CHICAGO -- April Calderon recently pumped out 61 pushups in 60 seconds while balancing precariously on three medicine balls, a feat that has been submitted to Guinness World Records.
The key is "great balance, mental toughness and lots and lots of practice," said Calderon, a general manager for three Anytime Fitness gyms in central Florida. "But I'm really sick of pushups right now."
Pushups, one of the best measures of upper-body fitness, are worth the pain. Traditionally, they're done while in a horizontal position -- hands and feet on the floor. Beginners can drop their knees to the floor to reduce the load they have to lift back up.
But pushups, like many body-weight exercises, can also be made more or less challenging. They're functional; they stabilize the body and prevent injury. And pushups can be done anywhere.
"They're a true resistance and core exercise," said Michele Olson, research director of the Auburn University Human Performance Laboratory in Montgomery, Ala., who incorporates pushups into every class she teaches. "They work every single muscle that you can name in your upper body."
In addition to the triceps and chest, research shows pushups also recruit the shoulder muscles, biceps and abdominals, Olson said.
Offshoots of the pushup such as the plank, or holding the body in the "up" position -- also depend on the abs. "If they didn't, the back would collapse and sag," Olson said.
In addition to resistance training, pushups are used to rehabilitate the upper body after injuries because they can activate the muscles that stabilize the shoulder blade and the shoulder joint, said David Suprak, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Western Washington University.
Calderon started with traditional pushups, progressed to an unstable surface -- a rubber dome mounted on a platform, called a BOSU ball -- and then learned to balance on the three balls.
Unless you're trying to break a record, do pushups slowly and with control. More benefits come from fewer reps with good form than from cranking out as many as possible.
Also, balance the pushup with an exercise that recruits opposing muscles. Pushups rely on the chest muscles and triceps. Rowing exercises work the opposite muscles, the biceps and lats.
Or try a modified pull-up type of exercise, with your feet on the ground and face up. Then pull your upper body upward by pulling on a bar or bench, Suprak said.
Place your palms against a wall, slightly wider than your shoulders with the fingertips pointing up. Back your feet away from the wall, about 20 inches. Lean forward, bending your elbows until your nose nearly touches the wall. Push back out to start. That's one. To make it harder, place your hands on a lower surface such as the edge of a desk. Used extensively in rehabilitation, wall pushups can decrease the amount of stress on the lumbar spine, Suprak said. But even these can irritate the shoulder for those who have a previous injury. "Makes sure your hands are low enough so the arm is not elevating above the shoulder level," he said.