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Press-Ups: The Ultimate Guide To Mastering Them And Building A Stronger Chest

 Written by 

Mauro Castillo

 Last updated on 

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Press-Ups, widely known as push-ups, are one of the favorite exercises within the fitness community. It’s easy to do, has a low injury risk, and offers multiple variations for people from all levels and goals. 

This article is the ultimate guide to mastering them and building a stronger chest. We’ll cover the muscles worked by the press-up, benefits, common mistakes, and variations, and we’ll wrap it up with a workout that you can do right after you’re done reading.

A woman performing press-ups at the gym on a tire
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Without further ado, let’s dive in! 

What Is A Press-Up?

A press-up, also called a push-up, is a bodyweight movement that consists of having the body parallel to the ground (or any other surface) and using the arms to push away from it. 

The press-up is one of the commonest exercises within the fitness industry due to its short learning curve, no equipment required, and effectiveness. On top of that, you’ll notice multiple variations that will suit most fitness levels.

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Press-Up: Muscles Worked

As the name implies, the press-up is a pressing movement which means that the main muscles worked are those with pressing and pushing characteristics. 

Chest

pompe pliometrique sautee
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Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

Out of all the muscles involved, the chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) are the largest and more voluminous. They’re located in the front of the thorax and have three portions:

– Clavicle portion (upper)

– Sternal portion (mid)

– Costal portion (lower)

They all play a role in adducting the arm and internally rotating the humerus. The press-up is a great exercise to develop these pectoral muscles.

Shoulders

The shoulders are the other muscle group involved in pressing movements. They play a very important role in allowing a wide range of motion in the shoulder joint.

In fact, the shoulder joint is the joint with the highest range of motion which is also why it’s injury prone. 

The shoulders have three main portions:

– Anterior deltoid

– Medial deltoid 

– Posterior deltoid

The press-ups target more the anterior and the medial deltoid. Depending on the push-up variation you can target one more than the other. The more declined the variation the more the anterior deltoid will be taxed. 

Triceps

The triceps brachii is the muscle responsible for extending the elbow. It has three heads:

– Long head 

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– Medial head

– Lateral head

All heads are heavily targeted during push-ups, especially as the arms get closer to the torso. For example, a diamond press-up will tax the triceps muscles more than a regular press-up.

Core

The core is also an important muscle group responsible for keeping the midline stable throughout the range of motion. The core muscles are: 

– Rectus abdominus 

– External obliques 

– Internal obliques 

– Transversus abdominis 

– Multifidus 

– Diaphragm 

Although press-ups are not exactly a core exercise, it does require (and will build) the necessary strength to keep the midline stacked during the reps.

A woman experiencing press-ups benefits
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Benefits Of Press-Ups

One of the reasons why press-ups are a looked-for exercise is due to the many benefits it holds. It’s easy to do, low injury risk, and won’t require any extra equipment. 

Easy To Do

The best part of press-ups is that anyone can learn it in less than two minutes. Although some people won’t have a perfect technique from the get-go, the basics of the movement should be easy for the majority. 

As you’ll notice below, the multiple variations make it easier to adapt and prioritize the form before the intensity. With this in mind, you can keep practicing the movement pattern until you’re to progress to harder variations. 

Don’t Require Equipment

Contrary to other pressing movements like the shoulder press (barbell, kettlebells, or dumbbells), bench press, or any machine press, the press-up doesn’t require equipment.

This is one of the main reasons why press-ups are so popular (and effective.) You only need your body and a solid surface to press against. 

Whether you’re on the sand, on a couch, a table, a bench, a bed, or any other hard surface, a press-up won’t require more than that.

A man looking for hypertrophy during press-ups
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Upper Body Hypertrophy

Press-ups are a terrific exercise for upper body hypertrophy. In fact, some people can find a standard push-up harder than a bench press. This might be due to the extra muscle engagement you get from the core on a regular push-up.

Since press-ups are mostly body weight, they’re easier on your joints which allows you to endure more volume. For example, it might be easier on your joints to do 200 press-ups than 200 dumbbells or barbell bench presses. 

Another benefit of the press-up is that as fatigue builds up, you can default to other variations (regressions) to help you keep adding volume without compromising your technique and keeping injury risk low.

Multiple Variations

One of the main benefits of press-ups is the multiple variations it has. A variation is a modification of the movement that meets different purposes. It can be a progression (more challenging) or a regression (easier). 

Once you understand which ones are harder and easier, you can begin to incorporate them into your routine.

For general purposes, a regular press-up (horizontal to the floor) gets harder as your feet get higher (feet elevated press-up). Conversely, they’ll get easier as you get closer to a standing position (wall push-up).   

However, there are other variations that help you get the most out of the press-ups:

– Band-resisted press-up.

– Chain-resisted press-up.

– Plyo press-up.

– Deficit press-up.

– Tempo press-up. 

– Knee push-ups.

– Decline press-up.

Diamond push-up.

– One-arm push-ups.

Pike push-ups.

pike push up 1
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Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

The list could go on forever, but these push-up variations will adjust to any level of fitness and hit most of your upper body muscles. As long as you can maintain a proper form they will also target your abdominal muscles and develop core strength.

Mix them up with other compound exercises like squats, pull-ups, and deadlifts and you’ll find yourself gasping for air.

How To Do A Proper Press-Up

As we mentioned, the press-up is a relatively easy movement that anyone can do. However, in order to get the most out of it it’s important to follow some simple steps.

Step 1 — Brace & Set

The starting position for the press-ups requires the midline to be as neutral and parallel to the floor as possible. The arm position should be slightly away from the torso, feet close together, and a neutral neck (looking down.)

Before the next step, make sure to brace the core muscles and squeeze your glutes.

pompe position de depart
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Good and bad press-up upper position
Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk
comparatif bonne et mauvaise position basse pompe
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Good and bad press-up lower position
Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

Step 2 — Descend

Once you’re braced and set, proceed to slowly descend until your chest touches the ground or whatever surface below you. It’s important to control this portion of the movement because it will allow you to be more explosive on your way up. 

As a general rule, you want to spend 2-3 seconds on your way down while keeping your form in check. 

Step 3 — Explode

When your chest reaches the ground aim to explode up but without compromising your technique. This will increase muscle activities on your chest, shoulders, and triceps. 

It’s worth noticing that not everyone will have enough strength to go up that fast, but the idea should be to achieve this explosiveness over time.

Common Press-Up Mistakes

Although press-ups are a relatively easy movement to master, there are some common mistakes that are worth anticipating and avoiding.

Let’s take a look at some of them and how you can prevent them.

Arching Your Back

The press-up initial position has your midline in an almost straight line facing the floor. Arching the back is one of the most seen mistakes when doing this movement. 

The arch makes the exercise easier because it reduces the range of motion. A simple solution would be bracing your core and contracting your glutes. These two tweaks should ensure a better torso position and prevent you from arching your back.

Moving Too Fast

Moving too fast is rarely a sign of a well-performed movement. As a general rule, the slower and more controlled the movement is, the more tension it can create and thus yielding better results. Although that is not the case for all exercises, it’s certainly a safe starting point.

For the press-ups, we would advise keeping the movement slow and controlled. Easy on your way down and more explosive on your way up. If you feel like you can’t keep that pace anymore, then try a variation that allows you to do so.

A man avoiding mistakes while doing press-ups
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Not Bracing Your Core

Not bracing your core muscles goes in conjunction with arching your back. Both keep you away from the correct form. 

For some people, it helps to tuck in the hips and squeeze the glutes and core muscles. That automatically puts the midline more horizontal and allows you to exert more power on every rep.

Arms Too Wide

Having your arms too wide may expose your shoulder joints to a disadvantageous position that could increase injury risk.

Ideally, you want your elbows at 45 degrees of separation from your torso. This angle will provide sufficient stability and safety for your shoulder and elbow joints. 

Press-Ups Variations

As we mentioned above, the press-up has multiple variations that can adapt to any person’s fitness level. Below we’ll mention some of the most important ones followed by a workout you can try right after reading through! 

Knee Press-Ups

The knees-down is one of the most common variations due to how practical it is. This modification is exactly like a regular press-up with the only difference being bringing the knees down to the floor. 

By doing this, the arms carry less load which automatically makes the exercise easier (regression.)

Inclined Press-Ups

The inclined press-up is also a regression of the regular push-up. In this variation the hands are placed further up from the ground, placing the body in a more vertical position. 

Like the knee press-up, this is a common variation for people starting their fitness journey or those rehabbing from an injury.

Pike Press-Ups

The pike press-up is a challenging variation that focuses more on the shoulders than the chest muscles. 

This modification will have your hips set high off the ground and as you go down the top of your head should touch the ground instead of your chest.

This is considered an intermediate-advanced variation due to the higher shoulder strength needed to perform the movement with the correct form.

Banded Press-Ups

A banded press-up is just like a regular press-up but with a resistance band wrapped around your back. This increases the tension as you go up in the movement making locking the elbows harder. 

Banded press-ups are an advanced variation usually reserved for those who already master the regular press-up and are looking to increase muscle tension.

We recommend using 1/2 or 3/4-inch resistance bands. However, depending on your fitness level you can pick whichever adapts better to your training intentions.

Plyo Press-Ups

Plyo (plyometrics) press-ups are a more challenging variation that not only consists of going down and up but exploding up in a way that allows you to go off the floor (like a jump.)

This variation is common among calisthenics practitioners that are usually masters of these bodyweight movements. Plyo press-ups are reserved for more advanced fitness enthusiasts because they may target the shoulder and wrist joints more than any other press-up variation.

Press-Up Workout

Now that you’ve gathered all the theory, it’s time to put everything to practice with this press-up workout. 

Although this workout routine can be done by most people, we recommend warming up properly to keep injury risk at a minimum. Also, feel free to modify based on your current fitness level.

A1) Press-Up

A2) Decline Press-Up

4 sets, 12-20 reps, 60s rest between sets. Make the last set to failure.

B1) Inclined Press-Up

B2) Banded Press-Up

3 sets, 12-20 reps, 60s rest between sets. Make the last set to failure.

C1) Pike Press-Up

C2) Plyo Press-Up

2 sets, 12-20 reps, 60s rest between sets. Make the last set to failure.

If you feel any discomfort on your shoulder or wrist joint please stop or modify the movements appropriately.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Are Press-Ups And Push-Ups The Same Thing?

Yes, the press-ups and the push-ups are the same thing with different names. They can be used indistinctly depending on each person or context. Although push-ups are the commonest and most recognized variation. 

What Are Press-Ups Good For?

Press-ups are a great exercise for developing upper body strength and hypertrophy. The movement targets muscles like the chest, shoulders, triceps, and core. One of the reasons why it’s so effective it’s because of its scalability. Press-ups are easy to modify and adjust to anyone’s fitness level.

Is It OK To Do Press-Ups Every Day?

Yes, it is OK to do press-ups every day. However, it’s preferable to have a day or two in between for rest, especially if you’re a beginner. If you’re an intermediate or an expert lifter it’s easier to get away with more volume safely.

About

I've been in the world of CrossFit since 2016. Started as a client, later became a coach, and eventually bought an affiliate with two friends from January 2020 to January 2022. In 2018 I won 1st place at a local competition in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. After I sold my shares in January 2022 I moved then to another city to run as the general manager of another affiliate STI CrossFit.

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