8 Undeniable Push ups Benefits: The Definitive Guide
Push ups are one of the most effective calisthenics exercises for training the upper body for strength and size. This is because push ups are a compound movement that recruits multiple muscle groups which all contribute to the movement. They are a full body workout with no equipment or monthly gym fee.
There are also many great variations to the exercise that focus on different muscle groups and emphasise different athletic qualities to improve your athletic performance.
Push ups can be used to increase strength, muscle mass and develop stability, coordination proprioception to teach your body to move and perform as one unit.
Here are the top 8 benefits of pull ups…
Push ups can specifically target the chest, triceps or shoulder for increased muscles mass or strength.
There are many variations of the exercise, (such as decline, handstand, explosive and Gymnastic rings push ups) to ensure that accentuate different athletic qualities.
You can add weight to push ups easily with a back pack or weighted vest to maintain a progressive overload.
They’re a compound movement which engages all the major muscle groups
Push ups can be performed anywhere, anytime, no expensive gym membership required.
Due to the range of muscles worked they are far more time efficient, then isolation exercises and promote functional strength.
Push ups can be scaled in difficulty for beginners to advanced depending on your level of experience.
Now lets take a look how they can be implemented in your training and meet your fitness goals…
Target your Chest or Triceps
The primary movers of the push up are the muscles of the chest and triceps. How wide you place your hands influences which muscle groups are under most tension.
If your hands are placed close together with your elbows tucked into your body, this will place the emphasis on the triceps for bigger arms.
If your hands are placed wider apart then this shifts the emphasis on to the chest to do a higher proportion of the workload.
When it comes to targeting the chest the ideal hand spacing is just wider then shoulder width. If you go wider then this you will be sacrificing the range of motion that is required to get the most out of the exercise. The wider hand placement puts the pectoral muscle at a mechanical advantage to exert more force then the triceps.
Also its important to make sure you elbows do not flare out too wide. If they flare out too wide then it will put your elbow, wrist and shoulder joints in an unfavourable position and potentially lead to injury.
If you keep the elbows within 45 degrees of the body and hands just wider then your shoulders then this is the sweet spot to put maximum tension on you pectoral muscle and you can proactively avoid any injury or discomfort.
For the ultimate chest mass builder, try combining wide grip push ups with…
Deficit Push ups
Another way to get more muscle activation in your chest is to practice deficit push ups. This is where you grab onto to a pair of push up bars, dumbbells, gymnastic rings etc. and perform the push ups with your body slightly raised from the ground.
This allows you to push past the regular range of motion of the push up that is limited by your chest coming into contact with the floor.
Deficit push ups allows you to open up your chest more for greater stretch and increase your peak contraction.
The increased range of motion allows for more recruitment of the muscle fibres in the chest to really isolate the chest and to put as much tension on it as possible. I cannot emphasise enough how effective this exercise is for really stretching out the pectoral and adding muscle mass.
This is essentially the body weight equivalent of chest flyes.
Try doing the exercise slowly, maximising the time under tension whilst in peak contraction for the best results.
Don’t be temped to flair your elbows out whilst in a wider hand placement. This is a common way people try to compensate for the increase in difficult of this variation.
You need to keep your elbows pointed no less the 45 degrees away from your body to maintain proper form and avoid joint discomfort.
Diamond Push ups for Triceps
The way to shift the focus of the exercise onto your triceps is to bring in the hands so that they are closer together. The best way to do this is the diamond push up where the index finger and thumbs of each hand form a diamond shape.
Having your hands closer together increases the range of motion for your triceps and therefore there is more flexion at the elbow for a stronger triceps contraction. Keep your elbows in as tight to the body to really accentuate the tension on the triceps muscle for maximum benefits.
Your still going to feel this exercise in your chest and shoulders but it should be it will the arms the will fatigue first.
The triceps makes up around 60% of the upper arms muscle mass so diamond push ups really help to add inches to you arms to fill out your shirt sleeves for an aesthetic look.
For most people, diamond push ups are generally more difficult then wider grip push ups.
This is due to the fact the chest is simply a far larger muscle group to contribute to the exercise then the triceps, so if you find yourself able to perform far more wider chest push ups then diamond push ups then its more due to the larger chest muscles being at a mechanical disadvantage to contribute to the movement as much as a regular push up.
Push ups Have Many Variations to Scale the Intensity
Thanks to their versatility, push ups are one of the easiest exercises in calisthenics to increase the intensity, so that you can progressively add mass and increase strength.
There are many variations to keep challenging yourself to improve, strength, muscle coordination, endurance and proprioception.
So if you get comfortable with your push up routine, there is always a new way to keep challenging your self with a new stimulus.
Training the different variations of push ups will help to keep you motivated and you will reap the benefits of the many different styles which promote different athletic qualities.
Here are my top 4 favourite variations:
Decline Push ups (raised feet)
This is an effective way to increase the intensity of your push ups and really target the upper chest and shoulders.
All you need is a bench, box or a chair to elevate your feet. Think of this as the calisthenics version of the incline bench press (which also targets the upper chest and the front deltiods)
By raising your feet up you are increasing the level of resistance of the exercise. The decline angle with your feet higher up means that you are now supporting and therefore pushing a greater proportion of your body weight.
So the decline push up is more difficult not just because…
you are carrying more of your body weight but also…
the tension is placed more specifically on the upper chest and shoulders
The incline angle puts the upper chest and shoulders at a mechanical advantage to do most of the pushing whereas at the angle of a conventional push up the whole pectoral muscle is engaged.
So don’t be surprised if you are able to achieve significantly fewer reps with this variation.
The increased muscular stress of the exercise is an opportunity for the body to adaptively respond by increasing muscle and strength in your shoulders and upper chest for more overall pushing strength and better pectoral development.
You can also very easily increase the tension to maintain a progressive overload by sequentially increasing the height of the bench/chair/box from which you are pushing up so there is continual opportunity for more strength and muscle gains.
Personally I like to do these with push up bars as they are more comfortable on the wrists.
Ring Push ups
Ring push ups are my personal favourite variation for 4 reasons
Increased muscle activation
Increase balance, coordination and proprioception
Strengthens stabilising muscles
Difficulty can be scaled
One of the key features of rings push ups is that they are easy on the joints and connective tissue of your wrists, elbows and shoulders.
A unique feature of gymnastic rings is that they can rotate and adjust to the optimal angle as you are pushing through the range of motion of the push up.
Your body can follow a plane of motion that is most naturally comfortable on your joints. This can help avoid joint pain, discomfort from over training push ups.
They also raise your body from the ground so you can get a deeper range of motion for an increase in muscle activation of the chest.
Also there is the inherent instability of rings to consider. Because the rings are suspended from an anchor point above you, your body has to stabilise itself rather then simply balancing on the ground.
This increase in instability acts as another stimulus for the body to adapt to. The muscles of the chest, triceps, shoulders and core all have to coordinate the movement and contribute to the stability of your body throughout the movement.
This increases tension on all the muscles that are contribute to the push up, so you develop more strength, muscle, coordination and balance as a result.
Weighted Push ups
There are two ways to add weight to push ups:
With a heavy back pack
With a weighted vest
Adding weight to push ups is a great way to maintain a progressive overload. A progressive overload is where you overload the muscles with a higher intensity then they are currently accustomed so that you can stimulate an adaptive response from the body.
If your goal is to increase strength an muscle mass then progressively adding weight to push ups is a great way to do this.
A cheaper and effective way to do this is by simply adding weight to a well fitting back pack with books or weights.
Start slowly by only increasing by roughly 5 KG (11 lbs) at a time. You should always progress carefully as adding too much weight to soon can compromise your form. Concentrate on tensing your abs and engaging your glutes to maintain a straight posture.
If you start to lower your hips under the stain then your form is compromised because the resistance is too challenging and you need to lower the weight.
There comes a point where adding weight to a back pack becomes more impractical and depending what you are using to add the weight, the weight distribution can become uneven which will interfere with your perfect form.
It is at this point you will need to transition to using a weighted vest.
The weighted vest sits securely around your torso for a more comfortable fit without sliding around. The weight is distributed evenly round the upper body so you don’t have to compensate for the weight being concentrated in one place.
Weighted vests allow you to combine the push up (which is already an effective calisthenics exercise) with the scalable benefits of weight lifting.
Adding weight is one of the most simple and measurable ways to progress with your push ups. Sequentially adding weight as you get bigger and stronger and setting specific goals is a great way to maintain motivation.
This is a really effective alternative to the bench press if you training at home, as it takes up less space and the cost is significantly cheaper.
You can maintain the progressive overload as you would with a bench press whilst reaping all the other benefits of push ups (increased proprioception, coordination, more muscle groups engaged etc.)
Handstand push ups
This is a variation for the advanced calisthenics athlete and the only variation where you are lifting 100% of your body weight!
Developing the balance, proprioception and dexterity to perform a free standing handstand takes a long time so if you don’t have the time to invest I recommend handstand push ups with your back against the wall.
While balancing against a wall will still take some time to get the hang of, your body won’t be overwhelmed with instability as it would with a free standing handstand. So you can concentrate more on strength training then the balance aspect.
This variation really emphasises pushing strength and power from the shoulders, as well as the triceps and upper chest.
There is also significant tension in the core muscles as they are engaged to keep the body taut, aligned correctly and balanced whilst upside down.
The handstand push up is essentially the calisthenics version of the the overhead press with a barbell. However a handstand push up is far more sports specific exercise.
This is because, handstands develop a sense of balance, muscular coordination and the proprioceptive element of controlling where the rest of your limbs are in relation to your body whilst you are producing force.
You are not just developing strength but also a lot of the skills that are necessary to use that strength and implement it in athletic performance.
Handstand push ups can also be scaled by using a pair of push up bars, a pile of books etc. to raise your hands off the ground so that you can increase your range of motion as you are not hindered by your head being in contact with the floor.
This exercise is unparalleled when it comes to developing overhead pushing strength and boulder-sized shoulders.
Push ups are a Compound Movement that Engages all Major Muscle Groups
Exercises that work multiple muscle groups together in one exercise have advantages over exercises that attempt to isolate certain muscles of the body.
Compound exercises are where multiple muscle groups have to work together to contribute to the movement. There is an increased element of body control, coordination, proprioception and balance required for these movements then there is for isolation or machine based exercises (smith machine bench press, triceps pull downs, etc).
When you are playing sports, your body has to know how to move, coordinate and generate force as one whole unit. Exercises like push ups are far more suited to develop sports specific skills and therefore are far more appropriate for improving your overall sports performance.
Time Efficiency Compared to Other Exercises
The muscles primarily responsible for movement during a push up are the chest and triceps.
The muscles that surround the shoulder joint are engaged to provide the stability required for the exercise.
The core is and glutes and legs are recruited to help keep your body taut and in the correct alignment to maintain balance and so that your hips don’t drop down so your body forms a straight line.
Your back muscles, particularly those of the posterior chain are recruited for stabilising your upper body throughout the movement.
Push ups recruit all the major muscle groups of the body with most of the tension on the chest and triceps.
To workout all these muscles individually with isolation type exercises (such as the pec deck machine and triceps pull down machines) would take hours to do, and also not yield the same benefits as push ups.
Push ups are are far more time efficient exercise in terms of the number of muscles engaged then any other push exercise. Don’t spend forever in the gym focusing on individual muscles one at a time but instead embrace compound exercises like push ups, dips and pull ups for a more practical and efficient workout.
If you are a beginner or intermediate to calisthenics then push ups are a great strategy for increasing muscle mass (particularly in the chest and triceps) and to develop strength.
Because of the range of large muscle groups that are recruited for push ups, this signals to the body to trigger the release of more testosterone and human growth hormone which are both important factors in muscle growth and recovery.
For this reason compound exercises are a much better strategy for building muscle mass then isolation and machine based exercises which don’t work anywhere near the same number of muscle groups.
You can Perform Push ups Anywhere
You can do one of the most effective compound movements, anywhere, anytime for free.
No matter whether you are in a hotel room, in a small flat or have no time to visit the gym you can always access the many benefits of push ups.
By contrast if you were to try and work the same muscle groups at home with weighted resistance you would have to buy a bench press, barbell and multiple weight plates.
This could cost anywhere from $250 to over $1000 for premium gym equipment. Not to mention you would need the garage space and possibly mats to protect the flooring.
Also to safely perform bench press you need someone to spot you in case fatigue gets the better of you and you face the inevitable terror of a loaded barbell falling down on to you!
Also you may have to rule out a commercial gym because its not in your budget or you are too pushed for time. A set of press ups can be performed with the minimum amount of space and you can perform reps throughout the day whenever you get the chance.
Push ups are without a doubt one of the best compound exercises in calisthenics. They can be adapted to serve practically any goal and hit every major muscle group.
You can use variations of push ups to target the…
chest, shoulders and triceps…
and they can develop athletic qualities such as:
Push ups teach the body to move as one unit. There is a reason that this exercise is still forms part of the training regime in every military fitness test all around the world. Their effectiveness for developing functional strength is undeniable…
The endless variations ensure that your muscles are always challenged and your athleticism is always developing.
There is no other exercise that can offer all these benefits with no equipment and no gym required. This is a truly democratic yet elite exercise that is available to everyone in every situation.
What more reason do you need? Include push ups in your next workout and reap the benefits.