In the world of strength and conditioning, the push-up stands as a key staple in most athletes’ programmes. Depending on how the push-up is programmed, it can serve as a great tool for developing upper body strength, size or robustness. Equally, its demand on the trunk means it can be used to develop stability through the core.
Here, we’ll delve deeper into the specific muscle groups engaged during push-ups and how different push-up variations can modify the muscles worked, allowing you to tailor your training to meet specific training outcomes and enhance your athletic performance.
What muscles do push-ups work?
The main muscles the push-up works are in your upper body, including your:
- Chest, made up of the pecs
- Front delts
Push-ups muscles worked diagram
In-depth analysis: how each muscle works during the squat
Your pec major and minor do most of the word during the push-up, meaning they are the prime movers and this is where you should feel the exercises the most. They work concentrically (shorten) as you push yourself up from the floor and eccentrically (lengthen) as you lower your body back down.
The front delts help stabilise the shoulder joint during the push-up, working both concentrically and eccentrically during the upwards and downwards phases of the exercise, respectively.
The triceps play a role in extending or straightening your elbow, particularly towards the top half of the movement. This extension phase involves a concentric contraction of the triceps as they actively work to straighten the elbow joint.
One of the less obvious benefits of push-ups but one that makes it a core part of an athlete’s programme (pardon the pun), is the engagement of the core muscles which includes the rectus abdominals, obliques and the erector spinae. These muscles work isometrically throughout the push-up to stabilise your body and maintain a straight line from your head to your heels.
How to push up correctly
Push-ups seem straightforward, but executing them with proper form is crucial to prevent injuries and maximize muscle engagement. Let’s break the push-up into a step-by-step process:
- Set up – Start in a high plank position, with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, body in a straight line from head to heels and core braced.
- Downwards phase – As you lower your body, bend your elbows and keep them at a 45-degree angle from your torso. Aim to lower until your chest nearly touches the ground.
- Bottom position – Briefly pause here and keep your body in a straight line by engaging your core to prevent your hips from sagging or rising.
- Upwards phase – Engage your chest, shoulders and triceps to push your body back up to where you started with your arms locked out.
Common push ups mistakes to avoid
- Flaring elbows – To protect your shoulder joint from unnecessary stress, maintain a 45-degree angle between your elbows and torso.
- Limited range of motion – To increase the muscle’s time under tension and to work the full length of the muscles, ensure your chest comes close to the ground during the downwards phase and fully extend your elbows at the top.
- Poor core engagement – To prevent your lower back from sagging or hips to pike up, brace your core muscles, maintaining a straight body line.
- Focusing on speed over form – Prioritise proper form over speed, by performing the push-up with a controlled temp of 3-1-3, meaning taking 3 seconds to lower, 1 second to pause at the bottom and 3 seconds to push upwards.
Push up variations & the muscles they work
Different variations of the push-up target muscles in slightly different ways, each offering unique benefits. Understanding these subtleties can enhance the effectiveness of your workout programming when aiming to target specific muscles.
Deficit push ups
The deficit push-up involves placing the hands on an elevated surface, increasing the range of motion. This increased range of motion works the pectoral muscles (chest), triceps and front delts more intensely compared to the standard push-up, making it an effective exercise for chest development.
Diamond push ups
To perform the diamond push-up, bring your hands closer together beneath your chest so that the thumbs and index fingers form a diamond shape. Diamond push-ups shift the focus to the triceps, demanding more work from them compared to a standard push-up – although this also places greater stress on the wrist and elbow joint.
Decline push ups
The deficit push-up involves placing your feet on a small box and then performing a push-up. This position puts your body on a downward angle, which places more emphasis on the upper portion of the chest (pecs), whilst also still working the front deltoids and triceps.
Pike push ups
To perform a pike push-up, start in a downward dog yoga position with your hips raised and your body forming an inverted “V” shape. You then lower your head towards the ground and push back up, mimicking a push-up motion.
The pike push-up primarily works the deltoid muscles (shoulders) more intensely while also engaging the triceps and the upper chest. This exercise is particularly effective for shoulder strength and stability.
Spiderman push ups
During the Spiderman push-up, as you lower your body towards the ground, bring one knee towards your elbow on the same side of your body, resembling a crawling spider. This variation targets the pecs, triceps and deltoid muscles like traditional push-ups, but it adds an extra emphasis on the obliques and hip flexors due to the leg movement.
Wide grip push ups
The wide grip push-up involves placing your hands wider than shoulder-width apart. The wider hand placement increases the emphasis on the chest (pec) muscles, particularly the outer pec region, whilst still working the triceps and deltoids like a traditional push-up.
Eccentric push ups
Eccentric push-ups, also known as negative push-ups, focus on the lowering phase of the exercise. During an eccentric push-up, you lower your body slowly (3-5 seconds) and with control, emphasizing the eccentric (muscle lengthening) phase. This places extra tension on the muscles and can be particularly effective for building strength in the chest, triceps and delts.
Push up alternatives – muscles worked
Push-ups are excellent for developing upper body strength, size and robustness, but what if you’re seeking a different approach to achieving these or similar goals? Let’s explore an alternative to push-ups…
Dumbbell bench press
The dumbbell bench press is an upper-body pushing exercise where you lie on a bench and use a dumbbell in each hand, allowing each side of your body to work independently. The dumbbell bench press works the pectoral muscles, triceps and front deltoids.
Dumbbell bench press vs push up
The dumbbell bench press and push-up are both pushing movements that work similar muscles, but there are three key factors that set them apart:
- Load – push-ups are typically performed with your own body weight but can be performed with the addition of plates or weighted vests. In contrast, dumbbell bench presses use dumbbells, giving you the option to use heavier weights and build some top-end strength.
- Trunk – In a push-up, you’re core plays an “active” role as you must maintain a straight line from head to heel through your own effort, allowing you to develop mid-line stability. On the other hand, during a bench press where you lie on a bench, trunk stability tends to be more passive, and the core doesn’t directly limit the number of repetitions you perform or the amount you can lift.
- Stability – The push-up involves a fixed or stable hand position, engaging both sides of the body simultaneously, whereas the dumbbell bench press allows for more freedom of movement with both hands working it independently, making it less stable and addressing imbalances.
Training recommendations: tailoring your push-ups for specific goals
If your goal is to build muscle, push-ups will definitely add to your muscle mass if you do enough of them. Focusing on progressively overloading them each week is the best way to gain mass, however, simply adding one rep each week may be difficult. Below are a few techniques to help gain muscle mass and strength in the push up:
- Eccentric focus – this focuses on the lower phase of the exercise and then assists on the concentric. For example, you could slowly lower yourself down over seconds of the press-up and use your knees to go back to the top position of the press-up. This could be programmed like
Week 1: 3 sets x 2 reps + 2 reps that focus on the eccentric
Week 2: 3 sets x 2 reps + 3 reps that focus on the eccentric
Week 3: 3 sets x 3 reps + 1 rep that focuses on the eccentric
Week 4: 3 sets x 3 reps + 2 reps that focus on the eccentric
- Banded Assistance – Using resistance bands can help improve the concentric part of the exercise and help you perform more. For example, you can place a band on the rack above you and place it around your chest to assist you in the downward phase of the press-up. This can help improve the number of total reps you can do. This could be programmed like
Example (Max press ups = 8 reps)
Week 1: 2 sets x 10-15 banded assisted press-up
Week 2: 2 sets x 10-15 banded assisted press-up
Week 3: 3 sets x 10-15 banded assisted press-up
Week 4: 3 sets x 10-15 banded assisted press-up
- Weight Assistance – Added additional weight on top of body weight can help overload the body in order to increase strength and improve your maxes. For example, this could be as simple as adding a 5kg weight on your back during a push-up. This could be programmed like
AMRAP = As many reps as possible. RIR = Reps in reserve.
Week 1: 2 sets x BW AMRAP (2RIR)
Week 2: 2 sets x 5kg AMRAP (2RIR)
Week 3: 3 sets x 5kg AMRAP (2RIR)
Week 4: 2 sets x 7.5kg AMRAP (2RIR)
But, which approach is more beneficial?
Training for strength and building muscle mass may vary slightly in methods, but both require progressive overload! Push-ups are a great exercise for beginners/novices, athletes or the general population who are looking to improve their health and quality of life, as long as they perform them with great technique.
Science has shown that muscle mass can be built between reps of 4-20+. However, you must consider the reps/sets set up when trying to improve strength or hypertrophy:
- Strength – Keep reps below less than 6 and sets increase week by week. Focus on adding more weight (weight assistance) via a weighted vest or other method.
- Hypertrophy – Focus on rep range 6-20 with aims of adding more weight or rep’s week by week. Eccentric focus or weight assistance are a good method of adding a different variation!
What muscles do push-ups work: frequently asked questions
How many push ups should I do a day?
It’s not advisable to perform push-ups every day, as doing so can increase the risk of injury and overtraining due to the lack of essential rest days. It’s important to incorporate rest days into your workout routine, with the specific number of push-ups you do around that will depend on your fitness level and goals.
If you want to build strength, keep reps less than 6 and increase sets each week, whereas if you want to build size, focus on a rep range of 6-20 rems with the aim of adding more weight or reps week by week.
Do push ups actually build muscle?
Yes, push-ups can build muscle in the chest, front delts and triceps, as long as you apply the principle of progressive overload to your training.
Is 3 sets of 20 push ups good?
3 sets of 20 push-ups is an excellent approach to developing muscular endurance in the chest, shoulders and triceps. As you progress, you can increase reps or vary the type of push-up you do.
Do push ups give you abs?
Push-ups engage the core muscles, including the rectus abdominals, or the “abs”. While they won’t specifically build ab muscles like targeted ab exercises, they do contribute to a stronger and more stable core, which is essential for all athletes!
What happens if you only do push ups?
If you solely rely on push-ups for your exercise routine, you’ll develop strength in the muscles they target, but other muscles might become neglected. It’s essential to have a balanced strength and conditioning programme to avoid imbalances and potential injuries.
Is it better to do push-ups fast or slow?
Both fast and slow push-ups have their benefits. Fast push-ups can improve power (or rate of force development), while slow push-ups enhance muscle strength and control – it depends on what your goal is as to which approach you take.
Do push ups work back muscles?
No, push ups primarily target your chest, shoulders and triceps, not your back muscles. If you want to work your back muscles, consider incorporating exercises such as pull-ups and rows into your training programme.
Are push ups muscular strength or endurance?
Push ups can be used to build both muscular strength and endurance, depending on factors such as the number of sets, repetitions, load and the specific push-up variation. For example, doing 4 sets of 5 weighted eccentric push ups will focus on building strength, whereas 3 sets of as many repetitions as possible of standard push ups will emphasise muscular endurance.
Should your elbows be close to your body or out to the sides?
For most people, a comfortable middle ground of around a 45-degree angle between your elbows and torso.
What are the disadvantages of push ups?
Potential disadvantages of the push up include the risk of wrist, elbow or shoulder strain or injury and potential neglect of other muscle groups if push-ups are the only exercise performed. It’s also possible to develop muscular imbalances if push-ups are overemphasized without counter exercises.
What happens if I do push ups everyday?
Doing push-ups every day can lead to increased strength and endurance if progressive overload is applied. However, without proper rest, there’s a risk of overtraining, which can result in fatigue, a decrease in performance and potential injury.
Is 500 push ups a day good?
While impressive, doing 500 push-ups daily can be excessive and lead to overtraining. It’s essential to listen to your body, rest as needed and ensure you’re performing other exercises to balance out your training routine.
Will 100 push ups a day keep you fit?
Doing 100 push-ups is likely to enhance upper body strength and endurance. However, to achieve overall fitness, it’s crucial to incorporate cardiovascular exercises, target other muscle groups and include rest days within your training.
What will 10 push ups a day do?
Starting with 10 push-ups daily is a great way to build a habit and improve upper body strength, especially for beginners. Over time, as strength builds, this number can be increased to continue seeing benefits – but make sure you still incorporate rest days into your routine to prevent overtraining and injuries.
Push-ups are a pressing movement that is effective for developing upper body strength, size and endurance, targeting muscles including the pecs, front delts and triceps.
There are a number of variations to the traditional push, which can target your upper body muscles in a slightly different way to meet your training goals.
- Selective Activation of Shoulder, Trunk, and Arm Muscles: A Comparative Analysis of Different Push-Up Variants
- Shoulder electromyography activity during push-up variations: a scoping review
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