Advertisement

What Muscles Do Pushups Work?

what muscles do pushups work

Drop and give me 20!

Those words may be dreaded, but the pushup is actually one of the simplest yet most beneficial exercises you can perform to gain strength and muscle.

Advertisement
Advertisement

A pushup uses your own body weight as resistance, working your upper body and core at the same time.

In the standard pushup, the following muscles are targeted:

  • chest muscles, or pectorals
  • shoulders, or deltoids
  • back of your arms, or triceps
  • abdominals
  • the “wing” muscles directly under your armpit, called the serratus anterior

The great thing about pushups is that it will be hard for you, and your body, to get used to them. There are many different varieties that target each muscle a little differently.

Advertisement

Try these six kinds of pushups, ranging from beginner to advanced. You’ll gain strength fast.

1. Standard pushup

Standard Pushup

What most people think of when they hear “pushup,” the standard variety of this move is easy to execute, but proper form is key.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Muscles worked: chest

  1. Start in a plank position with your pelvis tucked in, your neck neutral, and your palms directly under your shoulders. Make sure your shoulders are rotated back and down, too.
  2. As you brace your core and keep your back flat, begin to lower your body by bending your elbows while keeping them pointed slightly back. Lower down until your chest grazes the floor.
  3. Immediately extend your elbows and push your body back up to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for as many reps as possible, for 3 sets.

2. Modified pushup

Modified pushup

If you’re not quite strong enough to complete a standard pushup with proper form, work on a modified stance until you can. You can also try doing a pushup off of a wall while standing if even this modified pushup is too much at first.

Muscles worked: chest

  1. Start on all fours, keeping a neutral neck.
  2. Walk your hands out until your torso is straight behind you, and your body forms a straight line between the shoulders and the knees. Make sure your shoulders are rotated back and down and your wrists are stacked directly below your shoulders. Arms should be straight.
  3. Keeping your elbows pointed slightly back, bend at your elbows and lower your whole body down until your upper arms are parallel to the ground. Keep your core tight during this movement.
  4. Once you reach parallel, push up through your palms, extending your elbows and returning to the initial position in step 2.
  5. Repeat for as many reps as possible, for 3 sets.

3. Wide pushup

Wide Pushup

A wide pushup, meaning your hands are further apart than a standard pushup, puts more emphasis on your chest and shoulders and may be easier for beginners.

Muscles worked: Chest and shoulders

Advertisement
Advertisement
  1. Start in a plank position but with your hands out wider than your shoulders.
  2. Begin to lower your body by bending your elbows, keeping your core tight and your back flat, until your chest grazes the floor. Elbows will flare more than in a standard pushup.
  3. Immediately extend your elbows and push your body back up.
  4. Repeat for as many reps as possible for 3 sets.

4. Narrow pushup

Narrow pushup

A narrow pushup, with hands closer together than a standard pushup, puts more tension on your triceps. One study found that narrow base pushups produced greater pectoralis major and triceps activation than the shoulder-width standard pushup and the wide pushup.

Muscles worked: Chest and triceps

  1. Start on the floor and place your hands directly under your chest, closer than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Begin lowering your body by bending your elbows, keeping your core tight and your back flat, until your chest grazes the floor. Keep your elbows tucked in towards your body.
  3. Extend your elbows and push your body back up, using your triceps and chest.
  4. Repeat for as many reps as possible, for 3 sets.

5. Decline pushup

Decline pushup

An intermediate move, the decline pushup focuses on your upper chest and shoulders. Research has shown that feet-elevated pushups produce more force compared to standard pushups, modified pushups, and hand-elevated pushups. This means that if standard pushups are getting easy, moving your feet off the ground will provide a greater challenge.

Advertisement

Muscles worked: Chest and shoulders

  1. Start in a plank position, with hands stacked under your shoulders. Put your feet up onto a bench or box.
  2. Begin lowering your body by bending your elbows, keeping your core tight and your back flat, until your chest grazes the floor. Keep your elbows pointed slightly back.
  3. Immediately extend your elbows and push your body back up.
  4. Repeat for as many reps as possible for 3 sets.

6. Plyometric

Plyometric

A plyometric pushup is an advanced exercise that should only be attempted if you’re confident in your upper body strength.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Muscles worked: Chest

  1. Start in a plank position with your pelvis tucked in, your neck neutral and your palms directly under your shoulders.
  2. Begin to lower your body by bending your elbows, keeping them pointed slightly back, with your core tight and your back flat, until your chest grazes the floor.
  3. Immediately extend your elbows and push your body back up, but instead of stopping at the top, use force to launch your upper body up through your hands so your palms come off the ground.
  4. Land lightly back on the ground and lower your chest again for another rep. Add a clap at the top for added difficulty.
  5. Repeat for as many reps as possible for 3 sets.

Next steps

The pushup is a standard exercise in athletes’ programming. It should be in yours, too. This bodyweight move is extremely effective at building muscle and strength and can be completed in a variety of ways to keep challenging you. 

Nicole Bowling
Article Resources
  • Bryant, C. X., & Green, D. J. (2010). ACE's essentials of exercise science for fitness professionals. Chapter 1. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise.
  • Cogley, R. M., Archambault, T. A., Fibeger, J. F., Koverman, M. M., Youdas, J. W., & Hollman, J. H. (2005). Comparison Of Muscle Activation Using Various Hand Positions During The Push-Up Exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(3), 628-633. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16095413
  • Ebben, W. P., Wurm, B., Vanderzanden, T. L., Spadavecchia, M. L., Durocher, J. J., Bickham, C. T., & Petushek, E. J. (2011). Kinetic analysis of several variations of push-ups. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(10), 2891-2894. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21873902
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement