing girly push ups. The progression isn’t happening.

Is this the fault of the women? Not entirely. It’s also the fault of the instructors.

In ten years of attending circuit classes at various establishments across the country I have only ever come across one instructor who has made an effort to get his female participants to progress to the full push up as soon as possible.

Was he a boot camp instructor? Was he a tough military type? Nope, he was an aerobics teacher.

Luckily for me, this was the first instructor I ever encountered. Within a few weeks of attending Stewart’s class I was managing full push ups – and I’ve never looked back. I can now knock out 50-plus good push ups in one go. Stewart is probably responsible for my entire strength career as the full push up was the first exercise requiring real strength that I ever mastered.

For me, the lesson is obvious. If instructors don’t encourage their female clients to aspire to full push ups from the word go, few will ever make the progression. They will get used to doing push ups on their knees and won’t build the strength to move on.

push up with hands close together

The way Stewart taught us was to focus on push ups right at the end of the class. We had already done our aerobic workout and were doing work on the mats, so there was no need to get a conditioning effect from the push ups – and hence no need to make them easier.

Stewart would insist that every single person in the class (and we were all women) attempted full push ups. He said that one full push up is better than four girly push ups – and he’s right! He gave us the following technique tips:

Keep your body ramrod straight. Imagine trying to open a jam jar using the point of a knife under the lid. Your body is like the knife, acting as a lever. The straighter you are, the better the leverage.

Try to pull your belly button up to the ceiling. This will keep your core straight and strong.

Try to push evenly through your whole body. When people are attempting push ups for the first time, they often push with their arms first and sort of snake up to their feet. But you should try to move your whole body upwards as one (think of the knife), pushing with arms and feet and pulling with belly button.

Put your hands on the floor not on the mat. You waste energy pushing into the mat which is a soft giving surface.

Another useful detail was that we started by lying on the floor and pushing up, not starting in the top position and lowering (which is what most people naturally do). This is a great way to train the push up since if you can master the push off the floor, you can do the whole thing.

Having a practice session at the end of class is a useful way to get people to progress. Naturally if the object of the circuit class is to get a conditioning workout you will need to let people do girly push ups initially in order to get the aerobic benefit. But you also need to include an opportunity to build the strength and technique to do full push ups, otherwise it doesn’t happen.

Another tip for instructors: I’ve seen time and again women complaining about push ups because they can’t do them, and each time instructors just give in and let them get away with box push ups or whatever. But aren’t you being paid to improve people? Of course women will complain about having to do push ups if they can’t do them, it’s only natural. What they don’t realise – and what you should realise – is that they are capable of doing them. They just need training and practise. You need to open up that door for them, just like Stewart did with me all those years ago.

The final word, of course, must go to the ladies. You can do full push ups. They are hard but once you learn them it is relatively easy to maintain the skill. Come on, put the guys to shame!

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  • 1

    I totally agree with you (and thanks for the pointers on how to do them better). I did a lot of girl pushups which definitely strengthened my chest muscles which was a good precursor to “boy” pushups, but I think I got stuck doing girl pushups out of fear. A friend/trainer told me the same thing that it’s better to do one boy pushup than only girl pushups. I am now up to 50 per workout and it’s really great. The benefits of full pushups are incredible; they work so many parts of your body that you could almost limit your uppper body workout to pushups and variations on them. Thanks again!

    kenzilisa on June 23rd, 2009
  • 2

    A couple of ideas on this: Keeping the spine straight is quite important, as mentioned. The usual problem is too much curve in the lumbar spine(hyper lordosis.) I suggest adding a posterior pelvic tilt to correct, which also gives more of an abdominal exercise.

    Make sure the shoulder tips stay up and not pointed toward the floor. Pointing down can compress the tendons of the supraspinatous and long head of the biceps at the acromonial joint.

    To protect the wrists and help strengthen the hands try to put the weight on the knuckles, especially the index finger’s, grip with the fingers, and pull the wrists up. Think of supinating the hands to do this.

    I actually like the idea of starting with the hands on an elevated surface such as a box or a barbell in a rack, but certainly agree that push-ups from the knees have too much negative connotation to be useful.

    Regarding your training in the sun, check my blog post from Sunday on vitamin D and sunshine* for info on why that can be very healthy.

    Happy Solstice, Steven
    *http://positive-massage.blogspot.com/2009/06/vitamin-d-sunlight-and-health.html

    Steven on June 23rd, 2009
  • 3

    @ kenzilisa: 50 full push ups per workout is awesome!! Nice work :)

    @ Steven: thanks for those additional tips!

    gubernatrix on June 23rd, 2009
  • 4

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  • 5

    I showed a few girls a variation on the push-up where I had them do them with their hands on two blocks of wood approx. 30 cm high. This way, they were pushing less weight but still able to get the trunk working.

    Justin_P on August 4th, 2009
  • 6

    Good idea Justin! I have seen something similar recommended for one-arm push up progressions (e.g. using the bar of a smith machine set at a low height) so the same principle must apply to the two-handed variety.

    gubernatrix on August 4th, 2009
  • 7

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  • 8

    [...] No more girly push ups! [...]

  • 9

    Hi, I have been doing Karate for 20 years and have always been told to do do proper push ups, I have always found them difficult, but i always try my hardest and push out as many as possible.
    Since i have had my children (4) i find them extremely difficult, i actually find them easier when my feet are raised off the floor!! Have you any ideas why this is??

    Nikkie on October 11th, 2009
  • 10

    That’s quite unusual, to find them easier with feet raised off the floor! If you feel you are weak around the middle, a good exercise to try is plank. This involves holding your body in the same position as it should be in a push up so it’ll get your body used to maintaining that ramrod straight lever position. Try to hold the plank for as long as you can without either sagging in the middle or sticking your butt in the air. Getting stronger at plank should make push ups easier.

    gubernatrix on October 11th, 2009
  • 11

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