The push-up Is one of the most versatile and effective exercises there is. In fact, it’s so highly regarded that the military uses it as one of its tests to determine how fit new recruits are. The push-up predominantly works the muscles in your upper body, but the stabilizing muscles in your core get in on the action too as they help hold your body stable when you’re in a push-up position.
A basic push-up works your deltoids, pectoral muscles in the chest, and the triceps muscles as it calls the stabilizing muscles in your core into action. But by shifting the focus of the movement, you can place more emphasis on certain muscles. You do this by doing a variety of push-up variations. Let’s look at which variations work which muscles so you can fine-tune your push-ups to get the results you want.
Push-Up Variations #1: The Standard Push-Up
This is the old standby and the movement you should master before trying harder variations. For a standard push-up, the correct hand position is about shoulder-width apart. As you lower your body toward the mat, your elbows stay close to the body. No flaring! Too often, people let their elbows move out to a 90-degree angle and this reduces leverage and the amount of force you can generate. Your elbows should be no wider than 30 degrees from your body.
You can get a lot of benefit from a standard push-up alone. It works quite a few muscles! The main ones that generate the force to push your body up are the pectoralis major, the largest muscle in your chest, and the triceps, the small muscles in the back of your arms. Other muscles recruited secondarily are the biceps, and muscles that make up your core. Get to know and love the standard push-up!
Push-Up Variations #2: The Narrow-Grip Push-Up
With a standard push-up, you place your palms directly beneath your shoulders. But, for a narrow-grip push-up, you move your hands closer to each other. A narrow-grip push-up is defined as any push-up where the hands are closer than shoulder-width apart, but the most common grip is a hand position about half of shoulder-width. The closer you place your hands, the harder the movement is. When you narrow the grip, you activate your triceps more and your pectoralis muscles in your chest are also forced to work harder. So, this is a good variation if your chest or triceps could use a bit more focus.
Push-Up Variations #3: The Wide-Grip Push-Up
In contrast, to the narrow-grip push-up, with the wide-grip variation, you place your hands further than shoulder width apart. Moving your hands apart even a little more than shoulder width increases activation of your pectoralis muscles. So, you get a more focused chest workout. Try it and you’ll see that you feel the movement more in your chest.
You might wonder whether a wide-grip push-up is more effective than a narrow-grip. It mainly depends on what muscles you’re targeting. If you want the most chest action, the wide-grip has a slight advantage, although the narrow grip also works the chest a bit harder than a standard push-up. But, one study found that total muscle activation was greater with a narrow-grip than a wide-grip push-up. Most people think the narrow-grip feels harder too.
Push-Up Variations #4: Diamond Push-Ups
Diamond push-ups are an extreme form of the narrow-grip push-up. With this variation, you place your hands close together so they form a diamond shape with thumbs coming together to form the top curve of the heart. This variation shifts, even more, focus to the triceps and to a lesser extent the pectoralis major. It’s a challenging movement too. When you’ve reached a plateau and would like to build more triceps strength, this is a variation to keep in your back pocket.
Push-Up Variations #5: Incline and Decline Push-Ups
With a decline push-up, your feet are elevated above your hands. The opposite is true of an incline push-up. An incline push-up is easier than a decline one and even easier than a standard push-up. In fact, incline push-ups are a good way for people who lack sufficient upper body strength to do a push-up. You simply place your feet on the floor and your hands on a bench or other elevated surface. The greater the height, the easier the push-up will be. Inclined push-ups work the lower chest and back more than a standard push-up.
In contrast, decline push-ups shift the focus to the upper chest and shoulders. The higher you place your feet, the harder the push-up will be. Don’t start out doing decline push-ups. Work up baseline upper body strength before attempting this move.
Push-Up Variations #6: Plyometric Push-Ups
Plyometric push-ups are a dynamic movement that targets the triceps, chest, and shoulders, but it also builds explosive power in the upper body. This exercise cuts to the chase by quickly maximizing the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers that build strength and power. To do one:
Get into a standard push-up position.
Lower your body towards the ground as if doing a traditional push-up.
At the bottom, quickly extend your arms and push your body back up as quickly as possible so that your hands leave the mat.
Assume the starting position and keep repeating.
Due to the intense nature of plyometric push-ups, don’t do them every time you train. It’s an intense exercise and one that places stress on your shoulder joints. Be aware of that if you have shoulder issues. Try doing a few reps one or two times per week at the beginning of your push-up routine while your muscles are least fatigued. Be sure to warm up first.
The Bottom Line
Don’t get stuck in a push-up rut. By advancing your push-up routine to harder versions and by changing hand and foot position, you can work the muscles in your upper body in a different way. But, master a standard push-up before trying more advanced variations. It’s easy to get sloppy when you do push-ups and if you carry that sloppiness over to more advanced versions, your risk of injury goes up.
J Strength Cond Res. Aug;19(3):628-33.
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