A program for push-ups at 75 years old

Posted on August 28, 2014

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More than any other exercise, push-ups are where people boast about their prowess. More than any other exercise, people’s form makes one’s eyes rather watch another minute of After Earth than watch them continue another rep.

AfterEarth

Ok, ok, to be fair. Will and Jaden have a lot on their plates. They’re busy being physicists and studying the theory of everything.  Jaden is even involved in philanthropy:

Deepness.

Deepness.

In other words, we can all look forward to Men in Black Eight coming out shortly.

Back to push-ups. There are two big issues to look for form wise. One is the hips sagging below the shoulders:

Push Ups Bad Form 2

This is where the lower back is going into too much extension.

Push Ups bad form

In case you were wondering, yes, that’s a CrossFit gym.

Those with a military background are notorious for this. (I see a lot of them living in San Diego.) I often hear from them, “I can do 200 in a row.” I’ve yet to see someone say this who has solid form.

Push Ups Bad Form 3

The second issue is the elbows. We don’t want them flaring:

There are other things, but the above are most pressing because 1) Pisses off people’s lower backs and 2) Pisses off people’s shoulders. The reason the above flaws are so common is they are both ways to do a push-up with less than full range of motion. They make the exercise easier and one can do more reps (incorrectly, but still). It’s like hearing someone extol how much they can squat. Only to realize a squat to them is about 6 inches of knee bend.

If a guy is young, 15-30ish, they’ll often tell me push-ups are nothing for them. With good form, that nothing typically transpires to maybe 15 reps, if we’re lucky. If they’re over 30, I’m surprised if I see more than a few good reps. If they’re a woman, well, I’ve never seen a woman perform a push-up without extensive training. With training though, I’ve seen plenty.

Push-ups, particularly for your average adult -middle aged, sedentary, desk job- are a pretty damn hard exercise.

Screw the youngins, push-ups at 75!

Harley turned 75 a few days before he was able to do this:

This was a proud occasion for myself because Harley is the oldest client I’ve had bust out some solid push-ups. Harley was less than impressed with himself, despite my praise. This is partly due to what I mentioned above: A misperception of how easy push-ups actually are. Harley also has a military background. Unless he can do over a hundred in a row, I’m not sure he’ll be impressed. Particularly at 75 years of age though, repping out some push-ups is admirable!

Some notes on the above video:

  • I actually profiled Harley and some of his history here.
  • Harley had lower back surgery before I started working with him. (He also had a hip replacement.) Because of this I’m adamant about his hip and lower back positioning during push-ups (and everything else). Namely, his lower back cannot go into extension under any circumstance. This something I do with most older clients anyways.
  • One way to help with avoiding lumbar extension is to cue the person to “lead with your chest.” You’ll hear me mention the chest a few times in the video. It should just about hit the ground, and if that’s the first thing towards the floor, you’ve often provided solid grounding for where the hips should be. (Not below the chest.)

(While on the way down I cue someone to lead with the chest, you don’t want to do this on the way up. In that case, then the hips will be below the shoulders on the way up. On the way down, it’s often lead with the chest. On the way up, it’s sometimes “lead with the hips;” “don’t leave your hips below your shoulders,” “bring your hips with you,” or some variation of this phrasing.)

  • You’ll notice he goes into a bit of a Downward Dog / Yoga Push-up at the top of each rep. (His hips go well above his shoulders.) I actually never cued him to do this. It’s something he naturally did on his own. I never bothered to change it 1) It’s not hurting anything 2) It’s actually in line with making sure his hips never go below his shoulders 3) It adds a little upward rotation work for his scapulae.

Programming

About three months ago I felt things were getting a little stale for Harley. I thought a nice change of pace would be to work towards a goal of doing push-ups on the floor. Here’s what we did to get there.

Harley works with me twice a week. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Before each session he starts with 10 minutes of walking on the treadmill. (This is something he likes to do on his own.) Then he’ll come on over and usually tell me to go easy on him because he’s older than last time. And every other week or so he likes to tell me Charlie, his “twin,” will be performing his workout that day.

We then start out with some corrective exercise. We do a few sets of either Supine Shoulder Rotations at 90, some Supine Arm Slides, or sometimes both if he seems stiff that day.

(If you want to know the rationale behind the hand sliding exercise, click here.)

This upper body work will be in conjunction with some lower body exercises as well. I’m not going to go into much detail on those, but I’ll give some info on it in a minute.

After a few sets of 12 reps of the above, on Tuesdays we move to kneeling Med-Ball throws.

We would do 2-3 sets of 5 reps. This was to get some speed oriented training iat the upper body. I would challenge Harley by always trying to step further and further back.

Form wise, we made sure to push evenly with both arms, and to always have a “soft and quiet” landing on a thick, soft mat. If he landed too hard, he knew it as his wrists would bother him.

After the throws it was on to the push-ups. The way I progressed him to the floor was to use an elevated aerobic step.

Aerobic step push ups 1

We would work in the 10-15 rep range. First, we would do a set or two at a warm-up height. (A height 4-8 inches above his max.) Then we would drop the height down for our work sets. Once he could get 3 sets of 15 at a particular height, I’d drop the step down a notch the next session we did this exercise. At the new, lowered height, we’d start off with 10 reps and work our way back up to 15.

  • The first time it might go sets of 10, 10, 10.
  • Next time we would try to add some reps. Maybe 12, 12, 12.
  • Then, if we could, 15, 15, 15.

Of course, it doesn’t always go that easily. Some days would be 12, 11, 10. Or 15, 12, 10. The idea was to always strive to get 3 sets of 15 before moving lower. We typically spent two to four weeks at each height before moving down.

Aerobic step push ups 1

Aerobic step push ups 2

Aerobic step push ups 3

An important note here is I never had Harley, and rarely have anyone, go to failure. It’s good to push people, but failing mid-rep isn’t helpful. It’s not necessary, and it’s a good way to either burn someone out (if done regularly) or hurt them.

In the mix of doing the Med-Ball throws and the push-ups, we would also do some more upper body corrective exercises. Wall Slides are a favorite:

3-4 sets of 12 reps throughout the workout. Harley has a left shoulder that acts up every now and then. If a set of push-ups gave him some trouble, we’d take five minutes or so away from them. We would work on our lower body exercises, and try to loosen up with things like the Wall Slides.

After the above, I often threw in some tricep work. Just your typical cable extensions.

Tricep Extensions

Let the hands come all the way to the chest before coming down.

(I like the V-Bar over a straight bar. Rope works well too.)

This would be 1-2 sets of 15-20 reps. This way we got some work where the triceps went through a full range of motion, which push-ups don’t facilitate.

That was Tuesday. Thursdays had some differences.

I often took the Med-Ball throws out. After a few weeks of trying to do them multiple times per week, I could tell it was beating up Harley’s wrists. So I switched him to primarily once a week, and some weeks twice a week. His wrists were fine after that.

To lessen the intensity of things, I had him do push-ups on Thursdays on a Smith Machine.

Smith Machine Push Ups

I would have the bar fairly elevated so less of a load (his bodyweight) was present. The Smith Machine variation provided a way to work push-ups through a full range of motion, which the aerobic step variation didn’t provide. To make up for the lesser load, these days would be in a higher rep range. Usually between 20-35 reps; 2-3 sets.

The Smith Machine also provided a way to perform push-ups while keeping the wrists straight. You can take this to the point where you place a barbell on the ground so the wrists are never in extension, but I never needed to take things that far with Harley. (Having the wrists bent back on Tuesdays was never a problem.)

Push ups wrists extended Push ups wrists straight with bar

Summarizing

Tuesday

A1) Supine Arm Slides / Supine Shoulder Rotations at 90 degrees abduction- 3-4 sets of 12 reps.

A2) Lower Body stretch- 3-4 sets of 12 reps.

B1) Kneeling Med-Ball Throws- 2-3 sets x 5 reps.

B2) Lower body strength exercise, such as lunges (forward, backward, side to side), Goblet squat, Leg Press, etc. Sets and reps varied here.

B3) Upper body corrective exercise; often Wall Slides- 3-4 sets of 12 reps.

B4) Pulling exercise, such as cable Pulldowns- Sets and reps would vary, but volume was always less than Wall Slides. (More on this here.)

C1) Supported push-ups with aerobic step- 1-2 warm-up sets of 10-15 reps -> Drop down ~4 inches for work sets -> 3 sets x 10-15 reps.

C2) Lower body exercise. Sometimes strength, sometimes balance. Sets and reps vary.

C3) Some type of stretch usually.

D1) Tricep extensions- 1-2 sets x 15-20 reps

D2) Plank variation. Stability Ball planks are what we’ve been working on recently- 2-3 sets x 30-60 seconds

Stability ball plank

(I would usually pick an ab exercise similar to push-ups. This way we further strengthened the core in a push-up like position, helping even more to insure the lower back does not go into extension in this position.)

E1) Backward Rocking- 1 set of 15 reps

E2) Supine Belly Breathing- 1 set of 15 reps (breaths)

(You can read why I end workouts with these exercises here.)

Thursday

A1) Supine Arm Slides / Supine Shoulder Rotations at 90- 3-4 sets of 12 reps.

A2) Lower Body stretch- 3-4 sets of 12 reps.

B1) Smith Machine push-ups- 2-3 sets of 20-35 reps.

B2) Lower body strength exercise, such as lunges (forward, backward, side to side), Goblet squat, Leg Press, etc. Sets and reps varied here.

B3) Upper body corrective exercise; often Wall Slides- 4 sets x 12 reps.

B4) Pulling exercise, such as cable Pulldowns- Sets and reps would vary, but volume was always less than Wall Slides.

C1) Lower body exercise. Sometimes strength, sometimes balance. Sets and reps vary.

C2) Some type of stretch.

D1) Tricep extensions- 1-2 sets x 15-20 reps

D2) Plank variation- 2-3 sets x 30-60 seconds

E1) Backward Rocking- 1 set x 15 reps

E2) Supine Belly Breathing- 1 set x 15 reps

The only other work Harley would do throughout the week was some walking with his dog and maybe a couple upper body stretches when he felt like it. While many times things like “torture chamber” or “slavedriver” were said, the above went very smoothly.

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