Getting Stronger: From the Ground Up

by Guest Blogger: Jonathon Cabot

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
–usually attributed to Teddy Roosevelt

Let’s say you’ve made the decision to get stronger and/or fitter. Good on you. As long as a boy is still allowed to dream, let’s also say you’ve heeded my sage advice and are willing to give your training an honest go without necessarily being cloistered in a chrome and mirror-covered commercial gym. What is it we *do* need at this point, assuming we’ve already met those intangibles like the will and the guts to get started? Right here, right now? That would be just a few square feet of clear real estate on the floor.

The familiar and loathed pushup. Remediation measure numero uno in just about any boot camp environment or paramilitary academy you’d care to name (that wouldn’t be a pledge pin on your uniform, now would it, mister?). The old standby in PE classes, back when such programs were still commonplace, at least. The classic calisthenic that represents a key, albeit somewhat misguided, event in many an official fitness test, including (as of this writing) all but one of the PFTs for the armed forces of the United States.

So why the pushup as the upper body drill of choice? In the case of the largely bygone era of physical education in public schools, this exercise was, much like the gym teachers themselves tended to be, both cheap and cruel. All you really need is some ground and you’re in business. Much the same can be said for the brainwave of the American military–seems the physical fitness tests were also developed by the lowest bidder. While there are indeed superior measures of upper body strength and endurance that we *should* be testing our troops with, they also invariably require more time to cycle a group of participants through, not to mention some form of equipment, and also personalized coaching for quality control purposes. To say nothing of the unfortunate truth that oftentimes, the military is just plain stupid. They’ve been using pushups as the standard for so long, their minds would simply shut down to even contemplate any other method. And it is with a heavy heart I say that it just ain’t likely to change anytime soon. For this reason, among others, the grim reality is that getting and staying strong is entirely up to the individual soldier.

From the above paragraph, one might be lead to believe that pushups are persona non grata in my training philosophy. Not so. However, I would encourage anyone, in particular those seeking to increase their physical strength (which should include everyone that draws breath–there is no earthly reason to desire being nor remaining weak) to regard the standard two-armed pushup as an elementary exercise intended to be mastered, before progressing to more difficult variations. When is this mastery achieved? While we could ask ten trainers for their thoughts and come away with ten very different opinions (or perhaps less, since we can probably toss out “get the hell away from me” as anything of value), if you’re asking for my $0.02 on the matter, I would suggest these two benchmarks:

– 20 strict repetitions at a tempo of 2 seconds down, followed by a 1 second pause in the bottom position (chest lightly touching the deck), and 2 seconds back up to arms locked

AND

– 50 strict repetitions in 60 seconds or less.

I firmly believe that for anything above these two goals, the trainee (male or female) has reached the point of diminishing returns. Your continued strength gains will most likely be minimal, if progress would still be made at all. Chasing super high reps might be useful for very select segments of the population–boxers and infantrymen come to mind. There aren’t many methods more effective that I’m aware of when it comes to building the kind of endurance in the arms a fighter needs in order to keep his dukes up round after round. Incidentally, contrary to the Rocky Balboa mythos, if a knockout is going to happen in the ring, in all probability it’ll be within the first three or four rounds; when the contenders can still throw a decent punch. While a few years back someone made the decision to shorten bouts from fifteen rounds to ten, you can still see how tough it must be when the bell rings and both fighters emerge from their respective corners, barely able to keep their hands up any longer. For the boots-on-the-ground infantry types, endless pushups might give the kind of stamina needed to get on your feet over and over again while wearing full “battle rattle” when the bad guys start shooting and decent cover is going to take some creativity to reach. For the uninitiated, when the bullets start whizzing your way, you aren’t Rambo–you get down, and you do so quickly. But at this stage, I’m admittedly digressing. Point is, chances are you’re neither a boxer nor the fodder of our country (but bless ya if you are). Once more, very high rep exercises do next to nothing for our strength development, but they can and do lead to overuse injuries (learned this the hard way, so here’s hoping you won’t have to), as well as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy–in layperson’s terms, a useless increase in the volume of a cellular fluid in our muscular tissue; resulting in soft, worthless, “fake” muscle growth. Bad ju-ju all around.

Just so we’re clear, it bears repeating: the classic two-armed pushup is merely a stepping stone, the segue drill to harder styles of pressing the deck. What are the finer points of a good pushup? Glad you asked. I imagine most folks have the basic concept, so rather than risk further “Bueller……? Bueller……..? Bueller……..?”-ing any readers who haven’t yet started drooling on the keyboard into submission, I’m going to defer to the gent in this demonstration:

(Crystal? Good.)

Time to put our newfound knowledge to use. Situate yourself in such a way that you can see a clock of some description, or have a buddy time you. Hit the deck, and knock out as many QUALITY repetitions are you can manage in 60 seconds. Shake it out, and after a nice long break (take all day if need be), return to that “lean and rest” position, and see how many strict reps you can bust out at that slow 2 seconds down, pause with the chest lightly on the ground for 1 second, and 2 seconds back up to arms locked out again tempo. 50 in a minute and 20 for the slow cadence. Did you make those numbers? Probably not. Clearly we’ve got work to do. If you’re *really* struggling; say, you can’t even break into the double digit range with proper form, swallow your pride and work on them from your knees until you’re strong enough to do them on your toes–no shame in it, we’ve got to start somewhere.

How do we train to achieve those goals? How do we reconcile a quality strength workout with the arduous pursuits of X-Box? Well, while I’m not too hip on what kind of newfangled contraptions the whippersnappers are playing with these days;back in my time, we had a button clearly labeled PAUSE on the standard NES controller. I’d like to think something similar still exists. Every so often, give it a good push, and put *this* plan into effect until the 50 and 20 have been accomplished. (There aren’t many authors in the fitness community that I gush over, but if this particular gentleman is speaking, you had best park yourself and start taking notes.)

Some might ask why not the bench press instead? Fair enough. By all means, bench if you wish, and have the know-how. It is, however, a somewhat artificial movement for our bodies, and not a particularly healthy one at that (I’ll provide more details if anyone if interested). This also presupposes that you either own the appropriate apparatus or otherwise have constant access to it. However, at the top of my personal laundry list of reasons for anyone who is not a competitive powerlifter to pass on this specific weightlifting exercise, the most damning would be the fact that a strong man can have a truly awesome bench press, yet still eat his way into a heart attack. That just ain’t gonna happen once an individual has become proficient with one-arm pushups–advanced calisthenics enforce good body composition to strength ratios.

Still needing a little motivation to get you fired up and hitting the deck? While ultimately the reason for this flavor of madness has to come from within, few moments in cinematic history have endowed me with *this* kind of inspiration to build up those pushing muscles:

(Watch if you can stomach it. One viewing all those years back was all I ever needed, personally.)

Get to it.

Let’s be careful out there.

((((Editor’s Note: Once again, in an attempt to, somehow, be a part of Mr. Cabot’s incredible post, I have created an art. I call it, “Vampire Bear Joins the Army”. I picture Jonathon’s nemesis from last week, the vampire bear, joining the Army and it not being what he expected, sort of a “Private Benjamin” type story… except with a Vampire Bear instead of Goldie. Plus, he has to be in the sun, which Vampire Bears do not enjoy.))))

Private Vambear

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7 Responses to Getting Stronger: From the Ground Up

  1. Another homerun, Jonathon Cabot!!! I thoroughly enjoyed this one, as it not only recognizes that pushups are difficult (especially for lowly wildebeests like myself), but also strongly encourages us to do them as often as we are able. It seems that, many times, fitnessing experts forget that even the most basic exercises, like pushups, are quite difficult for beginners. You have encouraged, and also empathized, with all us wildebeests and flabby nerdlingers out here. Brilliant job!

  2. Another Jersey Girl says:

    Great post! I would just like to add that those whom have not been practicing pushups should not immediately attempt the 20 or 50 repetitions at first. While I applaud your enthusiasm and determination, these actions can lead to injury. I would most definitely suggest working up to that point.

    Furthermore, I would like to suggest that Jonathon Cabot posts a video of himself demonstrating the exercise he speaks of next time.

    You can borrow my spandex…

    • If you can get a person who posts under the awesome pseudonym of “Jonathon Cabot” to up his internets presence so much that he posts a video of himself, then you are a better negotiator than I. You should be hired to deal with hostage situations!

      That said, I second that Jonathon Cabot should post a video of himself doing pushups. In spandex.

    • JC says:

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Provided that a novice trainee has a reasonably clean bill of health (no preexisting conditions, no old injuries to exacerbate, has the approval of the docs, and has sufficient common sense to know when their limits are being reached and then act accordingly), I would not worry too much about the initial two sets of pushups in order to both see where the trainee stands and to establish his or her baselines. This is necessary to calculate the numbers for what will be their work sets.

      If you have not done so already, I would implore you to also read the hyperlinked article attached to this post. The concerns of overtraining are addressed at great length.

  3. JC says:

    Sounds as though they just needed to be jarred out of complacency. Keep it up!

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