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Push-Ups: How To Best Use Them For Growth (4 Science-Based Tips)

by Jeremy Ethier - March 3, 2019

If you want to learn how to really build muscle with push ups... Then you need to read this article.

The push up is one of the best bodyweight exercises for the upper body. It's convenient, relatively easy to learn, and can be performed virtually anywhere.

The main muscles worked during the push up will be the chest, triceps, and anterior deltoids as shown below:
pushups muscles worked
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Do Push Ups Build Muscle?

Typically people are under the impression that they can't build much muscle with bodyweight exercises.

Well, research indicates that this isn't necessarily true.

For beginners at least, it’s been shown in the literature to provide size and strength gains that are comparable to that of the barbell bench press.

Illustrating this, a 2017 paper found similar chest and triceps growth and strength between push-ups and the bench press over a period of 8 weeks:
push ups vs bench press
Simply meaning that push-ups are an effective exercise you should definitely be incorporating. This can be done with a total bodyweight workout routine or to compliment your existing weightlifting workouts.

But, in order to build muscle effectively with push ups, it’s vital that you perform them and implement them correctly. Something that most people unfortunately just don't do.

Luckily, in this article, that's exactly what I'll show you how to do.

So to get started, let’s dive into the first tip.

1. Choose The Right Variations.

Although there’s countless push up variations out there, they're not all created equally.

If your main goal is to build muscle with push ups, then it’s best that you stick with the variations that both:

  • Best activate the target muscles (mainly the chest and triceps)
  • Easiest to progress overtime

The standard push-up is a great starting point that can easily be progressed overtime. However, it’s vital that you perform them optimally.

Narrow vs Shoulder-Width vs Wide Push Ups

Most people are under the impression that wide grip push-ups commonly performed with the elbows flared are best for the chest. Whereas narrower grip push-ups with the elbows tucked are best for the triceps.

However, research indicates otherwise.

For instance, this 2016 paper from the Journal of Physical Therapy Science compared shoulder-width, wider, and narrow grip push ups:
can push ups build muscle
And as shown in the below graph...
diamond push ups
...the narrow grip push-ups with the hands placed in a diamond shape elicited significantly higher triceps AND chest activation than the other hand widths.

Two other studies have confirmed as well, and speculate that this is likely due to the greater horizontal adduction you can achieve with a narrow grip.

Thus, the diamond push-up is a great variation to incorporate and progress. The shoulder-width push-up is also a great alternative as well in the event that the narrow grip causes discomfort on your wrists and/or elbows.
wide vs close grip push ups
And if you wanted to prioritize the triceps more, then as shown in this 2006 paper by Lehman and colleagues:

Performing the push-up on a medicine ball or swiss ball will significantly increase triceps activation due to the unstable surface.

push ups for triceps
Thus, medicine ball and/or swiss ball push ups are good options to hit the triceps more.

But regardless of what push up variation you choose to incorporate, what’s more important to build muscle is that you apply the next tip.

2. Progress Your Push Ups!

In order to continuously build muscle with bodyweight movements like the push-up, you need to progress them overtime.

It's the exact same concept as adding more weight to a chest exercise like the bench press for example. Otherwise, you won’t be providing your muscles with the adequate stimulus it needs to continue growing.

And to do so, there’s endless options available to you.

Resistance banded push-ups are a great option where you gradually use stronger bands overtime as you progress:
band push ups
Adding weight to your back is another simple yet effective option but does have its limitations when you work with heavy weight:
weighted push ups
Shortening rest times, doing more reps, incorporating pause reps, and slowing down the tempo are all great options as well.

What I’d recommend you do however is:

If you’re able to do more than around 20 push ups per set, it’s likely best that you then overload it with one or more of the methods I mentioned.

This is necessary to increase the intensity of your sets and better stimulate growth. And just like any other exercise, keep track of how exactly you’re progressing it overtime and then simply repeat this throughout the weeks.

Knowing how to progress bodyweight exercises, like the pushup, to suit your training goals is pretty complicated. Thankfully, though, the team here at BWS has the necessary expertise to do just that. Our 3-on-1 coaching program takes the guesswork out of training, nutrition, and even mobility work - so you can focus on what matters: making gains. If you're interested:

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3. Exert Enough Effort!

As I’ve mentioned in my light vs heavy weights debate, recent research has indicated that:

When volume is equated, similar muscle growth can be achieved with the use of light loads and heavier loads.

However, with lighter loads this only seems to apply if sets are taken to failure or very close to it.

So what does this mean in terms of building muscle with push ups?

It simply means that during your sets of push-ups, you’ll want to push each set close to failure rather than stopping well short of it.

Thus, by pushing hard enough, you’ll still be able to fully activate the target muscles and provide enough stimulus for growth.

This is essential to build muscle with push ups since you’ll likely be working with much lighter loads when compared to something like the bench press.

4. Implement Them Properly.

Lastly, you want to ensure that you’re properly implementing push-ups into your current routine.

But how you do this will depend on the situation.

For example, if you’re currently using bodyweight workouts, then:

  • Incorporate a few push-up variations 2-3 times per week to target your chest and triceps
  • Perform each set close to failure and some to failure (e.g. at the end of the workout)
  • Focus on progressing these variations overtime

On the contrary, if you're currently working out at the gym with weights, then simply:

  • Incorporate one or two push-up variations towards the end of your workouts as a finishing exercise.
  • This will likely compliment your bench press strength since they allow the scapulae to move through their normal range of motion. It will also add more metabolic stress to your workout and enables you to effectively accumulate more volume for your chest and triceps.
  • Simply adding in a few sets of diamond push-ups or medicine ball push-ups at the end of a push workout is a good way of doing this.
  • Again, focus on progressing these sets overtime using the methods I went through earlier.

And finally, if you’re away on holidays or for some reason your gym is closed on Monday (also known as international chest day) then:

  • You can rest assured that you won’t lose any of your hard earned gains by incorporating various push-up exercises as a substitute... 🙂


So to sum the video up, here are the main points to keep in mind:
build muscle with push ups
As I say quite often, if you want to see the best results then it’s vital that you choose the right exercises and variations. But, even more importantly is that you implement and progress them correctly within your routine.


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Push-Ups: How To Best Use Them For Growth (4 Science-Based Tips)