Whether you are new to strength training or you have spent years training, the push-up is an exceptional exercise that can be a part of any Prehabber’s plan. Not only is it a great bang-for-your-buck exercise that works multiple muscle groups like the chest, shoulders, and triceps, the push-up is also an exercise that can be performed anywhere with minimal equipment. The push-up can be regressed or progressed based upon any individual’s skill level making it “the king of the upper body exercises.” Read this article to learn our favorite push-up exercise variations to help you master your push-ups!
What Muscles Does the Push-Up Work?
The push-up is often considered the king of upper body exercises since it works multiple muscle groups. It primarily targets the pectoralis major (chest), the triceps, and the anterior deltoid (shoulder) which is common for pressing movements like a bench press or shoulder press.
Shoulder muscles used for push-based exercises.
However, what separates the push-up from these other movements is that it is a closed-chain exercise that allows your scapula to move freely on your rib cage, resulting in protraction and retraction of the scapula. This makes the push-up a great exercise for strengthening the muscles of the scapula, as well as the serratus anterior which is an important muscle for stabilizing the shoulders. Since you are also in a plank position, the glutes and abs work to stabilize the spine making this an excellent movement for helping strengthen the muscles of the core.
Learn more about the role that the serratus anterior can play in push-based exercises and why it is so important in this video!
Push-Up Exercise Variations – Regressions
Before you begin trying the fancy-looking push-ups you saw while scrolling through Instagram, it’s important to master the technique of the basic push-up. But what do you do if you are unable to perform the push-up? Many individuals are not capable of supporting their entire body weight and performing full push-ups at first and this is okay! Despite what you’ve been told in your middle school gym class, the push-up is a difficult exercise that requires serious upper body strength. Fear not, however, there is a category of push-up exercise variations called regressions that will help you learn the skill of the push-up technique while building enough upper body strength to perform your first push-up.
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The hands elevated push-up is a variation of the basic push-up where your hands are placed on an elevated surface like a bench, aerobic steps, weight plates, or any other elevated surfaces. Note: the elevated surface for this exercise should provide stability to help make this exercise easier. A suspension strap or ring elevated push-up requires more stability, which goes against the goal of someone new to learning the push-up. The goal of this exercise is to learn the proper technique for the motion required for the basic push-up.
What’s great about this exercise is that you can start with higher heights where you are capable of lifting your body weight, and slowly decrease the height as your body gets stronger and accustomed to doing push-ups.
The eccentric focused push-up is a variation where you slowly lower yourself towards the floor, emphasizing the “eccentric” or lowering action of the push-up. You will be stronger during the eccentric portion versus the “concentric” or raising action of the push-up, which will help prepare your muscles to be able to perform a basic push-up. I recommend starting in the push-up position and slowly lowering yourself to the floor with a count of 4 to 5 seconds on the way down. Once your body is on the floor, push yourself back towards your knees instead of trying to lift yourself out of the bottom and begin from the push-up start position.
Push-Up Exercise Variations – Regression #3: Hand Release Push-Up
The hand-release push-up is a variation where you pause between the eccentric and concentric portion of the push-up by releasing your hands once your body has reached the floor. Taking a small break between the eccentric and concentric phases will release tension, which will allow you to raise your body from the bottom position. It’s important to practice good technique when raising your body from the floor. A common mistake is letting the shoulders rise before the hips. Aim to engage your midsection as if you are doing a plank, and aim to raise your body in a straight line. This variation is one of the best methods for teaching how to perform a full range of motion push-up from the floor.
Push-Up Exercise Variation Progressions
Now that you’ve mastered the basic push-up, you’re probably thinking how else can you possibly make this exercise more difficult? Now it comes time for the fancy stuff that we mentioned earlier!
Progressions are a way to increase the normal difficulty of an exercise. They can feature more resistance, more time under tension, or challenge stability. Read on to learn some of our favorite push-up exercise progressions!
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The feet-elevated push-up is a great progression to challenge how much bodyweight you are lifting while performing the push-up. Raising the feet higher will force you to lift more of your body weight, making this a progression that includes more resistance. The biggest focus for this exercise needs to be on body alignment. It still follows the pattern of the basic push-up; however, it will be more difficult to keep your body in a straight line as you push your body away from the floor. Focus on keeping your hips in line with the rest of your body, and brace your mid-section for added support.
The paused push-up is a progression that challenges you by including more time under tension. I recommend performing the basic push-up with a 3 or 4-second pause at the bottom of the lift. You will notice you won’t be able to perform as many push-ups as you normally can do, but this variation will make the basic push-up seem like a cakewalk! The normal technique applies here, and continue to focus on keeping your hips in line with the rest of your body as you press yourself out of the bottom position.
Push-Up Exercise Variations – Progression #3: Lever Push-Up
The single-arm lever push-up is a great progression that also prepares you for the rigors of the one-arm push-up. This variation challenges stability, as well as strength for the shoulder. Perform the basic push-up, but have one hand on a slider or slide board. Slide one hand straight over your head as you lower yourself to the floor, and pull the hand back as you raise yourself to the starting position. You can also perform this variation with the arm on the slider going out of the side for another great variation of this exercise.
Use push-up regressions to master the technique and strength required to perform the basic push-up.
Once the basic push-up is mastered, use push-up progressions to increase the difficulty and to continue challenging your body to improve.
About The Author
Ryan Nosak, MS, CSCS, SCCC
[P]Rehab Writer & Content Creator
Ryan was born and raised in Throop, Pennsylvania and he has worked in the world of fitness since he was 15 years old. Ryan realized he had a deep affinity for strength training and how it can alter the human mind, body, and spirit. He began his coaching career in high school by coaching his friends through strength training sessions, which inspired him to pursue a career in strength and conditioning.
Ryan spent 10 years as a Division 1 strength and conditioning coach with stops along the way at Penn State, Tennessee State, Vanderbilt, Robert Morris, Charlotte, and DePaul. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and operates his own training practice, RyNo Strength, out of Studio DelCorpo in Chicago, IL. He specializes in fat loss, body composition, strength, and sports performance training programs.
Ryan received his Bachelor’s Degree in Kinesiology from Penn State and a Master’s in Sport Management from Western Carolina University. In his free time, Ryan enjoys training for bodybuilding, eating at the amazing restaurants in Chicago, and spending time with his wife and dog.
Disclaimer – The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.