Push-ups are for the upper body what squats are for the lower body.  They have all the qualities that make a good exercise to stand out.  This is a multi-joint exercise. It can be done anywhere with no equipment, and best of all, just by tweaking the hands and legs position you can change the intensity.

The push-up tackles several muscles at the same time, which increases the energy expenditure. The pectoralis major, anterior and middle part of the shoulders and the triceps are heavily taxed in this exercise along with the entire abdominal wall that acts as a stabilizer.

But the benefits of the push-ups don’t stop here. This exercise is used to evaluate muscle endurance and in some cases – particularly in women – muscle strength in fitness and sports tests. Indeed, studies show that plyometric push-ups along with traditional resistance training increase upper body strength and power.  No wonder, this exercise is always in the list of almost any athlete training program.

Points to watch for

According to your fitness level and muscle work, the push-up can be modified to suit your strength level. However, push-ups come with some red flags.  Frédéric Delavier in his book The Strength Training Anatomy Workout writes that it’s not as easy to focus on the pectoralis muscles when doing this exercise as many would assume. It’s not an isolated exercise. Also, a person’s anatomy such as long arms will make the job harder.

Push-ups require a strong core that aids in stabilizing the body so the hips keep tight and don’t sag. One of the most common mistakes when doing push-ups is arching the back, which will make the exercise easier, but it could compromise the spine unnecessarily, says Delavier.

Tailored push-ups

Push-ups can be included as a part of your upper-body workout in your push-pull workout, in between your leg workout when doing a circuit type of training or in a more advanced manner after a weight lifting chest exercise to fatigue the endurance type of muscle fibers as well and to induce a greater anabolic hormonal response.

But before deciding where and how to include push-ups in your workout, make sure that you understand the different intensities and muscles that work in each variation to truly meet your goals and fitness level.

According to a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, when determining the percentage of body weight to be lifted among the four more popular body push-ups variations this is what they found:

a)     Standard push-up: 64 percent of your body weight

b)     Hands elevated- Incline (2-foot-high bench): 41 percent of your body weight

c)     Feet elevated- Decline (2-foot-high bench): 74 percent of your body weight

d)     Modified push up (kneeling): 49 percent of your body weight

Delavier points out that when feet are elevated there is more emphasis on the anterior part of the pectoralis muscle, while when the chest is higher than the feet the isolation of the inferior part is greater.

Varying the width of the hands will focus on the lateral part of the pectoralis major (wider); sternal head of the pectoralis major (hands closer together); and  the triceps (triangle hands pose).

Power up the chest workout

–        Do  this routine as a super set : two exercises perform one after another with no rest or minimal rest in between

–        Do 2-3 sets.  Eight to ten reps for the loaded strength exercise and 12-15 for the push-up

–        This routine can be performed by itself if you want to hit hard the chest or select one super set to include in your upper body workout or circuit. Vary the super-set each time though to tackle the muscles in all directions.

–        Perform a light warm-up and stretch at the end

–        Do the routine two times per week on non consecutive days

–        Tip: if your chest and triceps get too tired, do a bicep curl in between to keep the upper body active while providing some rest to these muscles.

1.     Super set 1:

Barbell chest press:  Lower the arms to 90 degree and fully contract the chest when extending the arms.

Standard push up: Keep your body straight, chest up and abdominals tight.  The chest should be close to the floor while keeping the form. If you’re a beginner do a knee push-up.

2.     Super set 2:

Cable fly: keep the body straight and chest up. Open up your arms while keeping slightly flex the elbows and fully contract when bringing them together. This exercise is not about how much you lift rather than whatever you lift maintain full range of motion.

Decline push-up: keep the same instructions for all push-ups. Place your feet on a bench or on a physioball to add more challenge stabilization.

3.     Super set 3:

Incline Barbell press: set up the bench at 75 degree angle. Lower the arms to 90 degree and fully contract the chest when extending the arms.

Incline-push-up: Keep the same instructions for all push-ups. Place the arms on a bench. The higher the bench, the easier the exercise.

Bonus: At the end of the workout perform a walking standard push-up. Instead of doing 10 straight push-ups do it by moving your arms and legs laterally while perform a push-up with each move. Don’t rotate or elevate your hips. You should keep the same body position when walking out. Do five toward one side and five toward the other side or do ten straight to one side and the next set do the other side. Do two sets.