Are Push Ups Necessary if You Have Access to Free Weights?

August 2, 2010

People who have trained in the gym for years often look at something like the simple push up as a beginner’s exercise. I mean, why would they want to perform push ups when they can get a “real” chest workout with heavy sets of bench presses. This is a big mistake, and one that I have been guilty of. It is easy to look at the simple push up as working the exact same muscles as the bench press, but with less resistance. I would like to talk about why you should include the push up in your routine, even if you are someone who trains with free weights.

Bench

[Here are a few guys “benching” on the edge of the River Thames in London using decent form. Yes…a bad joke, but better than the typical bench press article picture…a bulky guy in a lifting suit bench pressing a ton with his face as red as a beet.]

What I Never Knew About Push Ups

Before I talk about the push up, I’d like to give thanks to Chris over at Conditioning Research for linking to a great article. I’ve said it many times on this site, but it amazes me about how Chris stays on top of all of the recent info in the Fitness industry. His site is outstanding and I would recommend subscribing to his RSS feed. What I want to do is link to the same article, but just highlight some of the points I find interesting. I’ll also include a few video clips and then lets discuss this in the comment section. Here’s the full push up article: What You Don’t Know About the Push-up.

Push Ups Balance Upper Back Strength With Chest

Ever see a guy who benches too much and his shoulders are pulled forward? Or a guy with large pecs and bad back development? Well, push ups can work the upper back in ways that a benching cannot. The scapula is allowed to go through a full range of motion with push ups, but is constricted in all forms of bench pressing. When the scapula goes through its full range of motion with push ups, it fills in the area in between the shoulder blades (upper and lower trap thickness). It also develops the serratus muscle, which frame the lower chest and abs to a certain extent.

The Most Important Part of the Push Up

Ever hear this saying…”you don’t know what you don’t know”? I had no idea that the very top of the push up was the most important part. The scapula won’t fully contract until the elbows are all the way locked out. What you need to do is push to lockout and then make sure your upper back isn’t sagging down at the top. Here is a video of Zach Dechant showing proper form.


[So the lockout is important. Notice how his upper back isn’t sagging downward. You want to continue to push shoulders towards the floor even at the top of the movement.]

Push Ups for Better Abs and Obliques?

So I knew that push ups worked the abs in a way that is similar to planks. Here is what I didn’t know… According to Jeffrey McBride, push ups work the obliques better than side bridges. So not only do push ups work the serratus muscles, they work the obliques extremely well. These are the muscle groups which “frame” your abs. Here is a highly scientific, textbook style diagram…

[Most of us are lagging in a bit in this area. Push Ups will help tighten up this part of your midsection. Another good exercise if you want to tighten up your obliques is Renegade Rows (link to an article on this blog).]

Do You Like to Throw Things?

…well push ups will also work your “throwing muscles” much better than the bench press. This works for any sports that involve throwing…football, baseball, softball, etc. Go over and read Zach’s article because he goes over this in detail. Zach is a coach at TCU for both baseball and football. Here is his stance on push ups with athletes who throw…”At TCU, our baseball athletes and quarterbacks incorporate some form of the push-up year round in their training. At various times, we even eliminate all forms of pressing in lieu of the push-up and its many variations.”

How to Make the Push Up More Challenging

Obviously one way to make the push up quite a bit more challenging is to do them with one arm. I have a whole post dedicated on mastering the one arm push up, but these work the muscles in a different manner than using two arms. Here are some videos demonstrating a few ways to make the two-arm push up more challenging.

Walkover Push Ups



[Stack two Olympic plates. Start with one hand on the floor, perform a push up and then walk across the plates and perform another push up. Extend all the way to the top before walking across the plates. Beginner start with 5 reps and will work up to 10+ per side. This exercise really works the scapular area (around the shoulder blades).]

Chain X Push Ups


[Criss-Cross chains on your back and perform regular push ups. You can use longer chains where a lot of the weight is on the floor at the bottom. There will be an increasing amount of resistance as you get closer to the top, as more chain links will get pulled off of the floor. The greatest resistance will be at the top of the movement. This strength transfers well if you want to increase your numbers in the bench and military press.]

Explosive Push Up Jumps


[Zach believes these to be the best serratus exercise by far. These are to be done for high reps. The reason you want a band to assist is that you are aiming to do most of your pushing towards the top of the movement. When you simply do explosive push ups, most of your effort it at the beginning of the movement. When done properly, Zach claims your serratus will be worked so intensely that it will feel like you have broken ribs the next day. Obviously he doesn’t mean that literally, but you get the point.]

Lateral Band Push Up Walks


[This one is the better for mid-back and shoulders than any of the other push up variations, because you have to continually spread the band. I haven’t done these yet, but they look awesome. You put a light ankle band around the wrists, take 3 lateral steps and perform 1 push up. Take 3 more lateral steps and perform another push up. Begin by aiming to get 5 push ups per side for a total of 10. I can see how this would quickly make your entire upper body thicker due to working both your chest, delts and mid back so well, all in the same exercise.]

So Include Push Ups for Full Upper Body Development

Again…this is yet another example of how body weight movements work a larger group of muscles than similar free weight lifts. I still plan on lifting with free weights due to the fact that you can overload specific muscle groups, but will supplement them with more body weight movements. Also, those of you doing TACFIT or other body weight routines are probably getting a much more complete workout than it would first appear.

Check Out Zach Dechant’s Blog…

The first link is a guest post he put up on another site. His personal blog is here: Zach Dechant Sports Performance Training. I have never communicated with Zach, but appreciate the content he has so far on his site. He is a conditioning coach for baseball & football, at TCU. Really good info, especially for those who are interested in improving in “throwing sports”. Stop on by his site for some innovative training tips…not anything like the typical fitness info you have heard a zillion times.

Important Message: Although this site has received 25+ million visitors, I am starting from scratch and abandoning it. This site is dated and old school looking, terrible to read on mobile, etc.

It's like a Ford Pinto compared to my new site...which is like a Ferrari. Click the link to head over to my new site.

Starting Over...R.I.P. Fitness Black Book!


Thanks for reading all these years!



 

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

David Harms August 8, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Modified Push Ups -As I read your blog post, I couldn’t help but think of the Push Up Bench as the most effective way for people who struggle with push ups , to be able to do them correctly (with full range of motion). Most modified push ups make them easier but only allow one or two variations. The Push Up Bench has 11 different levels to work through on the way to a full push up.

Crispy August 8, 2010 at 10:17 pm

You can take a simple exercise like a pushup, lunge, pullup and make them challenging enough to fatigue even the most hardcore athlete.

I see a lot of people who can’t even do 25pushups with good form, doing 1/2 range bench presses with their backs arcing all over the place and grunting like crazy. Then they wonder why they develop muscular imbalances and don’t progress.

Alex B August 8, 2010 at 10:55 pm

Hey Rusty I’ve been reading this site for a long time now and since I’m going into college and will have access to an excellent gym I wanna start hitting the strength training hard. This isn’t exactly related to this article but I remember reading somewhere that you recommend 5 sets of 5 reps for strength. I can’t remember though how many exercises you recommend doing for each muscle group. Also, could you post an example of how you would break up your workouts (as in what muscle groups you would do on the same day and what not)?

Thanks a lot Rusty you do great work

-Alex

CR August 9, 2010 at 12:45 am

Rusty,

I like this post as I have believed that the Push up is a lifetime exercise that everyone should do. There is no excuse not to unless there is a physical ailment preventing you.

I have included push ups in my lifetime plan for longevity and advocate that Men and Women both do pushups, reiterating there is no excuse, even for an overweight person. They can be done anywhere, they are free and the result to the physique is rapid.

Alex Allmert - Hardcore Natural Bodybuilding Tips August 9, 2010 at 4:20 am

@Alex B

“I remember reading somewhere that you recommend 5 sets of 5 reps for strength”

Strength training involves low reps, less than 6.

The best way to develop strength is to treat your body as one unit, this way you will develop strength better.

Also isometrics are good for strength training.

-Alex Allmert

Bryan - Workouts Without Weights August 10, 2010 at 11:01 am

Neuro-muscular control of muscles is a frequently over looked aspect of strength training and body building. Workouts without weights gives you the flexibility to learn to control your muscles in various scenarios so much more than the linear aspect of most weight lifting movements.
The videos above make the point better than any comment that the only thing that limits your routine is your own imagination.

Anferneyy August 12, 2010 at 5:13 am

Great Post as always

Do you recommend if i do 250-500 push ups 5days a week would this fatigue my muscles or be considered over training. cause when i did track i basically did abs every night before bed and i felt great.

Thanks

Kurt August 12, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Love all of the push up variations that you gave. I have been getting myself back into shape and push ups have been a major part of my exercise program. I look forward to trying out the walkover push ups and hopefully working up to the band push up walks.

Curt August 13, 2010 at 7:14 am

Another great post Rusty. Push Ups are also a great exercise to do on non-workout days to help increase your overall workout volume so over time you can do more work for your upper body.

Also, one other great way to make Push Ups more challenging is to to do them with a Power Wheel. This turns the Push Up into an exercise that trains your upper body and core completely.

G August 13, 2010 at 9:57 am

Rusty, I have a totally unrelated question, I hope you don’t mind. I have a natural hourglassshaped body. Normal to slightly broader shaped shoulders, slim waist, broad childbaring hips. πŸ˜‰ It’s a body I learned to love and to properly dress since the hourglass shape wasn’t very popular when I was a teen.
The problem I have with my hips is not their size but their shape. It’s really difficult to describe without a photo but from the leg up they start round, then the part between the widest part of my hips and the hipbone is hollow and then from the hipbone on my body curves to my waist. This hollow part makes my hips look somewhat straight and from the back it makes my ass look long and slightly flat instead of short, perky and round. I thank god that I have some junk in the trunk or my ass would look totally deflated.

I don’t want to build out my hips or the side of my butt, I just want to make them look rounder. Is there an exercise for this? (Sumo) squats or dead lifts?

Thanks!

G August 13, 2010 at 10:46 am

Forgot to mention that I don’t want to build out my thighs either…so maybe squats are off the list then I guess…

Jeffrey343 August 13, 2010 at 4:58 pm

I think that you can get great results with pushups & pullups as your primary resistance exercises. They get your entire upper body as well as your core. And you can do pushups anywhere (pullups too if you get one of those pullup bars), and they don’t take much time at all.

Eight years ago when I was 36, I started working out regularly after about six years of not doing much at all. My workouts consisted of nothing but running (usually 3 – 8 miles) and 100 pushups performed five times a week. I dropped 30 pounds in five months and got a nice athletic look. I haven’t always been consistent on pushups, but I’m trying to get consistent on them again. I really have no excuse not to take three minutes a day to do them.

Juan Pablo August 14, 2010 at 4:47 am

Awesome piece as habitual, Rusty. I fully agree with you as I do not perform bench press: it is less effective than dips (another great exercise to build impressive pecs) or/and ordinary plain push ups to build a good chest. In the ‘ 40s and ’50s none of the old champs used to bench press either; you could see the testimony of legends like Vince Gironda and Steve Reeves who confirm this fact!!

All the best from Madrid, Spain!

//Juan Pablo

lipo August 14, 2010 at 7:38 am

I feel push ups, since they are a bodyweight exercise, is much better than free weights, because you’re not actually lifting anything but all your bodyweight, and also you will see great results as a result.

HHp August 19, 2010 at 3:00 am

I agree with lipo, I prefer push ups rather than free weights, because for me push ups develop the pectoral muscles and triceps, with ancillary benefits to the deltoids, serratus anterior, coracobrachialis and the midsection as a whole.

Brian August 19, 2010 at 8:33 am

Rustyyyyyyyy.. Come out, Come out, Wherever You Are…

Paul Nicolson August 19, 2010 at 3:07 pm

I prefer to use an olympic bar rather than dumbells, you can burn up your chest with some good heavy weights. πŸ™‚

FrankV August 20, 2010 at 11:20 am

I agree that push-ups should be part of your chest workout. I love to do them right at the end of a chest session. Its a great way to completely fatigue the muscles in your chest and squeeze every last bit of energy and strength out. Exercise to fatigue and your muscles will grow. Keep up the great work!

Fred August 21, 2010 at 2:57 pm

I wonder if anyone has tried varying the rep speed within a workout or/and even within a set.
Inspired by Art Devany’s Fast Twitch Threshold Sets I have tried doing my pushups like this:
1 set x 20 reps. Superslow. The goal is to “kill” the Type 1 fibers.
1 set x 10 reps. Normal speed. For the intermidiate fibers.
1 set x 5 reps. Explosive. For the fastest twitch fibers.
Very short rest, like 15 seconds, between sets.
Art Devany thinks that this is a good way to make sure that you hit all different fibers. You make the slower twitch fibers drop out until only the fast twitch fibers are left. It should work with pushups, even if he’s not talking about bodyweight exercises in his work.
Opinions?!

scott August 25, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Rusty, to answer your question, pushups are one of the best upper body workouts one can do. I should know.

After I graduated from college, I started moving around from state to state (trying to find myself LOL). I put all my weight lifting equipment in storage and took the bare essentials. After awhile, I got a hankering for working out. I started doing 300 pushups a day, EVERY DAY.

I would do 150 in the morning (25 reps x 6 sets), then 150 in the evening. I did this for three years straight. Man, I have never been as big and as strong as I was during that time. My chest and triceps were huge. I didn’t take any measurments, but in retrospect, I wish that I would have.

My weight jumped up to 250 pounds. Granted it wasn’t all muscle, for I ate a lot of fast food LOL. However, the majority of it was. After getting through the initial days of being sore, my strength grew exponentially and when I finally reverted back to the bench press, I was able to set an all-time high for myself.

I attribute all my gains in size and strength to pushups, for I wasn’t doing anything else. It paid off big time for me.

Nowadays the thought of doing 300 pushups a day makes me cringe. Boy was I a machine in those days LOL.

DragonMatt August 26, 2010 at 4:44 am

RUSTY!!

Where are you? COME BACK!!! πŸ™‚

DragonMatt

DR August 28, 2010 at 4:48 am

Hey Dusty,

Big fan of your site, used to read it basically every single day, and I was wanting to talk about some stuff, hit me up!

Richard August 28, 2010 at 6:18 am

Hi, just found your site. I too am a body weight fan. I change my workout around so as not to get board. One of my favorite is this.
Doing 21`s on these exercise`s. Hip pushups/wide grip chinups(palms facing in)/dips/handstand pushups(these rip the crap out of me and i may only do 15`s)/squats. With the squats i am only using 16kg in a weight vest due to a recent knee op. On the last rep of each 7 i hold an iso for around 7 sec. With the pushups i turn my fingers out as this keeps my elbows close to to the body. I do this 2/3 times a week. Somebody else may want to give these a shot. Another workout i do is Hindu pushups/ hindu squats. (not full squats due to the knee)/ dips/ a shoulder combo. with bands/ plank with ibuki breathing. I will do 3/4 set of each, 2/3 times a week. I change the speed/reps within a set etc. and time of day to fit around my life.

Keith J. August 29, 2010 at 10:50 am

Great article! I wish I could integrate more push ups into my routine. Rotator cuff problems limit my exercises so I need to work around it.

When I do a series of push ups I hold at the midway point and count to 10, push up slowly,then lower.
Thanks.

Angela August 29, 2010 at 8:01 pm

It’s crazy how something so “simple” can be so “effective.” Thanks for the reminder.

For any moms out there – I highly recommend push-ups with your child on your back. They think it’s fun and since they are involved, you have no excuse not to get in some fitness. Plus…as they grow, it gets even harder. πŸ™‚

Alex Allmert - Hardcore Natural Bodybuilding Tips August 30, 2010 at 5:14 am

You can wear a backpack with some stuff in it to weigh you down while doing pushups, great for building strength.

-Alex Allmert

Josh August 30, 2010 at 10:04 am

Push ups are an interesting thing. Once I was able to bench over 315, I figured, well, no need to keep doing push ups.

But they do have injury prevention benefits, and they are a great rehab exercise. I still keep them going for warmups, and use different varieties for conditioning purposes.

Digital Pet Paintings September 2, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Had no idea that push-ups helped with your obliques. Great, informational post.

Azri Miskal September 11, 2010 at 3:26 am

I definitely agree with your post. Push ups are extremely useful for upper body muscles and while weights actually help with bulk and power, push ups are just easy to do and all you need is yourself!

Gaetan September 23, 2010 at 5:04 am

I never really do push-ups but i will start doing them now more often after i’ve read this. I don’t really bench press but use a lot of free weights and my shoulders are really hanging forwards.
Is there a way to get my shoulders to hang more backwards?

No BS Muscle Building Secrets November 24, 2010 at 4:52 am

Hi Rusty-

Great post.

My new favorite pressing exercise is a sort of bodyweight/weight hybrid.

I do weighted (throw some weight in a backpack) feet elevated pushups (feet up around 2′ or so targets that hard-to-reach upper chest) using a suspension trainer set so the handles are right near the ground.

The combination of the suspension trainer’s instability with the feet elevated and extra weight in the backpack all adds up to a killer chest and shoulder move.

Now I know, from your article, the importance of pressing until my arms are locked out to fully activate the upper back.

Maybe this move will overtake the bench press in popularity?

Probably not, but in the meantime, I will enjoy it!

Thanks again,

Ian

Cai - Quakefitness.com December 24, 2010 at 2:51 am

This article has been linked by Quake Fitness!

A link to this article has been published on http://www.quakefitness.com – Connecting fitness blogs.

Sam- Look Like An Athlete January 13, 2011 at 12:43 am

I haven’t done push ups lately but when I want to really change it up I will sometimes mix push ups along with my free weights workout. I might do three sets of incline presses and three sets of push ups. Or do do push ups at a different angle to target a different area of the muscle.
Just some ideas to switch it up.

Jeremy - Self Health Atlas January 14, 2011 at 3:01 am

Push ups cannot be overrated. I travel quite a bit for my job and push ups are always one of my go-to exercises when I don’t have access to a gym. The endless number of variations with form, angle, reps, and pace allow you to destroy your pecs, lats, and shoulders in a ways that free weights can rarely achieve. I am always surprised at how sore I am after an intense push up routine.

Cheers,
Jeremy

Sam- Look Like An Athlete June 8, 2011 at 9:13 pm

I have been guilty of neglecting push ups in favor of weights…. With that said, for a few months I have been implementing them in once again as part of my weight training and I am always surprised by how sore I feel for a few days afterward. Not a bad thing at all.

One thing you point out is the serratus muscle getting developed more with push ups. This is very true and a tip I learned some time ago is this- when you come up on your push up push or press your weight up beyond the usual press. Give an extra push using your shoulders and this forces the serratus to work extra.

-Sam

Mark - Look Sharp Fitness August 3, 2011 at 10:10 am

Push-ups > bench press any day of the week πŸ˜‰

Liposuction November 17, 2011 at 7:36 am

I’ve been working on my physique for a while and feel a regular gradually increasing routine of squats, push-ups, sit-ups and mild cardio do wonders. I suppose it’s each to his/her own at the end of the day. You create your own routine that suits you lifestyle.

Tim @ Behind The Workout December 4, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Push ups are always a staple of my chest workout. I prefer working with machines and free weights, but once in a while I just get on the ground and start doing different push up variations

John Oxnard- Fitness Leads To Good Health April 28, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Thanks for the great post. I always do push ups in my workout and I will definitely incorporate the new techniques to make my next workout more challenging.

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