In my early 20s, I was personal training full-time in New York City and I could bang out push-ups any time I was working with a client throughout the day. I prided myself on great push-up technique and form and I could consistently do 54 full push-ups from my feet in a minute, which I must say, felt very impressive.
However, things have changed in the last decade. Even though fitness is still a big part of my life, I fall into the camp of many people: I rarely, if ever, do push-ups, and I frankly hate them when I do. These days, I can typically handle about three to five regular push-ups before petering out. I much prefer doing them on my knees, but even then, they are still a struggle.
Back in November, I’d taken on a 30-day plank challenge that gradually progressed me up from doing a 10-second plank on the first day to a full five-minute plank by the end. Before it started, I’d been nervous that I wouldn’t be able to progress fast enough or stick with the challenge to actually hold a plank for five minutes after 30 days. But I did it (and I’m still doing my planks!).
It was such a success that I decided to try a similar approach to get my push-up strength back: I devised my own 30-day push-up challenge, beginning with just three standard push-ups on day one and then adding two push-ups per day for a full 30 days. I hoped that by re-building the strength in my upper body and core I could start to love them again. (Well, maybe love is a stretch, but not hating them could be a good place to start).
So, I opened a new spreadsheet in Excel and typed out my plan. By adding two push-ups every day, I’d work my way up to grand total of 61 by the end of the month.
Learn how to do a standard push-up with proper form:
How the 30-day push-up challenge went
When I got down on my hands and feet on the first day to do my three push-ups, I was secretly hoping that I was going to feel great and would actually be able to start with five push-ups. But after three, I could tell that my form was going to break down if I attempted any more, so I stopped.
And I quickly started questioning this entire project. If I could only do three, was my idea of adding two push-ups per day totally unrealistic? I considered backing out of the assignment altogether. Self-doubt began creeping into my head, screaming, “What were you thinking?” After all, most of the fitness challenges I’ve taken on have been once sourced from other fitness professionals, not something I came up with on my own.
But it turns out, although I was most worried about the major numbers at the end of the challenge, the first week ended up being by far the most difficult. When you are only able to do three or four push-ups, adding two per day represents a significant increase percentage-wise, and I really struggled. My armpits were sore (those pecs were weak!) and I was getting myself into a negative mindset by looking too far into the future and getting discouraged rather than focusing on just getting through one day at a time.
Ultimately, worrying about what would come was wasted energy: My body caught on to what I was doing, and the challenge actually started to get easier as I did more push-ups. Sure, I had a few tough days, trying to eke out the final few reps when I was hitting numbers like 35 and then 45. But once I was doing about 15 in a row without stopping, I had a lot more confidence and self-esteem in my body and strength.
It’s far too heavy to go into here, but it’s been incredibly painful to experience a decline in my strength and fitness over the years. I’d stopped strength training consistently for years after a trauma that I suffered, and I’ve berated myself for allowing this aspect of my fitness to slip away.
Although hopefully most people haven’t gone through the exact circumstances that I did, I’m sure many can relate to falling out of a fitness routine and realizing months or years later that you’re no longer nearly as strong and fit as you want to be. This can be a difficult pill to swallow. And getting back into working out can be super overwhelming.
The biggest thing that this 30-day push-up challenge did for me was re-instill a sense of confidence in myself. This confidence did not come because of drastic changes to my physical appearance, but from rediscovering a part of me that had slipped away.
Whatever has held you back from trying difficult workouts, whether it’s self-doubt, insecurities about your body, lack of motivation, or even trauma like me, taking on a fitness challenge is a great way to have structure that keeps you accountable and builds the self-efficacy and belief in your body and mind that you can be fit and you can be strong.
Ultimately, I loved this challenge. It’s made me feel more like my old self again. More importantly, it’s reminded me that I can do one small step per day—adding just two push-ups—and with dedication and patience, get to where I want to be.