The Push-Up: One Measure Of Fitness

In General, Movement by Mikki Reilly6 Comments

There was an article this week in the New York Times about how the simple push-up is the greatest measure of fitness. Here’s what the article had to say:

“The push-up is the ultimate barometer of fitness. It tests the whole body, engaging muscle groups in the arms, chest, abdomen, hips and legs. It requires the body to be taut like a plank with toes and palms on the floor. The act of lifting and lowering one’s entire weight is taxing even for the very fit.”

While the push up is an excellent way to measure upper body pushing power, I don’t believe that that single test is the ultimate measure of fitness. Fitness is more involved than that; it would require more than one test to get the overall picture.

I think the Men’s Health Challenge, for example, is a much better model for assessing fitness. It involves a total of five tests, so the assessment is more comprehensive.

The five tests include: the single-leg squat, which tests your lower body strength; the 1-mile run, a measure of speed; the vertical jump, which tests your power; and, the push-up and chin-up, which assess your upper body pushing and pulling strength.

Another point the article makes is…

“Push-ups are important for older people, too. The ability to do them more than once and with proper form is an important indicator of the capacity to withstand the rigors of aging.

Researchers who study the biomechanics of aging, for instance, note that push-ups can provide the strength and muscle memory to reach out and break a fall. When people fall forward, they typically reach out to catch themselves, ending in a move that mimics the push-up. The hands hit the ground, the wrists and arms absorb much of the impact, and the elbows bend slightly to reduce the force.”

This is a great example of the importance of functional training. Functional training involves working against the resistance in such a way that the strength gained transfers to a particular activity in your daily life or sports.

In this case, performing the push-up exercise prepares you to break a fall and then get back up again. I wrote about functional training in a previous post but here’s the essence of what makes an exercise functional:

1. Function is about purpose. So functional training exercises are purposeful; there’s a reason for them. Generally, the exercise prepares you for a specific movement in your daily life or sports.

2. In most functional exercises, the foot or hand that’s working is in contact with the ground, or a stable surface (such as the pull-up). So the chain is closed; an open chain is when the foot or hand that’s working is not in contact with the ground or a stable surface (such as the lat pull-down).

3. Functional exercises train movements, not individual muscles, without the use of machines.

4. Functional movements involve multiple joints in multiple planes (the three planes include front-to-back, side-to-side and rotational). Single joint exercises isolate specific muscles, so they’re not very functional.

5. And functional training incorporates balance and proprioception into the training program.

And finally, the article explains…

“Based on national averages, a 40-year-old woman should be able to do 16 push-ups and a man the same age should be able to do 27. By the age of 60, those numbers drop to 17 for men and 6 for women.”

How many push-ups can you do?


  1. I just did 20 … and probably could have “cheated” out about 5 more with less-than-perfect form.

  2. I just did 24 (at age 65) so there! The last few were rather sloppy.

    Kristin’s Dad

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