Many people avoid push-ups as much as they avoid doing weekend chores. In fact, when you go to a gym, odds are you will see more people favoring the bench press, dumbbells or cable machines more than you will see on the floor grinding out a set of push-ups. In fact, some gyms don’t even have designated floor space, hindering what could be one of the best upper body strength and cardio exercises that you could be doing. That’s ok though as you don’t need a gym membership in order to tackle a set of push-ups. As a great “do anywhere” exercise, push-ups are a versatile exercise that can be done in your bedroom, living room, office, park or basically anywhere that you can find enough space to lay your body out.
Benefits Of Push-Ups
In a previous article, we outlined in detail the benefits of doing push-ups. As with other compound exercises, there are many benefits to adding push-ups to your regular workout routine. Not only do push-ups help build the muscles in your arms, but they also target your chest, back, core and lower body in order to keep the body stable and upright. By incorporating a number of different muscle groups, push-ups are in fact a cardiovascular exercise as your heart has to put in extra work in order to maintain proper blood flow throughout your body to allow those muscles to work properly. With a wide range and near countless variety, keeping your mind and body challenged is easily done, but not always as easily accomplished.
As you change the placement of your hands or feet and the position of your body, you will also be challenging your balance and stability, especially when you incorporate single arm or single leg or equipment like push-up bars, a Bosu ball or balance board. Because most of our every-day activity involves some sort of pushing motion (grocery cart, baby stroller, etc), push-ups as a functional exercise are very important to helping us get through our daily routines. As an anytime / anywhere exercise, push-ups are a great “pick me up” exercise that can help improve both your physical and mental health and wellness.
Push-Up Variations and The Muscles Involved
One of the great things about push-ups is that the variety is almost endless. Chances are there are some variations that you have never even heard of or thought of doing (or maybe they just go by a different name). While regular push-ups are a perfect addition to any exercise program, at some point doing the same old / same old can become boring and stagnant. Whether you are new to exercise or a committed to a regular workout schedule, there are push-ups for everyone that will help improve and challenge your strength, coordination and balance. We will look at a dozen different push-ups variations.
*Many of the following exercises target the same muscle groups, but we will identify the primary muscles for each.
The regular push-up is the ground work for any variation that you may attempt. Once you have these under your belt, it is the foundation all other variations. Starting in a table top position, place your hands shoulder width apart and straighten your legs out behind you, balancing on your toes. Keep your wrists in line with your shoulders and make sure that your body remains in a plank like position. As your elbows bend and your lower to the ground, make sure that your elbows don’t flare out (keep them roughly 45 degree angle), keeping your core engaged and back flat. Lower down until your chest is approximately a fist height from the floor. Return to start.
Target Muscles – Pectorals, Deltoids, Triceps, Abdominals, Serratus Anterior
One of the best and most effective triceps exercise, the diamond push-up is often preferred over dips or triceps kickbacks. Some prefer this form of push-ups over dips because it puts less emphasis on your shoulders and more on the triceps. Starting in a plank position, place your hands just under your chest with your thumbs and index fingers in a triangle shape. Keep your elbows tight to your rib cage and lower your body to the floor and then press back to your starting position.
Target Muscles – Triceps, Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoids
Starting in a downward dog position (yoga pose), place your hands and feet slightly wider than shoulder width with your hands just in front of your head. Maintaining the pike position, bend your elbows and lower yourself towards the floor until the top of your head almost touches the ground. If you want to add a progression, place your feet on a raised surface as the higher your hips are the more weight there will be on your shoulders and arms. Return to start.
Target Muscles – Anterior Deltoids, Triceps
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Starting in regular push-up position with hands slightly wider than shoulder width, place one hand approximately chest height. Lower your body to the ground as you would a regular push-up. After returning to starting position switch hands or continue for set amount of reps and then switch.
Target Muscles – Focuses more on the triceps, pectorals and deltoid muscle groups asymmetrically.
From a regular push-up position as you lower yourself to the ground, bring one knee out to the side of your body and aim to touch your elbow with your knee at the lowest point of your push-up. As you return to start, your leg returns to proper plank position. Some choose to mix the Spiderman and staggered hands push-ups together.
Target Muscles – Core, Lower Back, Glutes
After completing a regular push-up, pause at the top and tap the opposite shoulder with the opposite hand (left hand/right shoulder etc). You can choose to tap one shoulder after a single push-up or tap both and then resume your push-up. Focus on keeping your hips pointed towards the floor so your torso doesn’t rotate.
Target Muscles – Triceps and Core.
Single Leg Raised
It may sound tougher than it actually is. While performing your push-up, elevate one leg off the floor (height may vary as you become stronger and more comfortable with instability). With the body balancing on only three points, the focus on the stabilizer muscles is optimal.
Target Muscles – Glutes, Spinal Stabilizers, Abdominals, Hamstrings, Quadriceps.
Starting in a regular push-up position, place your hands in line with your stomach with your fingers pointing towards your feet or turned slightly outward (depending on your flexibility). Press into the floor to lift your body into a push-up position as you lean your weight forward into your chest and shoulders.
Target Muscles – Anterior Deltoids, Biceps, Pectorals and Trapezius
For some, an explosive push-up can be defined as just pushing yourself up enough that you can remove your hands off the ground for a split second. For others, they are able to launch themselves off the ground enough to clap their hands before landing. One of the most challenging explosive push-ups is the Superman Push-Up. Starting in regular push-up position, lower yourself to the ground and then with your core and upper thighs engaged, explode your entire body off the ground with your arms extended out in front of you and your legs extended fully behind. Land softly.
Target Muscles - Abdominals
Performing an archer push-up requires you to place a higher percentage of your bodyweight onto one arm more than the other. Start in a regular push-up position you’re your arms slightly wider than shoulder width. Lower the body down to one side by bending the elbow and straightening the opposite arm out to the other side. Return to start. Repeat on the opposite side. The closer your pushing arm is to your body, the archer push-up will target different muscles.
Target Muscles – Pectoralis Major, Triceps, Anterior Deltoid
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From a regular push-up position, move laterally to the left by crossing your right hand over the top of the left and moving left leg outward. Perform a push-up. Repeat the movement in the opposite direction. Continue for desired rep count.
Target Muscles – Same as regular push-ups, but this exercise incorporates more coordination and agility.
Triceps Extension / Sphinx
From a forearm plank position (or you can choose to start in a regular push-up position, just make sure your hands are out in front of your shoulders), make sure your elbows are aligned under your shoulders. With core engaged, press into your hands to lift your elbows off of the floor, until your arms are straight. Slowly return to the starting forearm plank position without allowing your elbows to flare outward.
Target Muscles – Triceps, Rectus Abdominis
How To Make Push-Ups Easier:
Hands Elevated / Incline
The higher your hands are above your feet, the less weight you have to lift. Placing your hands shoulder width apart on a table or bench, with your feet behind you on the ground. The higher your hands are, the easier the push-up will be.
Modified / Knees
A progression step towards regular push-ups for those still not able to completely and safely support your body weight. Starting in a table top position, hand and knees on the floor, place your hands and wrists directly under your shoulders. Walk your legs back slightly and lift your feet off the floor, creating a straight line from your knees through to the back of your head. Without letting your hips dip, keeping your tail bone tucked, you can perform a wide range of push-up variations with different hand placements.
Negatives / Eccentric Phase
If you are unable to perform a full push-up, try doing just the downward motion to start. From a straight arm plank position, slowly lower yourself all the way to the floor. From there you can use your knees or support in order to return to the starting position.
How To Make Push-Ups Harder:
Feet Elevated / Decline
By placing your feet on a stable (or even unstable surface for those who want an even harder challenge) surface, the higher your feet are than the rest of your body, the more weight on your upper body muscle groups, especially your pectorals and deltoids.
Time Under Tension
Most push-ups are done with a constant smooth motion, however slowing your pace will place more tension on your muscle groups. Try a 3-1-3 count (3 seconds down, 1 second freeze, 3 second up) or even freezing your position at certain points along the way.
Whether you choose to use a weight vest or even with weight plates (positioned safely) on your back or a resistance band across your upper back, adding weight to your push-ups will create a more challenging version of your favorite push-up.
Can Push-Ups Build Muscle?
As with most body weight exercises, people are often under the impression that they do not build muscle and just tone, which is false. However, in order not to over train your chest, triceps and shoulders it is important to change up the variation of your push-ups and take the appropriate rest day in order for your muscles to repair and recover. As with building muscle by increasing weights to your barbell or dumbbell exercises, adding the challenge of different types of push-ups or increasing the time under tension or resistance will help build your upper body muscles. You may also want to consider the time of when you perform your push-ups in your workout, alternating from the beginning to middle to end for different levels of fatigue.
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