They say that small changes in life can lead to lasting results. Could the same be true for movement? I was curious what would happen if I committed to adding just a little extra to my usual fitness routine. So, I decided to do 10 pushups every day for a month to test it out. Here’s what I noticed—and whether or not you can expect the same results if you try it yourself.
I’m usually really groggy in the morning, but on the days when I remembered to do pushups first thing, I felt a boost of energy before I even turned on my coffee pot. This is something you’d probably experience, too, as exercise increases your heart rate, respiration rate, and core body temperature, which contributes to feeling energized, says Jessica Matthews, senior advisor for health and fitness education at the American Council on Exercise.
“In addition to the physiological responses, from a psychological perspective even short bursts of exercise—as little as a few minutes—can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress, and also improve overall mood, helping to set a positive tone for the day ahead,” she says.
I’d like to say this has convinced me to be a lifelong morning exerciser, but snooze button impulse control is still something I’m working on.
A month of pushups didn’t give me Michelle Obama arms, but I did notice a little more definition. According to Matthews, your likelihood of seeing a more defined physical appearance as a result of exercise can vary greatly from person to person, depending on different variables, like body type, body fat percentage, and current fitness level. So, depending on your own body, you might notice anywhere from no change in definition to a whole lot.
You may think of chest and arm strengthening when you think of pushups, but if you’re doing them with good form, your whole midsection can benefit, too, says Matthews.
“What some people often don’t realize is the pushup really is a full-body integrated exercise,” she says. So in addition to the great benefits this move provides in terms of strengthening your chest, shoulders, and arms, it also enhances core strength and stability.
As a yoga teacher, I’m a stickler for form. That means if my arms start to get tired and my form gets wonky a few pushups in, I’m not afraid to drop to my knees to protect my shoulders and safely get the biggest bang for my buck. On day one of my one-month challenge, doing just five good-form pushups was tough! But over time, I was off my knees for the entire set.
This ease I felt over time is the result of two key training principles in action: The principle of progressive overload, and the principle of specificity, says Matthews. These principles mean that physical changes within the body are specific to the demands placed on the body, and that in order to enhance muscular strength and endurance, muscles need to be subjected to training loads they’re not used to.
Even three weeks in, I still had days when it felt hard or impossible to complete 10 pushups in a row on my toes, even if I had just done it the day before. And that’s pretty standard, says Matthews.
“It’s normal for the body to feel different from day to day, especially depending on the type of activity (both structured exercise and other movement throughout the day) performed the day prior,” she says. “Because any type of exercise, including pushups, essentially is a form of physical stress on the body—a good kind of stress—in which microtrauma occurs to the muscle fibers, it is important to allow the body adequate time to recover, especially if pushups are a new addition to your workout routine, as it is during the recovery process that adaptations to exercise are truly made as muscle fibers repair and recover.”
But recovery doesn’t mean a complete day spent on the sofa, stresses Matthews. It just means you should focus on doing some light or less intense activity that helps to increase circulation (an important element in the recovery and repair process) without taxing the recovering muscles, which in the case of pushups, would primarily be the pectorals, deltoids, and triceps.