If you can’t do a single pushup… instead, do this.

At some moments in life, maybe it’s a welcome question to wonder: what pushup am I not doing because I’m telling myself it’s too hard?

When we lived in Israel, Noam used to meet a personal trainer in the park once or twice a week. The intensive training was great, but even more important was the company, structure, and  proximity of a positive role model. (For that matter, I guess that’s a reason a lot of people use personal trainers.)

And Doron was really something special. He had written a book (Breakfast with Kings) and he regaled Noam with stories of his own Aliyah and growing up, all while quickly honing in on the music and exercises Noam liked best. With Doron’s encouragement and enthusiasm, Noam entered the citywide 5k run and his bright red sweaty face at the finish line positively glowed with pride, captured in a blurry photo which I treasure still.

Noam’s memories of this time have faded somewhat, but they remain crystal clear for me. There was one day in particular that I feel like I watched a lesson in athletics but also is a metaphor I have grabbed onto for life.

That afternoon, I was watching my little ones and glancing over to see Noam make his way through chair sits and monkey bars and boxing gloves before getting to the “pushups” portion of the workout.

Now, pushups are hard. Really hard. They seem like they’d be easy, but they require small muscles and you have to support your full body weight. Some kids are good at them just because they don’t have much body weight to move, but it’s pretty common for people to not even be able to do a single pushup, or to have to move their bodies in weird ways in order to get off the ground.

Which was the situation Noam was in.

And surveying the struggle, Doron offered this advice:

“You know what to do when you can’t do a pushup?”

And Noam, body prostrated out on the ground, hands to his sides as if he were about to execute the move, jutted his chin forward to look at Doron standing over him.

“No, what?” 

Doron looked down at him. “You do six of them.”

Doron was so kind and gentle, so deliciously mischievous in this moment that it didn’t occur to me at the time that this might be a draconian demand in another context. I had expected him to tell Noam to go to his knees, or put his hands up on a box, or some other modification that would “count” as a pushup, while building his muscles and moving him closer to the goalpost.

Noam looked at him, then looked down, repositioned his hands, and executed a perfect pushup.

The thing is, human limitations are really weird. We’re so strangely held back by our own sense of normalcy and expectations that sometimes, it takes another person to suggest that we not hold ourselves back.  When you declare a pushup to be a difficult move, it’s easy to identify as a person who can’t do a really difficult move, so of course you can’t do it, and then— here’s the weird thing— your muscles somehow conspire with that belief. You actually can’t do a pushup. And when you normalize it as a small thing that you can do a lot of, you somehow can.

This makes me think about the oft-repeated tale about breaking the four-minute barrier in running the mile. The way that I have heard the story, professional mile-runners raced for decades after the advent of timing chips and races. The fastest time ever recorded was just over four minutes, and people thought that was the limit of human speed for that distance. Then, in 1954, a guy named Roger Bannister finished a mile just ahead of four minutes, and a short while later, this became the norm for mile-runner champions. 

The thing that really strikes me about this is that before Bannister, it’s not like mile runners were constantly holding themselves back, thinking “oh dear, that’s impossible, I best not even try.” They weren’t thinking to themselves, “it’s impossible to get any faster at this.” No. They were professional athletes who trained every day to beat their own and others’ best recorded times so they weren’t looking at their watches and trying to asymptotically approach the far side of four minutes. They were rather running their hearts out, trying to come in as very fast as they possibly could. In fact, quite possibly, they were even oblivious to the time on the clock because who can be paying attention to that while they’re running a mile in four minutes?

And still, the fact that they hadn’t done it before, that it had never been done before, somehow was a barrier that we can’t really explain. But when it was gone, it was swept away, pretty thoroughly it would seem. There are apparently close to 2,000 recorded sub-four minute miles recorded, and the world record, now held by Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj, is close to 17 seconds faster than Bannister’s breakthrough time. How’s that for not having a limiting belief?

And that leads me to the motivation industry, filled with people willing to step in to charge you money to tell you can sweep away your limitations with the right mindset. The space is filled with personal stories of profound transformation, and a person’s sole credential might very well be that they themselves started off worse than you did, and ended up far better.

Somehow, a few clicks into the curious space, my social media ad targeting apparently pegged me as a person who wanted to get more clients for a personal coaching business. Now I not only see advertisements for personal coaching out of sad life circumstances, but advertisements by coaches trying to coach coaches into getting more coaching clients. It’s an additional layer of snake oil, but I can’t help but feel a great tenderness to the whole endeavor. 

The sheer idea that you have somehow been limiting yourself can feel like a gift you have been given. All of a sudden, the life you are leading is shaken free of its rootedness and fixity, and you have been given permission to imagine something different for yourself. The mere fantasy feels like a remedy. At some moments in life, maybe it’s a welcome question to wonder: what pushup am I not doing because I’m telling myself it’s too hard?

Because here’s another thing: although most American adults probably can’t do a pushup, the distance to getting one isn’t actually that hard. If you try a bunch of times over a bunch of weeks, those muscles build up pretty quickly.  

So go ahead! Here’s some permission, offered for free, no coaching contract required: Dream of pushups, of new careers, relationships, unbridled successes. Imagine that nothing holds you back. Feel the exhilaration of a world welcoming your greatest desires. Whether or not it’s a realistic view of the world, the feeling itself need not be limited by our own beliefs. And when you’re flat on your belly, depleted, unable to get up, maybe this is the best time to tell yourself: it’s not one at a time. It’s not eking out one and checking off a box. You are capable of so much more. When “one” is one too many, do six instead. It’s good life advice. 

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