4 Push up Variations for Chest to add Muscle Mass
Push ups are one of the best upper body compound movements in calisthenics and one of the most effective ways to add muscle mass to your chest.
In order to optimise your push ups to target the chest there are a few specific points of technique you need to get right first such as…
Place your hands just wider then shoulder width: this will put your pectoral muscle as a mechanical advantage to contribute to the exercise more then the triceps.
Keep your elbows at no more the 45 degrees from your torso: Don’t let your elbows flare outwards too far away from the body as this can lead to joint discomfort and shoulder impingement.
To keep adding mass to your chest you need increase the intensity of each rep by trying more challenging variations. This will help you maintain a progressive overload on the chest so you can continue to build muscle.
The best push up variations that target the chest are…
Deficit push ups: Push ups with your hands raised off the ground (with push up bars or dumbbells) allow for a greater range of motion then standard push ups and bench press and therefore activate more muscle fibres in the chest for a deeper muscle contraction.
Decline push ups: This variation is particularly effective at targeting the upper chest for full pectoral development. By elevating your feet using a bench or chair you can change the angle of push (similar to incline bench press) your switch the emphasis from lower chest to upper chest.
Weighted push ups: Adding weight to your push ups is the best way to consistently overload your muscles to stimulate the adaptive response of increasing in size and strength. You can do this with a backpack weights or take your chest training to the next level with a weight vest/
Lets take a look how to implement the different push up techniques and variations into your training for the ultimate chest workout…
Wide Push ups to Target the Chest
When it comes to emphasising the chest, the width of your hand placement is very important.
A narrower hand placement places more tension on the triceps
Whereas with a wider hand placement the chest is emphasised more
So what is the ideal hand placement for chest?
The sweet spot is to have your hands spaced evenly, just wider then shoulder width apart.
If your hands are placed too wide then you won’t get enough range of motion for the pectoral to have deep enough contraction under maximum tension. If hand placement is too narrow the emphasis of the push up shifts more onto working your triceps.
Also you need to make sure that you are not flaring your elbows out to the sides and remain within a 45 degree angle of the body. The elbows tend to flare out wide to compensate for having you hands out too wide.
Keeping your arms tight to the torso ensures safe alignment of your elbows, wrists and shoulder joints, so that you avoid potential discomfort and injury.
By keeping your hands just wider then shoulder width will hit the chest and your elbows should naturally be at a more favourable angle, avoiding any problems with your form.
Quality is more important the quantity, so make sure you do your reps with the correct form and perform each rep slowly at a tempo of 1.5 seconds down, 1 second pause at the bottom of the movement and 1.5 seconds pushing up.
If you exercise at this pace (4 seconds for each rep) a set of 12 push ups should last around 50 seconds. Time under tension is an important factor in muscle growth so don’t rush through your reps and sets otherwise you will be shortchanging your potential for muscle growth.
Its important to remember wide push ups are not an isolation technique. We are just shifted the focus on the exercise onto the chest, so you still reap the muscle building and functional strength benefits of compound movements.
Deficit Push ups for Greater Range of Motion
Deficit push ups are beneficial for two reasons:
They allow for a greater range of motion
The wrist is position at a neutral angle to prevent wrist pain or discomfort.
A deficit push up is simply where your hands are elevated off the ground. Most often this is with push up bars, gymnastic rings, weight plates or perhaps two chairs. This allows you to go much deeper then a standard push up would allow you to.
The reason why deficit push ups are so good for chest development is that they allow for a far greater range of motion then other chest exercises while still maintaining a high amount of mechanical tension.
Compare this to a normal push up where your chest hits the ground or on the bench press, the bar comes into contact with your chest. Both these exercises are great chest exercises but have a more limited range of motion and therefore, lack the pectoral stretch of a deficit push up which allows for a deeper contraction.
The very bottom a deficit push up can really position the pectoral muscle at maximum stretch whilst under significant tension. The deficit push up allows for more muscle activation then other chest exercises because the pectoral can experience tension whilst in an elongated state for a more complete contraction.
To get the most out of each rep you should pause at the bottom of the movement to really emphasise the tension whilst the pectoral muscle is in full stretch.
If you have never done this variation before you will find it is significantly more difficult then a standard push up not only because of the deeper contraction, but also gripping onto the bars. dumbbells or weight plates, places more tension on the forearms when compared with having your palms flat on the ground.
This will contribute to grip strength and prevent wrist discomfort/pain as your wrist is in a more favourable position.
You can do this exercise with dumbbells or with stack of books but I always recommend just a standard pair of push up bars as there easy on the joints and you can be sure they are not going to move or slip whilst you are mid exercise.
This is a difficult exercise with significantly more muscle activation in the chest and shoulders the regular push ups so there is huge scope for gaining muscle mass.
Once you can comfortably achieve more the 12 reps per set with deficit push ups you can move on to…
Weighted Push ups For Chest Mass
How to add weight to your push ups:
There are two options for adding weight to push ups…
Use a well fitting back pack and fill it with books/weight plates/whatever is available
Get a good, adjustable weight vest
The first option of using a back pack is a great cost effective option for beginners. Just add weight to a back pack with books, weight plates, water bottles etc. Make sure you adjust the straps so the back pack doesn’t slip around on your back and you start adding weight to your push ups.
However after a certain point a weighted back pack becomes impractical and you may have to switch to using a weight vest for the following reasons:
Weighted vests are far more comfortable to wear then a back pack whilst in a push up position
The weight is distributed evenly around the whole torso rather then being concentrated just on the back as with the back pack, so that your push up form won’t be compromised.
The vest is more secure and won’t slip put of place if you choose to do decline or even handstand push ups.
You can adjust the weight more precisely with a vest and you can use a vest to increase the resistance for other calisthenics exercises and cardio.
Take a look at my favourite weight vest available on amazon.
The Benefits of Weighted Push ups
Push ups are undeniably one of the best exercises to continually build muscle mass in your chest.
However once you have made your way through all the variations, there comes a certain point where your body weight alone may not provide enough resistance for the pectoral muscles to continuously add mass.
If your progress has plateaued and you are finding normal push ups no longer as challenging then its time to add some external weight.
Weighted push ups are a great way to increase the intensity of each rep so that you can maintain a progressive overload. A progressive overload is where you gradually increase the tension on the target muscle, increasing the demand and forcing the muscle to do more work then its accustomed to.
In the context of push ups, by adding weight we are increasing the intensity of the push up which will stimulate an adaptive response from the chest to grow bigger and stronger to cope with the increased workload.
Adding weight to push ups is obviously going to make the exercise more challenging so be prepared for the number of reps you can do to fall significantly.
Ideally for optimal muscle growth the rep range needs to be around 8-12 reps for 3-5 sets.
So you need to increase the weight appropriately, so that you can perform the exercise within this rep range, ideally hitting failure at last rep of each set.
Its also important to consider the tempo of your reps.
If you do 12 reps as quickly as possible then you are shortchanging your muscle building potential.
The ideal time under tension for a set, in the context of muscle building is between 45-75.
So when executing push ups you need to concentrating on both the eccentric (lowering yourself down) and concentric portion (pushing yourself back up) of the movement.
So pace your push ups so that you spend approximately 1.5 seconds lowering yourself down (the eccentric phase) and 1.5 seconds push up (concentric phase). You can also pause for a second at the bottom of the movement (isometric phase) whilst the chest is under the most tension.
Over the course a set of 12 push ups this adds up to approximately 50 seconds which falls right in the optimal time under tension range for muscle growth.
The eccentric part of the movement (where you lower yourself down) is just as important for muscle growth as the concentric (pushing back up) part of the movement for stimulating muscle growth so move at a controlled pace to ensure that you are equally strong at all phases of the push up for maximum gains.
Decline Push ups to Hit the Upper Chest
For full pectoral development it is important to target the upper chest with specific exercises so that you don’t develop a strength or muscular imbalance between the upper and lower chest.
When I’m talking about the upper chest, specifically I mean the upper cavicular portion of the chest.
Its true that the pectoral is only one muscle but crucially there are two muscle heads…
The cavicular head (upper chest)
The sternal head (lower chest)
The cavicular head originates from the collar bone and connects to the humerous (upper arm) whereas the sternal head (as the name suggests) originates from the sternam.
Because there are two distinct muscle heads, the two portions of the chest can activated with varying degrees of intensity.
So what this means is you can target the upper chest and build muscle with the right kind of push up.
An imbalance in strength/muscular between the upper and lower chest occurs because people often train chest from one angle.
For example, the majority of the tension will be on the lower chest when training flat bench and conventional push ups.
To target the upper chest we need to change the angle of push. Think of the decline push up as similar to incline bench pressing.
You can target the upper chest with push ups by elevating the feet (with a chair/bench). This way emphasis of the exercise switches to upper chest.
If you have never done these before you will find they are significantly more difficult then conventional push ups for two reasons:
Whilst the whole pectoral muscle is engaged during the decline push up, the focus of the tension is on the upper chest to do the pushing. The upper cavicular portion is smaller then the lower chest (sternal portion) and likely to be under developed therefore the amount of reps you can complete will be significantly less then with normal push ups.
I personally feel the delayed onset muscle soreness very specifically in my upper chest for a few days after a good decline push up workout.
With a regular push up you are pushing around 70% of your overall body weight. With your feet elevated and your body at a decline angle, you have support a greater proportion of your overall body weight.
At this angle there is more tension on the shoulder muscles for both pushing strength and for stabilisation.
As you progress with this exercise you can increase the level of resistance by increasing the angle of decline. All you need to do is position your feet on a higher bench (or chair) and train your upper chest with more intensity.
You have to bear in mind that if the angle of your decline is too steep the majority of the tension will move a way for your target (the upper chest) and move more to your shoulder muscles similar to handstand push up.
A handstand push up is a great shoulder pressing exercise in its own right but it doesn’t activate the upper chest as effectively as a decline pull up so stick to an angle where you can really feel your chest working.
To ensure muscular symmetry and a full pectoral muscle I would recommend spending as much time and effort developing your upper chest with the decline push up as you would with a flat push up.
Keeping changing the angle of decline every few workouts to hit different portions of the chest and to keep challenging the muscle.
So to target the chest there are some fundamental points of technique that you need to get right:
Hands placed just wider then shoulder width apart
Don’t let your elbows flare out away from your body
Try to hit 12 reps for 3-5 sets
Push up at a slower pace to keep the time under tension at 45-70 seconds per set for optimal muscle growth.
After that you need to incorporate some variation to your push up routine to keep add mass and strength to your chest. The best variations are:
Decline push ups to hit the upper chest for full pectoral development
Deficit push ups to increase the range of motion so you can get a deeper chest contraction and activate more muscle fibres.
Adding some weight to your push ups (ideally with a weight vest) to help you maintain a progressive overload.
If you implement each the technique in the right way and make sure you are in the optimal sets and reps range as well as spending enough time under tension then you will be able to add significant mass to you chest, arms and shoulders.
When you are ready for a greater challenge, you need to increase the intensity of each rep by trying the different variations. This will progressively overload your chest muscles and your body will adaptively respond by increasing the size and strength of the muscle.