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Why Is the Push-Up Still the Most Macho Exercise?

Even as fitness experts sour on the workout classic, the cult of push-up supremacy persists

This week, a man was taken into custody after jumping the fence at Los Angeles International Airport and approaching a Delta plane scheduled for takeoff. Authorities haven’t revealed his motivation for the dangerous stunt, but we do know one important fact:

He did some push-ups on the runway.

Could this fellow have wanted nothing more than to show off his form? The simple push-up has long held a strangely masculine mystique, and doing lots of them is classically thought of as a measure of physical prowess for dudes. The exercise is so associated with the male psyche that push-ups performed with your knees touching the ground are derided as “girl push-ups” (in fact, these are a perfectly legitimate, useful workout), and some women worry that building up their arms this way will make them less feminine.

No less august a periodical than the New York Times was taken to task some years ago for an article singing the virtues of the push-up, complete with this quote from R. Scott Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sports science at Penn State: “It’s sort of a gender-specific symbol of vitality. I don’t see women saying: ‘I’m in good health. Watch me drop down and do some push-ups.’” The piece also noted that are at a “particular disadvantage” with push-ups “because they start off with about 20 percent less muscle than men,” prompting Jezebel to condemn the activity as “an exercise invented by males and for males which, like its brother exercise the pull-up and all those spatial analysis questions, has served for generations solely to fuck women on elementary school achievement tests.”

And you know something? I don’t think they’re wrong.

I ask Oliver Lee Bateman — a lawyer, historian, competitive powerlifter and frequent fitness writer here at MEL — how he views the bro-ish cultural legacy of the push-up. To his mind, its value both as a strength-builder and metric of muscular good health has always been overstated by men. “When I was a kid, well before CrossFit became a thing, doing push-ups was sort of the ‘manmaking test,’” he explains. “Men would brag about doing 100 push-ups quickly” — a feat, he warns, “is meaningless unless you know whether they’re going chest to deck and pausing, touching the ground, whatever.” (A chest-to-deck push-up involves lowering oneself all the way to the floor, or deck, so that your chest and nose make contact with it simultaneously.)

“Everyone seemed to believe you could get ‘strong’ by doing push-ups, which is only true to a point (you can get as strong as your body weight will let you get, but you’re going to be capped after that),” Bateman says, adding that “doing tons of push-ups with truly stellar form will eventually annihilate your shoulders … you’ll become arthritic.”

Indeed, the ideal of dozens of daily push-ups runs counter to the science on their effect: For true strengthening, you have to vary your exercises. Also, it’s widely agreed that your muscles need 48 hours or more to repair the damage from a given workout; repeat it too soon and you run the risk of muscle strain and tears. Nothing macho there.

And yet… the cult of push-up supremacy persists.

Maybe it’s because push-ups are laced with the testosterone of sports coaches and military drill sergeants, who established the the “drop and give me 20” cliché. They can also be executed anywhere, at any time, making them a favorite choice for bros who want to square off in an impromptu contest. They’re even famously used as proof of male vigor well into old age, as when 73-year-old actor Jack Palance pumped a few after winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, or when 83-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley challenged a reporter to match his endurance. Then there are the increasingly hardcore variations to show off: one-handed, clapping, Spider-Man and the classic YouTube girlfriend-on-back stunt.

Even so, the push-up’s heyday could be fading. In 2016, the British Army formally limited the number of push-ups a soldier can be forced to do as punishment to 10. And experts have argued against using them to correct misbehavior in school athletics, since this teaches kids that “exercise is unpleasant and used as a weapon” rather than a positive force for self-improvement. Bodybuilding publications appear increasingly skeptical of the standard technique. And according to Bateman, the exercise is simply passé.

“I feel like the bar has really been raised for anything involving bodyweight,” he says with regard to an increasingly extreme fitness scene. “Fifteen years ago, I could do L-sits and handstands and bar-ups, and I thought I was hot shit. But now you go on YouTube and people are walking miles on their hands and doing handstands off the tops of pull-up bars.” The less impressive push-up “maybe lingers on as some kind of masculine signifier, like the 20-inch tape-measure bicep, but the game done changed.”

Honestly, that’s just the excuse I need to never get up off the floor again.