Which Push-Up Variation is Toughest?

Which Push-Up Variation is Toughest?

Push-ups are the king of bodyweight exercises. Few exercises offer as many benefits and have as many variations as push-ups. Variety keeps things interesting, helps you stay motivated and keeps you from reaching a plateau. No matter your fitness level, there’s a push-up variation to challenge you. If you’re just starting out, begin with knees on the ground and gradually move up to push-ups on your toes. Once you’ve built up muscle strength and endurance, it’s time to try one of the dozens of more challenging push-up variations. Have you ever wondered which push-up variations are hardest?

 The Most Challenging Push-Up Variation 

Researchers from a number of universities were curious, like you, to know which push-up variations are the most difficult. To answer the question, they asked 23 fit individuals (14 men and 9 women) who were not professional athletes to perform six push-up variations. These included:

Standard push-ups on the toes

Push-ups with flexed knees

Push-ups with feet elevated on an 8-inch box

Push-ups with feet elevated on a 24-inch box

Push-ups with hands elevated on a 24-inch box

Push-ups with hands elevated on an 8-inch box

The participants did each push-up variation with arms shoulder width apart and in a “two count up and two count down” manner.

To measure the difficulty of each variation, researchers used a process called kinetic analysis. Kinetic analysis measures the amount of ground reaction force the individuals experience doing each push-up variation. The ground reaction force is the amount of force the ground exerts back on the person doing the push-up. This is equal to the amount of force the individual exerts against the ground. So, a higher ground reaction force means a particular push-up variation is more difficult.

Which push-up variation was hardest? Push-ups with both feet elevated on a box were toughest. The variation with feet elevated on a 24-inch box posed the greatest challenge while the 8-inch box height was a little less challenging. Based on this study, standard push-ups are tougher than push-ups with hands elevated on a box or platform. Flexed knee push-ups are harder than push-ups with hands elevated on a 24-inch box but not an 8-inch box. The results were consistent between men and women.

What does this mean? If you want to really challenge yourself, elevate your feet. The greater the elevation, the more challenging the exercise will be. To dial down the challenge, do flexed knee push-ups or elevate your hands on a box or riser. That’s the great things about push-ups – they’re versatile.

What Muscles Do You Work When You Do Push-Ups?

Push-ups give multiple muscle groups a workout. This military-inspired exercise works your chest, triceps, pecs and back muscles. Plus, you use your abdominal and core muscles to stabilize your body when lowering your body up and down. Move your hands closer together and you’ll activate your triceps more than with a wider based push-up. Be careful! Narrow-based push-ups place more stress on the elbow joints. Some studies suggest wider based push-ups target the pectoralis muscles more than narrow-based ones, while narrow push-ups activate the triceps more.

Another study showed placing your hands on a Swiss ball when performing push-ups increases activation of the pec and triceps muscles during the eccentric or lowering phase. This variation is also helpful for enhancing core strength and balance. In addition, push-ups from a suspended position activate more core musculature than push-ups performed on a level surface.

Clapping push-ups, plyometric style, are superior to standard push-ups for activating the pectoralis and triceps muscles. Plyometric push-ups may not be suitable if you have back issues since they place more force on the spine.

How Much Easier Are Bent Knee Push-Ups?

In the beginning, many people start with bent knee push-ups until they develop more upper body strength and endurance. Bent-knee push-ups reduce the amount of load by about 54% at the top of the movement and 62% at the bottom. Don’t worry. You can advance to push-ups on your toes once you’re comfortable with bent knee ones.

More Push-Up Variations

Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can always add variety with a mind-boggling array of push-up variations. Add a plyometric component by doing clap push-ups. Challenge yourself with dive-bomber or one-arm push-ups. Try Spiderman push-ups or push-ups with isometric holds. Increase the resistance by wearing a weight vest or using resistance bands. So many ways to enjoy the benefits of push-ups!

Push-ups are an exercise you’ll never outgrow.  You can always make them tougher by adding resistance, raising your legs, slowing the speed, changing your hand or foot position and by doing push-ups on an unstable surface. These changes change muscle recruitment patterns and alter the load and stress you’re placing on particular muscle groups.

The Bottom Line?

Push-ups and their many variations are one of the best ways to target multiple muscle groups in your upper body, including your core. Best of all, you can do push-ups with no equipment using only your body weight. Just don’t let yourself get into a rut by doing only standard push-ups. Change hand positions and foot positions, elevate your feet or hands, do them on an unstable surface or add resistance with a weight vest or bands.  Be sure you’re using good form. Ten well-executed push-ups that go all the way to the ground are more effective than 20 sloppy ones.



Breaking Muscle. “Kinetic Analysis of the Push-Up: Which Version is Hardest?”

J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Oct;25(10):2891-4. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31820c8587.

J Strength Cond Res 19: 628-633, 2005.

J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):628-33.

T-Nation. “The Best Damn Push-Up Article Period”  (6/11)

“The Biomechanics of the Push-Up: Implications for Resistance Training”

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.


Related Articles By Cathe:

How Your Hand and Feet Position Affects the Benefits You Get from Push-Ups

Do Bodyweight Workouts Limit Your Strength Gains?


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