How to Maximize Your Push Ups

Maximize Your Push-ups: Muscle Worked, Progression, Training Plan

Reading Time: 9 minutes

By: ISSA

Date: 2023-01-20


Fitness fads are always looking for ways to do more with less. Culturally, we're all about efficiency, and often that means that people bring up new-fangled systems and exercises meant to cut through the fat and get your body as fit as possible, usually in "20 minutes or less."

To this end, one of the best exercises you can do which engages all your major muscle groups is push-ups. These can build an exemplary workout, with movements that will build strength and stamina. As a personal trainer, it's important to know not just the variations here, but also the variations on the basic movement. Push-ups can be a great replacement for some strength training, especially if there's a concern about injury from weight overload.

But how do you progress your push-ups? How can you get in more reps, or challenge yourself more? Or, if a client can't perform a single push-up, where's a good starting point? What really constitutes a "perfect push-up?" And what should a client's goal be when training with them?

How to Do a Push-up

In the most basic of terms, a push-up is an exercise where you begin in a high plank with your toes on the ground, heels in the air. You place your hands shoulder-width apart, although there can be some slight variation of hand position, depending on the type. In a controlled manner, you lower your body to the ground as one unit until your elbows reach 90 degrees, then push your body back to the high plank you began with. This constitutes one single repetition.

With push-up training, as is the case with any strength exercise, the number of reps that you engage in will be determined by your overall goal, whether it's strength, endurance, or both.

This is not a dynamic exercise and is meant to be completely controlled in both the downward and upward direction when performing repetitions. It is important to have all supporting muscle groups engaged—everything from the back to the core, glutes, and even legs, to the point they are engaged and support the high plank position.

Although it will engage most muscle groups in your body, the primary target gains from push-ups will be in the chest muscles and shoulders, as well as core strength.

Mechanics of a Basic Push-up

When it comes to the components of what is really at work with the push-up, it's important to remember that you want to engage all of your muscles with constant tension, even if the purpose is to maintain the plank as your body moves up and down. To this end, make sure you engage your core muscles.

Make sure that your elbows maintain a 90-degree bend or less. This will help to ensure that your repetitions are safe. Keep this range of motion to ensure that you're getting the most out of your workout.

This mechanical repetition is what makes the push-up such an effective way to build strength with only body weight. It can be much less risky than bench or above-the-head presses with free weights or machines, should there be a pre-existing injury.

What Muscles Do Push-Ups Work?

The basic push-up is an essential bodyweight exercise. When done with good form and regularly, it builds stronger, bigger muscles in several areas. 

Upper Body Muscles

Most people think of the push-up as an arm workout. It’s true that your arms might be the first to fatigue and give out while doing a push-up series, but this move targets several of your upper body muscles all in one move: 

  • Pectoralis major. This is your largest chest muscle, and it does most of the work when you push yourself up from the mat and provides control as you lower back down. 

  • Pectoralis minor. Also contributing to the movements, this smaller muscle is underneath the pectoralis major. It helps keep the shoulder blades in a good position. 

  • Triceps. The triceps runs along the back of the arm. You’ll really engage this big muscle during the second half of the lifting motion. 

  • Anterior deltoids. The deltoids are the large shoulder muscles. When doing a push-up, you mostly work the front, or anterior, part of the muscle. 

These are the major muscles worked, but your upper body will also recruit the rest of the shoulder muscles, the upper back, and the biceps to some extent during a push-up. As you keep your body rigid and stable, you will also use your glutes and quads. 

Core Muscles

The other major group of muscles used during a push-up are in your core. While the chest, arm, and shoulders do most of the hard work, your core has to engage to stabilize your body. 

A push-up with good form will recruit your abdominals and back muscles to hold your trunk rigidly during the movement. Expect to get a workout for all the abdominals, plus deeper muscles in the back including the erector spinae. You’ll also get some benefit for the serratus anterior, the muscle along the side of the chest and under the upper arm. 

What Muscles Do Push-Ups Work When Modified? 

Many people start with modified push-ups. If you or a client cannot yet do a full push-up, there’s no shame in starting here. Doing push-ups on your knees instead of your feet builds strength too, and eventually you will be able to do a full push-up. The muscles worked are the same.

Burn Calories Too

An additional benefit to building strength is that doing push-ups provides a cardiovascular workout. Doing push-ups can be pretty vigorous, heart-pumping activity. Expect to burn seven or more calories per minute doing push-ups. 

Here are some additional bodyweight exercises you can use to build strength without gym equipment. 

Push-up Variations

When you look around the internet, you find many push-up variations with all different kinds of names. There are wall push-ups, countertop push-ups, handstand push-ups, knee push-ups, and everything else under the sun. 

Think of the basic push-up described earlier as "neutral." If someone is having too much trouble with neutral push-ups, then they need to elevate the hands to make them easier. However, if the neutral push-up is too easy, you simply elevate the feet. The degree angle of the change, one way or another, determines how much easier or more difficult the repetition will be.

  • The classic example of a push-up modification is to simply drop your knees to the mat instead of going up on your toes. This removes some of your weight from the exercise. With this form, it's still essential that you maintain the plank with your core, meaning that your back, glutes, and legs should still follow a straight line. These push-ups put less weight on the chest and shoulders, permitting you to do more repetitions with the same range of motion. This will enable someone to train the same muscle groups as neutral push-ups, but with less weight.

  • You can also do a push-up at an angle to lower the weight lifted during the exercise. Staying on your toes, place your hands on a sturdy bench or chair instead of on the mat. The higher up you place your hands, the easier the push-up will be. 

  • For those with very weak upper body muscles, start with push-ups against a vertical wall. Just be sure you have good traction against the floor. 

You can also vary push-ups to progress, make them more challenging, and focus on specific muscles. Simply adjusting the placement of your hands can work different muscle groups. For instance, moving your hands closer together, also known as diamond push-ups, will engage your triceps and traps. Moving your hands further apart will engage more of your pectoralis muscles and back. Here are some additional ideas to try: 

  • Elevate the feet instead of the hands to make a push-up more difficult. Put your feet on a sturdy bench or other object and your hands on the floor. This puts more focus on the chest muscles. 

  • Add to your bodyweight to get a more intense workout with pushups. A weight vest is an easy way to add weight. 

  • Widen the distance between your arms to put more pressure on the shoulders and back. Place your hands closer together to focus more on the chest and triceps. 

  • Pike push-ups will really target the shoulders. Instead of keeping your body in a straight line, lift your hips up. Your body should look like an upside-down V. 

  • For a greater challenge, add a clap between push-ups. As you raise back up, do so with power and clap your hands together. 

Let's talk about how to improve your push-ups.

How to Progress Push-ups

As a certified personal trainer, your clients might need a training plan from you that will include modified push-ups. A great goal for most of your clients is to be able to do sets of 5 or 10 reps continuously. If you or your client can't push themselves all the way up to a high plank when doing a push-up, the following progression of variations will be a helpful reference:

1. Wall Push-ups

These are best when your client can't perform a single repetition of a neutral push-up, or when there's been some sort of shoulder injury in the past. Start small with these, too, as even though they might seem easy at first, too many can still cause an injury.

2. Counter Push-ups

When the wall becomes easier, move to the countertop. Keep the back straight and in line with your glutes and legs. These will add more resistance than the wall push-ups will alone.

3. Elevated Feet Push-ups

For these, make sure that you have a bench or a chair, something that allows you to slightly elevate the feet to add weight to the primary muscle group of the movement.

4. Feet to Wall Push-ups

This requires some coordination. From the ground, you must have the ability to climb your feet up the wall (preferably one that won't get scuffed or damaged), up to however high you need them to be to make them as challenging as possible. You can even move into something of a "headstand" push-up position while using your toes on the wall to stabilize your body. This is usually the last step before doing completely unassisted headstand push-ups.

Injury Prevention

Even though push-ups can be safer than some free weight or machine exercises, it doesn't mean that they always are. For instance, a low-weight bench press might be easier on someone who is trying to recover from a shoulder injury, but this should only be done in concert with and with the approval of a medical professional.

You can absolutely do too many push-ups. Oftentimes, once someone is comfortable at a new level, they will try to do too many sets of push-ups. This can lead to injury, so it's very important to note any pain whatsoever in the chest and shoulders when performing repetitions.

Finally, pay attention to the pressure on the wrist. For people with delicate bones or people who might be obese, the pressure on the wrists can be prohibitive to doing regular push-ups. In this instance, make sure to start the client off with modified push-ups that elevate the hands. This will relieve the pressure on the wrist and allow them to build up their strength in a safe manner.

Sample Training Plan

Here are three different approaches to progressing your or a client's push-ups, based on ability.

Beginner

If they can't do any push-ups, or can only get through a few regular ones, start slow. In the first few weeks, stick to wall push-ups. Build up their confidence and strength. After they can do about 50 of these, move to countertop push-ups for a few weeks. Then, steadily decrease the angle of elevation for the hands until they can sustain 5-10 reps at a time on the floor.

Intermediate

If they can do a few sets of 5-10 push-ups, then start out with those. But, when they start to reach muscle failure, have them drop to their knees. Still maintain the same number of repetitions for each set, but as they continue approaching muscle failure, go to an easier version by elevating the hands further. You should notice with each passing week that they are able to do more and more regular push-ups.

Alternatively, you can start out this individual with elevated push-ups to start workouts off with more difficulty, then move into regular push-ups, then knee push-ups. This is really a judgment call on the part of the trainer.

Advanced

When they can do a significant number of regular push-ups, then it's time to have them start out with feet elevated. This will ensure that the challenge is greater. Work their feet up higher and higher as each level becomes easier.

Be very careful here, as there is an increased risk of injury, both from losing balance as well as the added weight onto the shoulders. Make sure that they have no prior injuries or have been cleared by a medical professional before attempting these progressions.

You Are the Key

At the end of the day, you are the personal trainer, and it's your job to modify exercises to your clients' needs. If your clients are looking for a great way to supplement upper-body training in a way that will engage their core and back, this is a great way to accomplish that goal.

As always, keep an eye out for safety. Push-ups make shoulders very vulnerable, especially for those who are older and heavier. Remember, if there's any question at all, ask a medical professional for advice. Train them well, and you will see improvements in no time!

Learn everything from the basics, like push-ups to more complicated fitness topics in the ISSA’s Certified Personal Trainer – Self-Guided Study Program. This certification qualifies you to begin working with and training clients.  


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