Push-ups to Increase Strength and Build Lean Muscle
Push-ups are one of the most effective exercises to build an impressive chest. They are the cornerstone of any bodyweight workout (along with pull-ups). They primarily work the pecs (chest), but they also work the triceps, back, shoulders, and your entire core. So the secondary effect is very powerful, which is why they are so effective.
Jack LaLanne, known as the “Godfather of Fitness,” believed that push-ups were the foundation of any fitness plan. So you know they must be pretty important…and they are!
It is a great exercise to build chest strength. I speak from experience and humility, only to make this point…in high school I could perform 50 push-ups in one sitting…when I left the Army 8 years later I maxed the Army Physical Fitness Test, performing 125 in 2 minutes – a smidge more than 1 per second. Almost entirely due to push-ups.
If you consistently do push-ups, your chest and core will get stronger, and you will build lean muscle.
Below are the Top 5 Push-ups to increase your upper body strength and build lean muscle. Just as using varying angles with weights in the gym, a key to effective resistance training is to vary the angles and positions of your chest workout.
This will serve to work the upper, middle, and lower chest. Click here for more info on the anatomy of the pecs.
There are many variations to a basic push-up, but let’s keep it simple and effective. If you work these Top 5 you will more than achieve a powerful chest workout.
Benefits of Push-ups
There are a number of great benefits to including push-ups in your workout wheelhouse:
- Great for building pecs, triceps, and shoulders
- Great resistance training to build core strength
- They can be done anywhere, anytime
- Very safe, just make sure you properly warm-up…chest stretches
Excellent for building lean muscle:
- Primary: Pecs (chest)
- Secondary: Triceps, Shoulders, Back
Top 5 Push-ups
First, make sure you maintain proper form throughout the exercise:
- Maintain proper body alignment throughout the motion, from the top of your head to the heels of your feet. Do not let your mid-section slump or raise, and don’t allow your head to drop. Keep one straight line with your entire body.
- Inhale on the way down, and exhale on the way up.
- The up position should be with your arms straight, but not fully locked out.
- The down position should be touching the floor or within a few inches.
- Your hands should be at chest level – not up near your head, and not down near your belly.
- Always do proper warm-up prior to your workout.
OK, now for the Top 5…
# 1 Original Push-up
This exercise is the “foundation” or “cornerstone” I referred to earlier. It simply must be part of your fitness plan in some capacity, whether it is twice weekly or just monthly. There is a lot of power in this simple movement.
- Start Position: Hands on the floor, palms down, arms extended. Body in a straight line, with your toes on the floor. Your hands should be even with your chest, not up near the shoulders and not down near the belly. When your hands are even with your chest, this targets the pecs and triceps primarily (which is a good thing).
- Technique: Lower your upper body until your chest lightly touches the floor, then push your body up to return to the start position. Inhale on the way down, exhale coming up.
- Variation #1: Increase the width of your hands to increase the resistance and make the push-up more difficult. This is a good variation if you become a push-up stud and need more challenge.
- Variation #2: A similar type push-up is what I call “knee push-ups” – same start position as a normal push-up, but instead of being on your toes you will be on your knees. Makes the push-up easier.
After you burn out doing normal push-ups, go from your toes to your knees and do a few more reps to really stroke your pecs.
#2 Diamond Push-ups
Diamond push-ups are a good variation of the main, and heavily target the triceps. It’s a great exercise as part of a well-rounded bodyweight workout, whether you’re at home or on your lunch break.
- Start Position: Take a normal push-up position, but move your hands close together to form a diamond shape with your hands, directly under your chest.
- Technique: Lower your upper body down by bending your elbows until you nearly touch your hands. Then push your body up to the start position. You will be targeting your triceps during this movement, and it is a very good burn.
- Caution: Diamonds will put a lot of strain on your elbows and wrists, so be cautious and take things slowly. I have a weak left elbow, so I do diamonds less frequently than others.
#3 Incline Push-up (also called a Bench Push-up)
The incline push-up is less difficult than normal ones. The higher your upper body is (higher incline), than the easier the push-up becomes. It is a great exercise as part of a bi-set in the gym – doing incline dumbbell presses followed immediately (without rest) by incline push-ups. I do inclines every week as part of my chest workouts.
- Start Position: Take a normal push-up position, except your hands will be elevated a few feet off the ground, positioned on a flat bench, couch, bed, wide chair, or recliner. You just need to something solid and stable to support your body weight.
- Technique: Lower your upper body by bending your elbows until your chest touches the bench (or chair, couch, etc). Then push your body up by pushing down and straightening your elbows, thus returning to the start position.
- This is the easiest one to do, and therefore creates the lightest stresses on your joints and tendons…very safe.
#4 Decline Push-up
Decline Push-ups are good for improving chest strength, as the decline position creates more resistance making the push-up more difficult. This is a challenging exercise, so make sure you are ready for it.
- Start Position: Take a normal push-up position, except elevate your feet on a bench or similar support. Your body should be very close to parallel to the floor.
- Technique: Lower your body down in a controlled motion by bending your elbows until your face is a few inches from the floor. Hold the position for a second, then push your body up to return to the start position.
- Caution: Because of the down force your body exerts on your arms, elbows, and wrists, be careful not to strain these areas.
#5 Clapping Push-ups
This is another Army specialty. Very similar to a regular push-up, with more explosiveness on the up motion to propel you off the ground so that you can clap in front of you. This is a hybrid between a regular push-up and a plyometric movement (jump training).
- Start Position: Take a normal push-up position, with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Technique: Lower your upper body by bending your elbows until your chest slightly touches the floor. Then, push your body up forcefully to the start position, propelling your hands off the floor with enough force so that you can clap one time in front of you.
- Caution: Make sure you are getting enough “lift” to execute the clap, otherwise you can come down on your hands and arms and sustain an injury. Always practice pushing yourself off the floor first without clapping to ensure you have enough force.
Here is a simple push-up routine to really work your chest, and build lean muscle on your pecs. The number of reps for each type of push-up vary greatly depending on your current physical condition. If you are brand new to this exercise, then make sure you use a lot of caution. Start slowly and progress with your intensity and reps.
- 10 Decline Push-ups (feet up on a ~ 2 feet on a table)
- 10 Wide Push-ups (focus on chest, and less focus on triceps)
- 10 Regular Push-ups
- 10 Bench Push-ups
- 10 Counter Push-ups
(the push-ups progress from the hardest to the easiest)
Prior to your routine or any chest exercises, always take steps to avoid injury:
- Never exercise (or static stretch) cold muscles – always do a few minutes of light cardio and some dynamic stretching to warm and loosen your muscles.
- Perform some light static stretches at the end of your workout to lengthen your pecs, and improve your range of motion. Click here for some very effective chest stretches.
- Perform the movements in a controlled manner, never jerky or wild.
- If you think you have a tear, consult a doctor.