Push-Ups are a great bodyweight exercise because they require no equipment, target several key muscle groups, and effectively build strength and lean muscle mass when performed correctly.
But like any exercise, how you perform Push-Ups can have a big impact on what they do for you. Specifically where you align your hands for a Push-Up can have a serious effect on the muscles you’re activating and how intensely they’re activated. Whether you’re a Push-Up addict or someone looking to get in better shape, knowing these details can help you get the most from this classic exercise.
*Reminder: different hand positions place different types of stress on your body. For example, Close-Grip Push-Ups place more stress on the elbow region than standard Push-Ups. Listen to your body and avoid variations that cause pain. Extra muscle activation isn’t worth an injury
This is the Push-Up nearly everyone is familiar with. The set-up is pretty much identical to the set-up for the other variations included in this article, aside from hand position.
To perform a Push-Up, begin in a high plank position. Your toes should be slightly curled underneath you. Your hands should be roughly shoulder-width apart (or just a touch wider) and your fingers should be comfortably splayed. Your core should be braced and your glutes and hamstrings should be engaged. Keep your back flat so your body is as close to straight and neutral as possible. Lower yourself toward the ground while keeping the aforementioned muscles tight. Keep your elbows tucked close to your body as you lower. Stare at a spot a foot or two in front of you so your neck remains neutral throughout the movement.
Once you’re at the bottom of the movement (just an inch or two off the ground), exhale as you push yourself back up to the starting position. Keep your core, glutes and hamstrings engaged, which in turn will help keep your back straight. Make sure you push yourself up until your elbows are fully extended; reducing the range of motion will make the Push-Up less effective.
Push-Ups: Muscles Worked
There are two primary movers of the exercise—the pectoralis major and the triceps brachii. The pectoralis major is the fan-shaped muscle that makes up the bulk of what we think of as “the chest” of the human body. When people talk about “pecs,” they’re referring to the pectoralis major. The triceps brachii is the large muscle on the back of your upper arm. When people talk about “tris,” they’re referring to the triceps brachii.
Though a number of stabilizing muscles are also recruited during Push-Ups—biceps, rectus abdominus, obliques, quadriceps, erector spinae—we’ll focus on the major movers, since that is where the majority of past research has been focused. The standard Push-Up effectively targets both the pectoralis major and the triceps brachii, so it acts as the baseline from which all other hand positions are analyzed.
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Wide-Grip Push-Ups are exactly what they sound like—Push-Ups performed with a hand position that’s wider than usual. How wide? A 2005 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research defined it as 150% of shoulder width.
Wide-Grip Push-Ups: Muscles Worked
According to the aforementioned study, the wide grip resulted in slightly less muscle activation in the pectoralis major than the standard Push-Up. It also resulted in less activation (roughly 10%) in the triceps brachii. A 2016 study published in The Journal of Physical Therapy Science found similar results using an identical hand width (150% of shoulder-width).
The 2016 study also found that the wide grip resulted in roughly 20% more activation of the biceps brachii than the standard Push-Up. So if you’re looking to pump up your biceps, Wide-Grip Push-Ups can do the trick. But if you’re more concerned about whipping your pecs and triceps into shape, you’d be better served using a different Push-Up option.
Close-Grip Push-Ups are performed with a grip that’s closer than usual. How close? The 2005 and 2016 studies both used a hand position of 50% of shoulder-width.
Close-Grip Push-Ups: Muscles Worked
According to the 2005 study, the Close-Grip Push-Up results in roughly 10% greater pectoralis major activation and 15% greater triceps brachii activation than the standard Push-Up. The 2016 study confirms these findings, while also concluding that the Close-Grip Push-Up resulted in greater activation of the pectoralis minor (a smaller muscle deeper inside the chest than the pectoralis major) and the infraspinatus muscle (a major muscle of the rotator cuff). If you’re looking for a big bang for your buck from your Push-Ups, the Close-Grip Push-Up fits the bill.
Low Push-Ups are performed with a hand position that’s lower than what’s used in the standard Push-Up. In this case, lower means the hands are set-up further down the frame of the body. How low? The aforementioned 2005 study used arm length as a determining factor, having participants lower their hands from the standard position by a distance equivalent to 30% of their arm length. That same study found that the Low Push-Up resulted in roughly 25% greater pectoralis major activation and 15% less triceps brachii activation than the standard Push-Up. In fact, the Low Push-Up resulted in the most overall pectoralis major activation of all six Push-Up variations analyzed in the study. If you’re really looking to hammer your pecs and aren’t overly concerned about targeting the triceps during your Push-Up, the Low Push-Up is a perfect fit.
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High Push-Ups are performed with a hand position that’s higher than what’s used in the standard Push-Up. In this case, higher means the hands are set above the frame of the body. How far above? The 2005 study used arm length as a determining factor, having participants move their hands higher than the standard position by a distance equivalent to 30% of their arm length. The 2005 study found that the High Push-Up resulted in roughly 8% greater pectoralis major activation and 11% greater triceps brachii activation than the standard Push-Up. This makes the High Push-Up a good option for anyone looking to get both greater pec and tricep activation than what’s offered by the standard Push-Up.