Push-up Habits

On Wednesdays, I teach the black belt class and the junior beginner class back-to-back. The black belt class is for ages twelve and younger, and the junior beginner class is for white, yellow, and orange belts, ages seven to eleven.

The difference between the two classes is striking for a number of reasons, some of which are on my end, and some of which are on the students’. For my part, the black belts get to learn advanced material, while the beginners work on the basics. The black belts sweat and throw each other around, while the beginners have fun and learn about respect, self-discipline, and self-control.

However, what the juxtaposition of these two classes illuminates is the level of enthusiasm between a beginner and an advanced student. While the length of their careers evidences their love of the martial arts, the black belts are often lazy and complacent because they’ve been doing it for so long. They’re comfortable, and it takes extra effort on my part to keep them motivated, interested, and at peak performance.

By contrast, the beginners are hungry, brimming with excitement, and eager to please. Everything is new, so they don’t mind doing jumping jacks, push-ups, and sit-ups. It’s still fun because they haven’t amassed the thousands of repetitions that come with wearing a black belt.

These two dynamics are ironic because my expectations for the black belts are much higher than they are for the beginners, but the beginners exceed my expectations far more frequently than the black belts do.

One pet peeve of mine is when a black belt wimps his way through a set of push-ups with terrible form, rushing just to get them over with. It’s inexcusable. Upon seeing this today, I realized that such a student suffers from one thing: bad habits.

Somewhere along the way, they allowed themselves to get by with crappy push-ups, and now they can’t imagine doing them any other way.

The problem with bad habits is that the longer they’ve existed, the harder they are to rectify. Hence, my inability to cure certain students of their straight-leg syndrome, noodle-arm disease, or mountain-butt push-ups. As I explained to them, I can only tell them what to fix so many times; eventually, the change has to come from within. Self-discipline is the name of the game.

I’ve only been working with this particular generation of black belts for about seven months — a fraction of their training — while I’ve known most of the beginners from day one. It dawned on me that I did not want these beginners to lose their enthusiasm or develop bad habits that would plague them for the rest of their martial arts careers.

As such, we spent about ten minutes discussing what makes a good push-up, what bad habits to avoid, and what good habits to cultivate instead. Nothing depresses me more than seeing an advanced student with his arms out in front of him and his butt up in the air, bobbing his head like a chicken and groaning because I told him to do twenty-five. I told the beginners that if they wanted to get stronger, they needed to start doing good push-ups right now. If you develop bad habits now, I said, you will always groan over push-ups because they will always be painful and difficult. But if you learn to do them right — even if you can only do one — you’ll get stronger every single day. That’s when one becomes two, and two becomes ten.

Imagine doing crappy push-ups for four years; they’re still going to hurt, even after all that time. But imagine doing awesome push-ups for four years; think of how many you’d be able to do! I’ve learned to love push-ups by doing a lot of them properly. As I stressed to the class, creating a foundation of good habits serves you well time and time again.

I don’t mean to tout my teaching abilities, but the “good habits vs bad habits” lesson seemed to resonate, and it got me thinking about my own bad habits, which kick my ass on a daily basis:

I’m pretty sure I’ve been biting my nails since birth.

I will go to bed at 3am and sleep until noon if left undisturbed.

I usually say, “Nothing.” when asked what’s bothering me.

Just to name a few. Some time long ago, I picked these things up, and now I struggle with them. Sometimes I can stop biting my nails for a few weeks, but I always regress. Alarms and obligations do a pretty good job of managing my sleep schedule, and sometimes I’ll be comfortable enough to express myself openly. But it’s always an effort.

A foundation of good habits is invaluable. You can’t be a strong martial artist if you have a weak horse-stance. You just can’t. And bending your knees after years of having straight legs hurts like hell.