As I’ve mentioned in the past, though my “strong” lower body muscles have carried me through countless road races, I have laughably weak upper body muscles.
Over a year ago, my friends and I did a push-up challenge, where I challenged myself to do 20 push-ups every day for a month. While I technically made it through the month doing the push-ups on most days, my form is horrible and my chest gets nowhere close to the floor. I felt my muscles working, for sure, but didn’t feel like I was making any great progress toward doing a good push-up.
Likewise, I used to like rock climbing. I started with top-rope climbing in college, then moved on to bouldering after graduating. I did enjoy it a lot, but definitely felt limited by my lack of upper-body strength. Anything with an overhang or inward slope? Forget about it!
In quarantine, my fitness goals have shifted from running (because it’s hard to motivate myself to run, especially in the heat, especially with a mask, especially when there are no races in the near future) to general, total-body fitness. While cleaning, I came across the pull-up bar that I made as an aspirational purchase a long, long time ago, and decided to finally do something about my lack of upper body strength.
Wish my shoulders luck!
This challenge was great because it was fairly quick – no exercise required more than 20-30 reps, and no specific day required more than one exercise. As much as I dreaded getting down on my mat every day, it was easier to push through knowing that I would be done in less than 10 minutes. This was especially important for familiar moves like shoulder taps and planks, which I normally dread when they’re mixed into a longer workout.
The first couple of weeks were fairly easy, just as I predicted. I remember finishing day one – just 15 knee push-ups! – and thinking, Wow, this is gonna be great!
The first tough exercise that really took me by surprise was the modified plyo push-ups on day 11. I had never done an exercise like that, and using my arms to generate the extra energy to get my entire upper body off the ground was a completely new experience. A couple of days later, on day 13, I struggled a lot with superman planks as well. I am usually wobbly in a plank, but needing to do this unfamiliar reaching-forward motion just caused me to wobble even more.
At the end of the challenge, I’ve found that my ability to do a push up is… still pretty limited. The last few days of the challenge are very straightforward push-ups – I assume to check your push-up progress – and I honestly didn’t feel much of a difference. My chest was getting slightly closer to the floor, sure, but my shoulders were still on fire, so I didn’t feel comfortable lowering much closer.
However, I did take a few yoga classes near the end of the challenge, and noticed that some poses were a little easier than usual, including the plank (obviously) and the classic downward-facing dog. I’m curious to see if my push-ups will continue to improve if I’m not actively doing this challenge!
While I was not worried at all about the push-up challenge, I absolutely dreaded starting this pull-up challenge. I could barely hang off of monkey bars as a kid, and could barely even attempt a pull-up now, as an adult. My pull-up bar had been living in a closet for the past year or so, collecting dust, because I was scared of hurting myself by even attempting to do a pull-up. How am I supposed to learn if I don’t even try?
The challenge (which I can’t find online anymore, sorry!) originally involved doing 3 weeks of negative pull-ups and low rep sets of pull-ups at a time, before progressing to longer sets, culminating in nearly 30 reps for the final session! Even as I put it into my calendar, I scoffed at the idea that I would be able to go from not-being-able-to-do-one-pull-up to doing-thirty-pull-ups-at-once, even in a 7-week time span.
Marathon training taught me how to listen to my body. When my body told me after the 3-week trial period that I was still not ready to even attempt a single pull-up, I listened! I decided to forego the original training plan, and instead continued the “trial” exercises of negative pull-ups until I felt strong enough to attempt a real pull-up again.
Even though my form still needs a lot of work, I do feel like I am getting stronger, which is awesome! I still feel “good” soreness in my upper body, especially my biceps and my shoulders.
Am I anywhere close to doing a full push-up? Hell no! But I was able to progress past 0%, where I have been for my entire life, and that’s enough motivation to keep pushing (pulling?) forward!
When I first started these two challenges concurrently, I thought grouping them together made sense! Do all the upper body work together! Of course!
NO! How naive!
I wasn’t used to doing any upper-body work in general, so quickly overloading myself with pull-ups and push-ups without easing into them was a harsh adjustment. While I do feel like I’ve seen gains in both exercises, I’m not too sure that I’d recommend doing them side-by-side, especially if you’re a total beginner like me. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to feel the knots in my shoulders! (And, while you’re there, massage them out! Massage me!)
On that note, if you haven’t noticed me complaining about it every other paragraph already, I have been experiencing a lot of upper body aches! All of it: my arms, my chest, and especially my upper back. Like any other soreness, they’ve been a literal and figurative pain, and simple tasks like getting out of bed and sitting in a chair have all become difficult, strangely enough!
An unexpected upside of this challenge is that I’ve been focusing a lot on upper-body recovery. As a runner, I’ve never really had to take serious care of my upper body seriously before. Between this challenge and literally hunching over my computer every day for work, I’ve learned a lot about and definitely benefited from stretching and rolling out my entire upper body. If I had a dollar for every minute I’ve spent on the floor with a lacrosse ball wedged under my shoulder blades, I’d be very rich by now!
Moving forward, I don’t think I’ll continue doing push-up focused training specifically. I’m obviously not a fan of the exercise itself, and I do many of the moves during other exercise classes anyway, like planking during a yoga class, or doing push-ups during a HIIT class.
However, I do think I’ll continue doing pull-ups! I’ve gotten into a good rhythm with them – ten minutes, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday – and routines, in general, have been the savior of my quarantine so far. Pull-ups especially have always felt like an exercise that I will never get better at unless I practice – so I guess I’ll keep trying!