Today we are going to talk about push-ups. I can hear the groans already. But these aren’t the dull, boring, uninspired push-ups you had to do in grade school gym class for some lame physical fitness challenge. Nor are these the repetitious calisthenics you had to do by the hundreds in Army Boot Camp.
Today, we are using the basic push-up as a tool, a vehicle to study and work our breath. The push-up is simply the form our breathing exercise will take, nothing more. Sound a little more interesting now? Hopefully. Let’s explore a little more.
Usually, breathing exercises are done in a very relaxed, non-stressful manner in a seated, or even lying down position. Not today. Breathing push-ups will help us explore our breath while moving and while under load. Why is this important, you ask. Consider that it’s pretty easy to control your breath while comfortably seated on the mat, and easy to relax while lying down. But how much carryover do those types of breathing exercises have to helping you withstand pressures in real life or stress in fighting? Some, certainly, but their emphasis is different. Please don’t misunderstand here though. We need a myriad of exercises to be able to influence and control physiological processes. The stationary relaxed breathing exercises absolutely do have a place in your tool kit and are important for health, stress relief, and relaxation, but are just not the focus of our discussion today.
The Structure of a Push-Up
Let’s begin in the up portion of the push-up position. Hands should be about shoulder-width apart, elbow pits facing forward. Back is straight, aligned from crown to coccyx. Very important with all the exercises here, do not use any more muscle tension than absolutely necessary to accomplish the exercise. As you progress, you’ll find less and less muscle power is needed for the same result. We’re working toward efficiency here. So, relax as much as possible and remember that the push-up is just the form, the real goal is the breath work.
Begin to inhale slightly before starting the push-up this way your breath leads the way. As you lower down, continue to inhale by expanding your belly. No chest breathers here! Pause at the bottom portion, then begin to exhale again slightly before initiating the upward push. The breath should guide the movement. Play with this for several repetitions trying to really get the feel of the breath leading and supporting the movement.
Now reverse the breathing pattern. Exhale on the way down and inhale on the way up. Same rules apply.
If you feel excessive muscle tension being used, stop. Stand up and lean against a wall or a staircase in the push-up position. This will greatly reduce the demand of the exercise allowing you to concentrate on the breathing aspect while still performing the movement of a push-up. When you feel comfortable with the movement, drop back down to the floor and try again. Keep the same light feeling you had while doing the push-ups against the wall or stairs.
Once you get the hang of the breath leading the movement of the push-up, we will begin to work on expanding your breathing capacity. Here we will stretch out the inhale and exhale to fit more movements into each breath cycle. For example, begin again in the upward portion of the push-up position. Exhale completely without moving. Begin the inhale slightly before the lowering movement and continue to inhale all the way down and all the way back up. Exhale. Now try to do 2 push-ups on one inhale. If you can do 2, try 3. See how many movements you can fit into one inhale, it’s not easy! Make sure you don’t rush that will only add tension and gas you out even quicker. Maintain relaxation and an even pace throughout. Once you’ve done a few reps by expanding your inhale, try to do the same thing on an exhale. Start in the top portion of the push-up, inhale completely without moving. Begin your exhale slightly before the downward movement and continue through the whole push-up. Try 2, 3, 4, see how many reps you can do on one exhale.
One way to do this in a set is to do a breathing ladder. Do one push-up on one inhale. Exhale at the top. Then do 2 push-ups on one inhale. Exhale at the top. Then do 3 push-ups on one inhale. Exhale at the top. Try to do 4 on one inhale. Now, reverse it, inhale at the top and do 4 push-ups on one exhale. Then 3 on one exhale. Then 2. Then one push-up on one exhale. Get the idea?
Hopefully this is a fun and productive exercise for you. Let me know how it works and if you have any questions!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article where we’ll discuss breath holding.