Over a period of roughly 50 years spanning the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the push-up revolutionized our understanding of what it meant to be fit, and transitioned from being an exercise performed by the members of a few elite collegiate health clubs into the fitness standard by which every American soldier was appraised for battlefield readiness.
Despite other training movements of the era actually being more impressive measures of physical power, the push-up retained its preeminence as the most meaningful gauge of physical strength. This is owed partially to their difficulty for the uninitiated, and also due to the fact that the floor is always free, meaning someone can always drop to the ground at a moment’s notice, and press out immediate evidence of their physical prowess — or lack thereof.
How many push-ups should I do in a day?
The simple, smart alecky answer to that question would be, “As many as you can.”
However, I’ll suppress my urge to be a dick and answer your question with a question of my own: What are you trying to accomplish? As prized as push-up endurance is as a measurement of general upper-body endurance, and as a fundamental fitness test for military organizations, government organizations and P.E. classes, once you’re outside of the boundaries and requirements of these organizations and free from the fear that anyone will ever make you get down and give them 20 (or 50, or 100), the push-up becomes just another tool in your fitness arsenal that can be used to help you achieve your goals whenever you wish.
So what are all the ways that I can use push-ups to my training benefit?
First of all, let’s neither shortchange the push-up nor overrate its benefits. Often lost within the astonishment over minimum standards of competitiveness for people like Navy SEALS candidates — who are required to amass push-up totals approaching or exceeding 100 repetitions if they wish to gain admission — is that push-ups are extremely difficult for most people to complete.
When more than one-third of Americans claim to be unable to complete more than five push-ups, and more than half say that they can’t complete more than 10 in a row, how can I justifiably sit here and say you should be doing multiple sets of 20 push-ups every day?
Chances are, if I select an individual at random, there’s a better than even-money chance that christening their chest workout with three sets of seven push-ups is going to be an excruciating endeavor.
What does it mean if I can’t even do 10 push-ups?
It can mean a lot of things depending on your age, weight and activity level.
If I don’t know you, and I advise you to inaugurate your chest-day training session with a single set of as many push-ups as you’re capable of performing, I may be requesting that you endure a grueling nine-rep struggle, or I may be inviting you to complete a 90-rep cakewalk where it doesn’t even feel like your muscles are straining until you hit your 50th rep. What this means for some people is that beginning every chest workout with a round of the maximum number of push-up reps that they can muster will be the heart of that workout, and for others, it will be an adequate warm-up for their chest and triceps. Fortunately, for all of them, it will be an excellent test.
What do you mean by a test?
Far from being a relatively worthless torture test like the burpee, push-ups are a far more meaningful measurement of upper-body strength and endurance. At the point where your push-up totals begin to rise well north of 12 reps at a time, and especially once they enter the 20-rep range, they transition from being a strength builder into more of an endurance builder. Another way of explaining this is that push-ups are a reliable gauge of bodyweight mastery; the more control you’re able to exert over your own bodyweight, the easier push-ups become.
How should I go about sprinkling them into my workouts?
In my opinion, it doesn’t hurt to set a number of push-ups to do weekly, or even daily based upon your strength level, weight level and actual goals. Once your push-up totals start creeping into the 20-rep range, and you still want to use them to train for strength, there are ways of making them more challenging. Such flashy options for raising the degree of push-up difficulty include single-arm push-ups (like Rocky), clapping push-ups (also like Rocky… and like the Zohan), knuckle push-ups (not really, but I love this Miguel Diaz scene from Cobra Kai), feet elevated push-ups, and others.
But again, while the ability to do just 10 totally regular push-ups in a row won’t necessarily make you another Rocky, Zohan or Miguel, you’ll definitely be way ahead of most of your fellow Americans.