With summer upon us – and for us Floridians, that doesn’t mean ‘hot and humid,’ but means ‘hot and humid 24 hours a day with the occasional tropical squall’ – I’ve dialed it back a bit on my running and am focusing more on weight training.
I’ve been inspired to get back to basics, so to speak, by working on the kind of moves that are often overlooked in most work-out programs. I’m talking about exercises like push-ups, pull-ups and squats. You know, the kind of things we used to do in grade school as part of the President’s Physical Fitness Test. (Come to think of it, doesn’t the whole notion of a “President’s Physical Fitness Test” strike you as rather Cold War-ish? I just checked out the history of it on Wikipedia and sho’ nuff, it was implemented by Eisenhower back in the 1950s.)
I remember those tests vividly, how we spent all year playing soccer or kick ball or occasionally branching out into square dancing (which was always agony for me because I was a monstrously tall child and no boy ever wanted to dance with me and so I usually was paired up with the teacher), and then all of a sudden we were expected to do pull-ups. Pull-ups, for fuck’s sake! Why not just yank us out of fifth-grade math and ask us to perform differential equations while you’re at it?
Anyway, I think the end result of these mandatory exercises in group humiliation is that many people automatically associate things like push-ups and pull-ups with shamefacedly dangling from metal bars while the class bullies tease you about being able to see your Monday underpants even though it’s Thursday, and how gross are you don’t you ever change your underwear? Rather than dredging up those unpleasant associations, many people just avoid doing those exercises in the first place.
It’s such a shame, because I’m learning that there is no more effective way to work out multiple muscle groups – and to do so with a minimum of equipment, too, which is a benefit for the fitness-seeker on a budget – than to do these basic moves.
Take the push-up. A properly performed push-up focuses on your chest, your shoulders and your arms, and will also recruit your core, back and legs as well. Tell me, what other single exercise can you do that will bring your whole body into play like that? If you know of one, please tell me so I can incorporate it into my routine!
And then, of course, there is something to be said about the fact that doing push-ups makes you feel like a total bad-ass with a body made of galvanized steel and granite:
Need I say more?
But it occurs to me as I do push-ups that I’m engaged in an exercise that has been super-gendered, maybe more so than any other exercise I do. The push-up has has been so defined by the gender of the person performing it that most people know the modified version of it by the name “girl push-up.” By the way, I don’t call modified push-ups “girl push-ups” anymore, for reasons I hope are obvious.
Certainly a modified push-up is a great way to ease your way into the full push-up, because the full push-up is very challenging and requires a certain amount of upper-body strength. But it seems like a lot of women will do the modified push-up and then stay there, almost as if they think that’s the way a woman should be doing it, without realizing that the only things keeping them from a full push-up is time, dedication and perseverance. (And then of course you end up with guys who won’t do the modified push-up because they think it’s “girly,” so they end up doing these cock-eyed monstrosities with their asses poking up in the air that look like they do more harm than good.)
I used to be like this. I did modified push-ups for pretty much my entire life, simply because every time I tried a full push-up, I found it insanely difficult and doing things that were insanely difficult was not my style. These days when I come up against something I find physically challenging, my attitude is to attack it and work at it until it’s no longer quite as hard as it once was, which I have found to be a much more satisfying approach for taking on life’s various challenges. (Sounds like a no-brainer, I know, but for reals, I once thought taking the path of least resistance in all things was actually the smarter way to deal with life.)
And just as I went from barely being able to run a single block without doubling over in pain to being able to run entire half-marathons without walking, I’ve been able to go from barely managing a single full push-up to being able to do three sets of eight full push-ups. I’m going to keep at it until I can do fifty push-ups without stopping and maybe even pull off the Holy Grail of push-ups – the one-armed push-up! And won’t that be a fuckin’ trip when it happens. Because, oh yes, it will happen. I swear it.
P.S. If you look for videos on YouTube, you’ll find tons of clips of bad-ass women doing all kinds of push-ups. Just don’t read the comments, as they seem to be populated exclusively by teenage boys who still think jokes about telling women to “get back in the kitchen” are the height of comedic hilarity. Seriously, dudes, if you are going to be sexist twerps, at least don’t be fucking lazy and uncreative about it!