Estimated reading time 16 mins.
Please see my article, “Don’t listen to me (or even experts): My blanket disclaimer” for a brief discussion of my goal in sharing ideas on health.
A key excerpt: “We all have different bodies, lifestyles, means, likes/dislikes, goals, and many other factors which make up the context in which we are making health decisions. So my attitude is always intended to be not, “This is the right way to eat/work out” or “You should try this.” But rather: “This is what is working for me in this way. How might it apply to you in achieving your goals?””
We’re all busy. Or at least we ought to be. In any case, most of us find ourselves occupied with something enough making it difficult to find time to hit the gym even a couple times a week. Gearing up and getting there and back itself makes “Annhh, not today” a pretty easy, often necessary, call. Given my own schedule and the conditions I’ve set to make the gym or an outdoor run an on-the-whole enjoyable and life-enhancing rather than dutiful and detracting activity, I go comfortably about twice a week, with one (occasionally two) runs a week. When the university semester starts again next month, that will likely become one gym and one run per week. Last semester, it became regularly only one time at the gym per week.
And while the surprising activity involved in teaching and my daily life combined with my diet made that mostly sufficient to keep up a consistent body composition and generally good energy and feeling, there was not much opportunity for new gains in fat loss, energy, muscle mass, etc. It was mostly sustaining, and lucky for me that I had already earned myself a body I wanted to sustain.
But what can I add to make progress, given the same restrictions in time and all else?
It’s all very vague to me how I had the idea of daily pushups in my head, although I can say that I did read one blog post of a guy (I can’t recall) describing the benefits of (I think) 100 pushups/day. He reported gains in size and strength (and I forget what else). I was a little surprised at that, as I understood (and had seen proof through self-experimentation) that heavy, intense, and infrequent lifting (allowing rest for growth) leads to muscle growth, while frequent, many reps, and less heavy (which is what I consider pushups to be) leads to less muscle but often fat loss. (Think sprinter’s legs versus marathon runner’s legs.)
Whatever the details, however, I recall clearly that I was impressed enough to think it was something I might try. It’s not much to add it to my life, and I was more interested in burning fat than I was about gaining muscle at this point besides. Surely, if my muscles didn’t get bigger, they would at least stay hard. And if successful, it was only a short time every day in my own home. It would be the perfect addition to my exercise repertoire. I was going for it. Only, I wanted a bit more, so I added 100 squats in the mix to make for a more complete-body workout and more work in general.
A friend suggested I time it and try to complete the pushups and squats in as little time as possible, competing against that time to ensure a good push. It would also measure one aspect of progress: how much easier (i.e. faster) it became for me. With that, it was decided that on days when I did not go to the gym or run, I would complete: Timed 100 pushups/100 squats. (Note: I don’t give up form, as the time is not really important. It’s just to measure how much more efficient I can become. Of course, form must stay consistent, else what would I be measuring? So I’m not frantically flapping up and down with half-pushups or with twerking. It might as well be good form.)
As not to bait you, I’ll list them off here first. But being only a month in, and with many confounding factors, there is lots of context to consider, which I’ll discuss in detail below on each point. For now in short, here are the benefits I’ve noticed since starting this program:
1) Increased efficiency (i.e. faster time)
2) Headaches/nausea after doing other intense exercise disappeared
3) Increased strength
4) Increased size*
5) Increased cardio*
6) Fat loss*
*These last three are more speculative than the others at present, but there is some evidence nonetheless.
1. Increased efficiency (i.e. faster time): The first time I did it, I broke it up into 30 pushups/squats, then 20/20, then 10/10 x 5, which took me 4:25. Now, while not being frantic about it, I am trying to be as efficient as possible. Two big time-eaters are changing positions and slowed reps. So, I basically want to switch positions just before reps become slower but not before. Very soon, I found the sweet spot at 40/20/10/10/10/10, and only a day or two later, I was just over 4:00. Perhaps a couple weeks in, I was regularly completing this sequence in 3:54, 3:55, 3:52, etc. For the past week, I’ve been doing it in 3:40, 3:42, 3:43. I can just more easily do it.
[*UPDATE (Feb. 6, hours after original posting): I just did that same sequence in 3:34.]
2. Headaches/nausea after doing other intense exercise disappeared: This is perhaps the most relieving reward and among the most astonishing (up there with strength). With an extremely busy semester last fall, I was reduced to essentially one gym workout/week and an occasional run. The only exercise I got beyond that was simply the activity involved in teaching, which, I’m happy to learn, is a lot. My exercise ring on my Apple Watch would often close by early afternoon on a teaching day, and with a good diet, my body composition stayed consistent or slightly better each week I was able to measure at the gym. It seemed my single workout was sustaining my muscle, and I generally looked and felt great. Almost. There was one thing I noticed that alarmed me.
The second part of my gym workout includes some kettlebell work, often a few sets of one-arm shoulder presses followed immediately by squats while holding it. It is a heavy-breathing, high-intensity sequence which I think complements the former weight-lifting portion. During my one workout/week period, it was becoming frequent that I would give up on the last set because of oncoming nausea, or if I was able to complete it, I would stumble home and often lie down for several minutes before I could recover enough to get up for a shower, etc.
I also sometimes, on occasions where I have some good energy, great weather, and a lot of day in front me, like to take an outdoor run day and add something to it. Instead of my straight 6-7km run, I run to a nearby monument with perhaps 100 steps or so to the top. It’s just under 3km there, then I do some combination of sets of sprinting the stairs, pull-ups (they have some public equipment at the top), and pushups, then run home again. It’s kind of a big “let’s see what you’ve got” kind of thing I like to put myself through. It can be tough, but never a problem to run the whole way home and feel great. During that busy time of one workout/week, however, I had some instances where I had to walk home after almost being sick at the monument. And one time, I had to lie down for a while on a bench, stranded at the foot of the monument, wondering when I’d even be able to get up and walk home.
The nausea described in the above instances is of the type one experiences when jumping into an intense workout one is used to being able to do after having been off for a long time, like being put through sprints the first week of a new training camp after a long offseason. So for whatever my diet and teaching activity was doing to maintain my body composition, my one workout a week was not sufficient to keep me functioning at a level I want to operate at. I couldn’t do some difficult things I expect a fit me to be able to do without feeling sick.
I felt a sense of panic, like a health crisis might be approaching. Was I not eating right? Did I have brain issues? Stomach issues? Just age and general decline? I would have to test various things over time to discover the cause and remedy it, as this was not what I consider fitness, nor any definition of “health” consistent with a flourishing life.
Happily, not long into my pushups/squats program, I found that my gym workouts, including the intense kettlebell portion, left me without any nausea or sickness whatsoever. This has stayed true without exception, and I have no reason to fear that horrible condition will return. I have not been for a run/monument stairs excursion yet, but I am hopeful for that, as I really consider these results spectacular. It was becoming very regular that I couldn’t do any intense exercise before feeling nauseous at some point, but it is now an absolute never that I feel that way. There is no other factor varied enough to make me conclude that this is the result of anything but my pushup/squat regime. I conclude that its intensity is enough to have my body prepared for further intense exercise in other areas.
I am very excited to try out a run/monument stairs all-out one day soon, and I will be reporting. That will be the confirmation test as to how much intensity this allows for, but for now, I feel relieved to be convinced that my sickness had only been the result of infrequent intense exercise, a deficiency made up for with this simple program. What a giant relief.
[*UPDATE (Feb. 8, two days after original posting): I went outside today for my run/monument stairs workout. Under 3km there, three sets of stairs/pushups (total 100)/pullups, then under 3km back. Zero symptoms of anything resembling nausea due to an intense workout. I was able to run home after a little walk to get my breath back after my last set. It is truly remarkable to me. I have my “full” fitness back.]
3. Increased strength: The weight-lifting portion of my gym workout almost always includes some form of chest workout, often bench press. I typically do the first set as a hybrid warmup/first set, doing 30 or so reps on a lighter weight, amounting to being slightly harder than doing thirty pushups. The last two sets are heavier, and I am invariably able to do 5 and 5 reps, respectively. The one variation is on occasion when I can do 6 and 5, respectively. But this is consistent: 5/5 or 6/5. I can’t push out another one.
Well, while this stayed true during the first week or two of my pushup/squat program, the last few times on the bench press over the past couple weeks, with the same weight I always use on the last two sets, I’ve cracked out 7 and 7 reps, and then 8/7 and 8/7. There is nothing I can imagine to explain it beyond increased strength. There is just more there. And there is nothing I can imagine to explain my increased strength but this new pushup/squat program. This also fits in with my increased efficiency benefit discussed above. I’m able to decrease my time because I’m not doing as many slow, struggling pushups at the end of a set before switching to squats.
Again, I’m going to keep an eye on this one, but for now, it seems clear: I’m just stronger.
[*UPDATE (Feb.7, day after original posting): After over a week since I last did bench press at the gym, after 30 warmup/first set reps, I just completed 10 and 8 reps on the second and third sets, respectively, at that same weight as in the above discussion.]
4. Increased size: This one is at present purely speculative, as it is without precise measurement. But it is worth noting as something to keep an eye on as a potential benefit, and would be consistent with the clear increased strength. The “evidence” is only that my wife one day recently in front of the mirror getting dressed post-shower just commented that she thought my chest was “definitely bigger.” And it does appear that way to me. But this is only a month in, and it’s not much to go on besides. For my part, I find it on the whole encouraging, and I’m inclined to believe there’s something in it. Updates to come.
5. Increased cardio: As my runs have also been infrequent, especially during that fall semester, they would often be arduous. Sometimes even as far as 3-4 weeks apart, my legs would often drag, and my lungs would struggle, as I huffed and puffed for most stretches. I would not get sick or nauseous, mind you, as these long runs are not high in intensity. But I did know that it would take stringing a few runs together within a reasonable period before I could feel like myself again, generally a comfortable runner.
After starting this program, I have had a few runs, the first after about a 4-week layoff. This, of course, is where I trudge through and shock my system, and hopefully set myself up for a smoother following run, if I can get another in within the week or soon besides. However, I found that my lungs felt great and that my legs were not as labored. Generally, I felt cardio fit. And this stayed true with the next 2-3 runs I’ve been able to have recently, even if one was two weeks between others.
Again, one must take this with a grain of salt, especially you the reader, who have no experience of the subtleties I, for example, might take into account. But for me who does have the experience over decades of my body running, it is almost invariable that I have a tough time out the first run after a long layoff. This, I say to myself, has been different.
So while I’m nowhere close to publishing it in a scientific journal, I am of the current belief that my cardio fitness and leg durability and performance is increased due to the pushup/squat regime. It fits in with my increased efficiency at the exercise, while feeling better afterward than when I first started. It fits in with my lack of sickness after intense exercise, indicating a better general fitness. I’ll obviously know more about this (and all the alleged benefits) after months of the program, but there it is for now.
6. Fat loss: I can’t claim an actual loss at this point. But my claim here was indicated by the fact of my keeping a record-low fat mass reading on a few occasions when I otherwise expected increases. I can only get accurate body composition readings at the gym when the trainers are there to set up the computer for me on the InBody machine. When they are out, I can do one manually and unrecorded, but while it can usually offer me a hint as to my condition, I’ve found it to be mostly unreliable. With this, I have only been able to get a few InBody readings in the past few weeks and since starting this program.
After using this machine and app for a couple years now, I am very good at knowing what to expect in a reading given my eating and activity in the day leading to (and then of) the reading. And in the readings I’ve done recently, my expectations have been exceeded in terms of fat mass. While I expected to show some increased fat mass, it stayed at my recent low points, surprising (and pleasing) me. It’s the type of thing where if I had been in my cleanest state for an ideal reading, I would have seen new record-lows in fat mass. Instead, I’ve seen equivalent to my current record-lows.
So again, this is all very inexact, and only a month in and a few readings, it could have been other factors which caused the low fat mass. But again, it’s enough for me to suspect it’s the pushup/squat regime which is the factor turning my expected fat gain into keeping my fat where it had been, and I will be keeping a very close eye on this, gathering more data over months.
In all, I find the results of this experiment very rewarding and encouraging thus far. I am looking forward to continuing the program, and after getting completely comfortable with the 100/100, I plan to increase it to perhaps 150/150, and then maybe beyond in the future.
That point reminds me to mention that for anyone thinking of trying this, there is nothing I can see making 100/100 some minimum or maximum number for good results. I should say that if you were someone fitter than I, you might start at any higher number of pushups and squats, and that if you were someone looking for an entry into getting fit, you might start by doing any lower number. While I’m a big fan of “less is more” in many contexts, and the biggest fan of “precise is best,” I think in this one, up to some very high point of diminishing returns, more is better.
But of course, I’ll be monitoring that as well. If I see myself losing any of the benefits I expect will keep up here due to overexercise, I’ll obviously pull it back to the optimal level. One of the biggest benefits ahead of those discussed above in the first place is the program’s easy entry and time economy. If I start having to do 1000 pushups and squats, I’ll be looking at an hour–instead of four minutes–per day, and the main point of doing this sort of thing will be lost.
An additional point worth mentioning: I had a couple days off once this past month due to an unlucky food sickness, and I wonder if they might not have served me well. I took another day off yesterday, partly because of holiday family commitments and subsequent early start of a busy day, but (come on, I can find four minutes in the busiest day) partly because I wanted to give my body a rest. Even though this workout doesn’t seem much in a day, it really is a good heart rate-raising, muscle-pumping workout.
This is something I must remind myself of, given how easy it is to do every day. We’re in a culture which generally regards anything which is relatively easy as without meaningful gain. In any case, my “daily” in the 100/100 daily is not a wildly strict one, as I think rest days are fruitful. However, but for the occasional deliberate rest day, I don’t let myself off. It’s not much to get into, which–given that it seems to work–is the biggest benefit of all.
I’m so excited about this program, as it gives me hope for my busy university semester, where high-commitment gym and running workouts are not possible–at least not without cramming them into a hurried and hassled day in a dutiful sort of way. I want to enjoy my gym and running, and any workout I do. And this additional workout promises to help me maintain and improve my health while allowing me to enjoy my other types of workouts when I have time to comfortably enjoy them.
I’m pretty much ready to say–admittedly early–that if I could only do one type of workout, I think this would mostly suffice to meet nearly all my needs. I’m really looking forward to continuing and expanding this program, and I’ll be sure to keep you posted on the updated results.
If you want any clarification on any point discussed above, or have any other questions or comments, I invite you to comment below, or, if you think more appropriate, email me at email@example.com.