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6 Ways To Challenge Yourself with the Push Up

Push ups are a fundamental movement that anyone can benefit from doing. Make your push ups more challenging with these 6 variations and progressions.

It’s common for people with strong upper bodies to think that they’ve “graduated” from the standard push up, simply because their bench press surpasses their own body weight.

They’ll reason that if they can do 40 or 50 push ups in a row, they won’t really be training their strength or having an impact on their muscular hypertrophy either.

In a way, they’re right, but that’s not entirely the reason you should be considering adding push ups to your routine. Here are the reasons you should:

Ground Work

To be honest, there are very few conventional exercises that make your core work in conjunction with your extremities, and forfeiting push ups in favor of the bench press and its variations only lowers that count by yet another.

People need to stop looking at the push up as a chest exercise and start viewing it as a trunk exercise. Slowing the form down and giving quality reps will not only create a new challenge for your muscles, but will make your abdominal muscles, lower back, glutes and obliques work overtime, when done correctly.

Related: 5 Calisthenic Exercises Every Lifter Should Master

I’ll wager that 1 of every 2 people who can do a lot of push ups, can’t do them with reliably good form and adequate tension throughout the body. And believe me – I’m not a die-hard form police as long as the form doesn’t unnecessarily distract from a good, effective workout that is also safe.

For good form and technique for a basic push up, be sure to abide by the following rules:

  • Keep the chin tucked in, and stay focused on the floor directly below you.
  • Push to a full extension of the arm.
  • Avoid any back arch, and aim for a neutral spine by squeezing the glutes and pulling in the stomach.
  • Make it to the floor, or just a couple of inches away from it. That’s a real rep.

Shoulder Health

Simply put, the shoulder is treated much more nicely when replacing bench press variations with push ups. The reason gets complicated, but in a nutshell, there is a certain “rhythm” the shoulder blade should have in its relationship with the upper arm.

As the arm moves, the shoulder blade should congruently move a certain amount. This is nullified when performing bench presses, since good and safe form for that lift asks a lifter to pin their shoulder blades against the bench and encourage zero movement from that spot.

That can hinder shoulder mechanics and create problems down the road – especially if you’re someone who goes bench-happy.  Here’s a video to better explain with visual cues.

Push Ups Too Boring? There’s an App for That

Hitting the deck for a few sets of the ol’ press ups may not be everyone’s cup of tea for a simple reason: After the first 15 or so, they can become painfully redundant, especially in a gym full of equipment.

I’m not a guy who’s about to list a bunch of finicky, unstable surfaced, challenging and minimally useful variations of push ups to distract yourself within the weight room to “spice things up for the sake of the sweat”.

What I will do is deliver six great progressions to basic push ups that still train the same functions but add a layer of useful difficulty to the movement pattern.

1. Feet Elevated Push Ups

If you’re looking to target the upper chest and shoulders a bit more while simply making your body push a higher percentage of your overall body weight, then raise the feet as seen in the video.

Holding on to a pair of stable dumbbells or handles can also increase your range of motion and make this a great movement progression.

2. Band Resisted Push Ups

A logical progression from basic push ups, adding a band for resistance bridges the gap for someone who may be struggling with a strength or endurance plateau in the movement.

Since there’s no tension at the bottom of the rep, the lifter only has to deal with a resisted lockout phase, which can still be a burner for the chest, triceps and core. Be sure to place the band on or just below the shoulder blades so the tension is applied to the right places.

3. Close Grip Push Ups

This is a great way to burn out the triceps and chest after a solid workout to those muscle groups. Narrowing your hand grip makes a world of difference for the general difficulty level of push ups – especially if you’re a big or wide guy.

With that in mind, beware. If you’re really wide, having a “diamond” grip with the hands completely together can cause issues to the shoulder due to capsular restrictions.

With that said, going a couple of inches apart is more than fine, and will still do exactly what you set out for. Be sure to keep your elbows tucked close to the body.

4. Single Arm Deficit Push Ups

This exercise serves as a great stepping stone towards a single arm push up, since the elevated arm has additional room to lock the lift out on its own, without assistance from the arm that starts on the floor.

As a bonus, it provides plenty of contralateral loading for the abs and obliques to keep the trunk stable and straight. To progress this movement, simply increase the height of the deficit.

5. Staggered Stance Push Ups

This variation emphasizes more one sided strength. This can also be a way to move towards single arm push ups down the road, though less progressed than the method above.

6. Band Assisted Push Ups

This method can cater to one of two crowds: the group who isn’t proficient at push ups yet and needs a little bit of help to nail down the form and derive a training effect from a sufficient number of reps, OR the crowd of intermediate lifters who are in need of a high-rep burnout for an awesome pump after a brutal chest and triceps workout.

Related: 5 Best Chest Exercises Without Equipment

In both cases, using a band for assistance rather than resistance can give you the form check you need and enable you to perform more than the usual amount of reps (due to weakness or due to current levels of fatigue).

Remember: The higher you set the band, the more help you’ll get.

Summary

The long and short of this article is this: Most of you aren’t doing push ups, and you should be.

They may be the simplest movement that anyone on the street thinks of when they think of exercise (“drop and give me 20!”), but they’re an old school move worth their weight in gold, and one of the only movements I can think of that have little to no negatives in practicing often.

Do your body a service and take a phase away from the benches, let your shoulders be free, and get on your bodyweight game.

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