Push ups are so much more than an arm and chest exercise. As an effective compound exercise, push ups help you increase your strength while building your endurance. In fact, they are such an effective barometer of overall strength, that everyone from the military to personal trainers use them to test the overall fitness of those pushing themselves through the reps.
Plus, since they require minimal setup and equipment, they can be cranked out anywhere and at any time. Quite simply they are a barebones, muscle-building monster that strengthens and alters your body from head to toe.
It is no surprise that this minimalistic exercise has gained popularity in recent years. Even the New York Times was prompted to sing its praises saying:
“As a symbol of health and wellness, nothing surpasses the simple push-up. The push-up is the ultimate barometer of fitness. It tests the whole body, engaging muscle groups in the arms, chest, abdomen, hips and legs. It requires the body to be taut like a plank with toes and palms on the floor. The act of lifting and lowering one’s entire weight is taxing even for the very fit.”
Still not convinced? We’ll be the first to admit that push ups are few people’s may favorite exercise. However, keep reading why you should keep at them. Once you know how beneficial they are, you won’t be able to help but loving them.
What Muscles Does a Push Up Use?
There are many muscles involved in the execution of a push up. However, there are several primary muscle groups that really drive this exercise.
The chest muscles are the first group of primary movers in a push up. This group is made up of two muscles: the pectoralis major and minor. These two major muscles are the powerhouse of a push up, both supporting and driving the motion.
How do these muscles work together within your chest? The pectoralis major connects your sternum to your upper arm bone, while the pectoralis minor is angled at 45 degrees from your sternum to your shoulder. Together they work to brace your shoulders and back to allow you to perform a proper push up.
The triceps are the second major muscle group that comes into play. Like its name suggests, a tricep is made up of three heads – the lateral, medial, and long heads. Together these three heads allow your elbows to bend, contract, and straighten.
How do these muscles interact? The long head begins at your scapula and joins at the elbow. The lateral head spans the entire length of your humerus, and the medial head, which is slightly shorter, resides underneath both the long and lateral heads. Without each of these muscles working in tandem you would have a tough time lifting yourself off the floor!
During a push up, the anterior deltoid, or the front of the shoulder, acts as a secondary mover to the chest. It too helps you stabilize your movement. Since it is a stabilizer muscle, it is common to feel a burning sensation during pushups as smaller muscles tend to build up lactic acid more quickly. To minimize this sensation try to do more frequent, but shorter sets.
You know that planking works your abs so it should come as no surprise that push ups do as well (after all it’s like holding a plank while moving yourself up and down). When you do a push up, your abs are engaged the entire way through. This helps you not only hold your body off the floor and keep your form, but also keep your balance.
How to do a Proper Pushup
Ready to start? The first thing to know is that doing a proper push up has two steps: setup and execution.
Here is how to set yourself up:
When you get down on the ground, set your hands at a comfortable distance apart.Usually that will be about shoulder-width apart, perhaps a little wider. Your hands themselves should be pointing forward. Alternatively, you can angle your hands slightly in so as to relieve a bit of the stress on your wrists.
Your foot position should help you feel balanced and secure.Most will prefer to have their feet shoulder-width apart like their hands, but you can also set up with your feet touching. Generally speaking, the wider your feet, the more stable you’ll feel for your push ups.
Think of your body as a plank.You should aim to have your form look like one straight line from the crown of your head to your heels. The key is to make sure that your bum is neither shooting straight up into the air or sagging towards the ground. Keeping yourself straight means you’re keeping your core engaged.
Your eyes should be gazing ahead and your head angled forward, not down.Imagine that your chin would touch the ground first, not your nose. This will help you maintain your head at the correct angle.
At the start, your arms should be straight and supporting your weight. Just be careful not to lock them out!
Now you’re ready to do a push up.
How to Complete a Push Up
Once you feel stable in your setup position, steadily lower yourself down. Your elbows should be about 90 degrees at the bottom of your push up, if not more. The distance you are able to cover in a push up will vary based on your age, flexibility, and strength. This is not to say you are limited! Keep practicing and your range of motion will gradually extend.
Keep your elbows tight at your sides. When you descend and raise yourself off the floor, you should make a mental note to keep your elbows closely locked to your ribs. This will get harder the more reps you do, but continue to keep them as tight as possible. Doing so will help you build your triceps.
Once your chest touches the floor (or your arms are at 90 degrees), pause, and then explode back to the top of your push up.
Congratulations, you have now completed a push up!
Now, maintain your perfect form and do as many as you can manage. As soon as your form begins to slip, your set is complete. Remember, 5 good push ups are better than 10 mediocre push ups any day. Besides, the point is to keep practicing. If you can do 10 great ones right now, aim for 11 next time. Keep building your strength and making improvements. You’ll see the results.
It’s hard to beat the efficacy of this minimalistic exercise. Just by using your own body weight you target your chest, arms, and core all at once. However, basic push ups can get boring.
Fortunately, there are dozens of different variations out there that you can try out once you’ve mastered a basic push up. The key to all these variations, however, is making sure that you have an absolutely, rock solid form for your traditional push ups.
- One foot Push Up– This may be the easiest variation out there. All you have to do is get ready to do a regular old push up and lift one leg off the ground. What makes this variation so great is that only having three limbs in contact with the ground requires you to engage your core to keep your balance. This is a perfect variation if you want an extra core boost in your workout.
- Wide Grip Push Up— You’ve been doing these since you were a teenager. This variation is essentially a standard push up but with your arms placed wider than shoulder-width apart so as to target your chest.
- One Arm Push Up– You know you are in good shape when you can do one-armed push ups. This variation requires impeccable form, brute strength, and perfect balance. Lifting your body weight with one arm, however, is not going to be easy. Regardless, should you choose to brave this variation, start by setting up for a regular push up and then spreading your legs wider than your shoulders. Place one hand behind your thigh and lower yourself towards the ground and then back up. Repeat on both sides until you cannot physically do any more.
If you want to take this modification up a level, you can try Bruce Lee’s variation: the one-armed two-fingered push up. Ok, so maybe this is a bit much, but you can always aspire to greatness.
- Knuckle Push Up– To do these, you’d better take off your rings. Knuckle push ups are used by many, but especially by martial artists, to strengthen their knuckles, wrists, and forearms so that they will be able to deliver crushing punches.
Even though it sounds tough, this variation is quite easy to perform. Simply set up for a regular push up, but instead of keeping your hands flat, make fists and rest your body weight on your knuckles.
- Walking Push Up– This variation is a unique one because it adds movement to the equation. To add this move to your workout, start by performing a regular push up but then take a lateral step to the side when you reach the top again. Your lateral steps should move your entire body simultaneously. Continue to do these until you’ve either run out of floor space or you are ready to come back in the other direction.
- Decline Push Up– Another simple variation, the only difference between these push ups and standard ones is the angle of your feet. To do a decline push up, place your feet higher than your hands. This could mean you put them on a bench or on a ball (for an added core-balance challenge).
These type of push ups, not only work your chest and core, but they focus specifically on your shoulders and triceps.
- Tricep Push Up– Want more of a tricep workout? This variation is going to challenge the backs of your arms. Although they look like traditional push ups, your hand position is actually narrower than shoulder-width apart.
Start by setting up for a regular push up, but keep your arms close by your side, rotate your hands outward, and keep your elbows tight as you lower your body. Lower yourself down slowly and always keep in mind that your elbows should be grazing the sides of your ribcage. If you do it right, this will work your triceps like crazy.
- Dive-bomber Push Up– Think of this variation as yoga meets strength training. These pushups use full body movement to build both strength and flexibility in your chest, shoulders, back, hips, and triceps.
To do a dive-bomber pushup, think about making a scooping motion with your body. Start by bringing your head towards the floor by bending your elbows. Once your chest reaches the ground, arch your back and bring yourself all the way through. To come back up perform the same motion but in reverse.
It’s a difficult one, so maybe just watch the video. It’ll help you visualize the flow pattern a little more easily.
- Plyometric Push Up– These push ups are brutal and will wear you out after just a few repetitions. Plyometric exercises are designed to help your increase your speed and explosiveness by loading and then contracting your muscles as fast as possible.
These push ups are particularly useful for athletes who will gain the strength of a regular pushup as well as the explosive cardio benefit offered by the plyometric aspect.
To do a plyometric push up, start by arranging yourself into a normal push up position. Lower yourself exactly as your would for a normal push up, but when you reach the bottom, pause, and then explode off the ground with enough power to raise your hands up off the floor.
Want more? Of course you do. Go ahead and check out this great post by the Art of Manliness for dozens more options with videos. You’ll learn everything from how to do the basic diamond push up variation all the way to the brutal handstand push up.
By now you’ve probably had your fair share of push up education. So now that the theory is out of the way, it is time to put it into practice. Remember, push ups have been used for centuries as one of the ultimate strength training exercises. Therefore, don’t expect to waltz into your next workout session and be able to perfectly execute one. Instead, take it slowly. Start by perfecting your form. Once you’ve mastered that, you can begin increasing your reps and adding variation. Keep at it. Sooner than you think, you’ll be able to crank out push ups like it’s your job and your body will show the results.