Like for most of the world, April 2020 imposed a special set of restrictions upon my challenges and everyday life. I am extremely grateful that neither myself nor any of my family and friends have been among the 200,000+ who have lost their lives so far. But having found myself stuck inside, I knew that the current state of uncertainty required countermeasures to protect my sanity.
So as one part of my mental defense, I sought to choose a challenge that would both help establish a new sort of routine and provide physical exercise.
Enter: The Pushup
Pushups have long been a staple for fitness routines. Whether it be school PE classes or barked commands from drill sergeants, they are a fast and effective way to both measure fitness level and to build up strength. Furthermore, they can be done anywhere and require no additional equipment, and depending on one’s level of fitness there are variations to adjust the level of difficulty up or down.
I originally wanted to include this link to a New York Times article I had remembered reading about how men who could do 40 pushups had a 96% lower chance of heart problems than those who could only do 10 or fewer, but it actually took a while to find because Googling ‘pushup’ and ‘New York Times’ brings up at least nine articles with ‘pushup’ in the title.
This was not my first venture into the world of pushups as a fitness staple. After reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits a year ago, I incorporated his concepts of ‘Habit Stacking‘ and starting small to set a goal of doing ten pushups when I first woke up in the morning. That was it. After finishing my set of ten, I was done for the day. The idea is: rather than starting with an impossible goal, build up a streak of consistency to which you can later add reps.
After a few months, when I was at 20 reps, I started adding multiple sets a day. It began with just morning and night, and then expanded to include several times per day. Starting in August, I began recording my sets with Tally on my iPhone.
Eventually in December, I was doing sets of 45 and managed to hit 4500 in a month.
However, between our trip to Costa Rica in the beginning of the year and taking up these challenges, my daily pushups fell by the wayside.
So April seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring it back because:
- I was stuck inside, needing even a signed government document to go outside for a run
- Adding many, regular sets of pushups builds routine into a new schedule that badly needs it
- I feel way less socially awkward dropping to the floor in the middle of the day and doing pushups at home than at work.
After a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, and some inspiration from the ‘See 10, Do 10 Challenge’ that was briefly popular on Instagram at the end of March, I decided that I would set a goal of 10,000 pushups in April.
Since there are 30 days in April, that works out to 1,000 pushups every three days. Originally, I was thinking to do two days of 500 with one day off. However, in the end I (mostly) stuck to a 400/400/200 schedule.
Critically, though, I deliberately didn’t want to push myself to failure during any of the sets as that would require a longer recovery. So the whole month I limited myself to sets of 25, making 400 sets in all. While the challenge was certainly physically exerting, this actually meant that the real challenge was having the discipline to not fall behind.
Originally, I thought to include various other stretches and exercises to make sure I didn’t mess up my body. But in the end, I decided that I would have pushups be my only exercise over the course of the month just to see what happened. I had some soreness, but luckily I never felt like I was in danger of injury.
To track how the pushups affected me physically, I took before and after photos:
Luckily, in addition to exercise, I was able to combat feelings of confinement with a little time most days on the balcony, reading in the South of France sunshine, so I got a bit of a tan along the way. Additionally, I weighed myself every morning (as I have done almost every day for more than six years):
While there is a 6.5 lb (3 kg) difference between the highs and lows for the month, I finished at about the same weight at which I began. I also tried taking some body tape and caliper measurements, but in retrospect I should have practiced more beforehand and I don’t think the measurements are reliable.
Insights and Recommendations
Overall, I’m happy with the physical results, but also that I set a challenge that was hard enough to keep me pushing a little further each day, but not so absurd as to break me halfway through. After completing the month, though, I have some suggestions for anyone looking to bring a little more physical activity into their quarantine time:
- Start small: The number of days you stay on schedule is way more important than the number of reps you have on any given day. Feel free to start with just 10 pushups in the morning before you touch your phone. Do that for a week. Then think about adding more. If you still find yourself having resistance, make it so easy as to be absurd (e.g. one pushup from your knees).
- Take care of your wrists and forearms: I started to get worried on the second and third day when my joints felt inflamed and my forearms were super tight. In the end, I changed up my hand position by pointing my fingers out at 45° angles to take some of the pressure off my wrists. (A trick I brought in from working with some planche lean pushups.) If you add some wrist stretches and start slow, though, you probably won’t need this.
- Have an accountability buddy: I wrote back in January about the importance of having accountability, and this is no different. Mine was committing publicly to doing 10,000 and not wanting to mess up my year of challenges. But I’d recommend making a sort of Habit Contract with a friend in which you both commit to a schedule. Then you can bring it up in weekly Zoom/FaceTime/Skype conversations, adding motivation when you feel like slacking off midweek.
In the end, I plan to continue including pushups in my daily routine, albeit not quite at the 10,000 per month level. Also, I’ll be trying to focus more on flexibility and the counter muscles to help balance things out.
However, my new May Challenge moves away from the physical and back to the world of creation and creativity. In this case, I’ll be dusting off my engineering diplomas through building circuits and programming. A more in depth description post coming soon.