Push-ups are an excellent exercise for people who are new to resistance training or lack upper body strength. If you modify them properly, they can be included in a program to challenge the upper body or serve as a strength-building stand-in when you don’t have barbells around. Although I’m not a proponent of push-ups for athletes, trained men, or properly trained women (just as women should be able to perform chin-ups they should certainly be able to do push-ups since with push-ups it is only necessary to press a fraction of the bodyweight), I suggest them here because during the holidays when people are traveling push-ups are an exercise to use when you can’t get to a gym.
A new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research identified the percent of body weight you lift with four varieties of the push-up. In a regular push-up, you lift 64 percent of body weight, whereas with a knee push-up, you lift 49 percent. If you’re new to training, performing the push-up with hands elevated on a 24-inch bench will allow you to lift even less than a knee push-up, at 41 percent of body weight. Elevating the feet on the 24-inch bench makes it harder and allows you to lift 75 percent of body weight, still not enough to elicit serious strength gains if you can bench press 225 lbs.
One option for the stronger folks is to elevate the feet and put a weight plate on your back, but you’ll need a partner to do this effectively. Another option, popularized by Sylvester Stallone in Rocky is one-arm push-ups, which are much more readily accessible to the average person than one-arm chin-ups, as they require much lower levels of maximal strength. Unfortunately, this study didn’t test the one-arm style, but you can try it if you have feet-elevated push-ups down.
The reason I don’t suggest performing multiple sets of 15-plus push-ups, as most trainees can, is because once you go beyond 12 reps per set, you’re well into endurance training and won’t gain strength. A more impressive form of the one-arm push-up is to have only the contralateral foot on the ground when doing them. If you’re doing one-arm push-ups using the right hand, your left arm is extended in front of you, and your right foot is kept a few inches off the ground. This advanced form of the one-arm push-up requires a much greater range of motion than the classic Rocky ones, and you also need to fire a much greater amount of motor units.
For newer trainees with less upper body strength, the push-up and its modifications, are an acceptable addition to a program because they not only work the chest but require the back, trunk, and quad muscles to stabilize, making them a decent “bang for your buck” exercise. Plus, they are closed kinetic chain movements in which the terminal limb is fixed to the ground or on a bar, as in the feet are fixed to the ground in the squat, and the hands are fixed to the ground in the push-up.
Closed-chain exercises are multijoint and mimic sport-specific moves, leading to greater neuromuscular strength. One recent study showed that performing only closed-chain upper body training in female Division 1 softball players was more effective at improving throwing velocity than open-chain upper body training with dumbbells. Additionally, the closed chain group improved external rotation and shoulder flexion peak power significantly (21 and 39 percent over baseline) more than the open-chain group which had no gains in peak power.
Interestingly, gains in bench press 1RM were the same between groups, which is surprising because, although the push-up trains the same muscles as the bench press and was included in the open-chain training program, push-up training is not proven to translate to bench press performance in females.
Researchers suggest closed-chain upper body training can be included in athlete’s training programs without sacrificing force production and likely improving neuromuscular adaptations. This is likely true for most female collegiate athletes, but use caution when programming for females with stronger upper bodies and male athletes.
Take away from this study an understanding that if you’re new to strength training or are working with someone who is, the order of push-up progressions is hands elevated, then knee push-ups, then regular push-ups, and finally feet elevated push-ups. Don’t hesitate to use push-ups when you are gymless, and trainers, you can confidently suggest appropriate push-up variations when your clients are on the loose.
Prokopy, M., Ingersoll, C., et al. Closed-Kinetic Chain Upper-Body Training Improves Throwing Performance of NCAA Division 1 Softball Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2008. 22(6), 1790-1798.
Ebben, W., Wirm, B., et al. Kinetic Analysis of Several Variations of Push-Ups. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011. 25(10), 2891-2894.