Tuesday 28 August 2018


Push-ups, also known as press-ups, are a staple of bodyweight training. Primarily targeting your pectoral muscles, when done properly it is a highly effective full body workout that also hits the back of your arms, core, and legs. It also has the added benefit of being able to be done anywhere without any equipment and is the safest chest exercise you can perform by yourself.

Often performed with poor form, quite a few weightlifters who are able to bench press very heavy loads struggle to be able to do a set of push-ups.

Indeed, when I first tried to do a push-up many years ago I was able to bang out sets of 80kg on the bench press whilst having weighed around 72kg, yet I struggled to be able to do that first push-up. The main issue? Being able to get low enough and being able to support myself at that depth.

Once I managed to do that first rep, and then second etc., it gradually became easier and easier to perform. Since those days I've had to progress to far more advanced push-up variations such as ring push-ups to be able to work my chest out effectively. And the best bit is? I've never had to do the bench press in years or worry about needing a spotter to help me.

Table of contents

Classification and muscles used

  • Type: Bodyweight
  • Action: Pressing / pushing
  • Plane: Transverse

Whilst the exact variation of push-up dictates what muscles get more focus, in general the following muscles targeted are:

(Click image to expand)
Primary (greens)
  • Pectoralis major (chest)
  • Triceps brachii (back of arm)
  • Anterior deltoid (front shoulder)
Secondary (blues)
  • Serratus anterior
  • Trapezius (back of neck, upper back)
  • Rectus abdominus (abs)
Other (pinks)
  • Gluteals
  • Quadriceps (front of thigh)

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How to perform

  1. Assume a straight arm plank position, with hands directly below your shoulders just wider than shoulder width apart.
  2. With a neutral pelvic position brace your core to maintain a straight body from your head to your ankles and to prevent your hips from sagging.
  3. Keeping elbows tucked in towards your side, lower your body towards the floor as far as you can. Breathe in whilst lowering.
  4. Once you reach your bottom range of motion, engage your chest and triceps and push yourself back to the starting position. Breathe out whilst pushing.
  5. Repeat for desired repetitions and keep your breathing rhythmic.

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Common mistakes

Too many personal trainers are too happy to allow clients to perform push-ups poorly just so long as they are getting results, but the body always finds a way to compensate to achieve these results and the long-term inter-muscle relationship and joint-mechanic damage this does is harder to correct.

Some common push-up mistakes are:

  • Hips sag downwards or up too high.
  • Elbows flared out to side.
  • You drop your head, breaking the straight line from head to ankle.
  • Hands too far forward, back, wide, or not straight.
  • Performing too fast using momentum to get yourself back up.
  • You hold your breath.
  • Doing push-ups with a weight plate on your back to make it harder even when you haven't even mastered the movement or taken leverage into account.
Push Up Press Up Common Mistakes
Classic example of hands too wide and elbows flared out.

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Progression and regression

The easiest way to make a push-up harder or easier is the principle of leverage: the higher your hands are than your feet the easier, the higher your feet are than your hands the harder.

Ways to regress, or to make this exercise easier to perform:

  • Shorten your leverage by performing on your knees rather than your feet.
  • Perform against a wall rather than the floor.
  • Perform with your torso elevated, such as hands on a box.
  • Perform negatives, where you only perform the lowering phase of the push-up each repetition. Usually done with a slow descent to maximise strength adapations.
  • Perform with feet out wide to provide a more stable base of support.

To make the push-up harder:

  • Elevate feet. Also places more emphasis on the smaller pectoralis minor chest muscle and anterior deltoid.
  • Perform with feet side by side, makes your base of support more unstable.
  • Perform with one foot on top of the other. Makes it more unstable but as both feet are still "grounded" makes a nice transition to the next variation.
  • Perform on one foot. This targets your stability.

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Below is a list of some of the many variations of push-up that can be done:

  • Wide stance: hands placed further apart, places more emphasis on the chest muscles and less on the triceps.
  • Narrow stance: hands placed closer together, places more emphasis on the triceps as opposed to the chest.
  • Side-to-side: works the muscles in the sagittal plane as opposed to the frontal plane.
  • Archer push-up: places more emphasis on one side.
  • One-arm push-up: one of the hardest push-up variations, requiring great stability and chest and triceps strength.
  • Clapping push-up: primarily used for developing power in the chest.
  • Sliding fly: A great exercise that mimics the movement pattern of cable chest flyes.
  • Stability ball push-up: challenges the stability of the chest, arms, and body as a whole.
  • Medicine ball push-up: similar to a stability ball push-up though much closer to the groud.
  • Ring push-up: heavily challenges the stability of the chest, arms, and body as a whole.

There are many more variations of this exercise that can be performed, however to master the above would be a great achievement on its own.

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Closing thoughts

The push-up is a staple exercise of most exercise routines that has been used since ancient times to develop stronger chests and triceps. When performed correctly it also hits your core and stabilisation, especially the harder variations.

Whilst a bench press works great for maximal strength and hypertrophy, it lacks this holistic all body impact a perfectly executed push-up, especially a ring or one-handed push-up has.

When the harder push-up variations are implemented, you'll find there is no need to ever push a barbell on a bench again or have to worry about needing a spotter to help you with very heavy weights. Push-ups can also be done anywhere unlike the bench press.

Over time I will post more articles showcasing push-up variations along with videos of their execution. Indeed, when time permits I will add more pictures and videos to this post to further illustrate the points made. Until then if you have any questions feel free to comment below or send me some feedback!

Lyle Richardson,
Gym Pal - Your Friend In Fitness


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