One of the most annoying terms in the fitness world? “Girl push-ups.”
We’re referring to the modified push-up, of course, which has absolutely nothing to do with gender. According to Rob Sulaver, founder of Bandana Training and founding trainer at Rumble Boxing, it’s always better to drop to your knees than to struggle through a “push-up” that looks more like an attempt at the worm. “There’s no shame in the regression game,” Sulaver tells us. “It’s better to do a full range of motion push-up from your knees than a partial range of motion push-up from your toes.”
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For those who need a quick refresher on the modified push-up, it goes something like this: You drop your knees to the floor and keep your core straight and elevated. Leading with your chest, you lower your upper body to the ground slowly, keeping the core engaged, and then push back up, making sure your elbows aren’t poking out to the side. “By dropping to your knees, you’re decreasing the length of the lever arm, making the push-up easier so you can maintain proper alignment,” Sulaver says.
For personal trainer, fitness goddess, and former trainer on The Biggest LoserJen Widerstrom, modified push-ups are great, but she thinks there are better versions than the one you’re most familiar with. She suggests maintaining form and dipping down just a few inches before pressing up, or placing hands on a step or even a desk to take some of the weight off of the arms. “I’d rather have you drop just two inches into a push-up and then press through to target the same muscle groups. It’s all about starting somewhere and building from there.”
The truth is, there are many variations of the push-up, and chances are, if you’re not quite ready to do the traditional version, one of them will be much more effective than struggling through a half-push-up, half-upward-flop. Poor form can mean dropping the chin, allowing the shoulder blades to cave, sticking the butt up, or letting the hips dip. (If your pelvis hits the floor before the rest of you does, it’s not really a push-up.)
But people of any gender routinely do poor “regular” push-ups instead of switching over to the infamous “girl push-up,” just because they don’t want to stoop to what’s been stigmatized as a sub-standard exercise. Which brings us to the real issue at hand—that we’re allowing “girl” to be synonymous with “sub-standard.” That might have flown in the Mad Men era, but fortunately, our culture has shifted—and that line of thinking is definitely no longer something we should be OK with.
We do modified exercises all the time to accommodate injury or soreness and to ensure we’re doing something that’s going to benefit our bodies. Whether the body in question belongs to a woman, man, or gender-nonconforming individual is, quite frankly, irrelevant. Working out is never one-size-fits-all, and that’s because we all have different bodies, fitness levels, limits, and experiences.
So why does the modified push-up continue to bear this name? It may have something to do with the fact that it’s been an integral part of military training and phys-ed tests that were, for a long time, only applied to guys. According to Widerstrom, this term probably stems from a misguided strategy from decades ago to motivate dudes to push themselves. “For a long time, women weren’t doing sports at the level that men were, so it was uncommon for women to do push-ups at all. My mother was one of the only women P.E. teachers in Chicago in the ’60s. We’ve come a long way since then.”
When asked about how she deals with this kind of sexist lingo in her own life, Widerstrom laughs. “Call it what you want. I’d rather lead by example and make them look stupid.”
But if at one point calling the modified push-up the “girl push-up” was a motivating force for men, Sulaver points out that this terminology can now lead to poor movement patterns and less effective workouts for anyone who lets themselves get caught up in it. “Anytime we allow our ego, rather than our capabilities, to dictate how we move, we end up moving worse.”
There’s nothing wrong with getting creative when it comes to finding ways to motivate. But no matter how you spin it, sexist language isn’t effective—or relevant—in the health and fitness world anymore. Though it’s taken us some time to realize it, strength isn’t related to gender.