Push-ups? What fitness routine would be complete without this bodyweight exercise? Most resistance-training routines include some form of a push-up. No wonder! Push-ups are a move that works multiple muscle groups while building muscle strength and endurance. Yet, pushing up your own bodyweight is challenging, especially when you first start out. The military even doles push-ups out as a form of punishment! On television, you’ve probably heard a movie sergeant order a young recruit to hit the ground and do 50. However, push-ups aren’t just a single exercise. There are various ways you can modify this exercise to make it easier, harder, or to target different muscles more. One way is to change the grip and where you place your hands on the floor.
When you first began doing push-ups, you probably used a standard push-up grip. A standard grip is where your hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. You might have even started doing push-ups on your knees rather than your toes to make the move less challenging. Doing this modified form of push-ups reduces the weight your body has to work against by 30%. Once you mastered a standard push-up and progressed from doing them on your knees to doing them on your toes, you might wonder how to modify this move to target a particular muscle group more intensely. One way is to change your grip, the distance between your hands. You have two options, of course, you can move them closer together or further apart. Let’s look at the benefits of each.
The Narrow-Grip Push-up
Moving your hands closer together turns a standard push-up into a narrow-grip one. To do this variation, assume a push-up position, but place your hands closer than shoulder-width apart. Then, lower your body to the floor until your chest almost touches and come back up. Congratulations! You’ve completed a narrow-grip push-up.
What are the benefits of this approach? Narrow-grip push-ups hit your inner pecs and triceps a little harder. In fact, a study found that using a close grip increases activation of the triceps by 15%. For most people, the narrow-grip push-up is a bit harder than using a wider grip. If it’s too challenging at first, place your hands on a low platform like a step until you build up a bit more strength and stamina.
Another benefit of using a narrow grip is this hand position places less stress on your shoulders. If you have a history of shoulder discomfort or rotator cuff problems, this might be an approach that’s safer for you. This variation also places less pressure on your wrists.
The Wide-Grip Push-Up
Now that you’ve done a set of push-ups with a narrow grip, let’s switch to a wide grip. As you might expect, you have to widen your hand position. To do a wide push-up, place your hands about 150% of shoulder width. A wide grip is a bit easier than a narrow grip but places more strain your shoulders. Keep this in mind if you have a history of shoulder problems.
What are the benefits of widening your grip? When you place your hands wider than shoulder width, it activates your pectoral muscles more, and the further apart you place them, the more pec activation you get. If you don’t want pec development, don’t do this variation too frequently. As with all push-ups and push-up variations, keep your body in a straight line when you do the exercise and get as close to the floor as you can. No cheating!
A wide grip targets the pectoral muscles more but that’s not the only thing it targets. A study also showed that wide grips boost activation of the biceps muscles by 20% relative to a standard push-up. So, if you want to work your biceps more, focus more on wide-grip push-ups. If your triceps need work, narrow-grip push-ups will help you best achieve your goals. For balance, it’s smart to do both.
Are Push-Up Handles Beneficial?
You may have seen or used push-up handles that you hold on to instead of placing your hands on the floor. Push-up handles elevate your hands so you’re starting from a higher position. This increases the range-of-motion, which challenges your muscles more. With handles, your forearms have to work harder to lower your body and bring it back up as the path from top to bottom is longer. However, using push-up handles can also cause your form to break down. The larger path your body has to travel also places more strain on your shoulders.
The biggest benefit of handles is they take some of the strain off of your wrists by keeping them in a neutral position. Your wrists are forced to hyper-extend when you place your hands on the floor, which isn’t desirable. You can prevent this by using push-up handles. If you have small or weak wrists, a pair might be a good investment. But, make sure you use the same form with the handles as you would if you kept both hands on the floor.
The Bottom Line
Push-ups are close to being a total body workout in one move and you can do them anywhere. All you need is a floor and a little motivation. But, don’t get into a push-up rut. Switch the hand grip you use to emphasize different muscles and to challenge your body differently. Both wide-grip and narrow-grip push-ups have benefits and switch the focus to different muscles. Take advantage of that by doing both. Keep in mind, changing the hand grip is only one way to vary a push-up. There are lots of other ways to kick up the challenge with other push-up variations and modifications. Whatever you do, make sure this awesome exercise is part of your fitness routine.
Stack.com. “Push-Up Grip Guide: How Different Hand Positions Change the Exercise”
International Journal of Exercise Science 6(4) : 278-288, 2013.