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Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Slow push-ups: do you really need them?

Strange creatures, those humans – it’s not only efficiency they’re after, it’s oversimplification too. Let me give you a training related example: people are not just content with getting the best possible results with the least possible effort (which makes sense, if you ask me), they also want to practice as few things as possible! The dominant mentality could be described as such: “Can you find me one single exercise that builds muscle and strength, burns fat and gives me the heart of a Marathon runner?” This is what people want and the almighty market rushes to provide it with every possible opportunity. Thus, every now and then, we end up not just with the 'perfect training program' but also with exercises being attributed with miraculous properties. The kettlebell swing has been named ‘a fountain of youth’, for example, while the Turkish Get-up is supposedly all you need in order to build stability, mobility AND strength around the pelvic and shoulder girdles. And then, there’s the slow push-up, the slow flat-foot squat and the slow sit-up, which according to a specific brand or Russian Martial Art activity, are the only resistance exercises one needs to practice in order to build the attributes needed for combat training.

It is my belief that physical preparation training is not prescribing and performing a (long or short) series of exercises, but the fine-tuning of a series of parameters through various training protocols, in order to perform the specific movements of a particular activity, more effectively and efficiently. In this sense, there are no good exercises or bad exercises and there are definitely no perfect exercises or ‘all-you-need exercises’. Exercises and training protocols can only be consistent or non-consistent with your training goals, depending upon the results they produce. So as to give you an example, let’s put the slow push-up under the microscope. 

Any type of push-up can build local muscular endurance of the arm extensors and chest muscles. Push-ups can also promote stability at the hips, the torso and the shoulder girdle – as long as they’re performed with proper form. If your belly is sagging or your butt is sticking up, if your shoulder blades are popping away from your ribcage (winging), if your head is dangling towards the floor, then your form is not proper, and you might be doing more harm than good, both to your posture and your joints, so keep those points in mind (and no, bad form does not ‘promote relaxation’). But what are the benefits of performing push-ups slowly?  Well, performing one repetition of an exercise that lasts one minute is a rather uncommon training protocol that I have never come upon during my years of training or in any of my training books (and I have quite a few). With the amount of unconventional (bordering on exotic) resistance training methods explored by the Soviets during the 70’s and 80’s, if there was remarkable value in this one, we would definitely know a lot more about how it works, but it is not so. What we can do then, is make a few educated guesses based on similarities with other training methods whose effects we know more about. So, let’s give it a try: 

According to Verkhoshansky, “long application of isometric exercises leads to significant expansion of the connective tissue” [1]. ‘Isometric’ is a contraction of the muscles that is not accompanied by changes in muscle length – when you push against an immovable object, a wall for example, your muscles are contracting isometrically. Connective tissue in our case is tendons and ligaments, most probably tendons only, since normal everyday activity (without training) appears to be sufficient to maintain 80–90% of ligaments’ mechanical potential [2]. Remember here that tendons connect muscles to bones, while ligaments connect bones to bones (in joints). Research also indicates that long duration (more than 20 sec) isometric exercises lead to decrease of the elasticity of tendons, i.e. tendon stiffness [3]. One more thing we often find in strength training literature is that moderate repetition sets (8-12) are optimal for building connective tissue strength – in case you haven’t had the chance to use a timer while training, it is interesting to know here that 8-12 repetitions of an exercise performed in moderate pace last somewhere between 30 and 35 seconds. What is most likely then is that the accumulated time under tension rather than the way of performing muscle contraction (statically or with movement) is responsible for the increased strength and stiffness of the connective tissues: whether you’re moving or not, if you maintain constant tension for 20-30 seconds in a group of muscles, your tendons become stiffer. It would make sense then to assume that a push-up performed slowly will make the tendons of the muscles around the shoulder and elbow joints stiffer, i.e. harder to elongate. 

A variation of the slow push-up often proposed by RMA instructors involves repetitions performed slowly in a limited range of motion, mostly around what is known as the ‘sticking point’ of the exercise, where the effort becomes increased to the mechanical disadvantage of that particular position. This partial reps protocol has been used extensively by the bodybuilding community and is supposed to facilitate hypertrophy of the slow-twitch muscle fibers, by impairing the blood circulation to the slow fibers through the constant tension [4].  Increasing the size of your slow twitch muscle fibers can also translate to better oxygen utilization by them, thus improved local muscular endurance. 

Constant muscular tension is associated with a feeling of discomfort, so performing resistance exercises slowly can be used as a means of desensitizing one to the feeling of fatigue – a meditation on pain, if you like. Various methods of removing the focus from the feeling of discomfort can be used, the most common being that of focusing on the breath and regulating it. 

In a few words, slow push-ups will not improve your maximum strength, i.e. the ability of your nervous system to recruit a lot of muscle fibers at the same time, in order to produce more force. They will also not improve your power, which is the ability of your muscles to produce work (movement) in a short amount of time. They will not improve your skill either, since push-ups are a rather simple movement pattern.
One more useful note here is that like any other training method, slow push-ups are subject to the law of diminishing returns: the longer you perform them over time, the less the effect becomes, since your organism becomes desensitized to them and does not adapt any further.
Finally keep in mind that if you only perform horizontal pushing movements (such as the push-up), without any horizontal pulling exercises, you might end up with muscular imbalances in your shoulders and subsequent chronic injuries.

At the beginning seconds of this nideo,  Mikhail Grudev of the IZVOR system is practicing strikes on the heavy bag. His explosive movements, performed in increased ranges of motion would be better served by compliant rather than stiff tendons. Training in slow push-ups for extended periods of time is not helpful for this type of movement.

Use them by all means at the beginning stages of your training, especially if you do not have much strength training experience – connective tissue strength is most necessary in athletic activities, such as martial arts training. You could also use slow push-ups as part of your ‘anatomical adaptation’ training periods each year, before you start using training protocols for strength and power. Regarding tendon stiffness: first and foremost, do not confuse it with joint stiffness, i.e. the inability of a joint to move through its full range of motion. Tendon stiffness, leads to an increased stiffness of the muscle-tendon complex, which basically means that your muscles become like hard rubber bands: they stretch little and they spring back fast. This is useful if your set of skills requires you to generate power in short ranges of motion. On the other side, increased tendon stiffness is NOT desirable if you need to generate a lot of power in increased ranges of motion: a tennis serve, for example does not benefit from increased tendon stiffness. One last thing on this matter, which is a bit complex: you can do with very little stiffness training altogether, if you replace the tendon stiffness with some voluntary muscular contraction that pre-stretches your tendons, thus making them momentarily stiffer (this is known as ‘active stiffness’). To understand this better, try skipping rope with your ankles in dorsiflexion (the opposite movement of pointing your toes, that is) and your calves isometrically contracted. You will see that you will be bouncing effortlessly, because your Achilles tendon will be acting as a spring, pre-stretched, thus momentarily stiffer, not structurally harder! Of course, this ‘situational tendon stiffness’ is a skill, not an attribute, so you need to practice it – it’s your choice, do what you deem appropriate. Regarding local muscular endurance: I would rather use other training methods that have the ‘stamp of approval’ of sports science, and have been used extensively by athletes over the years. Regarding mental toughness: yes, a one minute repetition of a push-up is very tough, but so is a ten-minute set of kettlebell snatches, or stationary cycling for five minutes with the resistance set to maximum. Mixing your methods might lead to better results.


During the years I was practicing a specific brand of Russian Martial Art activity (Systema-RMA), I practiced slow bodyweight resistance exercises (push-ups, sit-ups, flat-foot squats) almost exclusively for a prolonged period of time (about two years). During that period I developed chronic pain in my right shoulder that was later diagnosed as supraspinatus tendinosis. The pain gradually subsided as I added pulling exercises to my training program, pull-ups, chin-ups and horizontal rows. I personally did not see any significant increase of my punching power or punching skill (as is often promised by Systema-RMA instructors), as would be expected, since slow push-ups are neither a power nor a skill exercise. On the contrary, I experienced a dramatic increase in my punching power when I started practicing ballistic movements with kettlebells.

The purpose of this blog post was not to use fancy terms such as ‘isometric contraction’ or ‘tendon stiffness’, but rather to point out that there are no exercises that can ‘cover all your needs’, with miraculous properties, that can function as magic pills. Before you incorporate any exercise in your training, you need to know as much as possible about its benefits and drawbacks (the adaptations it brings about on your body) and how these can help you reach to your specified performance goals. This way you will train, rather than just ‘work out’.

[1] Verkhoshansky Y., Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches. Verkhoshansky SSTM, 2011. p. 83
[2] Zernicke R. F. & Loitz-Ramage B., Exercise-Related Adaptations in Connective Tissue, from Komi P. V., Strength And Power In Sport. Blackwell Science, 2003. p.107
[3] Kubo K., Kanehisa H., Fukunaga T., Effects of different duration isometric contractions on tendon elasticity in human quadriceps muscles. The Journal of Physiology (, retrieved January 2012
[4] Seluyanov V.N., Erkomayshvili I.V., Adaptation of skeletal muscles and the Theory of Physical Preparation, from Verkhoshansky Y., Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches. Verkhoshansky SSTM, 2011. p. 85


  1. First, stiffer tendons can be beneficial in "shock-absorption" and rebound type of movements, after all, that is what plyometrics are for, right?
    Second, if memory serves me right, according to earlier research the isometric contraction does strengthen the body, but only in that particular position, and maybe 5-10 degrees each way. Therefore, to gain incresed strength over the entire range of motion, one needs to do isometrics in the early, middle and late phase of the movement. However, I need to recheck on that. In any case, the gratest contribution of an isometric exercise is in the nearest-eccentric position of the movement (eg. the LOW position of the pushup), which is contrary to how it is done in most RMA environments.

  2. Hey Dragan, thanks for the comment! I believe it is maximum contraction isometrics that increase the tension-effort potential in muscles and in the slowly performed bodyweight exercises in RMA, I doubt that the effort is maximal, so increases in strength through this type of training must be way less than dramatic. That is why, to my understanding it is the constant tension factor that contributes to structural adaptations of the connective tissue and not much more. Regarding plyometrics, it is the active stiffness (through muscular pre-tension) of the muscle-tendon complex that they promote, but interestingly enough, they make tendons themselves more compliant, not stiffer.