If you have been reading my articles for a while then you know that I love free weight movements such as squats, deadlifts and rows but I also like to incorporate a good amount of bodyweight exercises as assistance and accessory work to build up more volume and frequency without hurting my recovery ability too much. I’ve written many articles about pull-ups and dips but haven’t written much about push-ups. The push-up is one of the most bang-for-your-buck exercises for building up the chest, front delt and shoulders. The core, lats and serratus are also involved in the movement and you may even experience soreness in that area if you are doing the push-ups properly. There is a reason why push-ups have passed the test of time and are still one of the most popular exercises till this day, they work.
The big problem with push-ups is that they are too easy for most people. 50 rep push-ups are basically cardio and won’t build muscle. To build muscle as a drug free lifter you have to train the fast twitch muscle fibers which are worked in low and medium reps such as 3-15 (more or less on average). The bench press is a fantastic exercise for building the chest, but if that’s all you do for your chest then you will run into problems in the future as far as your shoulders are concerned.
2 Reasons why push-up variations are safer than the bench press and why they should be incorporated as accessory work after you bench press:
• The scapula can move freely (unlike the bench press), which is very important for shoulder health.
• The push-up is less of an ego lift. People always ask you; how much do you bench? Which is alright, but people never ask the same thing for push-ups which is why people rarely ever get injured from push-ups because they are using the proper muscles instead of cheating and trying to compensate with their ego.
How I like to perform my push-ups for size and strength:
• Higher reps of 8-20
• 1 Second pause at the bottom at the very least to really recruit the chest muscles properly
• Elbows tucked and never flared to protect the shoulders
• Grip a bit wider than shoulder width is good but anything wider than that could aggravate the shoulders.
• Getting a good solid stretch at the bottom position while reaching proper depth while getting a very solid chest squeeze at the top of each repetition to get more blood into that area.
• I like to do all of my push-ups with my feet elevated on a bench or something stable because this give me more range of motion and it makes push-ups more difficult which is good. If you aren’t strong enough to do them elevated, then this rule doesn’t apply to you yet but you want to eventually work up to doing your push-ups elevated.
1) CHAIN PUSH-UPS
Chain push-ups are great because you can just throw them on your neck or shoulders and it feels like the weight is spread out throughout the whole upper body. The only problem with chains is that they can be a bit expensive and most commercial gyms don’t have them. If you have a few chains at home, then consider yourself lucky.
2) BAND PUSH-UPS
Bands are great for push-ups not only because they are cheap but because they are easily portable. Many commercial gyms have bands as well so they might be a more convenient option than the previous one.
As a bonus, the bands will improve your lockout strength for your bench press and give you bigger triceps.
3) WEIGHT VEST PUSH-UPS
Weight vest push-ups are great because you can adjust the weight and its very easy to keep track of your progress. I used to have a weight vest and then I lost it but I remember that when I had it for the summer I used to crank out push-ups all of the time with it and it felt great. If you are lucky then your gym will have a weight vest, but if not then there are other options.
Backpack push-ups are also an option as well, fill it up with weight and its pretty much the same as a weight vest, resistance is resistance.
Unlike the band push-ups, the resistance is the same throughout the whole range of motion.
4) RING PUSH-UPS
I love ring push-ups because I feel a better contraction throughout the whole set and the pecs have to work really hard to stabilize. If you have never done these then prepare to be humbled, the stretch you get at the bottom feels great and the contraction at the top is insane, try it out! Most commercial gyms don’t have rings but you can easily buy your own and throw them on top of a pull-up bar and do your sets.
As a bonus, this exercise feels good for people with tender shoulders because your shoulders can move more freely around the pain as opposed to being locked in.
5) PUSH-UP ON 2 MEDICINE BALLS
If your gym doesn’t have rings and you can’t afford them either, then don’t worry. If your gym has 2 medicine balls or 2 basketballs, then you do this variation instead of the one on rings. You might experience a bit of wrist pain if you do push-ups on medicine balls but your body will adapt.
6) CLOSE GRIP PUSH-UP ON 1 MEDICINE BALL
For more triceps emphasis and to hit the chest in a different way, you can try the same variation above except you will be using one ball that you will hold with both of your hands. The squeeze will engage the chest while the close grip will hit the triceps a bit more.
7) ARCHER PUSH-UPS (ON RINGS, MEDICINE BALLS OR HANDLES)
Archer push-ups are when you do a push-up on your left side and then the right side on the next rep. This overloads one side at a time which adds a unilateral component to the exercise.
8) DIP BELT PUSH-UPS
Dip belt push-ups are another option if you have 2 boxes that you can go on to let the dip belt weight hang down without hitting the floor. Make sure to squeeze your core and glutes to prevent hip sagging.
9) ONE-ARM PUSH-UP
If you have no equipment at all but are looking for a challenge, then the one arm push-up could also be a solid and humbling choice as well. Unilateral exercises are great for fixing imbalances in the body. These might be a good bet if you have one pec bigger than the other.
10) 5 SEC PAUSE PUSH-UP VARIATIONS (on handles, rings, balls or your bodyweight)
Lately I have been very impressed with the power of pausing at the bottom. Most people have terrible chest development because they do touch-and-go repetitions where they use too much momentum to come back up instead of using the chest. I’ve seen some good chest progress after adding in some pause reps to my presses but if you want to take this to even more of an extreme then try 5 sec pauses at the bottom. 5 second pauses will ensure that your chest will be working hard because the bottom portion of the push-up is where it works the hardest while the middle of the concentric to the top is where the triceps take over and lockout.
11) BOSU BALL PUSH-UP
Most commercial gyms have a bosu ball so you can try push-ups on these. If it wobbles a lot then it means that you have a weak core and but your chest and shoulders will be working harder to help stabilize your pelvis.
FOR MORE ADVANCED LIFTERS
If you are more advanced, then you might have to get creative and mix some of these ideas together. My favorite option would be to do ring push-ups with your feet elevated with a weight vest that goes up to 100lb. Once that gets easy then you can either get a heavier weight vest or just get chains to throw on top of the weight vest. The options are endless but just remember that to keep progressing you should give your body something new to adapt to.
What if I only do benching and pressing variations while neglecting the push-ups?
If you only bench press for your chest, then you might eventually experience some shoulder pain even if you bench press with a shoulder friendly grip. When the scapula can move freely (which doesn’t happen when you bench because your whole back is on the bench), your shoulders will thank you. It would be wise to include a push-up variation in your program after you bench or at the end of your workout so that you can stimulate the pecs even more without hurting your shoulders in the process.
Can I use push-up variations as pump work for my chest at the end of a workout instead of chest fly’s?
I love chest flies, especially with gymnastic rings or cables, but they can be problematic for some people’s shoulders. If fly’s hurt your shoulders, then yes you should do push-up variations for pump work.
So there you have it, the push-up is a great exercise to add to your chest training regimen without destroying your shoulders in the process. Training hard is good but if you train hard and smart then you will last a lot longer in the lifting game which is exactly what this site is all about. Progressive overload is very important on all of your main lifts, but it is also important to focus on progressive overload on push-up variations as well. If you are doing push-ups with a 50lb weight vest on for 10 reps, then you better be doing them with an 100lb vest in the next year or two. Another good thing about push-ups is that you don’t need a lot of equipment to do them so if you live far from a gym and can only make it there a few days then you can train one day at home at the end of the week and do exercises like advanced push-up variations, pull-up/chin-up variations, front levers, dips, ab work and things of that nature.
Keep progressing and stay healthy.
The classics never die.