2020 the Push-up Resolution
March 17th, 2020 - By Patrick T. McBriarty
So New Year’s Resolutions . . . Have you broken yours yet? So far, I’ve both broken and mostly stuck to mine, as we humans love contradictions.
Normally I am not a New Year’s Resolution kind of guy, but this year I felt the need for something different. I had been cycling the last couple years with a group that became a team with uniforms, sponsors, and an executive board last fall. Composed of late-20s and mostly 30ish-year-old riders I enjoy trying to keep up. However, for 2020 I wanted to do better. As the second oldest member of the team at 55, I was suddenly thrown into chatter about cycle gear, racing, cycle-cross, and indoor training on Slack. If you haven’t heard of Slack it is a mobile app for group chats and discussion threads – in this case Johnny Sprockets cycling. The Sprockets team is a re-incarnation of an earlier racing team, so the joke is it is “Johnny Sprockets 2.0,” but I digress.
My New Year’s Resolution, besides generally getting in better shape, was to do more push-ups. It is a basic exercise I have mixed feelings about both liking and hating push-ups. The impetus for this came from the book Living with a Seal: 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet by Jesse Itzler. I bought it while shopping a couple days before Christmas. Published in 2015, Itzler was 42 years-old at the time of his experience, ran marathons, and hired a Navy Seal to shake up his workouts in preparation for an ultra-marathon. I had no such ambitions, but this entertaining book is a good read, full of great stories, physical exploits, craziness, and insights into the mindset of the author (who is a nut) and a Navy Seal’s hardcore approach to life.
Needless to say, it motivated me to up my workouts. Each chapter is basically a daily account of shoehorning early-morning and day-end workouts into a busy life. The core of Seal, as Itzler calls him, is toughness and he put increasingly outrageous running and push-ups workouts on Jesse. Burpies, pull-ups, sit-ups, use of 50 lb. weight vests, and extreme weather where also in the mix. The whole story was not enough to hire a Navy Seal, nor to attempt their workouts, but it inspired my resolve approaching the new decade.
Over a decade ago I gave up running for exercise given a knee surgery and lower back injury and only sporadically run a mile or so on gym treadmills. Though I miss running for its efficiency at building fitness and keeping weight off the pounding is just no good for me. Instead spring through fall I ride road bikes (2,600 miles last year) and in the winter swim (1,500 – 2,500 yards per swim) or throw in the occasionally gym workout. I try to eat healthy, but really enjoy food, especially French fries, good German beer, and wine. At 5’ 11” and 202-to-208 lbs. some might consider me “stocky” but not as a buddy used to describe that way out of shape feeling “fluffy.” I joke that I have a two-pack, because I drank the other four. Having gone in and out of shape over the decades despite knowing I feel much better when regularly working out. In any event, my weight has rarely gone over 210 lbs. since university.
Anyhow my 2020 resolution was to experiment with daily sets of push-ups. My loose goal was by the end of a month to be able to complete one-hundred push-ups. In the book Seal, who is unnamed but easily identified through a Google search, is in his room, door closed, playing the “Rocky Theme” over and over again. About 30 repeats later Seal emerges dripping with sweat but victorious having completed 2,500 push-ups! The “Rocky Theme” with a play time of 2:44 minutes implies Seal likely completed this amazing feat in approximately 75 minutes. Woah!!
With much less fanfare on December 30th, I started my push-up routine. Knowing discipline would be critical I instituted Rule One: do your push-ups before taking a morning shower. This worked well for the first couple weeks, although I admit with a flexible schedule several days I worked for an hour or two on my laptop (in bed) before hitting the deck to do push-ups. Yet, Rule One usually guilted me into doing push-ups most mornings.
Good form was also important so I tried to have my nose brush or almost touch my bedroom carpet. More of a guideline than a rule, it helped keep my push-ups in good form. On Day One I had it in mind to do 50 push-ups. My first set got 20 with arms aching (but not shaking), ragged breathing and heart racing. I then completed three more sets of ten (10) to get 50 in total. Whew! Between each set I collapsed to hands and knees and then sank into child’s pose waiting for my breath and heartbeat to return to near normal. Trying to breathe through my nose as much as possible for better mental state, performance, recovery, and immune system.
I knew struggling was part of building strength so I pushed but did not go to failure. The plan was to build slowly and not overdo it. I did not want to be so sore I would not or could not do push-ups the next day. I purposely disregarded the rest time and did the next set when my desire to get it done overcame my need to breathe.
The next morning, I instituted Rule Two: do four sets and try to get or beat 50 push-ups. By Day Three, New Year’s Day, I felt a bit stronger and completed four sets for 54 in total. As the days passed I could hold good form longer and add one or more push-ups to one or more sets to surpass the previous day’s total. So, I instituted Rule Three: try and do a few more pushups each day. And most days I could. It became a mental game upon waking up to not overcome the dread of doing morning push-ups and instead argue to myself, “I can do 50, just start,” or “just get out of bed and see how it goes,” to overcome the anxiety of struggle and pain that ensued. Invariably my biggest battle was just getting starting each day and sticking to it, but tracking my daily progress on a spreadsheet helped to add motivation and satisfaction for the effort.
On Day Six I failed entirely. Slow getting out of bed, I felt crummy, and lied to myself I would do push-ups later in the day. Of course, I never did. After a good night’s sleep, I woke with new resolve and forgiveness. Rule Four was then born: every sixth day is a rest day and slacking is forgiven. Again, the basic idea was to keep the trend and make it sustainable. The push-up sets for Day Seven: 25, 15, 12, 10 for a total of 62, which felt pretty good and Rule Four worked well for weeks. Occasionally, I on the sixth day I might still do a set, but there was no penalty if I did nothing. Still the rest between sets had no time constraint and I would try to switch as soon as possible to breathing through my nose while recovering.
For three and a half weeks I tried to increase my number push-ups in the first set and still keep subsequent sets from dropping off too much. I steadily gained strength. Soon I could do 30 push-ups without stopping and my daily totals rose into the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The first couple weeks a few simple rules served me well. I kept at it and purposely had no idea how long these mini-workouts took though intense and focused.
The evening of Day Twenty I was talking about my push-up experiment with my friend Mark. He had gotten me into serious road biking about 15 years ago. Intrigued he jumped in and the next day texted me his sets: 25, 20, 15, 11 for 71 push-ups in total! I was humbled that Mark had knocked off so many right out of the gate! He and I are about the same height, but Mark is leaner and probably 40-50 lbs. lighter. So I was torn having almost three-weeks of training under my belt. Grudgingly I checked my ego recalling how Mark usually outpaced me in the past on the bike and the Chicago triathlon, worked harder and longer than I had in the past. On Day Twenty-One I completed 101 push-ups in four sets: 33, 24, 23, 21 to reach my lose milestone a week earlier than expected. Super cool!!!
On Day Twenty-Two I completely failed. It would have been the fourth day in my six-day cycle. I do not even recall a mental debate about doing push-ups that day. Maybe because I had met my goal of 100 push-ups the day before? Maybe it was too many beers the night before? In any event, I was tired and cranky and simply blew off any push-up attempts that day. Later that afternoon Mark texted on his second day 25 push-ups was all he could do. His arms had been too sore! I felt vindicated on my instincts for a long-haul approach, a steady build to keep at it to allows the body to adjust and get stronger gradually. I also knew Mark, this would not slow him down for long.
My resolve restored next day, I instituted a penalty for slacking. Rule Five: do five sets of push-ups and I mixed things up doing: 21, 20, 30, 20, & 20 push-ups. Toward the end of the last two sets my form was poor and the last few were a huge struggle. The following day I shifted my objective to consistency and completed four sets of 25 and a fifth set of 15. I carried on for four more days and though missing recording all my numbers knew the daily totals were 110 or better each day. Day Twenty-Eight was a rest day.
Throughout the month, I had only gotten in five regular workouts swimming or cycling (on three rare warm days in Chicago winter). Although my weight was about the same, it yo-yoed 4-6 lbs. every couple days. Eating healthy and feeling more fit for a day or two would be used as an excuse to “reward” myself and overeat or allow poor food choices. As a result, I was failing to get much leaner though my arms, shoulders, and chest became more defined. Push-ups by themselves were definitely not enough, I needed some longer workouts and cardio. So, I got in the pool and swam four 500-yard sets. The first three freestyle, the last set a mix of breaststroke and freestyle to complete 2,000 yards in about 45 minutes. Despite good intentions I did not get back into the pool until six days later, but I was maintaining my push-ups keeping daily totals around 120.
The struggle was to balance it all AND eat healthy. I rediscovered a good salad was easy to make and just as satisfying as meat and potatoes. Plus, it helped better control my weight, and I could overeat vegetarian without a huge penalty in extra pounds. Anyhow, that weekend it was again nice enough catch the Sunday morning group ride with the Sprockets for 46-miles. My after-ride push-ups were only 105, but completed both before noon and a shower.
Overall, I was pretty happy after a month of consist morning push-ups was a visible improvement and built strength. However, it had become routine and I resigned to 5-days of push-ups a week and two rest days rationalizing would encourage other workouts. I lost that pleasant tightness in my core walking around throughout the day. I had allowed myself to plateau and was not really struggling or forcing a few extra push-ups each day.
My challenge had shifted to eating healthy more consistently to push my weight down and add other workouts. I also finally determined the push-ups only took 12-15 minutes or less — though it felt longer in the moment. I would say most anyone can do it at whatever level by starting with a slight a stretch goal and keeping at it. Ignore the clock focus on counting, breathing, and recovery one set at a time, finish, and shower. Of course later I discovered a variety of articles on the benefits of doing push-ups. My favorite is here.
At the end of February and two months of push-ups I flew to Tucson, Arizona for a spring cycling training camp and was joined by nine other Johnny Sprockets team members. Fortunate to take a few extra days on either side of training I visited my aunt and a cousin and got in the nine days got in seven rides and 350 miles. Upon returning in early March, I struggled to get back into it. My bike needed a new bottom bracket and a tune-up and was in the shop. I was not motivated to do push-ups and my body shifted into recovery mode. I slept a lot, ate healthy, but ate a lot. For three days running I lost weight and slipped from 203.7 lbs. upon my return to 201.5 to 201 and then 200 lbs. before gaining two to three pounds. This was great once I was certain it wasn’t the onset of the Coronavirus. Intermittently I re-started morning push-ups and could do 120 without much strain. The trick will be to return to my earlier consistency and get in a ride or swim two to three days a week.
So, today is St. Patrick’s Day and no better day to finally share this experiment. Although, the main branch of the Chicago River did not get dyed GREEN as planned last weekend and the Parade was canceled due to the Coronavirus I should note the north branch of the Chicago River did turn GREEN — though who was responsible remains a mystery.
I still have mixed feelings about push-ups and struggle each morning, but overall feel much better for doing these workouts. I can’t say the push-ups replaced time on an indoor trainer (which makes me crazy and I just refused do) because as the rest of the team who did do this kicked my ass in Tucson, but my fitness was good it was just my legs just were not there yet. So that is what it is for now, but I am already off to a better start than ever for spring cycling. A few hundred more miles and my legs should start to come into form. Wish me luck, and for those who are curious and the data-geeks the table below details my workouts.
|Day||Date||rep 1||rep 2||rep 3||rep 4||rep 5||Total||Notes|
|Sunday||1/26/20||0||0||Swam 2,000 yds.|
|Saturday||2/1/20||0||0||Swam 2,500 yds.|
|Sunday||2/2/20||25||20||20||20||20||105||After 46 mile ride|
|Tuesday||2/4/20||0||Swam 2,500 yds.|
|Tuesday||2/11/20||0||0||Swam 2,000 yds.|
|Saturday||2/15/20||30||30||30||30||30||150||Swam 2,500 yds.|
|Sunday||2/16/20||0||0||Swam 2,000 yds.|
|Tuesday||2/25/20||35||35||35||30||15||150||Fly to Tucson|
|Wednesday||2/26/20||Cycle 29 miles|
|Thursday||2/27/20||Cycle 30 miles|
|Friday||2/28/20||Cycle 45 miles|
|Saturday||2/29/20||Cycle 63 miles|
|Sunday||3/1/20||Cycle 51 miles|
|Monday||3/2/20||Cycle 33 miles|
|Wednesday||3/4/20||Cycle 60 miles|
|Thursday||3/5/20||Cycle 34 miles|
|Friday||3/6/20||Fly home to Tucson|