Push-up Variations: Beginner to Highly Advanced

Categories: Videos & podcasts


00:00 Introduction

00:45 Knee push-up

01:32 Smith push-up

01:56 Regular push-up

02:22 Deficit push-up

03:13 Knuckle push-up

04:23 Weighted push-up

05:02 Feet elevated push-up

07:48 Suspended push-up

09:59 Alt: Hand rotation

11:12 Alt: using one arm

12:37 Conclusion


You are not too tough for pushups. Pushups are a great exercise for the chest, the front delts and the lateral and medial head of the triceps.

However, many people don’t do push ups because they think they are too strong for them and they need to bench press. And other people don’t do push ups because they cannot do the standard variation. So they think – I cannot do that. Fortunately, there are many variations of pushups that you can use to make pushups a lot easier and a whole lot harder.

So in this video, I’m going to guide you through a full progression of pushup variations for people not strong enough for the basic variation and people that think they are too strong for push ups but probably aren’t.

If you’re not strong enough yet for a standard pushup variation, you can start by performing the pushups on your knees. This is not the variation I like the most though, because people that are not strong enough yet for a regular push ups usually have higher body fat levels or they are female, which means their thighs are relatively big. And often you see that if you want to use good pushup form, which normally means flexing the glutes, contracting the abs, tightening the core and being like a moving plank, you actually get that your hips or your legs start hitting the floor before your chest. You want to get your chest to the floor every repetition, not your face, not your stomach, your chest. That’s full range of motion. So with the knee variation, it’s a little awkward to do that. also a little awkward on the knees. So it’s an okay variation, but not my favorite variation.

What I like to do instead is perform Smith Machine pushups, as you can see here. These you can tailor very well to your level of strength because the higher up you set the Smith machine, the easier they are. So as you get stronger and stronger, you can gradually lower the Smith Machine bar and perform the push ups closer and closer to the floor until eventually you are strong enough to perform pushups on the floor.

The easiest way to make regular pushups harder is simply to perform more reps. A lot of people don’t do push ups because they’re like, they’re too easy for me. I can easily do 12 reps. Great. Now go up to 20 or 30. Research over the past decade has shown very conclusively that you can go all the way up to your 30RM and still get maximum muscle growth, so you can just do more push ups until you’re at 30. Just progressing in reps is a great way to get stronger and bigger from push ups. That said, I don’t typically progress my clients all the way up to 30 push ups.

As soon as you’re strong enough to perform a couple regular push ups, I typically implement a deficit. Deficit you can implement in various ways. The probably easiest and the most convenient is if you have push-up handles. The point of the deficits created by the push up handles is to increase the range of motion and increase the stretch in the chest and the front delts and thereby stimulate more stretch mediated hypertrophy. as I showed in my recent video. A lot of research now supports that training with a greater range of motion augments muscle hypertrophy and strength development via stretch mediated hypertrophy. If you don’t have push-up handles available, you can also use dumbbells. Depending on the shape of the dumbbells, This may be more or less convenient. The hexagonal ones are typically a lot easier than the round ones that you also have to stabilize. But you can make it work.

And if you don’t have anything available, at least you can always do knuckle push ups as Shredda is doing here. So, most people do this like this if they do them on their knuckles. Also, with the handles for some reason, people intuitively always assume as they start handles instead of the normal pushup grip like this, they switch to this. I don’t like that because I think push ups are best for the chest, so I use them as a primary exercise for the chest, not so much for the delts or the triceps. Other exercises I think are better for those. So if you want to exercise that chest primarily, you want to keep the elbows relatively out. You don’t want to tuck them all the way into your sides unless your shoulders need that to be pain free. So I like to still use this grip, whether it’s on your knuckles, with dumbbell, deficit, however you do them, you still want the elbows out. Don’t be like this.

At this point you can start loading your push ups. You already saw the video where I use bands. Bands and chains are an okay method to load pushups. Researchers found that banded push ups are actually equally effective as bench presses. I’m not super sold on bands and chains though, especially not when you use them for a lot of resistance. For one, they’re a little bit awkward to combine with weight, and with weights, you can add more weight on your back. As you can see here, I think the go to method to add loads to push ups is just to put a plate on your back. Many people think that’s hard to do. It’s actually really not. It’s up to at least 45 plate or the largest plate you have in a gym. You can easily put that on your back and do push ups. It’s not that inconvenient, really. The disadvantage of bands and chains is that when you get to a heavier amounts of resistance, they become very difficult at the top and not difficult at all in a bottom position. So probably you’ll miss out on some stretch mediated hypertrophy. If you go really heavy on the bands and chains.

Another way you can make the push ups more difficult is by elevating your feet. And I think this method is highly underrated because a standard push up is essentially a slightly declining press, especially if you use push up handles that are very large. Great. You can now get into a maximum stretch, but it becomes more like a dip. It becomes more like a decline press And that will probably neglect the upper pecs to some degree. So the ideal pushup for many people in my view, is that you want a deficit and feet elevation so that you can get maximum range of motion and you turn it into a very horizontal press. So I push up on the floor, even though the floor is horizontal is not a horizontal press, in the very, very bottom position, you are fully horizontal, but then you are pressing yourself up at an angle so that it’s a decline press It’s like you’re pressing like this. So elevating the feet has the same effect as making it more of a horizontal press. And if you elevate your feet, a lot of becomes essentially an incline press. For most people, the ideal angle to target all the fibers of the pecs is when the feet are elevated roughly to knee height. At this point, you in the top position to the bottom position have the most horizontal movement. And in a horizontal position So 90 degree basically between the humerus of the upper arm and the chest. And if you have a lot of arc, which is not so much the case with a push up but more during a bench press, then you also want to elevate the angle of the arm a little bit congruent with the angle of the chest. So you want this to be roughly 90 degrees. At that point, you maximally stimulate the chest because you activate all of the muscle fibers. The pec is fan shaped, which means the muscle fibers they run like this. And at the horizontal press, all of them come together to pull from the various angles to perform horizontal flexion or adduction. So in practice, you often want to combine these methods to perform deficit pushups with foot elevation with a plate on your back, it becomes a little less convenient than something like a chest press machine where you add all of these methods together, but you get a great exercise in return. Some relatively unique benefits of pushups are that they are a closed chain exercise and the scapulae are free to move. You don’t have these effects with almost any type of machine or barbell or dumbbell press because the bench is always fixing your scapulae. They’re not completely fixed, but they cannot move that much. Anecdotally, this results in more shoulder problems for many people with barbells, dumbbells or machines than with push ups. In the physiotherapy research there is also some indication that close chain exercises are better for rehabilitation than open chain exercises like barbell bench presses. But the research is really not that very strong. I think the anecdotal evidence is in this case actually more compelling than the research.

Moving on, we get to what is probably my favorite variation of all the pushups that’s suspended pushups. Suspended pushups are a lot harder than regular push ups on a floor and be you don’t need a deficit or anything because you can already get a maximum stretch. Whatever suspender system you use the really easy on the joints. Anecdotally suspended pushups by themselves are enough for most people, especially if you do them for high repetitions. You can again increase the height of your feet. In fact, for most people you want to do that. And one of the best variants is to have a lot of feet elevation again to the equivalent of knee height if you were standing on the rings or the TRX. So basically you want your feet to be higher than your hands or the rings or the TRX or whatever it is you’re holding. And again, you can also add weight. You can do this with a dip belt. This is sometimes inconvenient because you basically need the feet elevation. Otherwise the dip belt will start touching the floor. But if you have a setup that is good enough and high enough, and also especially if you tighten the dip belt a lot so that the plates aren’t going very far down and you keep them closer to your abdomen. And you can also use dumbbell or kettlebell sometimes because it doesn’t drape as far down, so it doesn’t touch the floor. Then you have an absolutely fantastic exercise and I think that suspended push ups performed this way are basically the completely superior version of dips, because anecdotally they’re a lot easier on all of the joints. And you don’t have the downside that you have a massively decline press angle that you always have with dips. Also easier on the sternum for most people. So I think it’s a better chest exercise. It’s equivalent for the shoulders, but easier in terms of injuries. Again, mostly anecdotally and roughly equivalent for the triceps. So I think for almost all purposes, if you have dips in your programing, you’re willing to set up push ups this way and that’s possible in your gym, I think, suspended push ups weighted with some foot elevation are basically the wholly superior method for most intents and purposes.

Now, finally, there are two methods that you can make push ups more difficult by. I’m not a big fan of certainly not as much of a fan as foot elevation using deficits and using suspension. Those are first hand rotation you can perform more of a diamond pushup, for example, which is a grip like this instead of the standard grip like this. This is harder. It can also be a bit harder on the shoulder. So for some people and it becomes a little bit awkward, some people don’t like it with their wrists. You can go all the way like this, even to make it even harder if your shoulder are happy with that. It’s an okay method to make it harder, but most people don’t really stick with that long term because it doesn’t feel like right now if you have shoulder problems sometimes what you can also do is completely tuck in the elbows and rotate the arms out. I remember I had a periods where I had a shoulder injury and almost every type of chest press hurt. But this exercise I could still do completely pain free. So you’re almost performing a planche, a planche pushup where you have your elbows tucked all the way into your sides and you rotate the hands all the way out to the sides. The arms rotation basically put you at a biomechanical disadvantage, thereby making you weaker, which is good because then it makes the exercise harder. But again, these variants with the hand rotation are a little iffy for most general purposes. They’re more for niche situations.

The other variation that is very popular, at least on paper, because nobody actually does it is the one arm push up. One of our push ups are often regarded as the ultimate push up variance in practice, though they are really not that great because one arm push up is not that much about strength, it is more about getting the technique right and balance. Most serious lifters are actually strong enough to perform one arm push ups, but they just don’t know it. The right technique is to stretch your legs very wide and then rotate all the way in. And you also have your elbow usually tucked very much into your chest and then you perform a push up. So it’s a little bit weird in terms of biomechanics. And because the elbows tucked all the way into the side and you’re at an angle, you often don’t create a great exercise for the chest, which again in my view should be the primary target muscle. And it also makes it very difficult to advance from there. Most people are not strong enough to perform that many reps, and most people are not strong enough to implement a deficit and all of these other things. So in practice, I think, one-arm push ups are more of a status thing or a gimmick. Sometimes you can do them in a program. If you only have bodyweight work, you can sometimes maybe put them in a program, but overall they’re not very practical.

One variant that is okay, but again doesn’t work that well when you perform a one arm push up like you perform essentially a regular push up, but with one arm normal. And what I’m doing a fly on the floor. Again, it’s a little bit awkward though. So for most people, I think the suspended push ups are particularly great working up to using a deficit to increase ROM, get that stretch mediated hypertrophy and afford easier variants if you are not strong enough to do pushups. I really like the Smith Machine variant, so that’s pretty much all the variants I think you need to know. And this should give you options all the way from the super beginner level to very highly advanced level, especially if you go into higher repetition ranges.

I hope this helps you implement push ups into your program and make better gains.

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About the author

Menno Henselmans

Formerly a business consultant, I've traded my company car to follow my passion in strength training. I'm now an online physique coach, scientist and international public speaker with the mission to help serious trainees master their physique.

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