The push-up is one of the first strength exercises we’re exposed to from a young age. But don’t let its simplicity fool you – the humble push-up is a tried and true tool for developing upper body and core strength, while also adding muscle to the chest and shoulders.
Not only that, but its highly adaptable to differing strength and fitness levels, there are endless variations to keep you progressing and there’s minimal equipment required.
And there’s much more to them than just the standard up-down push-up, too. Here’s a list of 10 push-up variations to try that’ll help you work on fitness, weight loss, mobility and flexibility all at once.
1. The traditional push-up
While this list is mostly in order of difficulty from easiest to hardest, I figured a tutorial of a standard, traditional push up is a good place to start. Once you’ve nailed the correct technique of a standard push-up, you can apply the same principles to the other variations.
Like many exercises, the push up is commonly done incorrectly. Here’s how to do it properly:
- Start on all fours, on the floor.
- From a side angle, the hands should be placed directly underneath the shoulders, a common mistake people make is placing them in front of the shoulders.
- From a front angle, hands should be just outside of shoulder width.
- Feet should be about hip-width apart, and the fingers of your hand should be pointing straight ahead, and spread out, for maximal stability.
- Lift knees off the floor, and maintain hand, arm and shoulder alignment.
- Keep a neutral spine (no sagging hips or head) and create tension and stiffness throughout your body. ‘Brace’ your midsection (imagine preparing for someone to come and kick you in the belly).
- Engage your lats and shoulder stabilisers by ‘screwing your hands into the floor’. If this doesn’t register, imagine someone was coming to tickle your armpits and try to protect them whilst holding position.
- Inhale through you nose as you lower yourself to the floor, keeping elbows at a 45-degree angle from your body, maintaining a straight line from head to toe. A good cue to remember is ‘lead with your chest’. Your chest should touch the floor before your hips.
- Press yourself back up as you exhale through your mouth. Everything comes up together in alignment, no ‘worming’.
2. Incline (and decline) push-up
The incline is a great place to start if it’s been a while since you attempted a push up.
Elevating your hands and putting your body on a more upright angle is a great way to take some of the load off. We’re just playing around with physics here, as your body is more upright you are essentially lifting a lesser percentage of your bodyweight against gravity. The higher the hands, the easier it is.
Find a sweet spot that’s challenging but allows you to complete the desired amount of reps with good form. Progressively lower the hand position over time as strength increases. Tables, benches, chairs, squat racks etc. can all be used for this, as long as they’re stable and safe.
On the flip side, you can take things back the other way and once ‘floor push ups’ become easy, elevate the feet to make things harder. The higher the feet, the harder it gets.
3. Close-grip push-up
Narrowing your hand position and tucking your elbows places you at mechanical disadvantage, increasing demands on your triceps to get the job done.
4. Foam roller push-up
This is another good place to start, with the goal of progressing to a standard push up on the toes. A better way to do the trusty ‘knee push-up’ is by placing a foam roller under the shins / knees. This increases core strength requirements and changes the mechanics and alignment to better resemble the traditional push up and is a much more effective way to bridge the gap.
5. Three-point push-up
This is a progression from a regular push up and great for core strength. Take one leg off the floor to increase core stability requirements as you have to work hard to resist extending or rotating through the trunk on three bases of support. Be sure to switch sides and keep it even.
6. Power band or weight vest push-ups
Use a resistance band or weight vest to make yourself heavier. To use a band, just loop each end around the base of your thumb, then position the band across the upper back. The band can add a unique effect, in that they will offer the most resistance at the top of the movement (where you are at your strongest) and the least resistance down the bottom.
7. Yoga push-up
For lack of a better name(s), the yoga push-up or ‘hindu’ push-up requires a pike of the hips and an overhead reach with the arms to challenge your strength from more than one angle.
You need to control yourself down and ‘skim’ the floor with your chest before pressing back up through the arms. Either pike the hips back up in the air or for those are more advanced, you can reverse directions and ‘overhead press’ yourself back up as well. A bit of shoulder and hip mobility (not to mention strength) is a good pre-requisite for this one, but it’s also a good way to improve mobility for anyone with tight shoulders or hamstrings. Be careful of over extending through the lower back down the bottom – some people will be more intolerant of this than others.
8. Offset push-up
Bring one hand up and one hand down, or elevate one side with a medicine ball. Both require an ‘offset’ or uneven hand position which alters the strength and stability requirements of the shoulders, arms and core. Again, try to keep the reps even each side.
9. Super slow tempo push-up
If you can do at least 20 push-ups, then give these a go. Just do a perfect, textbook push up, but super slowly. You can play around with anywhere from 5-20 seconds to go down, and 5-20 seconds to come up. These are very humbling.
10. Suspension trainer push-ups
Whether you use gymnastics rings or a TRX-style suspension trainer, they both offer a very noticeable, unstable platform from which to push through, as well as a slightly varied movement pattern, with the hands fixed to movable handles or rings (and not a static floor).
You’ll notice the shoulders, arms and core working overtime to stabilise yourself on this one. A great thing about using rings or TRX is that you can adjust the angle of your body, and therefore the difficulty, very quickly, which means you can accommodate your strength or level of fatigue on the fly.
Ben Longley has been a personal trainer for over 12 years, and is the owner of The Fit Stop, a personal training and group training facility in St Kilda East, Melbourne, specialising in strength training, functional movement and fat loss. For more info about their services, you can visit: www.TheFitStop.com.au