Push-ups – they’re the ultimate bodyweight exercise you can do almost anywhere to build muscle strength and endurance. A standard push-up works a variety of muscles, including triceps, biceps, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, and deltoids, but you can change the degree to which you activate particular muscles by changing the position of your hands or feet. Push-up variations make the exercise more challenging and more fun – and don’t forget that push-ups work your core when you do them correctly.
Varying Your Hand Position
With a standard push-up, you place your hands at shoulder level with elbows at a 45-degree angle, taking care not to let them flare out. Letting your elbows flare places excessive tension on your rotator cuffs and can lead to injury. A variation is to place your hands closer or wider than shoulder width. When you use a wide placement, 150% of shoulder width, you activate your pecs more than with a standard or narrow grip push-up. Narrow grip push-ups, about 50% of shoulder width, shift more of the focus to your triceps.
Interestingly, one study using EMG to measure muscle activation showed narrow grip push-ups activate both the triceps AND the pecs more than wide-grip ones. Wide grip push-ups reduce some of the work you’re forced to do because your body is closer to the floor when you move your hands further apart. As a result, you may get more triceps and pec activation if you focus more on a narrow grip, but don’t forget narrow-grip push-ups place more stress on your elbows.
Another way to vary your hand placement is to position your hands on an unstable surface, like a Swiss ball. This type of hand positioning activates triceps and pecs more than a standard push-up, but mostly during the eccentric or lowering phase of the movement. This variation also forces your core to work harder to stay balanced. With your hands on a Swiss ball, you also call into action a muscle called the serratus anterior that pulls your scapula forward when you throw a punch. When your serratus anterior is weak, it causes your shoulders to fall forward, giving you that slumped posture look. What about push-ups with alternating hands on a ball? This variation activates your ab and core muscles more than standard push-ups and doing push-ups with both hands on the ball.
Whatever hand placement you use, don’t internally rotate your hands. Doing so will place excessive amounts of stress on your elbow joints.
Variations in Foot Placement
If standard push-ups have become too “standard,” up the challenge by placing your feet on a bench or other elevated platform. The higher the bench, the great the challenge. This push-up variation really targets your pecs and isn’t for beginners. When you use a Swiss ball or stability ball instead of a bench, you get more core activation since the surface is unstable. You can lower the resistance by using a ball with less elevation or by placing your knees instead of your feet on the ball.
What about Easier Variations?
Most people are familiar with “knee” push-ups where you place your knees rather than your toes on the floor. Research shows this variation reduces the load by 62% when your body is close to the floor and by 54% when you’re towards the top of the movement. As you might expect, this positioning reduces activation of your core musculature too.
An even easier version is wall push-ups where you place your hand’s shoulder width apart at shoulder height and your feet away from the wall and push off the wall. This is a safe variation if you have back issues since they put no stress on your spine and are ideal when you’re first starting out. As you can see, there’s a push-up variation that works for everyone at every level.
Mistakes Many People Make When Doing Push-Ups
Now that you know how to change the muscles you target by varying hand and foot position, here are some mistakes to avoid when doing push-ups:
Moving too quickly. When you move too quickly you introduce momentum and reduce the benefit you get from the exercise. Slow down to increase time under tension, and really feel the muscles work. Save momentum for plyo push-ups.
Not going down far enough? You won’t get the full benefits unless you do a full range-of-motion push-up. Ideally, your chest should almost touch the floor. If you’re only able to do half reps, work on perfecting your form on your knees before progressing to a standard push-up.
Letting your hips sag. If you’re letting your hips drop, you lack core strength and need to focus more on core strengthening movements. Letting your hips fall also places excess force on your spine.
Letting your elbows flare. Flared elbows place too much stress on the rotator cuff muscles in your shoulders.
Not breathing properly. The correct way: Inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up.
Not doing them regularly. Push-ups work too many muscles to ignore. Don’t avoid them or be intimidated. Start with wall push-ups, if you have to, and work towards doing a standard push-up over time.
The Bottom Line
These are only a few of the ways you can vary a push-up, but, hopefully, it will inspire you to break out of standard push-up mode and try a different variation. By changing the placement of your hands or elevating your hands or feet, you can increase or decrease the challenge and focus more closely on particular muscles.
You can also vary the speed and forcefulness with which you do a push-up by doing plyometric or clap push-ups. Plyo and clap push-ups target fast-twitch muscle fibers and build explosive power in your pecs, shoulders, and triceps. They also add a cardiovascular component to push-ups but also increase the risk of injury. If they seem too advanced, start with your knees on the floor and explode up and gradually work up to the full version.
“The Biomechanics of the Push-Up: Implications for Resistance Training Program” Bret Contreras, M.A., CSCS, Brad Schoenfeld, M.Sc., CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Jonathan Mike, PhD (Candidate) USAW, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Gul Tiryaki-Sonmez, Ph.D., John Cronin, Ph.D.
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