Dave Goes Barbarian: Bench Press A Planet

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What? No, we’re barbarians, here. Not superheroes. Though, spoilers will be dealt with appropriately.

Dave, what are you saying?

I’m saying you should be bench pressing a planet. Probably every day, depending on volume.

Dave, I thought we were talking HEMA and-

Yeah, yeah: I’ll get to that. First, though, we need to talk basics. Why is that? Because I’ve been going untrained for months and coming back hurts. While the end goal here is to support my HEMA work, and build general physical preparedness for the next 60-120 years (what? I’m optimistic), there’s a lot to do to get to the point where I want to be. And that starts first thing in the morning. With push-ups.

While it might not be the Eight Count Body Builder (King of Exercises), the humble push-up doesn’t get nearly enough good press (SWIDT?). What can you do if you can’t do anything else? PUSH- wait, that’s actually walking, a subject upon which I shall vent my spleen in a future installment (mostly because I didn’t think of it until now, and I’m already behind, today). Okay, what do you do if you are in a flabby, untrained state(*raises hand*), and all you can do is walk a mile or two? That’s right: PUSH-UPS!

Now, strictly speaking, the push-up is a simple movement. First, assume the front leaning rest position, lower your chest to the deck, and raise it back to the front leaning rest. Drill instructors have been utilizing this simple tool time out of memory to improve the mental and physical discipline of their charges, and it hasn’t failed yet. Even when their recruits’ arms have turned to noodles.

However! There are a number of subtle nuances that often escape the uninitiated. So today, my dear tyros, I’ll be applying clue-bat to forehead for your edification.

Firstly, the position of front leaning rest. Too much emphasis is placed by our treacherous minds upon “rest.” Look, we’re barbarians, and we love to not work. That’s how humans do. “Job’s done,” and we lounge on the sack full of the skulls of our enemies, drink an ale or three from our favorite skull, and maunder about how poorly the despot is keeping the underclasses and city-dwellers (but I repeat myself) oppressed. It’s traditional.

It’s also death, when it comes to exercises. When you have your own body-weight suspended in air over your chest, do you relax your muscles? NO. YOU DON’T. That way lies a crushed sternum and a slow, gasping death. Similarly, though to a much lesser degree, if you relax at the top of your push-up, you’ve ceded the high ground (like Anakin) and you’re – metaphorically – going to lose a couple limbs. So keep it tight, Padawan. When you’re in the front leaning rest, activate the glutes and quads. That’s going to keep your core online while you bust out your reps. If you want to rock an advanced technique, push with the balls of your feet, activating your calves, too. The more muscle you can bring to the party, the greater the benefit you’re going to experience, and the easier the movement is going to feel. That’s not vital on rep one, but by rep twenty, you’re going to want to cheat in any way you can.

Next, pull those shoulders down. Most people’s push-ups, if you rotated them to a standing position, look like their deltoids are trying to crawl into their ears. That’s bad, and they should feel bad. And they will if they don’t fix it. I have a low-grade impingement issue in my right shoulder from this kind of thing, where tight muscles pull the ball of my humerus deeper into the socket than they should, resulting in inflammation of one of primary bits of connective tissue, leading to ouch. Ouch is bad. The point of correct training is to avoid the ouch.

Pulling the shoulders down, and then back, is to correct this extremely common condition. If you use a computer, odds are good your shoulders are too high a lot of the time. Proper push-up form helps to alleviate this. Let’s do more of them.

So you’re in the front leaning rest (just hold it: it’s good for you all on its own) and your glutes and quads are flexed, and now your shoulders are down and back (you should feel a slight stretch across your pectoral girdle). Now, you lower your chest to the deck. And here’s one of the most important things about proper push-up form: keep your elbows in. Not clamped to your ribs. Make sure your humerus is at about a thirty-degree angle from your spine. When your arms are tight to your ribs, it puts the major emphasis of the movement on your triceps, and here, we’re working for bench-pressing the world.

And that’s the next most important bit: bar path. Dave, you didn’t say anything about bars. This is a push-up, not a barbell movement. You’re right, but bear with me. When you bench a barbell, the bar moves from over the chest, down at a slight angle, and back up to the up position. Now, a lot of people get this wrong, too, though a good coach will correct it. The push-up is going to be the same thing, but in reverse. Lower your chest to a point slightly forward of your hands, rather than right between them. This will put less strain on your upper traps and more on your lower, improving that shoulder situation I mentioned earlier. It’s also going to require you to use that pectoral girdle – those chest muscles, arguably the entire point of the exercise – to push your body back up to rest.

Now, the movement itself should be smooth, but not fast. Fast is usually an invitation to error, and subsequent injury. Lower your chest in about two seconds, and raise it about that many. After a pause at the bottom. Don’t bounce off the floor. That’s the equivalent of bouncing a barbell off your chest, and it’s cheating. Not the If-you-ain’t-cheatin’ kind, but the you’re-gonna-hurt-yourself kind. In fact, if you have the wherewithal, pause for a brief instant at the bottom. Don’t relax, but hold the down position before you push back up to the rest.

Dave, these are hard. Why, yes: yes, they are. And it’s how I start my mornings. Get out of bed, get up, do some necessaries, and start pushing. It gets the blood moving and builds momentum for the day. Which is important for the modern barbarian, normally inclined toward sloth.

Dave, I’m untrained- No worries: I got you. Start as modified as you need to. One program from which I’ve pillaged concepts suggests starting with a wall. Push-ups from a wall? I think of them more as push-outs, but yeah. Moving from there to having your hands on a table or counter, and then to a chair or bench. Whatever you can do is what you can do. Eventually, you’ll be pushing from your knees, and then the full monty. So to speak. Push-ups are a great exercise, and done correctly, build strength and muscular endurance you can then apply to more difficult and technical activities. So get to it: bench press that planet.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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