Friday, January 7, 2011

Pushups as a skill......

Gus Diamantopoulos has a fascinating post at Renaissance Exercise.   He touches on a lot of things but manly at the end he is talking about how you there is a great skill element even in basic bodyweight exercises: the pushup, squat and chin.  As such high skill moves, the need for skill can often get in the way of the exercise and the "inroad" of the muscles - i.e., form breaks down befor the muscles reach failure.

When you ask an instructor to show you how to push-up or squat, you’re asking him to show you how to perform upper level martial arts, or how to play music on a new  instrument, or how to ride a motorcycle. These are not activities that one can learn quickly.
They require study, theory, practice, and ongoing, repeated practice. This will be sobering and perhaps even disheartening to some but to suggest otherwise is not only overly optimistic, it’s downright irresponsible.

Having said this, I do believe that the burden of such skills is not insurmountable, especially for the truly motivated and disciplined subject.

 My suggestion for anyone who wishes to apply our most general principles to basic and conventional movements is to practice a small number of basic exercises well and often.  Research proper performance of these basics in books and online.  Make every effort to execute your movements with focused precision and intent.  Record your performances using video and watch for every possible discrepancy and continue to practice. Practice in the early stages should trump ambitions for intensity (i.e., muscular failure and deep inroad).
Only when you’ve practiced sufficiently and over-learned these activities can a program of free squats, push-ups and chin-ups be productive and effective. 

It is worth reading through and ties in to some of my recent thought in recent posts, where I have been musing on the development of strength and the separate development of skill.  The video from Doug here and the  work of Erwan Le Corre  have also contributed. 

(Obviosuly you should go slower than this....and the guys neck should not be extended like that....)


Sean in NY said...

Wait, why are you supposed to go slower than this? It seems he could be a lot smoother in his execution, but the speed looks just fine. Also, could you please elaborate on why you think his neck is extended?

I may be doing this dead wrong, but I tend to be more fluid in my push-up motion (no locking elbows; no obvious pause at top or bottom). I also tend to keep my head arched up slightly so that my eyes can look parallel with the floor line. Thanks for your thoughts!

Chris said...

In saying that he could go slower I am trying to be consistent with the prescription that Gus would make and makes in that article to which I linked. He promotes an HIT / high Intensity approach where you move slowly in order to minimise momentum and maximise the stress on the muscles.

With respect to the neck, his head is slightly extended i.e. he is looking forward. In the article Gus says that you need to "maintain head and neck neutrality".

You need to understand that this is all coming from a Superslow / High intensity perspective.

Jeff said...

Hey Chris,

I like to geek out on this stuff as much as anybody, but this article was a bit of a turn off to me. There is just too much splitting hairs to me. So deviating from the "proper" push up is somehow so much more inferior that it is worth thinking of this? SuperSlow is now not enough? Who exactly decides what is "proper"? Maybe these guys are right on the money, but the statements are too strong for what I believe the evidence is.

All of this appears to be refining the stimulus to get the best workout possible. Kinda cool, but is missing the forest from the trees in my mind. Most people don't do anywhere near the level of intensity needed, regardless of specific protocol details. Trying to split hairs to eek out the last 1%(or whatever) of what is best seems a futile and pointless exercise to me.

This kind of reminds me of an old roommate of mine in college who was a really good skier and was giving me advice about how to ski before I first went my FIRST time. He said "spread your toes out as you make the turn". really? Total BS. I could barely stand up and was snow plowing. I was trying to not fall on my ass too often and had no way to even consider the toe spreading key to skiing. This kind of extremely detailed refinement was only for the super geek, not a beginner.

To me, these guys are coming really close to letting perfect be the destroyer of the good, or at least it feels that way. In my travels trying to get about a dozen people to even try doing a slower, HIT style workout without all this stress my success rate is below 10% with those who tried it and less than 5% for those I described it to. My wife and 2 good friends are all that stick with it. If the criteria was that in order to do it right you need the renaissance guys and to maintain this super strict protocol I am not sure if any would have stayed with it, including me. These discussions, to me, are better left to 3-4 years down the road and you want to tweak to try and keep gains going.

" I have never seen someone perform a proper push-up". So what? Does that mean I got NO benefits out of doing what I was doing(which couldn't possibly have been proper)?

Again, I could be totally wrong and full of hot air, but that is how I feel about it now.

Curious as to your further thoughts.


rob said...

I don't give a fig whether I am doing the pushup properly, I care about whether I am getting progressively stronger.

Chris said...


thanks for the comment. I agree this is all geek out stuff! you are not full of hot air - you are really experienced in all this now and I enjoy keeping up with your blog and thoughts.

I did not post that necessarily to advocate the position that is taken in the article. I think there can be a real elitist / superior attitude amongst the Superslow / HIT crowd and statements like the guy saying that he has never seen a proper pushup can be a bit alienating - as if what everyone else does is not legitimate.

However....given their assumptions and basic premises I do very much understand where he is coming from and I am sympathetic to the split between exercise and recreation that they promote.

In terms of communicating this stuff to a wider audience I totally agree! it can be so far out of the ordinary that people just do not get it.

I recently wrote an article for a UK backpacking magazine on getting fit and I ended up recommending sprints - basic interval training - and air squats done slowly. I think for most people a sprint is a pretty good compromise - metabolically challenging and for most, sufficiently hard to produce some inroad.

Another thing here is that I would love to create a good workout with bodyweight exercises. There is a holy grail there that I am looking for.....I think there is potential in a big 3 around body row, pushup and squat done right.....or else as a John Little Max Pyramid. But try to explain that approach to people!

Sifter said...

'There a great skill element even in the pushup, squat and chin' because if you take something simple and make it more complex, you can then sell books, videos and certifications, not to mention make a ton of money. Look what the DD splinters did for the 'Get Up'! You can teach someone in less than five minutes how to tense their tush, harden their lats, and do a straight pushup. That wouldn't make any money, though.