This old-school exercise offers a real-time assessment of your strength and motivates you to improve your fitness.
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Push-ups have long been the symbol of optimal fitness. They are still used by the U.S. Army and the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge to assess strength and endurance.
For older men, the simple push-up can be used as a snapshot of their current fitness. “Push-ups are the classic bread-and-butter exercise,” says Dr. Edward Phillips of Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. “How many you can do at one time offers a measurement of your strength and is an easy tool to help you improve. You can do them anywhere and at any time, and only need a few minutes.”
Push-up challenges are trendy nowadays—can you do a certain number of push-ups in 30 days, or even a week? Or can you reach a specific goal like doing 10 or more nonstop? “Challenges are a fun way to set up mini, short-term goals, which many men need to stay focused on their fitness,” says. Dr. Phillips. Create your own challenge and see if you can reach it. Begin small, like hitting your foundation number for a week or two, and then set the bar higher.
The push-up is a true all-around exercise, engaging the body from top to bottom. It works several muscle groups at once: in the arms, chest, abdomen, hips, and legs. It also can be easily modified to fit your current ability and adjusted as your strength and performance improve.
“By varying the speed you perform a push-up, the angle of your body, and even hand placement, you can add or reduce intensity as needed, or focus on specific muscles,” says Dr. Phillips.
For instance, a February 2016 study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that chest muscle activity was greater when push-ups were performed with the hands placed halfway inward from their normal position. Hands placed outward work your triceps more.
Besides adding muscle mass, push-ups can improve many of the vital biomechanics of aging. For example, the motion mimics your natural reaction when you fall, where you extend your arms, hands, and wrists to absorb the impact. “Push-ups can teach better muscle memory, so not only is your upper body stronger, but you can quickly react to protect yourself in case you stumble,” says Dr. Phillips.
Establish a foundation
An average 65-year-old man should be able to do six to 16 push-ups, according to some estimates. “But don’t focus on a certain number, but rather on what you can do right now and work from there,” says Dr. Phillips.
To find your starting point, perform as many as you can while keeping good form (see “The perfect form”). It could be 10 or five or even two.
Using this number, focus on matching it at your next session, and then try to increase the number by one to two every week. As your strength improves, you can continue to add more reps or move up to a full push-up position if you’re using a modified one. “Try not to do more than a 10% improvement from week to week,” says Dr. Phillips. “And always have a rest day between sessions.”
Have a hard time squeezing push-ups into your day? Dr. Phillips suggests adding them to an existing habit. For example, do them before brushing your teeth or showering.
The perfect form
In order to maximize the value from push-ups, you have to perform them correctly.
Step 1: Step 1: Begin in a full plank position with your arms extended, palms – at and just below shoulder level, feet together or about 12 inches apart, resting on the balls of your feet. Keep your back straight and your weight evenly distributed.
Step 2: Look down and lower your body until your elbows are at 90 degrees (or go to the floor to rest, if needed) and then push back up to complete one rep.
Try to take two seconds to go down and one second to go up.
If this is too difficult, perform the exercise from a hands-and-knees position. Another option is inclined push-ups, where you place your hands on a counter or wall with your body at a 45-degree angle. “You can still engage the core and work your arms and chest, while you place less weight on the wrists and shoulders,” says Dr. Phillips.