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Oct 6, 2022
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10 Push-Up Variations for More Muscle and Strength

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There’s a reason Monday is often called “International bench day.” Training for a strong, muscular chest is awesome and it can be appreciated year-round. But the bench press isn’t the only way to get there. The humble push-up is often pushed aside in the quest for a strong and muscular chest because the latest flashy … Read more
The post 10 Push-Up Variations for More Muscle and Strength appeared first on Breaking Muscle.

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There’s a reason Monday is often called “International bench day.” Training for a strong, muscular chest is awesome and it can be appreciated year-round. But the bench press isn’t the only way to get there. The humble push-up is often pushed aside in the quest for a strong and muscular chest because the latest flashy chest exercise featured on Instagram might look “way cooler.” But is it as effective as the push-up? Probably not.

people in gym performing push-ups
Credit: Ground Picture / Shutterstock

When performed regularly, the simple push-up and its variations will help you build bigger pecs, triceps, and shoulders, improve your relative strength, and it can even transfer over to boosting your bench and overhead press numbers.

Here are 10 push-up variations to try if you’re ready to give bodyweight training a fair shake. You will never look at push-ups the same way again.

Best Push-Up Variations

Chaos Push-Up

This challenging variation takes the standard bodyweight push-up up a notch by using a resistance band in a quite unusual way. By performing a push-up with your hands on the band instead of the floor, the highly unstable element fires up all of your shoulder and core stabilizer muscles.

The band gives you instant feedback when using anything less than perfect form. You’re forced to move at a slower speed to maintain control, and the increased time under tension does wonders for adding muscle.

When to Use it

When regular push-ups are easy and you’ve advanced to doing push-ups for seemingly endless reps, the chaos push-up will snap you out of this funk. The increased time under tension makes it great for adding muscle and it’s a great alternative exercise for dumbbell bench presses. The instability of the chaos push-up is excellent for additional rotator cuff strength if you’re coming back from a shoulder injury.

How to Do it

Loop a heavy-duty resistance band around safety pins on the squat rack, at roughly waist height. Light to moderate bands may not be able to support your body weight. The higher the band is placed and the higher your body angle, the easier the exercise will be.

Place your hands on the band in a shoulder-width grip and hold tight with stiff arms. Bring your legs behind you and allow the band to support your weight, while engaging your glutes and core. Bend your arms and slowly lower yourself into a push-up. Press yourself up, pause briefly at the top to reset and stabilize before repeating.

Decline Push-Up

The decline push-up is one of the most common variations of the classic push-up. It’s fantastic for adding muscle because it’s relatively low stress on the joints, requires minimal equipment to perform, and can be trained for very high reps which benefits size and strength.

This movement shifts the focus to the upper chest and anterior deltoid, similar to an incline bench press, for better overall muscle development of the chest and shoulders.

When to Use it

Your chest is a relatively large muscle with multiple sections, or heads, so it pays to train with your arms at a variety of angles relative to your torso. (1) Perform the decline push-up in any workout in place of your standard push-up, particularly if your workout lacks angled chest exercises or if your shoulders are bothering you from other pressing exercises.

How to Do it

Place your toes on a box, step, or flat bench and position your hands underneath your shoulders. Engage your core to keep your spine neutral, neither sagging nor excessively arched. Lower yourself into a push-up until your chest is just above the floor and your elbows are angled roughly 45-degrees from your sides. Pause briefly at the bottom and push back to the starting position. Reset your body position at lockout and repeat.

Incline Plyo Push-Up

The incline plyo push-up allows you to generate upper body power with less compressive stress on the joints than similar free weight movements.

The incline plyo push-up is an excellent regression (less challenging variation) from the clapping push-up because you press less of your body weight due to the inclined position. This can allow you to squeak a few more reps and apply more explosive force.

When to Use it

Use sets of six to 10 reps with this powerful variation as a “primer” at the start of a heavy bench press workout to recruit more muscle and ignite your CNS. (2) If you’re having difficulty with plyo push-ups from the floor, this is a good way to introduce explosive movements while building strength, speed, and power.

How to Do it

Place your hands on a stable platform like a secured bench or box, a set of steps, or a Smith machine bar. Keep your arms straight as you lean forward and position your feet back, keeping a straight line through your body. Bend your arms and lower yourself rapidly toward the bench before explosively pushing yourself up and allowing your hands to leave the bench.

As you land, slightly bend your elbows and “catch” yourself on the way down to better absorb the force. Descend smoothly into the next repetition.

Clapping Push-Up

The clapping push-up is performed with maximum force. On each repetition, your hands will leave the ground and you will quickly clap them together to display power, coordination, and control.

Power exercises like the clapping push-up train the fast-twitch muscle fibers of the body, which are capable of more growth than slow-twitch fibers. (3) This exercise is a progression of the incline plyo push-up and should only be performed when you’ve mastered the incline movement.

When to Use It

As the first exercise of the workout, before heavy lifting, perform sets of six to eight reps. This will build explosive strength and help to improve your performance with other pressing exercises following in the workout, such as the overhead press and bench press.

How to Do it

Lie on the floor in a good push-up position with your hands under your shoulders, your legs straight, and your spine neutral. Bend your arms and lower yourself into a push-up position with your elbows at a roughly 45-degree angle. Before your chest touches the floor, press explosively and let your hands leave the floor. Quickly clap your hands together and get them back to the floor to catch yourself. Reset your body before the next repetition or, if you’re advanced, immediately transition into the next rep.

Spiderman Push-Up

The Spiderman push-up is an advanced variation that requires your upper body and lower body to work together with coordination, strength, and stability.

This push-up variation will increase your chest’s time under tension at the peak of your push-up contraction, which will challenge your strength and improve the hypertrophy stimulus. It also tests and challenges your core stability and hip mobility, making it an excellent “bang for the buck” movement.

When to Use It

The Spiderman push-up is excellent to insert into a conditioning workout or fat loss circuit because it trains many muscles with one movement and improves your upper body, core, and hip flexor strength. Make sure to do equal reps on both legs.

How to Do it

Assume your regular push-up position on the ground with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lower your chest toward the ground while simultaneously pulling your right knee toward your right forearm. Don’t allow your torso to rotate excessively to accommodate your rising leg

Pause briefly in the bottom while your chest hovers near the ground before reversing the process and bringing your foot back to the starting position while pushing yourself back up. Repeat the next repetition with the left leg. Alternate legs with each repetition. To cue the overall movement, imagine you’re a web-slinging superhero climbing the outside of a building.

Slider Push-Up

For the slider push-up, you’re using a simple slider device to reach one arm forward as you perform a traditional bent-arm push-up with the opposite arm. This variation recruits more of the serratus anterior (outer chest muscle which controls the shoulder blades), while also increasing muscular tension on your chest and triceps.

If you have shoulder mobility issues, stay within a range of motion you can control by limiting how far you reach forward. The slider push-up challenges your shoulder stabilization and may improve shoulder health over time.

When to Use It

The slider push-up is a great exercise to eventually build up to a one-arm push-up because most of the work is done by one arm while the other is providing support. For maximum focus and strength, perform this exercise near the beginning of any workout, before fatiguing your chest and triceps with other exercises.

How to Do it

Kneel on the ground and put an exercise slider or furniture slider under each hand. Rotate your shoulders to put your wrists, elbows, and shoulders in a stacked position. Straighten your legs and stabilize your entire body in a front plank position. Engage your glutes and keep a tight core.

Lower into a push-up by bending one arm while keeping the opposite arm straight as it extends forward. After reaching the lowest comfortable position, pull the forward hand back while pressing the bent arm to lockout. Alternate sides with each repetition.

Suspension Strap Single-Arm Push-Up

This variation uses suspension straps, like gymnastic rings or TRX cables, to adjust your body angle which changes the intensity of the push-up. The straps also add an element of instability, which means you’re training core strength as well as upper body and lower body stabilizers.(4)

This exercise will help strengthen imbalances between sides and give you instant feedback if there is anything amiss with your pressing technique since it requires total focus and control.

When to Use It

Unilateral (single-arm) presses are great for strengthening imbalances between sides, since most people naturally have one slightly more developed or slightly stronger arm. If you find one arm lagging behind the other during the bench press or overhead press, this is an effective way to target each side on its own.

How to Do it

Loop the handles together and grip the strap over your shoulder with one hand. Adjust your intensity by moving your feet closer to the anchor point (harder) or further away (easier). Slowly lower yourself while keeping your shoulders square to the floor. Don’t rotate or shift to favor either side. While learning the movement, control the range of motion and don’t let your elbow go too far past your torso. Press back, reset, and repeat. Perform all reps on one side before switching.

Band-Resisted Push-Up

Bodyweight push-ups will never truly go out of style, and sometimes you just want to add resistance to this classic exercise. Putting weight plates on your back is okay, but it can get awkward to keep them in place as you move. This is where a looped resistance band comes in.

The band’s ascending resistance will make the exercise more difficult toward the top of the push-up, which maximizes your muscles’ peak contraction.

When to Use It

The band provides the majority of resistance in the upper end of the range of motion, which will help build triceps lockout strength and muscle gains for your chest and triceps. Do this when you want to add variety to your training, build some chest muscle, and put some pep back into your bench press without joint stress from a barbell.

How to Do it

Loop a resistance band around your upper back and put the ends of the band snugly under your hands. Place your hands underneath your shoulders and rise onto your toes in a front plank position. Keep a straight line through your core and squeeze your glutes. Slowly lower yourself down until your chest is nearly touching the floor. Think about driving your hands through the floor as you press back up and fight resistance to the starting position.

Archer Push-Up

This exercise has you performing a push-up with primarily one arm while the other arm provides support, similar to a slider push-up. The wide grip and long range of motion make this one of the more advanced push-up variations.

By alternating side to side, you allow each arm to do its own share of the work. This unique training angle also works the chest differently from most exercises, which can stimulate more muscle growth.

When to Use It

If your goal is to be able to do one-arm push-ups, archer push-ups can play a big role in getting you there. It can be used as a “gateway” movement to build the pressing strength and total-body stability needed to achieve a clean one-arm push-up.

How to Do it

Get on the ground with your toes planted and your hands set well-beyond shoulder-width. Your wrists and elbows may be more comfortable when your fingers point “out” toward the side walls instead of forward. Maintain a stiff body position through your core.

“Pull” your right chest down toward your right hand by bending your right elbow. Keep your left arm straight as your body approaches the ground. Press through your bent arm to return to the starting position and repeat to the opposite side. Alternate sides with each repetition, and perform an even amount of work on each side.

Yoga Push-Up

This unique exercise is one part push-up and one part “downward dog” yoga pose. It trains strength, mobility, and flexibility in your pressing muscles, core, upper back, lower back, hips, and lower body.

Your pecs and triceps get significant time under tension and a change of pressing angle similar to a decline push-up. The “downward dog”-like position helps to improve strength and mobility in the thoracic spine (upper back), hips, and hamstrings.

When to Use It

The yoga push-up is ideal when you’ve finally decided to perform some of the mobility work that often gets forgotten. It works well as a time-efficient warm-up before any workout, especially sessions that will involve chest pressing or shoulder training because it addresses the upper and lower back.

How to Do it

Start in a regular push-up position, on your toes and hands, with your body straight from head to heel. Descend into a standard push-up with your elbows roughly 45-degrees away from your torso. When your chest is slightly above the floor, press up while pushing your hips back at an upward angle. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings as your torso and legs form an upside down “V” shape.

Keep your shoulders relaxed and pushed away from your ears. Reverse the entire movement to transition back into the starting push-up position and repeat for reps.

Muscles Worked by the Push-Up

Most push-up movements primarily work the chest, with support from the shoulders and triceps, while the abdominals and lower back work to keep a strong core.

person outdoors performing push-up
Credit: Prostock-studio / Shutterstock

However, specific variations can emphasize the upper chest, focus more on core strength, or build shoulder and upper back mobility.

Pectorals

Your chest muscles are front and center with the push-up. Your pecs are largely responsible for arm adduction (bringing your arms closer to your centerline) which occurs when you push your body away from the floor.

Triceps

Once your elbows break 90-degrees as you press upwards, your triceps take over significantly to extend your elbows and lockout your arms. Performing any push-up with a relatively close-grip (your hands closer than shoulder-width) will also increase triceps activation. (5)

Anterior Deltoids

The shoulder muscle has three individual heads, each responsible for moving your arm in a different plane relative to your body. The anterior deltoid on the front of the shoulder works to “raise” your upper arm in front of your body. It assists your chest and triceps when pushing your body away from the ground.

Core

If your spine doesn’t stay neutral during the push-up, it all counts for naught because you’ll compromise joint health, safety, and efficiency. The anterior and posterior core — your abs and lower back — keep your torso rigid so your chest and triceps can apply maximum force. Single-arm movements like the slider push-up and single-leg movements like the Spiderman push-up require more core activation to counterbalance a reduced base of support.

Push-Up Form Tips

The most common technique flaw in the push-up is a loss of core stability. This results in an ugly-looking push-up which strains the lower back and increases the risk of injury. Your best bet is to engage your abs and glutes, and stop the movement if you find yourself losing spinal position.

Although there is nothing necessarily wrong with having your hands wider than shoulder-width apart when performing the basic push-up, be sure to keep your elbows angled near 45-degrees from your torso for most push-up movements. When your hands are placed wide, it’s more work on the shoulders (and shoulder joints) and less involvement from the chest and triceps.

person outdoors performing push-ups
Credit: lzf / Shutterstock

The cardinal sin of almost all push-ups is reaching your head down to meet the floor. This is high risk on your cervical spine and neck, and it short-changes the effective range of motion for your target muscles. You can prevent this error by tucking your chin to your chest, pulling your head back to make a “double-chin”, and staring directly at the floor.

Push Yourself with New Exercises

Too many lifters write off the push-up as being “an easy exercise.” They underestimate its value because of the general lack of load and apparent simplicity of the movement. But as any of these variations showcase, a few tweaks here and there will take the bodyweight push-up to the next level by adding extra movement, changing the angle of work, or throwing stability requirements to the mix. Tackle some of these exercises and the push-up will never seem so “easy” again.

References

  1. Rodríguez-Ridao, D., Antequera-Vique, J. A., Martín-Fuentes, I., & Muyor, J. M. (2020). Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(19), 7339. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17197339
  2. Sale D. G. (1988). Neural adaptation to resistance training. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 20(5 Suppl), S135–S145. https://doi.org/10.1249/00005768-198810001-00009
  3. D’Antona, G., Lanfranconi, F., Pellegrino, M. A., Brocca, L., Adami, R., Rossi, R., Moro, G., Miotti, D., Canepari, M., & Bottinelli, R. (2006). Skeletal muscle hypertrophy and structure and function of skeletal muscle fibres in male body builders. The Journal of physiology, 570(Pt 3), 611–627. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2005.101642
  4. Borreani, S., Calatayud, J., Colado, J. C., Moya-Nájera, D., Triplett, N. T., & Martin, F. (2015). Muscle activation during push-ups performed under stable and unstable conditions. Journal of exercise science and fitness, 13(2), 94–98. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesf.2015.07.002
  5. Kim, Y. S., Kim, D. Y., & Ha, M. S. (2016). Effect of the push-up exercise at different palmar width on muscle activities. Journal of physical therapy science28(2), 446–449. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.28.446

Featured Image: Iryna Inshyna / Shutterstock

The post 10 Push-Up Variations for More Muscle and Strength appeared first on Breaking Muscle.

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