Build a Muscular, Functionally Strong Chest with Push-Ups
The push-up remains to this day one of the very best upper body exercises in existence. Some people may shy away from push-ups, mistakenly thinking that since push-ups are simple and old-school, there must be something better out there with all the fancy gym equipment around these days.
It’s a mistake to overlook the classic push-up exercise. As a personal trainer who has studied many exercise modalities, I can tell you that the push up is a classic for a good reason, and should be a staple of your exercise routine.
Read this article to learn all about why the push-up is so great, as well as push-up muscle anatomy, exercise guidelines for push-ups, how to perform the perfect push-up step by step, how to modify the push up exercise for different fitness levels, and many variations of push-ups complete with videos.
What Makes The Push-Up So Great?
The push-up is a great exercise for so many reasons. Here are the top three reasons that I love push-ups, both for myself and for the clients I train:
- Push-ups are EFFECTIVE. The push-up is one of the very best ways to work out your chest, triceps, and core muscles. Push-ups make your muscles look better aesthetically, build functional strength, and improve core stability. Learn more about functional strength here and core stability here.
- Push-ups are CONVENIENT. Requiring no gym equipment, the push-up is an anytime, anywhere exercise. It’s accessible to everyone, whether or not you can afford a gym membership or home gym equipment.
- Push-ups CAN BE MODIFIED for many different purposes. There is a push-up exercise variation suitable for pretty much anyone. They can be made easier for people needing to work up to regular push-ups, or they can be progressed in difficulty to provide more of a challenge to those who have mastered the basic exercise.
Bodyweight exercises such as the push-up are often overlooked because they have no marketing department trying to sell you equipment! I am a big fan of many bodyweight exercises, not just the push-up; read my article on the benefits of bodyweight training exercise (https://www.askthetrainer.com/benefits-of-bodyweight-training-exercises/) to learn why you should join me in loving bodyweight exercises, as well as several great bodyweight exercises to build into your workouts in addition to the push-up.
Push-Up Muscle Anatomy
The primary muscles worked out during push-ups are your chest muscles, your shoulder muscles, your triceps, and your core.
The push-up is one of the best strength training exercises to target the main chest muscle: pectoralis major. A well-developed and functionally strong chest is a common goal for both male and female exercisers. Chest workouts are important to balance back workouts, ensuring muscle balance in the upper body. If I had to choose only one chest exercise to do for the rest of my life, I would choose push-ups over the bench press, pec flys, or any other chest workout out there due to the many unique benefits offered by the push-up.
Your shoulder muscles also get a great workout during push-ups, especially the anterior deltoids, which often synergize with pectoralis major during pushing movements.
Triceps, the muscle making up the back of the arm and balancing the biceps, also get blasted by push-ups. Adding push-ups to your routine can help balance out the bicep work many of us choose to focus on.
The core muscles are often overlooked in discussions of the push-up exercise, but push-ups require a lot of engagement from the core to properly stabilize the body. Thus, push-ups help build functional strength and stability in the core, which helps prevent injury and leads to better quality of movement during exercise and daily life. The core is not just the abs, but also the deep abdominal muscles, the lower back, the hip stabilizers…even the shoulder girdle can be considered part of the core. All of these get a great workout during push-ups.
Exercise Guidelines for the Perfect Push-Up Exercise
The most important aspect of performing push-ups is not how many set and reps (https://www.askthetrainer.com/sets-and-reps/) you can do; it’s your form. I would be more proud of a client who performed ten perfect push-ups and then collapsed in exhaustion than a client who performed a hundred crappy push-ups. Proper form ensures that you are getting the most out of the exercise in terms of strength training benefits while preventing injury or exacerbation of posture issues. Click here to learn more about posture problems.
Essential aspects of perfect push-up form include:
- ALIGNMENT: A straight “racing stripe” should be able to be drawn down the side of the body, hitting all the important checkpoints. Ear, shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle should all be aligned.
- CORE STABILIZATION: The core must be kept tight and stable. If the core sags toward the ground or the butt is sticking up in the air, you need to engage your core muscles. Either of these problems will be immediately apparent if you do an alignment check, looking for that “racing stripe”.
- SHOULDERS BACK AND DOWN: The shoulder blades must be pinched together and downward to stabilize the shoulder joints and prevent injury. Don’t let the upper back round or the shoulders hunch up toward the ears. Keep the shoulders back and down as if you were trying to tuck your shoulders into your back pockets. This is referred to as “scapular retraction”, and is a key element of proper form during exercise.
As far as tempo goes, when it comes to muscle development, time under tension is more important than speed. Go at a speed that allows you to focus on all aspects of perfect push-up form and you will get all the benefits push-ups have to offer.
As with any strength training exercise, it’s best to allow 48 hours between chest workouts using exercises like push-ups to allow your muscles time to rest, recover, and rebuild.
If you’re strength training your upper body, you need to stretch during both your warm up and cool down process. Read our article on upper body stretches (https://www.askthetrainer.com/upper-body-stretches/) to find out flexibility exercises for your chest, shoulders, and other upper body muscles.
Got all that? Good. You’re ready to do a perfect push-up!
How to Perform the Perfect Push-Up Step by Step
1) To begin the movement, lay flat on your belly on the floor. Always start your push-ups from flat on the floor to better build your functional strength.
2) Remembering all the points mentioned above regarding push-up form, push yourself up off the floor, pushing through the heel of your palm to generate greater force.
3) As you push upward, avoid locking your elbows into hyperextension; just straighten your arms without snapping the joint.
4) At the top of the movement, you are in what’s referred to as “plank position”, because your body should be as straight as a plank if you’re paying attention to your core stabilization and alignment.
5) Lower down until your chest is close to the ground without actually touching it, never sacrificing that plank-like alignment in an attempt to make it seem like you’re getting closer to the floor than you actually are. Prepare to push back up.
Congratulations! You have just completed one rep of the perfect push-up. Just do fifty more and then you’re done! Just kidding; again, simply focus on form, doing perfect push-ups until your muscles are fatigued. If you keep it up, your functional strength will improve with time and you’ll be able to do higher reps with ease.
How to Modify the Push-Up for Different Fitness Levels
The push-up exercise is simple to regress (make easier) as well as progress (make more challenging). The number one rule of progressing exercises is to make sure have mastered the basic movement before trying anything “cute”.
In this case, you need to be able to easily perform several reps of the perfect push-up described above before doing any of the following progressions. If you can’t do perfect push-ups yet, consider the following regressions to help build your strength toward being able to do push-ups and push-up progressions.
Regressing the Push-Up
Whether you’re a girl or a guy, avoid the “girlie” push-up at all costs. “Girlie” or “knee” push-ups build bad form habits, failing to engage your core muscles. If regular push-ups are too hard, regress the push-up exercise by raising the angle of your upper body onto a stable surface and performing the exact exercise described above.
Vertical push-ups standing with your hands against the wall are the easiest push-up variation. Once you’re good with that, trying doing push-ups against a countertop, then other low stable surfaces until you can do regular push-ups with your hands on the floor. You will likely need to stick with the regressed push-up for a few weeks before you notice significant gains in strength.
You can also perform regressed push-ups later on in a chest workout when you want to totally burn out your chest, but are too fatigued to do regular push-ups.
Check out this exercise video demonstrating how to use a weight bench to raise the angle of your upper body during push-ups.
Progressing the Push-Up
One simple way to progress the push-up is to do the opposite of what we do to regress it: instead of raising the angle of the upper body, raise the angle of the lower body by placing the feet on an elevated surface, such as a weigh bench or stability ball. This puts the upper body muscles under more tension, especially the shoulders, and also demands more from your core stability system.
Another way to progress push-ups is by adding controlled instability: try putting your hands or feet on a stability ball, your hands on either side of a BOSU Ball, or your feet in a TRX Suspension trainer. Click here to watch videos and learn more about BOSU Ball exercises.
If you’re super-crazy-strong, try a handstand push-up. The handstand push-up dramatically increases the demand on your shoulder muscles. However, keep in mind that if you want to work your chest, push-ups with feet elevated will place more emphasis on your shoulders instead of the chest, so they’re not necessarily the best chest exercise (https://www.askthetrainer.com/best-chest-exercises/).
The following push-up exercise videos can also be considered push-up progressions. As such, it’s important to remember that you should never try progressions until you can safely and easily execute the basic movement (in this case, the perfect push-up described and shown in the section above).
Push-Up Variations Exercise Videos
Push-up variations make the standard push-up movement more challenging. Some demand more from the same muscles we talked about above, while others involve entirely new muscle groups. I could go on and on about variations on the push-up exercise, but instead, I have chosen three of my favorite push-up variations to highlight.
Just like Rocky does! Plyometric exercises are the best way to gain explosive muscle power.
Plyometric push-ups are great for building explosive power in the upper body.
They’re basically an extremely forceful push-up with a clap.
Watch the video on the right to see how to properly perform a plyometric push-up.
Side Rotation Push-Ups
The side rotation push-up increases the core work element of push-ups, asking that you perform a standard push up, rotate into a side plank, perform another push-up, and then rotate into a side plank on the other side.
When you transition into the side plank phase, be sure to keep your core stable, never letting your hips sag toward the ground.
Watch the video on the right to see how to properly perform side rotation push-ups.
So named because you look like Spiderman climbing a building when you do them (except for the Spidey-suit and the fact that you’ll be on the ground, of course).
During a Spiderman push-up, you’ll lift one leg off the ground, bringing the knee laterally toward the armpit. This requires more strength as well as more flexibility than your standard push-up.
Watch the video on the right to see how to properly perform a spiderman push-up.
You can find lots of other push-up exercise videos on our chest exercise page here! While you’re at it, explore our whole Exercise Video Domain and Youtube Channel to discover exercises for every body part.
I hope this article has deepened your knowledge of the push-up and given you a newfound respect for this seemingly humble exercise.
Another fabulous simple bodyweight exercise you have to know about is the Lunge. This lower body exercise is one of the best ways to build your glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves. Read our article celebrating the wonderful lunge exercise (https://www.askthetrainer.com/lunge-exercise/) to learn all about lunge anatomy, lunge form, and lunge exercise variations including videos.