By Lawrence Braverman
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” – Ecclesiastes
I’ve developed a tendency to run up escalators and flights of stairs in my older years, taking them two at a time. That can happen when one practices Zhan Zhuang or T’ai Chi, both famous for making one’s legs powerful again. That can foster a ticklish sense of exuberance that I’ll often release rather than contain in a more age-appropriate manner.
As for my bonafides as an actual codger: I remember Woodstock on the Monday morning after it was all over. I’d somehow been roped into helping pick up the countless muddy and abandoned sleeping bags dotting the rain-soaked fields one by one in a very desultory fashion, when, suddenly, Jimi Hendrix… HENDRIX! It could be no other! Jimi, an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War was beginning to play a Star Spangled Banner like no other ever had, howls of protest in every note. Such magic drew me straightaway to the barren stage, thoughts of mud and sleeping bags forgotten.
But back to the stairs in Riverside Park. Racing up them recently, taking them two at a time, on the very last step, the toe of my sneaker caught the concrete and WHAP!
And immediately, a chorus of: “Uh oh! Uh oh! Uh oh! Uh oh!
How many times have I seen a crowd surrounding some unfortunate, lying on a sidewalk, or even in the street, unable (or unwilling) to rise again, awaiting…the police…an ambulance…both? I’ve never actually seen a fall occur, only the aftermath: a rushing citizen in the midst of a life of accomplishment and BLAM! Transformed into a powerless object of sympathy, all other agendas having faded to black. And just like that, The Rubicon of one’s life has been crossed— there but for the grace of GOD go us all.
Are you all right?!” someone asked me.
Wow, was I? All but my ego. Mainly I was embarrassed and just wanted out of there fast.
Jumping to my feet, I yelled, “Fine thanks” and raced on to Riverside Blvd, crossing it the work of an instant.
What had happened? Was I incredibly lucky? Blessed?
Last month, I wrote a story called Standing Beats Falling, which exhorted the importance of leg strength in preventing falls, and the benefits of two ancient exercise practices known as Zhan Zhuang and T’ai Chi. I am now adding that upper body strength can save your life should you go down. If upon falling our arms are weak and can’t catch the ground to stop that fall, then the real damage occurs: the skull, the face, the clavicle, the chest , the hips take the whole force of it, and, then, the blood, the concussion, the hip fracture, the broken bones occur.
To strengthen my arms and upper body, I do two pushups several times a week — actually, a special form of pushup I may well have invented. My recovery from my fall made all that work worthwhile; the cost of every pushup through the years was amply rewarded during that one fraught moment where life and death were in balance and things could’ve gone either way. I’d caught the ground with my arms; none of my upper body ever actually made contact with the ground. And because T’ai Chi, Zhan Zhuang, and pushups are weight-bearing exercises, my bones have actually been made stronger. The only thing I’d injured was my pride — okay, my palms stung a little, but that was over by the time I got home.
Now for my pushup, which I call the Glacial Plank.
First, I use pushup handles, because I don’t want to bend my carpel tunnel wrists any more than I have to, and because I get more of a stretch in the shoulders and chest area. I come down further than if I was just doing an unaided pushup against the ground.
l start my stopwatch, then grasp the tops of the pushup handles (which are on the ground, parallel, at shoulder width). I’m locked in the “up” pushup position. After about five seconds, I start to descend very slowly, at a glacial pace; it might take close to a minute and a half to reach the handles with my chest. I descend a little further, which is where the greater stretch comes in. Without pushup handles, I would have to stop descending once I reached the ground.
Just before my chest touches the ground, I stop and hang out for another five seconds or so, then start my my rise back to the top of the pushup position. Then, I’ll start to descend again for pushup number two. I try for two glacial pushups in two minutes, which is a good amount of “time under tension,” and advances hypertrophy [muscle building]. You can start with what works for you and build from there. You can even start with your knees on the ground, making it easier still.
Do protect your body by making it stronger top to bottom, and you, too, will be able to say, with justifiable pride: I fell and I got back up.
What a fabulous piece of writing. It is much harder to do strength exercises slowly, because you don’t have any momentum caused by the speed of the movement to assist you. Plus, the slower you go, the more aware of the form you are.
A perfect post! As a fitness professional, I support this story and remember, you’re never too old to focus on fitness and strength. Emergency muscle recruitment will happen and better those muscles are prepared. You’ve recounted an inevitability with a perfect result. The slow “time under tension” is a mental and physical challenge in our fast paced, attention grabbing world so I commend your patience and perseverance (obviously earned through years of steady exercise practice). The Glacial Plank is a wonderfully descriptive name that done consistently, pays off big time. Thanks for sharing your story and inspiring others.
Does anyone have suggestions on the UWS for lessons?
I love this article. I had no idea tai chi strengthened legs. It just looked like low impact slow motion movement to me. And I will be on the lookout for pushup handles. I will impress myself if/when I finally achieve a glacial pushup.
Christine E- Thank you for the kind words.
T’ai Chi and Zhan Zhuang are both Chinese neijia (internal arts). If you’ll permit yourself to embrace one or both of them, you’ll develop the ability to expand your entire sense of yourself as an entity moving through space, making you more aware of, for example, how you’re walking, in the moment: encouraging you to commit to putting your WHOLE foot onto the ground each time you put a foot down; that alone will make you more stable. It’s a talent that not everybody has developed or practice judging from my experience of watching people walk the streets through the years.
Please — Where can I take tai chi and Zhan Zhuang lessons on the upper west side?
Long River Tai Chi is great. Classes are on West 100th St. Contact Tim @ longrivertaichi.com, 917-842-4814
My husband and I loved Tim’s classes.
Tai chi is taught twice a week at BeFit on Broadway & 104th. Been going for a couple years. Highly recommend.
Wow! Great article – instructive, cautionary, and, dare I say it? Funny (but I’m someone who laughs at the ole banana peel routine). Hopefully, if I follow Mr. Braverman’s regimen, I might spare myself a “rubicon crossing”… thank you!
Well written , concise and entertaining as always by Mr. Braverman.
This heavily wrist technique percussionist will probably pass on these push ups though I continue to hike and schlep drums as I near eighty.
I fall all the time and thanks to my yoga/pilates/HIIT/running, etc. I’ve never gotten seriously injured. Just bad bruises. But agreed it’s my ego that suffers the largest bruise. So embarrassing. The funniest and strangest fall was just a few months ago. I was taking the Q train back from Canal St. to Times Square and sitting with my legs crossed, totally relaxed. The train swerved and I literally fell out of my seat and on the floor. No one ever mentions that when discussing the dangers of subway riding!
I’m almost with you. About two years ago, busing to a gallery one day after pandemic constraints lightened, I had my right leg on a poorly designed interior bus stair looking for a seat. The bus jerked. A couple of fractures, meniscus tears and tears later, I’ve improved , but will never be as mobile or as pain-free as I was before the bus jerk.
Francesca I am so sorry this happened to you! Looks like we need seatbelts on buses and subways after all.
This happened to Francesca because the bus took off while she was still boarding. That happened to a woman I know who is in her twenties. She broke her hip.
Nice. I was two years old during Woodstock and I’m still almost always the fastest person up the subway stairs. My doctor asked about my exercise routine and I said let me tell you about my commute, where every day I have to go up and down nine flights of stairs, walk a mile and catch four trains. She said keep it up. Now I can’t retire.
This morning I was learning new scales on my guitar. Gotta keep moving or you die.
Bob Dylan said it like this: “He not busy being born is busy dying” Or she, of course; Mx, the whole gamut, the thought still holds true; rust never rests.
Mr. Braverman, You were well prepared and also very lucky.
I absolutely agree; it’s not an experience I’m looking to replicate, but it happens to all.
Being present & relaxed yet in a state of readiness for whatever is to come is all.
KEEPING ONE’S MIND AND BODY ACTIVE AND IN GOOD SHAPE IS ALWAYS A PLUS!
I too at Woodstock…sleeping on a sleeping bag under a tarp due to the rain…I hope we didn’t leave it behind for you to pick up. congrats on the Jimi event…I missed it. And I too fell ….at the top of stairs …just this past Oct. Actually the top of the escalator at Trader Joes. I survived but think I’ll look into Zhan Zhuang. My legs need something. The Glacial Plank is beyond my imagining. Good writing. Keep writing.
Check out: INSIDE ZHAN ZHUANG by Mark Cohen. Lots of good ideas, photos, postures. 340 pages or so. A treasure.
look at the reviews:
Also pretty good, photos a little iffy:
Traditional Chinese Therapeutic Exercises: Standing Pole (Traditional Chinese Therapeutic Exercises and Techniques) by Moffett, J.P.C., Wang Xuanjie
Check out Fall Stop Move Strong for less strenuous exercises that promote balance , stability and safety when falling. I’ m 89 and have been taking these classes for fifteen years. I’ve fallen several times and haven’t broken anything.
I took a class with a similar name at the JCC. Very helpful.
Another practical hint: don’t carry large awkward packages in front of you so you can’t see where you’re putting your feet. I was moving a big potted plant on my terrace with the leaves in my face. Didn’t see a loose brick on the terrace floor. Tripped and broke my kneecap. Won’t do that again.
I’ve been doing Zhan Zhuang and Qigong on my own for years and have been entirely unsuccessful in persuading anyone to give Zhan Zhuang a serious try. It is refreshing to learn that someone else appreciates it, and right here on the UWS.
Janie J- I’m overwhelmed when I start to reflect upon Zhan Zhuang; how literally just standing there (no special equipment, special clothes or sweating) and doing this correctly (very important) can be one of the most (if not THE most) powerful exercises and/or meditations I’ve ever tried and yes: I see mostly glazed eyes when I start to recount how amazing this practice actually can be.
The founding teachers who came up with this long ago were geniuses, of that I have no doubt.
A wonderfully written tale, also inspiring me to renew my Tai Chi practice dormant now for almost 30 years! I am not sure about the push-ups because of two rotator cuff surgeries, however I can modify.
Labor Day, running confidently at Hudson River Park until I stumbled. My ego was fine but my shoulder was broken (could’ve been my face). NYFD took me to Bellevue – I didn’t have my ID and suggested we go to NYU Langone so I could use my fingerprint, but they told me Bellevue is better for trauma. I’m still going regularly for physical therapy. In a strange way it’s been a positive experience – we really do have well functioning public health care. I was 9 during Woodstock – did you find any freak flags in the mud?
Bellevue has one of the largest emergency departments in the country and the doctors at Bellevue all come from NYU next door under contract with the city. You’re not missing anything at Bellevue carewise. It might not always look as nice though.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in your story about being sure to carry your health cards with you when exercising outdoors!
That makes too much sense!
I’m stunned that no medical professionals have countered this claim that falling on arms/hands is a good thing. I slipped on ice, put my hand out and, and my hand was bent backwards. Yes, surgery was required. Sometimes, one cannot stop a fall, and no falling education would have made a difference. I hope others will join me in questioning putting out hands to prevent other damage.
One thing I learned when taking skiing lessons many many years ago — the instructor insisted on our learning how to fall!
Admittedly this was on snow, but the basic idea is totally sound: GO COMPLETELY LIMP AND IF POSSIBLE CURL UP A LITLE. BUT IT IS THE LIMPNESS THAT COUNTS – it’s not easy to do this – you have to kind of make it second nature. If you tense up when falling, easier to break something.
I totally agree! During years of horseback riding as a child I learned never to put my arms out to break a fall. Instead, you curl up as you fall saving your arms, hands and head and neck. I still have a muscle memory to do that if I fall and have saved myself from breaking bones.
After sustaining at 2 different times a colle fracture (in my wrist), I too wonder about this.
If you catch the ground with your arms you’re bound to break your “carpal tunnel wrists” eventually.
I found someone lying face down in the middle of 79th street a few weeks ago after having fallen and was bleeding profusely from her face. I stopped traffic, picked her up and carried her to the curb until an ambulance arrived.
How terrible, but how good of you to help her!
Absolutely Great. However….
Look both ways when you cross the street!
This may be the best introduction of expressing how important it is to stay active ..Mr Braverman you truly have a gift of writing..taking the reader on a visual journey with your eclectic style . Not only is it entertaining but your objective is and was to help .. hopefully all the people who will come across this will take heed. -Latwann