Compared to the bench press, the push-up is often seen as a less effective alternative. After all, bench presses are hardcore and pushups are only for prisoners or people without access to the gym, right?
People have this strange misconception that the hardest exercises jack you up the most, but physiologically, the strain is pretty irrelevant when it comes to building muscle.
External stress is not what drives muscle growth, but internal force production, also known as mechanical tension. Load or some form of resistance – whether it's tape, cable, or your own body weight – are just tools to apply mechanical tension.
Don't you believe me? Check out this new study.
Kotarsky et al. Took 23 male intermediate lifters and divided them into a bench press group and a push-up group. (1
Both groups also had an objective model of progress. This only means that after achievement, the progress was automatically regulated based on the study design.
For the bench press group, the load just added as you would in the gym. Prove that you have gotten stronger by reaching the maximum rep range and clapping a few more plates.
The push-up variations were further developed for the push-up group. The study design had nine variations, from the push-ups on the wall that your sister did in elementary school to one-armed push-ups.
These progress models are crucial, because without them the test persons only train for better or worse instead of actually building up strength and creating adjustments. Ironically, many researchers don't implement them and pretty much waste everyone's time.
What They Found
After four weeks, the study measured the thickness of the chest muscles and the explosive Medball throwing power and bench 1RM. Both groups also carried out a push-up progression test.
From a statistical point of view, both groups made similar progress in all measures, with the exception of the push-up progression test, in which the push-up group performed significantly better. Not too surprising.
While the bench press group had a slightly larger "effect size" for the 1RM bench press, I was surprised that the push up group performed so well considering the law of specificity. The push-up group didn't sit on the bench for a month and was basically just as strong in the bench. Shows how versatile the push-up is.
As far as muscle size was concerned, pushups were as hypertropic as benches. But let's take a closer look at the data.
When considering the average raw effect sizes, the push-up group built up more than three times as much muscle as the bench press group (4% versus 1.2%). Given that this was just a four-week study on advanced lifters, overall muscle growth is expected to be slow, indicating that the results were just too weak.
If the study had continued longer with more participants, the gap would have narrowed, but the push-up group would probably have achieved statistically better profits.
But enough about statistics. The big advantage is that push-up variations (even those without weight) correspond to the bench press in the worst case and are at best superior.
How can that be?
Remember, load / weight is not all in all when choosing exercises. The push-up consumes less absolute load, but the muscle activation corresponds to the bench press (2).
After all, the push-up is a closed-chain version with more freedom of movement, while the shoulder blades allow it to move freely, which makes an exercise temptingly cheap (3). In addition, the push-up is less tiring, so you can achieve more volume in practice.
Oh, and it's definitely worth noting that pushups are much less harmful. I mean, how many people do you know who injured themselves when doing push-ups compared to barbell benches?
What this means for you
Remember, for pushups to be effective, they have to be challenging, but that's not a problem for most people.
Even the toughest brothers cannot do 4 sets of 30 strict pushups with a consistently controlled eccentric / negative. Start there, especially if you're a push-up skeptic.
However, if you are really a beast, you can do one or more of the following to improve your push-up game.
- Increase the range of movement: Raise your feet or hands on blocks.
- Make them one-sided: Do pushups for archers (see video below) or pushups with one arm.
- Add load: A bumper plate or a few chains on your back go far.
- Add gymnastics rings or a TRX: The instability makes pushups more difficult.
The toughest push-up you'll ever do
The Push-Up that prevents injuries
- KJ ;, Kotarsky CJ; Christensen BK; Miller JS; Hackney. "Effect of progressive calisthenic push-up training on muscle strength and strength." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, United States National Library of Medicine.
- Calatayud J., Borreani S., Colado J.C., Martin F., Tella V., Andersen LL .; "Bench presses and push-ups at comparable muscle activity levels lead to similar increases in strength." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, United States National Library of Medicine.
- Pozzi, Federico, et al. "The electromyographic activation of shoulder and trunk muscles is greater with a closed chain than with exercises with an open chain." Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, Elsevier, May 12, 2019.