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Speaking at MozCon 2015

How I Did 50,000 Push-ups

February 23, 2015 — By Dr. Pete

Like all great terrible ideas, this one began with a bet. At the end of 2011, I was chatting with some folks in the Impossible League about year-long challenges, and a collective thought formed – What if we did 100 push-ups a day (or "press-ups", as my British friends call them), every day, in 2012? For reasons I can't recall (that I assume involved liquor), I had the bright idea of just "rounding it up" to 50,000. This would, we all agreed, be epic.

Then sobriety kicked in, and I did the math.

At a very unrealistic 7 days/week schedule (no breaks, no vacations, no illness), I was looking at 137 push-ups per day. My typical workout was only 3 days/week at the time, which more than doubled that daily tally to 321 push-ups. Suddenly, the only thing that seemed epic about this plan was the impending bill from my chiropractor.

What Have I Done?!

I may have panicked... a little. Then, I took a deep breath, and I made two decisions. First, I would attempt to stick to a 6 day/week schedule. Second, no one said (or even remotely expected) that I'd be doing this in one set per workout. So, what if I ran those numbers out?

Granted, 50 sets per day isn't exactly realistic, but this was ultimately a thought exercise. Was there a number per set I could achieve? For me, that number was about 10 – so, I knew that this translated into 20 sets of 10, 5 days a week. At 6 days a week, I could cut that back to 16 sets of 10. It wouldn't be easy, but it was achievable.

It Wasn't About Fitness

Running the numbers was a wake-up call, and led to probably the most important realization about fitness goals I've ever had – it's almost never about fitness, it's about commitment. I could easily do 3 push-ups in a set. If I was willing to do that 50 times a day, 7 days a week, I could do 50,000 push-ups. Sure, that wouldn't be easy, convenient, or fun, but it was physically possible. The trick was to pick a number I could live with and commit to it.

Within a couple of months I was doing sets of 20+ regularly, and late in the year I could do 5 sets of 40 and top my daily goal easily. On March 16th, I clocked my first 1,000 push-up day, something I never would've dreamed was possible for me. On December 20, 2012, I did my 50,000th push-up. That same day, I finished my secondary goal of 25,000 sit-ups.

What I Think I Learned

An astute reader may notice that all of these events happened in 2012, and I'm writing this in 2015. Honestly, I keep hoping to find the one ultimate lesson in all of this that will magically inspire, but time has taught me that it's just not there. The truth is that I did the work.

Objectively, this wasn't a very balanced workout. I pushed too hard, especially in March (when I took on a 30-day push-up challenge on Fitocracy), and I'm lucky I didn't end up with a serious shoulder injury. I eased up after that, and tried to learn my lesson.

On the other hand, I got stronger – the entire year. It was real, functional strength (I could tell when I picked up my daughter, who turned two that year), and it didn't plateau. Dozens of people told me at the beginning of the year why this workout was a bad idea, and maybe it was, but not for any of the reasons they gave me. People have a lot of strong opinions about exercise, and 95% of what you'll hear from 95% of people is just that – opinions.

In retrospect, the workout didn't matter that much. Sticking to a big goal for an entire year changed my outlook on just about everything I do. In October 2013, I finished my first marathon (5:13:39 – not spectacular, but hardly embarrassing), something I had talked about for years and never made the commitment to do.

I think now in big, year-long goals, and when I doubt I'm capable, I always look back on those 50,000 push-ups. It didn't have to be push-ups – really, it didn't matter. What mattered was finishing something I never seriously believed was possible.