The pushup is a fantastic way to build upper body size, strength and strength endurance. In this guide, we dive into detail about all things pushup. We’re going to cover:
- Pushup Muscles Used Diagram
- Pushup Muscles Worked Explained
- How to Pushup Correctly
- Best Pushup Variations
- Pushup Programme
- Looking for a Reliable Bodybuilding Programme?
- Pushup Alternatives – 2 Exercises You Shouldn’t Miss
- What Muscle Does A Pushup Work: Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
Let’s jump right into it…
Pushup Muscles Used Diagram
Pushup Muscles Worked Explained
The pushup mainly works three muscles, your pecs, your front delts and your triceps.
Your pec major and pec minor (chest muscles): Your prime movers for the pushup, this means they’re going to be doing the most work. If you’re training for size/hypertrophy or strength endurance then this should be the muscle group that you feel the biggest pump in.
Your front delts: An assistance muscle group that helps with pushups. Many people find that their front delts get so much work from pushups that they don’t require any additional isolation work in order to grow.
Lastly, your triceps: An assistance muscle group that helps with pushups, mainly towards the top half of the movement, in which you’re extending at your elbows and locking out the bar.
How to Pushup Correctly
Of course, getting the most muscle growth and strength development from your push-ups also requires good execution of the movement. Here’s how to do push-ups correctly.
1) Set up with your body in a tall plank position. Abs braced, body in a straight line, arms facing about 30-45 degrees from your body.
2) Bend your arms and control the movement down until your chest in near the floor.
3) Either briefly pause just off the floor, then reverse direction by pushing the floor away. It can help to imagine squeezing a basketball to help with pec muscle activation.
4) Keep pushing until you’re back where you started, with your arms locked out.
Best Pushup Variations
Deficit Push Ups (A.K.A Hands Elevated Pushups)
The deficit pushup is a great pushup variation that provides a slightly different training stimulus by increasing the active range of motion of the exercise.
Deficit pushup muscles worked
The deficit pushup still works your chest, front delts and triceps, but the extra range of motion and extra stretch for your pec muscles make them work harder, causing more growth.
To perform a diamond push-up you place your hands in a narrower width, facing about 30 to 45 degrees inwards, which creates the ‘diamond’ shape.
It can be a great variation for really feeling burning out your triceps, but it can also be quite stressful on your wrists, so start slowly and only add more sets and reps if it feels comfortable.
Diamond push ups muscles worked
Diamond pushups still work your pecs, front delts and triceps, but they shift a bit more work onto the triceps.
The decline pushup, as its name would suggest, is a pushup variation where your body is on a slight decline.
To do this movement place your feet on a small box for elevation. Then perform a pushup as described above. Don’t go too high with the box, as it will change the muscles you’re working too much.
Decline Push Ups Muscles Worked
The decline still works your pecs, front delts and chest, but places slightly more emphasis on your front delts and upper chest.
Don’t use too high a box, because then you’ll be doing pike push-ups, which switch to mainly working your delts, without working your chest.
Looking for a simple programme to increase your pushup strength and build size in your chest, front delts and triceps. Here’s a pushup programme I’ve put together for you to try…
Progression on the pushup programme
Progressive overload comes each week through the addition of extra sets, allowing you to keep getting great pumps even as you become more adapted to the training volume.
You can aim to add a few reps to each exercise across the 4 weeks as well, just keep the increases small enough that you can improve week after week. If you’re already strong, you can wear a weighted to make the various pushup exercises harder.
Looking for a Reliable Bodybuilding Programme?
I’ve put together a 17-week hypertrophy programme.
The programme is evidence-based and is designed with 3 distinct blocks of training that use different set and rep schemes, as well as different exercises, to maximise your muscle building.
It’s also designed with specific guidance so that you can adjust your amount of training to suit your recovery.
You can find out more about the programme here.
Pushup Alternatives – 2 Exercises You Shouldn’t Miss
We’ve covered the different types of push-ups and muscles they work, but what if you’re bored of press-ups, or they don’t seem to suit you? Here are 2 pushup alternatives I recommend.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The dumbbell bench press is a pressing motion that works your chest, front delts and triceps, but does so in a unique way. The two dumbbells work both sides of your body independently, allowing you to correct muscle imbalances and build stability in your shoulder joints.
What About Push-Ups VS Bench Press
Whilst you can get a great chest, shoulder and tricep workout from push-ups, the bench press gives you the option to train with heavier weights and build some top-end strength.
Let’s put it this way, I coach plenty of guys who can comfortably perform sets of 30 press-ups, but not bench press more than 60kg. Adding in some heavier bench work can help you build a stronger body, and provide some much-needed training variation.
What Muscle Does A Pushup Work: Frequently Asked Questions
What do wide push ups work?
Wide push ups still work your chest, front delts and triceps, but many people feel that they place a bit more emphasis on the chest muscles. If you’re someone who feels their triceps taking over when doing regular pushups, try wide pushups.
Will push ups build muscle?
Push ups will absolutely build muscle, so long as you perform them in the 5-30 rep scheme
Should you do pushups everyday?
No, you should not do pushups every day. Building strength and size is all about stimulus (workout) followed by recovery (rest). Without enough rest and recovery, your risk of injury goes up, and your results go down.
Do Push Up Work Back Muscles?
No, pushups do not work your back muscles. Pushups work your pecs, delts and triceps. To work your back, I recommend exercises like pull-ups, pull-downs, seated rows and barbell rows.
Are push ups muscular strength or endurance?
Push ups can be used to train for both strength and endurance depending on the rep scheme, weight and variation. For example, if you perform 5 sets of 5 deficit pushups wearing a weighted vest, you’ll build strength. On the other hand, if you perform 3 sets of 30 regular pushups, you’ll build endurance.
Should Your Elbows Be Close to Your Body or out to the Sides?
For most people, somewhere between those two positions is about right (i.e. arms at about a 30 to 45-degree angle from your body) Elbows closer to your body works triceps a bit more, whilst elbows more away from the body tends to hit chest a bit more.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…
1) Get in the gym and start training your pushups, maybe even run through my 4-week pushup programme. Get stronger, add some size. Enjoy the pumps.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching, you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex’s experience includes 7+ years within strength & conditioning, including supporting 2 major universities, 2 national talent pathways and a selection of international level athletes.
He is also a tutor and educator for British Weightlifting
Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 31(12), 3508–3523. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200