I thought I'd say a little more about my push-up program since it seems to have caught the interest of a few people.
I'd been doing push-ups on my knees for years. Truthfully, I'd been doing most of my workout on auto-pilot, just like with those push-ups. 30 minutes on a cardio machine while I listened to music, read a magazine, or often did both simultaneously, followed by 20-ish minutes of weight machines. At the end of these workouts, I was never sore, and I often wasn't even sweaty. I had a mild amount of muscle tone and was a few pounds above where I wanted to be, but I thought I was exercising 5 days a week and doing all I could.
I don't buy into a lot of wedding hype, but around the time I got engaged (August 2007), I decided I needed to bust out of my fitness rut. Something I read a while back stuck in my head: the writer was saying he really loved to be truly sore the day or two after a workout. It had been a long time since I'd felt that and I craved it. I also wanted to figure out why my hours at the gym weren't showing real results. At the time I had a longer commute and going to the gym meant I got home around 8 pm. I didn't want to keep going if it wasn't worth it.
My gym was running a special on personal training sessions and I decided to buy a few with a trainer I'd observed. I'll call her Jane. Jane had a really muscular body that wasn't in female-weightlifter territory. She was slim but certainly not underweight. She looked strong and healthy, and seemed friendly. I bought 18 sessions in all with her. After each one, I was sore, sometimes painfully so for 2 full days. She re-introduced me to free weights, squats, pull-ups, and, yes, push-ups. We did them on my knees but at the end I told her I wanted to try real ones. My first set of push-ups was pretty wimpy but I made it through (and then collapsed in a puddle).
A few weeks later, I read something in Shape magazine about how doing push-ups on your knees is a very different exercise than full push-ups. They work different muscle groups (the magazine also has an amusing quote: "[Push-ups] seem punishing, but that's only because we spend so much time dreading them"). I decided I was not going to do knee push-ups again. I started doing 10 push-ups before and 10 after each workout. I got a few admiring comments from fellow gym-goers that increased my motivation and I decided to challenge myself to do 1,001 push-ups in a month. You know how that story goes. I've continued to do about 20 good push-ups each day, going down farther than I did during the push-up challenge. Once a week, I do 50 good ones, which definitely leaves me sore the next day.
I've come to see push-ups as emblamatic of the paradox of Americans spending lots of money and time on fitness but not being truly fit. As this excellent article says (and do watch the video too), "the push-up is the ultimate barometer of fitness." So many people (my former self included) put in time at the gym but can't do a push-up, full sit-ups, or a pull-up with assistance of less than half their weight. (I've resigned myself to never being able to do an unassisted pull-up, unless I quit my desk job and work out as much as Madonna.) I'm grateful that I've pulled myself out of my fitness rut and am making my workout time really count.