One of the most striking pictures of the weekend was the sight of the Prime Minister prone on the floor of his Downing Street office. He was in fact proving that he is full of beans after his near-death experience with Covid, by performing press-ups in an interview with The Mail on Sunday.
As a result, his opposite number, Sir Keir Starmer, has now challenged Boris to a ‘first to 50’ press-up competition at the next Prime Minister’s Questions.
While you might conclude that this is all no more than testosterone-fuelled nonsense, it has raised an intriguing question: are press-ups really the key to fitness?
Their advantage, of course, is that you don’t need a gym or any kit to do them, which is why they have been a staple in fitness routines and military training for decades.
One of the most striking pictures of the weekend was the sight of the Prime Minister prone on the floor of his Downing Street office. He was in fact proving that he is full of beans after his near-death experience with Covid, by performing press-ups in an interview with The Mail on Sunday
But Dr Richard Blagrove, a sports scientist who lectures in physiology at the University of Loughborough, says they’re not a measure of fitness, adding that they simply ‘give an indication of muscle strength’.
Press-ups say very little about how well your heart and cardiovascular system work (important for avoiding heart disease), for example, or how good your lung capacity is — an important question for Boris, given that he has had Covid-19.
‘I’ve worked with a lot of long-distance runners and typically, they can’t do many press-ups — some can’t do ten,’ says Dr Blagrove. ‘But no one would suggest they aren’t incredibly fit.’
We would all ideally have a balance of strength and cardiovascular fitness — although as we get older, says Dr Blagrove, improving strength has the edge, as it is important to moderate the wasting effect of age on muscles.
Functional strength, such as getting out of chairs and climbing stairs, starts to decrease as we get into our 60s, 70s and 80s, so weight-bearing moves such as press-ups are key, he adds.
Press-ups say very little about how well your heart and cardiovascular system work (important for avoiding heart disease), for example, or how good your lung capacity is — an important question for Boris, given that he has had Covid-19
Press-ups should be done alongside other strength moves, but are better than the plank as an overall strength exercise.
With the plank — the technique reportedly preferred by Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May — you lie on your front and raise yourself on to your toes and forearms or palms, keeping your back flat and holding the position. The instability created by this posture means you tighten your back and stomach muscles to stop your middle sagging towards the floor.
This engages muscles deep in the abdomen, strengthening and toning them. People sometimes hold the pose for too long, though, so the stomach muscles tire and pull on the back, which can cause or aggravate pain there.
So if you were going to see how many press-ups you could do, how do you know what is a good tally?
AT-HOME FITNESS CHECKS
Press-ups are not the only measure of strength and wellbeing — try these other DIY tests…
SIT DOWN, STAND UP
Sit on a chair and put your weight on one leg. Try to stand up and sit down again as many times as you can. This tests the strength of your leg muscles, which are crucial for maintaining mobility. Focus on matching or improving the number you can do.
Sit on the floor with your back against a wall. Bend forward to touch your toes. If you are over 40 and can’t get near them, you could be more at risk of heart disease. A 2009 study in Japan found that middle-aged and older people with poor flexibility also had stiff arteries (maybe due to less movement of blood and oxygen in the body, including to the heart).
FIND THE IDEAL EXERCISE FOR YOU…
Get a piece of chalk. Stand side-on to a wall and reach up as high as you can with the hand closest to the wall. Chalk a line. Then stand a little away from the wall, jump as high as possible and mark where you reach — try this three to five times.
Measure the distance between the first point and the highest point.
Our muscles contain two types of fibres, which control the type of movement we do best. This test can give a clue as to which type dominates in your body.
A gap of more than 50cm for men or 41cm for women means you are likely to have more fast-twitch fibres; a smaller jump means more slow-twitch fibres.
Fast-twitch types are generally better at explosive exercise, such as sprinting or tennis; slow-twitch types usually do better at endurance exercise, such as long-distance running or cycling.
For an athlete, male or female, the gold standard is to be able to do more than 50 press-ups, keeping the correct shape. About 30 is satisfactory. Speed is not especially important, says Dr Blagrove.
How many press-ups the rest of us should be able to do depends on age. The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology lists averages for different ages, figures you’ll often see repeated on websites: over the age of 50, the average man can usually do 10-12 press-ups, the average woman 7-10. Over 60 this becomes 8-10 for men and 5-11 for women. They say six or fewer for a man of 50-plus and one or fewer for a woman ‘requires improvement’.
Being able to do the ‘right’ number for your age is a good sign of your strength, but it still doesn’t say a lot about how truly healthy you are, suggests Dr Blagrove.
In fact, the press-up has recently been removed from the Army entrance fitness tests, replaced with lifting and throwing exercises. Nonetheless, show Boris’s performance to a soldier and they might scoff. His arm placement is unorthodox and his hips are sagging — signs of a weak core and poor technique.
Dr Blagrove says the back should remain straight, elbows close to the body, and the movement should be controlled.
So if Boris and Keir do give us 50 in Parliament, it will be how well they do them that matters, not how fast or how many.
‘My guess is their technique will be awful and they’ll say: ‘I got to 50′, but it was through bad range [not levering down or pushing back up with the elbow fully extended] and won’t really resemble a press-up,’ says Dr Blagrove.
‘What most people do wrong is lead with their chin — the head shoots forward and their face gets to the ground before their chest.
‘We also tend to see the elbows flare out, which is detrimental to shoulder health — keeping them in is harder, as it uses muscles around the chest, which are weak in most people. And you must keep the trunk stiff and stable.’
Lara Milward, a London-based fitness coach, suggests: ‘If you can’t do a full press-up, try with your knees on the floor but keep the body in the same straight line.’
To make it easier still, move your knees closer to your chest, says Dr Blagrove, and gradually farther away from your chest. Go carefully, especially if you have shoulder problems or severe neck pain.
And press-ups should not be the only exercise you do — you must match pushing exercises with the same amount of pulling to prevent muscular imbalances.
As an example of a ‘pulling’ exercise at home, Dr Blagrove suggests gripping each side of a door fame, leaning back slightly, then pulling yourself forward.
Or there is the classic pull-up. ‘Just find a bar to use — perhaps the crossbar of a goal,’ says Dr Blagrove. ‘Anything that won’t snap in half when you hang off it!’
HOW TO DO A PRESS-UP: OUR STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE
To do a press-up properly, start in a plank position — lie on your front and raise yourself on to your toes and palms, hands shoulder-width apart on the floor, arms straight from shoulder to palm. Keep your body straight from heel to head with your abdominal muscles engaged.
Slowly bend your arms to 90 degrees, keeping the upper arms and elbows tucked tightly into your body. Lead with your chest, not your face.
For beginners, start in a plank position, then drop your knees, ensuring your body is straight from knees to head with your abdominal muscles engaged.
Bend your arms to 90 degrees, keeping your upper arms and elbows tucked tightly into your body as you lower. Do this as many times as you are able and you will gradually improve.