Bodyweight Exercises and Perfect Pushups

Growing up, exercise equaled sports. I played tennis, baseball, basketball, football, ping-pong, roller-hockey, home-run derby, and others. I eventually realized that if I wanted to get good I had to focus on one and I chose basketball. I started playing year-round, participated on elite traveling teams, dragged my ass out of bed at early hours to do agility and plyometric exercises, and worked near-daily on improving all aspects of my game. Playing basketball I learned a tremendous amount about teamwork, giving and receiving feedback, the importance and limits of hard work, channeling competitive instincts toward a firm goal, and mental focus. After my senior year season of high school I felt burnt out and stopped playing for a couple years.

With the built-in structure and commitment of basketball gone, I had to think about physical fitness in a context other than team sports. It’s not uncommon for athletes to stop exercising altogether when the whip of a coach is absent, but I had no problem jumping into a new self-designed program that would keep me in shape. I went to the gym every day and pursued various cardio and weight exercises. Here’s my post on diversity in your workout routine. Here’s my post on pushups and crunches.

For exercise I think about two things: cardio and strength training. For cardio I do 10-15 mins on the bike (I read light fiction or magazines) and then 20-25 mins on the treadmill (I listen to music and try to just chill out). My strength training is more experimental. Since I’m no longer playing basketball there’s no external need to build muscle mass, so my motivation / interest fluctuates. On its own, increased strength just feels good, lifting weights uniquely relieves stress, and there are aesthetic / attractiveness benefits, too. Due to my frame and biology, I can put on significant upper body muscle mass within a few months if I keep a routine. But it can be a hassle screwing around with the machines.

A few months ago I started up a more vigorous strength training effort. However, instead of going into familiar free weights and machines, I focused exclusively on pushups, crunches, and pull-ups: bodyweight exercises. Because of my weight, these types of exercises have always been hard — ie the more you weigh, the more weight you’re pushing up. My question was: Can I actually get bigger this way or will I just maintain current strength?

My goal was to do 100 pushups a day, every day, and as many crunches and pull-ups as I could do. Within a few weeks I was doing three sets of pushups (35, 35, 30) in 10-15 mins and within a couple months I could do 50-60 pushups consecutively no problem. (There’s a whole movement around doing 100 pushups consecutively.) I felt / observed significant gains in upper body muscle mass. Most important I had no problem doing them daily because anytime I had some time to kill and a floor I could drop down and get it done. Much harder to invent excuses not to do it!

For Christmas my brother got me Perfect Pushup — two circular disks with handles that you put on the floor and they twist as you go down and push up. It stresses slightly different muscles and supposedly is better for your elbows. At the least using them keeps the basic pushup interesting. Again — avoid boredom by introducing variety into your workout.

Nutrition-wise, my basic operating principle is as it’s always been: “Eat as much food as I can.” I’m always hungry. I try to pre-eat before restaurant meals, I try to go to restaurants with known small eaters so I can finish whatever they don’t eat, and I snack / eat Clif bars throughout the day. So quantity hasn’t changed but quality has. Specifically, I have tried to eat more cottage cheese and nuts (solid sources of protein) and move my PB&J’s to wheat instead of white bread (if you eat PB&J every day like me this makes a difference).

So, after three months of a pushup-centric workout routine combined with a little more focus on my intake, I feel as fit as ever. The numbers bear it out. When I stopped playing ball my weight crept up to 220, even 225 pounds, which at 6′ 4″ I could manage but it still felt a little heavy. Now I’m down to 215 lbs which feels more comfortable. My physique is more cut. This involved no weight machines! Granted, bodyweight exercises will only take you so far — to re-introduce variety and push above my weight, I’m for the moment moving back to machines and free weights — but for the casual fitness person I strongly recommend keeping it simple and doing push-ups, crunches, and pull-ups.

Bottom Line: I highly recommend bodyweight exercises if you want a simple, easy, anywhere way to increase overall strength.

19 comments on “Bodyweight Exercises and Perfect Pushups
  • Interesting. We have the same BMI, which is technically overweight (26), but you are much more in shape. It’s funny how much variance exists for that particular metric.

  • Ben, you’ve addressed two major topics in my life with two separate posts. As a young professional who travels extensively for work, I am beginning to struggle with maintaining both friendships and fitness. I’ve resorted to doing push ups and crunches in my hotel room every morning, and it has kept me astonishingly fit. I can confirm the effectiveness of this method of exercise.

    I’ve also been watching my friendships evolve (or not) as my lifestyle changes. Many friends from my youth have made the leap to an intellectual friendship. At the same time, I am trying to add a personal touch to some of my professional relationships. It is refreshing to hear a stranger corroborate the challenge that these two areas can create.

  • Funny, Matt Fitzgerald wrote a post about a similar topic earlier this week. He discussed how many ex-jocks have found triathlon/endurance events as a way to feed competitive juices once organized sports are through. It sounds like you’ve found a way to keep active too.

  • Take some days off, for sure, and listen to your body (if you’re in serious
    pain – stop) but otherwise no there’s no risk of injury. Or at least LESS
    risk than many other forms of exercise.

  • I really like bodyweight exercises, though if you are doing so many pushups you leave yourself open to injury if you don’t balance the exercise.

    Pullups are a partial solution, but also try bodyweight rows. This is basically the opposite exercise to a pushup – with the body with a horizontal body, pull yourself up to a low bar. Feet are raised on a box or chair to get the body to a horizontal position.

    The other bodyweight exercise that everyone should do if bodyweight squats. It’s worthwhile adding these into your routine too.

  • And a comment on cardio…

    I’m not sure exactly how you structure your cardio workouts but if it’s a steady state run/cycle you would be better off with intervals and sprints. I’ve noted some effective and time efficient workouts below.

    Also sprint workouts preserve more lean body mass than long cardio sessions, and increase metabolic rate.

    Warmup then go at 80-90% for a minute, walk 1 1/2 – 2 Minutes and repeat 4-6 times.

    I’m surprised that you think that a rowing machine takes longer to get results than a treadmill – personally I believe that it’s one of the best all body workouts that there is.

    Do 4 rounds using the rowing machine and row 500m as fast as possible, with a 1 minute rest between rounds.

    Either run outside or if you’re in the gym use the rowing machine or bike.
    Two methods
    Run 100m, 200m or 400m as fast as possible. Rest 3 times as long as it took to run (e.g. if it took 15 seconds to run 100m, rest for 45 seconds before the next round.).
    Run 4-6 rounds

    Alternatively on the bike or rower, go all out for 30 seconds and rest 1 min 30 seconds.

    Tabata intervals
    For when you want a really quick workout.
    The structure is 20 seconds full on, 10 seconds off, for 8 rounds.
    E.g. Run for 20 seconds all out, rest 10 seconds. Repeat 8 times.
    Workout done in 4 minutes – simple but not easy. Shown to improve both anaerobic and aerobic capacity.

    Sorry about the long comment!

  • Ashtanga Yoga for me provides elements of body weight exercise and flexibility. A vshort routine would be say 20 minutes up to a couple of hours. Whereas for various reasons your routine would not work for me.

  • A fun way to add some variety to strength training quickly and cheaply is to pick up a sledgehammer – it’s basically just a heavy weight on a stick, which means you can do many different exercises with it. You don’t hit anything – just mimic “farm chore” movements. After 10-15 minutes, it’s amazing how much exercise it provides. It’s fun, particularly when listening to Irish punk music, and much cheaper than a gym membership.

  • Ben,
    You are searching for the right balance of fitness and strength. So what does it mean to be fit?

    If you can do 100 pushups, how fast can you run a mile?

    My point is, you are searching for fitness. I think you should check out CrossFit, if you haven’t already.

    Kevin has been CrossFitting for two years and is in the best shape of his life after HS and College Football and Lacrosse.

    I just started one month ago and I’ve never felt better. CrossFit is about not being a specialist in any one type of fitness. It is about being a generalist in fitness, such that on any given day, you could start playing a sport you are not particularly familiar with or good at, and you could excel because you are fit across the 10 areas physical fitness: strength, speed, agility, coordination, endurance, etc

    Check out Kevin’s blog at

    Good luck in your search, and if you want to come down to the OC on a Saturday morning, you are welcome to check out the CrossFit gym that I go to.

  • How long will it take until you’re as big, as cut, and as strong as your older brother? I’ve heard from a number of people that you look really skinny compared to him.

  • Ben,

    I read your site just about everyday, though this is my first post — I think.;-)

    Great content and thoughtful responses make your site a must read. Kudos to you and your readers for creating such an intellectually engaging environment.

    As for fitness, Google Matt Furey. I have a copy of his book, ‘Combat Conditioning’. It contains some very effective bodyweight exercises like Hindu pushups and squats. Just a thought. Take care.


  • Great post Ben..

    I train 3 times a week in a local running club. One night a week we do bodyweight training including pushups, lunges, squats, crunches, planks etc out in the park in the fresh air with no walls or machines.

    For the intermediate runner like myself it has worked a treat!

    It has also been a fantastic way to meet new people and make friends 🙂


  • That 100 pushup plan is scarily effective. I did the initial test, and could only do 42. The next week I did 65, and the week after, 90.

    Keep up the postings about completely different topics, I dig it.

  • If you like body weight exercises, you should get into rock climbing and yoga. Both of these things will do wonders for your body and mind, as they are both highly meditative and focus-intensive.

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