Do Push Ups Build Muscle Effectively?
When did you do your first push-up?
For me, it was way back when I was about 7 or 8 years old. It was in P.E. class, and I was shocked at how challenging it was.
Yes, even with my small, sub 100 lb frame, I was unable to do a single rep!
My noodle arms wobbled all over the place for a good 5-10 seconds before I eventually collapsed in defeat.
It was embarrassing…
Thankfully, like any exercise, after practicing it become a whole lot easier – to the point where I could bang out sets of push-ups with relative ease.
Does any of this sound familiar?
When you think about it, pretty much everyone has at least tried doing a push-up at one point in their life.
They are probably the most common strength training exercise. Bar none. More than pull-ups – or even sit-ups/crunches.
And even with more sophisticated workout methods available, some people still swear by the classic, old school push-up for building strength and muscle.
However, you still have to ask yourself, do push-ups actually build muscle effectively?
To better answer this question, I’m going to be taking a good look at the humble push-up, so that you can decide whether they should be part of your workout routine.
What Muscles Do Push-Ups Work?
The basic push-up is generally thought to be a chest exercise – kind of like a body weight version of the bench press.
However, the truth is that the push-up is more of a full upper body exercise, since it trains not only the chest, but the triceps and shoulders as well.
In addition, you are also using your abs to stabilize your body while doing push-ups, which means that it’s working your core as well.
Here is a diagram that shows you the specific muscle groups that push-ups target:
This is why it’s said that you can train your upper body effectively with just push-ups and pull-ups – since between those 2 exercises you are hitting pretty much all of your muscles from the waist up.
The Limits Of The Conventional Push-Up
OK, so now that we’ve established that push-ups are a pretty comprehensive upper body exercise – working the chest, triceps, shoulders, abs (to some extent) – let’s look at how effective they are for actually building real muscle.
Unfortunately, this is where pull-ups often fall short.
You see, the biggest problem with push-ups is that it is difficult to make them more challenging by increasing the resistance, as you would for a weight-based exercise.
They are not unique in this respect – after all, this is something that all body weight exercises suffer from – but it is still a big mark against them.
As you likely know from reading my other articles, the most effective way to develop strength and build muscle is by gradually increasing the amount of resistance – a process known as progressive overload.
With push-ups, this is tough to do, but certainly not impossible…
How To Make Push-ups More Challenging
Getting back to the previous point, conventional push-ups are an effective strength and muscle builder up to a point.
And that point is where they become too easy for you to do!
When you hit this point, they are no longer challenging, and therefore not terribly effective at advancing your progress.
Of course, when this point comes depends a lot on your specific body weight.
If you weigh 300 lb push-ups will likely remain challenging for longer than if you weigh 150 lbs.
But still, the point remains that in order to make push-ups a truly effective muscle builder, you need to find ways to make them progressively more challenging.
Let’s go over the options.
Option #1: Increasing Repetitions
This is the easiest, and most common, way of making push-ups more difficult.
If you can do 10 push-ups with relative ease, then go for 15 next time.
If you can hit 20, aim for 30.
However, this method has its limits…
At a certain point, fairly early on, it is not as effective to simply increase the number of repetitions that you’re doing.
Yes, it is better than nothing – but not as good as fundamentally making each rep more challenging.
So let’s move on to the next point.
Option #2: Add Variations
When increasing repetitions no longer cuts it, one of the next things to look at is making the exercise itself more challenging.
You see, just as doing push-ups on your knees is an easier version of a regular push-up, there are several more challenging variations of the standard push-up.
These include staggered push-ups, diamond push-ups, feet elevated push-ups, single-arm push-ups, and explosive push-ups, just to name a few.
By incorporating these more challenging push-up variations as you get stronger, you’ll be able to ensure that you continue building muscle month after month.
Option #3: Add Weight
Finally, there is the option of doing your push-ups with additional weight.
Just as with most weight training exercises, the goal would be to increase the amount of weight gradually, so that you force your muscles to grow and develop.
But how do you do this with a body weight exercise?
Simple – you invest in something known as a ‘weight vest’.
These are pretty much what they sound like: a vest you wear while doing push-ups that you can gradually add weight to.
The advantage of this approach, compared to just putting something heavy on your back, is that it is well-suited to steady, incremental adjustments in weight.
For instance, once you can do 12 push-ups with a certain weight, you can add 5-10 pounds to your vest to make it more challenging.
Most weight vests accommodate around 40 lbs of additional weight, but I’d recommend this one from ZFOsports.
You can add up to 60 lbs of additional weight, which should keep you going for awhile.
In the end, while conventional, unweighted push-ups undoubtedly have their limits, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a variety of ways to make them more challenging and effective.
By increasing reps, experimenting with different variations, and incorporating a weight vest, you can make push-ups an effective muscle builder for years to come.
And remember, the methods I mentioned above can be combined.
For example, you can experiment with different variations AND add weight.
So get creative with it, keep pushing yourself, but don’t settle for just doing endless sets of regular, body weight push-ups.
That just isn’t going to cut it if you’re looking to build a big, powerful chest.