I love push-ups.
Despite a whole industry geared towards changing the way we exercise by offering us fancy alternatives, I still use push-ups and their variations as my go-to chest exercise.
Push-ups feature heavily in my own training. And in my client’s programs over the past 20 years of being a certified personal trainer. Almost regardless of the training goals.
Because I still believe in maintaining good functional movements across the board.
In this article, I’m going to look at push-up benefits. I’ll share both my own anecdotal and scientific opinions and advice.
I’ll explain why push-ups are a safe and effective movement.
How they can be tweaked and adapted for different training outcomes.
And how each of these variations impacts the exercise itself.
As always, I’ll back up my claims with the evidence so you can understand the reasoning behind them. By the end of the article, you’ll know all about push-ups. You’ll know how to do them and how to tweak them in order to maximize their effectiveness for you.
- Push-ups – a quick overview
- Why I use push-ups even as a personal trainer
- 11 push-up benefits
- Push-ups are more than a basic movement
- Push-ups muscles worked
- Mastering the push-up technique
- Performance benefits to push-ups
- Push-up progressions and regressions
- Push-up regressions
- Push-ups are actually great for beginners…
- Push-up benefits – the bottom line
Push-ups – a quick overview
Too often, push-up benefits are ignored by people who want something sexier.
They look for more technically challenging, heavier, and new or shinier alternatives.
Whilst that’s understandable, it’s incredibly important that we don’t ignore fundamentals… and push-ups are just that.
From a professional standpoint… I don’t let clients bench press with dumbbells or a barbell until they can manage 15 bodyweight push-ups with good form. It wouldn’t be right for me to allow someone to lift heavy weights over their face and chest. Not until they’ve proven they’re capable of controlling their bodyweight over multiple reps.
Push-ups are less of an exercise and more of a movement to me. Because they don’t just train the chest! They require excellent scapular control, which helps to improve shoulder health and function.
They also require good core control. Which promotes abdominal strength and spinal stability.
These are things you just don’t get from chest presses, bench presses, etc. Note- I’m not saying don’t do those movements, just only do them when you can complete push-ups with good form.
Push-ups aren’t just an exercise, they’re a functional movement.
Why I use push-ups even as a personal trainer
In my role as a personal trainer and weightlifting coach, I have two main responsibilities to my clients…
- Help them achieve results as quickly as possible
- Cause them no harm in doing so
These two responsibilities are important to understand from the start. Because it means I don’t have a bias toward any particular exercise.
To me, all exercises are a tool.
A means to an end.
I’m not interested in fancy, or technical – I’m interested in safe and effective. Push-ups tick both of those boxes.
11 push-up benefits
As an exercise, the benefits of push-ups are numerous – here’s a snapshot of them:
- They’re a simple technique to learn
- Push-ups can be progressed or regressed easily
- You can do push-ups anywhere
- There’s no equipment requirement
- Push-ups are a classic compound movement (using multiple muscle groups)
- Improve performance in sports and athletic activities
- Improve your core strength
- You can adjust the technique to change the muscle emphasis (2005 study)
- Protect your shoulders and lower back from injuries (2017 study)
- Improve balance and posture (2014 study)
- Reduce cardiovascular disease (2019 study)
We’ll dig into these in more detail throughout the article, exploring the topic thoroughly.
This won’t be a ‘listicle’, where I spill out a bunch of re-hashed arguments about why push-ups are great. Instead, I’ll guide you through the physiological, technical, and even psychological benefits of push-ups.
Push-ups are more than a basic movement
At a most basic level, push-ups just look like a chest exercise.
But there’s so much more to them than that.
Yes, they activate the chest.
As I mentioned earlier though, they also require good core control to keep your spine in correct alignment. You need strength in the tricep to control the level of elbow flexion and extension. Your shoulder blades (scapular) will be moving, so they have to be controlled.
To most regular exercisers, it’s a pretty basic exercise.
And not one that’s especially challenging until you get into the higher rep work. If you’re new to training though, I’d really urge you to take the time to get good at push-ups.
Film yourself doing them until you’re satisfied with your technique.
Check that your back is straight throughout the movement. Check that your shoulder blades move smoothly and that you keep your core tight.
A lot of people who think they can do push-ups actually only perform partial reps, mistaking quantity for quality. As with any exercise, focus on form and doing things correctly and you’ll make progress quicker and avoid injuries.
Go slow to go fast!
Push-ups muscles worked
Push-ups primarily work the chest muscles. However, they also target the triceps, front shoulders, abs, and serratus anterior (muscles under the armpit).
Most people know push-ups work the chest, shoulders, and triceps. But that’s a bare minimum. When assessed, there’s a significant activation of the following muscles:
- Serratus anterior
- Deltoideus anterior
- Erector spinae
- Latissimus dorsi
- Rectus abdominis
- Triceps brachii caput longus
- Triceps brachii caput lateralis
- Obliquus externus abdominis
- Pectoralis major sternal head
- Pectoralis major clavicular head
- Trapezius transversalis
- Biceps brachii.
You can see the main muscle groups worked in the image below…
Push-ups are so much more than a chest exercise.
And there are significant changes in muscle activation depending on the hand placement during the exercise.
Narrow hand push-ups activate the triceps and pec major
The research shows that if we keep the hands narrow, we elicit greater activation of the pec major and the triceps brachii.
Hindu push-ups activate the abs and spinal erectors
Hindu push-ups are push-ups with a ‘forward and backward’ technique. They activate the abdominals and spinal erectors to a greater degree.
Wide hand push-ups activate the serratus anterior (not the pecs!)
There’s also a need to do some myth-busting here.
In push-ups, the common opinion is that a wider hand position means greater activation of the chest. But that simply isn’t true. The consistent finding in research is that wider hand push-ups cause greater activation of the serratus anterior.
You will find these muscles underneath your armpit around your upper ribs.
This is the muscle that controls the movement of the scapular, so will help with shoulder stability.
What this means is that a wide-hand push-up is very useful for helping with shoulder function and health. But not great for activating the chest muscles as previously thought. It means there’s a rehab benefit to push-ups that hadn’t previously been considered.
Mastering the push-up technique
There are all kinds of variations of push-up technique, but this one is universally accepted as solid. Of course, there are nuances depending on whether you are using push-up handles, have your feet elevated etc, but this is a general guide…
- Lie flat on your front
- Position your hands slightly wider than the shoulders
- Your hands should be flat on the floor for best contact
- The forearms should point vertically upright from the wrist
- The tips of your toes are the contact point with the floor
- Brace your core, keeping the back tight
- Tense your glutes to lock in the lower back
- Press yourself directly upright, maintaining a straight body from your shoulder to your ankle – there should be no ‘bridging’ (hips in the air) or sagging (hips down towards the floor)
- Reach full extension at the elbow, with hands directly under the shoulders
- Slowly lower yourself back down, pushing elbows backwards until the chest lightly touches the floor
In practice, it looks like this…
Performance benefits to push-ups
There are legitimate physical and athletic benefits from push-ups.
They improve horizontal pressing mechanics. But there’s a rock-solid case for them being used as a primary exercise because of the muscle activation and results.
Push-ups are better than the bench press for functional fitness
Research shows that the muscle activity patterns of push-ups is essentially the same as the bench press.
But push-ups also engage the core during the push-up movement. Therefore, they are arguably better than bench pressing for functional fitness benefits.
Push-ups provide a similar level of strength gains as the bench press
According to a 2015 study, the strength gains between push-ups and bench press are comparable.
Note – this is when there is a similar level of muscle activation. So obviously if you bench press 200lbs you’ll get more gains than bodyweight push-ups.)
But just combine these findings with the conclusions from the previous study. We can make a case for push-ups replacing bench presses at certain load and strength outcome goals.
Primarily as there’s an additional core benefit.
Essentially it’s a ‘more bang for your buck’ play.
If you are relatively new to lifting weights, I recommend you check out our beginner weight lifting routine.
If you want to learn more about the topic of strength benefits in general, read all about it in our benefits of strength training article.
A bench press and push-up at a similar load provide the same hypertrophy
This research is backed up in further studies. Not just performance, but hypertrophy (muscle growth) was measured. It found that bench press and push-ups at similar loads brought about the same muscle size and strength gains.
This removes the suggestion that the push-up is an inferior exercise to bench pressing.
Especially when it comes to size, strength, or performance gains.
You just have to level the playing field… by making the loads comparable.
Of course, it’s easier to increase the loads on the bench press – you just add more weight. You can also increase the loads on push-ups though, as we’ll discuss in the next section…
Push-up progressions and regressions
A basic push-up is an easy exercise for most people with a decent amount of resistance training experience.
So in order to benefit further from the exercise we have to progress into more advanced variations of the movement. In this section, I’ll run through a few of the ways we can add progressions to the exercise…
Use push up bars/plates/dumbbells/board
Performing push-ups on push up bars, plates or dumbbells makes the exercise tougher because you increase the range of movement.
A greater range of movement means more time under tension, which equates to more muscle and strength increase.
If you’re thinking of getting a set of push up bars, be sure to check our best push up bars guide to help you make an informed decision.
I’ve also created a separate best push up board in-depth guide. If you’re thinking of getting one, you’ll find all the useful information in one place.
By the way, the reverse is true for an easier push-up…
This is an advanced push-up movement only, since it’s potentially dangerous if not done properly.
You have to generate a lot of force in order to complete the plyometric element of the exercise. Plus you need the connective tissue health to absorb the impact on the way down. Plyo push-ups are very effective when it comes to strength and endurance improvements.
There’s a lot of research that shows how unstable surface push-ups make the exercise much more effective.
They increase the muscle activation in the chest, core, and shoulders. The instability switches on stabilizing muscles that just aren’t used as much in other variations. Here are a few different ways to add instability…
Feet elevated push-ups
This is the weight bench we recommend for ‘most people’.
We compared over 70 benches against 12 criteria. This is our highest-ranked flat, incline & decline (FID) bench.
Some adjustable benches can be a bit wobbly when on the incline. But the AB-3000 is very sturdy.
With a height 18mm it’s comparable to benches that cost twice as much.
Push-ups with a plate on your back
Using any of these in your push-up training will add extra challenges, complexity, and difficulty.
They’ll help take your push-up training and your chest work to the next level. Without requiring much in the way of an additional kit for your home gym.
Check out our guide on how to build a home gym here if you want to see the equipment we recommend for most people. (It’s not as costly as you may think!)
I don’t want you thinking I’ve forgotten about those of you who haven’t mastered the basic push-up yet!
So here’s a beginner push-up progression series that I use with my clients. Personally, I don’t like the ‘box push-up’ because I think it’s far too easy for 99% of the population. Plus, it doesn’t replicate the range of movement. Instead, I use the push-up from the knees as shown below.
Here’s how I teach push-ups, with these progressions…
Push-ups from the knees
I like this as a starting point because it increases core engagement and shows the client how to keep their back straight and maintain a good line from shoulder to knee.
It’s the same hand position as a full push-up… just made easier because it is performed from the knees like this…
Once you have mastered the push-ups from the knees, it’s time to learn to control the descent from the full extension.
The best way to do this is with negatives. Slowing the tempo right down to increase the time under tension. Follow the video below for help on how to do this…
Once you have mastered these, it’s time to start doing full push-ups. It doesn’t matter if you can only do one rep, keep working on it and that one will turn into two, three, and beyond.
It takes patience, but you’ll definitely be able to get there.
Push-ups are actually great for beginners…
Push-ups are the perfect beginner exercise.
There are technical, physical, and psychological factors to help you get into them and keep you motivated.
Thanks to a simple technique, they’re quick to learn. That is a big motivator because everyone loves to learn new things!
They’re also quick to improve upon because the beginner push-up drills are very effective. It’s not like an exercise such as a muscle-up where even the early stages are very technical. If you can manage the drills, you’ll get better very quickly. This progression is a legitimate motivator, so you want to keep doing them.
Push-ups are perfect because they can be done anywhere. Especially if exercise doesn’t come naturally and you’re likely to find an excuse to not train!
You don’t need any equipment and you don’t need much in the way of space… that helps to get rid of any excuses not to do them.
You can literally drop on the spot right now and do a few!
Push-up benefits – the bottom line
I hope through the course of this article I’ve managed to teach you more about push-ups. They’re not ‘just an easy bodyweight exercise’… they’re a legitimate training tool that can be progressed or regressed as far as you want to go.
We’ve debunked some myths about push-ups.
We’ve explained that they’re probably better than bench pressing because of the core engagement. Especially for people with beginner to intermediate levels of fitness.
You just have to increase the load in order to get the same strength and endurance benefits from the pressing element.
I’d really urge you to try some of the push-up variations in this article. Your strength, fitness and joint health will benefit, as will your functional capabilities. It’ll be a great way to add a new challenge to your chest training. And this is without having to break the bank on new equipment for your home gym.
Check out our cable crossover alternatives if you want to find more variations of push-up-like movements.
If you’re new to working out, you might want to read our article on the benefits of exercise, to help you understand the importance of regular exercise.