Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The (Real) Perfect push-Up

A protocol I return to again and again is the Hindu-style conditioning used by Indian wrestlers. This ancient system dates back perhaps thousands of years and it's reasonable to attribute it as a foundation (along with traditional Indian dance) of modern hatha yoga postures.

I first learned about Hindu-style conditioning when I was a kid, reading some of the old-school physical culture magazines, such as Strength & Health, published by York Barbell Co. As a high school wrestler I'd heard of the "Great" Gama, the Lion of Punjab and his many exploits and one exercise which captured my attention in particular was what was called the Hindu Push-Up, also referred to as the "Jap" push-up in those days, and as I learned later, the Japanese judoka prize their own variation of this splendid exercise.

It's interesting to note that throughout Middle East and Middle Asia, this exercise (and its close variations) has for thousands of years been a staple for combat athletes, often performed on a raised board. The board allows for deeper spinal flexion and optimal alignment of elbows, spine and shoulders. The Hindi name for the Hindu push-up is dand and the wrestlers of old are recorded to have done several thousand reps daily, completing every rep in a rhythmic and steady pace. You will notice there are three yogic postures passed through in each single dand:

1) downward facing dog
2) low plank/crocodile
3) upward facing dog

The breathing pattern, synchronized with the movement, is what I call "anatomical match breathing". As the body dives through into upward dog, a nasal breath is inhaled; as the body folds backward to downward facing dog, you exhale through the mouth. Thus performing high repetitions may produce a trance-like mental state.

The ancients believed performing dands transported the wrestler into an altered state which effectively purified him both psychically and spiritually.

The legends of the "Great" Gama report him doing many thousands of repetitions per day. They say that once he rooted his hands and feet into position, they didn't budge until all reps were completed and so single-minded in his focus that his sweat left a perfect image of his body dripped into the dirt.

The dand strengthens the wrist; fingers; palms, neck; chest and back. It also increases flexibility and mobility in the back, hip flexors, hamstrings and calves. The dand was tonic for overall good health and a preventive and cure, increasing virility and potency and remedying faulty digestion. An exercise for all time, dands not
strengthened the sinews of the body but had a equal effect upon character, according to Atreya, ancient Hindu scribe:
Doing dands makes a person's character and personality shine. The body takes on a powerful radiance. Not only this, but the person who performs dands has a fuller, more meaningful life: His personality is more attractive; he is liked by everyone. His whole attitude towards life is changed.
Dands were a central exercise of the wrestler's regimen. The strenuous muscular work involved molded his confidence and character. This was a path to enlightenment via disciplining the physical body. Imagine, an exercise that reveals the reflection of the divine nature of its practitioner! As a student of ancient exercise systems (as well as anti-aging and health systems) I've noticed how often similar movements from different cultures overlap. Related to the Hindu Push-Up, the Russians use an exercise called the "pump" and the Five Rites of Tibetan Yoga include yet another variation.

There are many ways to incorporate the Hindu Push-Up into your current workout schedule. Frequently, having read the exploits of Hindu wrestlers and their prodigious repetitions, trainees throw themselves into a high-volume routine before adequately preparing the joints and connective tissue. This is a common cause of injury, especially to the shoulders. Another problem to avoid is allowing the elbows to flare out to the sides, which internally rotates the upper arm, creating stress on the front shoulder capsule. After suffering from frequent shoulder irritation, I discovered the secret to performing this movement pain-free and I've taught countless people to master not only Hindu push-ups, but all push-ups, pain-free. Push-Up alignment is only one of many techniques I teach in my Body Weight conditioning workshops and certifications. Even experienced trainees and professional trainers have much to gain.

Many of the stories of Hindu wrestlers were tall tales, perhaps, like our own stories of Davy Crockett and his ilk. I believe the extremely high numbers of repetitions have been exaggerated. Be this as it may, the Hindu Push-Up is a phenomenal movement for the entire body.

Here are some performance tips to help you harness the power of the Hindu Push-Up:
1) Use impeccable form
This means slow, steady, rhythmic repetitions while moving in conjunction with the breath.
2) Maintain the upper arms in external rotation by activating the lats throughout the entire movement
This means the pit of the elbow remains facing forward while the point of the elbow is directed toward the feet. Thus the elbows remain tucked in tight to the ribs while executing the push-up.

3) Start out with moderate numbers and gradually increase the repetitions
One of the biggest causes of injury--not just in the dand but ALL forms of exercise--is a sudden increase in volume.
4) Use the Hindu push-up as part of a circuit, so you don't do all the repetitions consecutively
I like to intersperse sets of Hindu push-ups between upper body pulling exercises, such as rope climbs and pull-ups, and exercises for the lower body, as well. (Obvious: Hindu Squats, but that's another blog!)
5) Perform Hindu Push-Ups on a push-up board
It's much easier on the joints, especially the shoulders. I especially appreciate the greater spinal stretch throughout the spine and shoulders.

6) Utilize the Hindu Push-Up as a tonic exercise
If working up to high numbers of the Hindu Push-Up is counter to your fitness goals, I encourage you to still perform a few of these exercises daily as an anti-aging tonic. Even as few as 20-30 reps will provide great health benefits and act as a terrific warm-up for more strenuous routines. The ol' Coach himself performs 20 per day and up to 100 reps in a workout, typically in sets of 20-30.

Come get personal coaching from yours truly--and not only in Hindu push-ups but dozens of other fantastic body weight conditioning exercises--at my first scheduled seminar of 2009, the Maxbells Body Weight Trainers certification. Hosted by iconoclast
Chip Conrad's fantastical gym, Body Tribe, in lovely Sacramento CA, Saturday 7 February 2009 from 9AM to 6PM. If you can't make it west, you can buy time to prepare for my Body Weight Trainers certification 3 May 2009 at Philadelphia's
Maxercise MMA gym.

Steve Maxwell/Maxbells
kettlebell and body weight certifications are rapidly being recognized as the finest of their kind. People come from other certifications and tell me I'm the best they've ever had! Participants leave not only with the confidence that they can perform the exercise, but confidence in their ability to guide others. Because ultimately, if you're a coach or trainer, it's not what YOU can do, but your ability to teach others how to do it (without hurting themselves!)

My wish for the New Year is to see you at my upcoming workshops and certifications: to work with you in person and help you achieve your wildest fitness dreams!

There's still time to squeeze in a push-up board as a stocking stuffer for those who've been nice! Or why not go old school and celebrate the gift of push-ups onThree Kings Day 6 January? Best of all, the Push-Up Board comes with a DVD wherein I demonstrate 20 different push-up variations--a one-of-a-kind item if there ever was one!

Of Interest:

  • Dave Wardman of Australia spent the time to compile my Dragon Door posts and you all can reap the benefits here under "Archived Forum Advice". Thank you, Dave!
  • Rick Vittum put together a guide to the Encyclopedia of Joint Mobility, another much appreciated gesture. Check it out here.
  • Speaking of altered states of consciousness, firefighter Clark Mason has been using a Maxwell Double Kettlebell circuit with 44# KBs and bonus bunker gear! Check the madness out on his new blog here.
  • Look who made #1 on the Gym Junkies list of top 20 Fitness Blogs!
Yours Strength & Health!



john said...

Hey Steve,

Congrats on being named #1 Fitness Blog.

Each of your blog entries has been a "perfect rep." Quality, quality, quality!

It's cliche to say of someone that they "practice what they preach"; yet in your case, it could not be more true.

p.s. For you good folks who read and appreciate Steve's blog but are still hesitant to call him "Coach," procrastinate no longer. You'll find that Maxwell is the real deal.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!
Federico from Italy

Peter said...

Great post, as always. Have been working in Hindu push-ups as a relative rest set, after a set of your Maxwell Omelets (I was calling them "Maxwell 5's" until Teresa clued me in!) and neutral grip chin-ups. 3 rounds of this seems an easy to remember, thorough, fitness maintaining base...and there's something "tonic" about those dands. They don't seem to smoke the muscles, but something positive happens with them, no doubt.

Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for yet another great blog article. This is probably a stupid question but, I'm having trouble visualising why\how the pushup board improves the exercise, although, I'm sure (like your other posts here & the old ones at dragondoor) you have good reasons&rationale.
OwenB, Melbourne, Australia

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,
Don't worry about my question, I experimented. The ground is lower so you can achieve more spinal extension (upward dog) and upper limb ROM while limb is held in a stable postion. Also, the movement is a bit harder to do than from the ground.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

This post is a great reminder! I used to do these few years back.

I was told that extending your neck back on your way up while performing a 'dand' works on your neck muscles better. What is your view on this? I saw your video, you are always looking ahead, in the front. Just curious, what is the difference.

Steve Maxwell said...

Re: extending the neck, it depends on your mobility. The movement is designed to increase mobility in the upper back, but most people are so stiff in that area, they crane the neck thinking they're getting more movement. Better to lead the movement from the sternum (not the chin) and keep the neck neutral, to truly activate the upper spine without making the neck take the punishment. If the upper spine IS mobile (unlikely in most) it's fine to add the neck element. - Steve

Mooney said...

Great stuff, need tips on divebomber push up. I love it but get pain in lower back after doing them. Where is the focus and alignment?