Pushups are the ultimate adapter exercise. They can be done anywhere. They recruit more than half the muscles in the upper body, as well as much of the core. And they’re safe to do. Turns out, they’re also a measurement of overall health.
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Open Network showed that the number of pushups a guy can crank out in one minute is a predictor of cardiac problems later in life. Researchers asked 1,104 firefighters, all men, to perform as many pushups as they could in one minute. Then they compared the results to markers of heart health. Those who amassed 40 or more (155 participants) were 96 percent less likely to get cardiovascular disease than those who did 10 or fewer (75 guys). Most of the firefighters—389 of them—fell into the 21 to 30 pushup range, meaning they did a pushup about every two seconds.
Why pushups? It’s both their simplicity (everyone knows them; they require zero equipment) and that they test strength and cardio capacity. “This was a quick and dirty assessment of the robustness of someone’s health and functional status,” says study author Stefanos N. Kales, M.D., at Harvard Medical School. His team tried using a treadmill stress test, but it ended up being less accurate, and participants had to go to a cardiologist’s office to do it.
Sure, you read this and resolve to toil away endlessly at the basic pushup. It’s a legit workout, but it will get boring.
“Variations emphasize and challenge different areas of the chest, shoulders, and core,” says Cris Dobrosielski, a San Diego–based trainer and author of Going the Distance. He designed the nine-move routine on the following pages to shift stress areas and keep things interesting. Do a baseline pushup test, then get to work. Retest monthly, aiming to improve capacity. This is one case in which more is more.
Warm up, then choose a set of moves based on fitness (beginner, intermediate, advanced). Do 10 to 25 reps of each move, and 3 to 5 total sets. Rest as needed. Do this 4 or 5 times a week. As you progress, level up the variations and shorten rest times.
Pushups are a serious upper-body exercise, so prep for it as you would any other big workout. If you don’t, it can cause the chest to take on a disproportionate amount of the work instead of spreading the effort to the core, says New York–based trainer Chris Ryan. Start with shoulder rotations. Stand tall and hold a PVC pipe or a resistance band with a wide grip, arms locked out and straight down. Rotate shoulders and draw hands up and over head to the butt, then back again. And do some core rotational stretches, too. Try lying on your back with knees bent and slowly drawing legs from side to side.