Since the inception of modern strength training, the push-up has remained one of the top bodyweight exercises for targeting muscles of the upper body.
This essential movement continues to be a staple in the exercise programs of athletes, recreational gym-goers, bodybuilders, and even those recovering from certain injuries.
While most people are familiar with the push-up, some may be unsure of exactly which muscles the exercise works.
This article details which muscles push-ups work, how to perform them, their benefits, common mistakes, and popular variations.
While often referred to as a chest exercise, the other muscles that push-ups work should not go overlooked.
In fact, the push-up is categorized as a compound bodyweight exercise, meaning that it targets several muscles of the upper body.
Here are the muscles you’ll target when performing a standard push-up.
The pectoralis major is the largest of the chest muscles. It’s thick, fan-shaped, and found just under the breast tissue. It serves as the prime mover when performing a push-up.
The muscle consists of two heads. One is the clavicular head, which originates from the medial part of the clavicle. The other is the sternocostal head, which originates from the sternum and upper ribs.
While these heads originate from separate locations, both insert on the upper part of the humerus, or upper arm bone.
During the push-up, this muscle controls the descent of your torso towards the floor and pushes the body back up to the starting position.
The pectoralis minor is a lesser-known muscle of the chest. It’s significantly smaller in size and lies under the pectoralis major.
This small triangle-shaped muscle originates from the front third through fifth ribs. It inserts onto the coracoid process, a small hook-like structure on the front part of the scapula.
When performing the push-up, the pectoralis minor keeps the scapulae, your shoulder blades, in position. This allows for the correct posture of the shoulders and upper back.
The triceps, formally known as the triceps brachii, is a large, thick muscle located on the back of your upper arm.
The prefix “tri” refers to the three heads that form this important pushing muscle. These are referred to as the medial, lateral, and long heads.
Each head has a unique origination point. The medial and lateral heads originate from the back of the humerus, your upper arm bone. The long head originates from the upper part of the scapula below your shoulder joint.
All three heads insert onto the olecranon process, which is the pointed bone on the back of your elbow joint.
During the first half of the push-up, when your chest is nearly touching the floor, the triceps helps stabilize the torso. During the second half, the triceps is the primary mover as you extend the arms.
The deltoids are the large, triangular-shaped muscles located on top of the shoulder joints.
Like the triceps, these powerful muscles are made up of three distinct heads — the anterior, lateral, and posterior heads.
While all heads are active during the push-up, the anterior head is targeted the most due to its location on the front of the shoulder joint.
This head originates from the frontal part of the clavicle bone and inserts onto the outer part of the humerus of your upper arm.
During the upward phase of the push-up, the anterior deltoids help adduct the shoulder joint, meaning they help bring the arms inward towards the chest. They also help stabilize the shoulders during the downward phase.
While push-ups largely stimulate the chest muscles, other muscle groups support the movement.
One such group is the muscles of the core — specifically, the abdominals.
The abdominals are made up of five main muscles called the rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and the pyramidalis.
Additionally, the deep core muscles of the back help keep the torso erect. Particularly, the erector spinae and multifidus assist with this.
Working in unison, these core muscles help keep your spine straight to allow for good form when performing the push-up.
While the push-up largely targets the muscles of the chest, the pectoralis major and minor, several other muscle groups contribute. Namely, these include the triceps, anterior deltoids, and the core muscles.
The push-up is a tried and true bodyweight exercise known to provide several potential benefits. Here are the top benefits of regularly performing push-ups.
Builds upper body strength
Considering that the push-up is a compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups simultaneously, it has great potential to build upper body strength.
When incorporating push-ups as a part of a well-balanced training program, they can build significant strength in the pectoralis, tricep, and anterior deltoid muscles.
In addition, research suggests that weighted push-ups can provide similar muscle activation as the bench press, another well-known upper body exercise (
Though push-ups predominantly target muscles of the upper body, performing them with good form can also strengthen muscles of the core, specifically the abdominal muscles and lower back.
May reduce the risk of cardiac events
Research suggests that being able to perform push-ups and being physically fit lowers your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
For instance, a well-known 2019 study in male firefighters found that being able to perform more push-ups was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke (
Those who could perform more than 40 push-ups had a lower risk of cardiovascular events than those who could perform fewer than 10.
This indicates that push-up ability could be used as a marker of physical fitness and that being able to perform more push-ups could indicate better heart health.
Yet, it’s important to note that this study didn’t take into account influential lifestyle factors like diet. Further, it remains unclear if the findings translate to other population groups than adult men.
May improve body composition
Anyone who has done more than just a few push-ups knows they can get your heart pumping.
Adding strength exercises like push-ups to an aerobic exercise program can increase energy metabolism, resulting in more calories burned. This could lead to benefits like increased fat loss (
Thus, adding push-ups to a well-balanced workout regimen alongside a suitable diet can lead to long-term improvements in body composition.
Regularly performing push-ups comes with several potential benefits, including building upper body strength, reducing the risk of cardiac events, and improving body composition.
While the push-up requires no equipment and is fairly easy to perform, there are some subtle cues to keep in mind when performing them.
By following the steps below, you’ll be well on your way to performing the perfect push-up.
- Start in a high plank position with your arms extended and palms positioned on the floor at shoulder width. Plant your toes on the floor in line with your legs.
- Engage your core muscles, glutes, and legs to align your spine.
- Maintaining a straight back and keeping your gaze just a few feet in front of you, bend your elbows to descend in a gradual, controlled motion, just until your chest grazes the floor. Keep your elbows tucked close to your sides throughout the movement.
- While exhaling, push your palms towards the floor to return yourself to the starting position. Focus on contracting the chest and tricep muscles while keeping your core tight.
- Repeat for the desired amount of reps and sets.
You may want to experiment with different reps ranges. The table below outlines the ideal number of push-up sets and reps based on your level of experience:
Start in a high plank position with your palms on the floor at shoulder width. Keeping a tight core, bend your elbows, descending until your chest grazes the floor. Push yourself back up while exhaling, maintaining a straight back.
While the standard push-up is most common, there are many variations you can utilize to make the movement easier, harder, or slightly targeted towards different muscles.
Here are some of the top variations for you to try.
1. Knee push-ups
This variation is excellent for beginners who are still developing the upper body strength required to do a regular push-up.
Doing push-ups on your knees reduces the resistance, making the movement easier to perform.
To perform a knee push-up, start in a modified high plank position. Instead of planting your toes on the floor, hold yourself up on your knees.
From there, perform the movement just like a standard push-up. Ensure your back remains straight and keep your elbows slightly tucked on the upward portion.
2. Wall push-ups
The wall push-up is another variation that decreases the intensity. This makes it a great option for those just starting out.
Performing a push-up vertically against a wall instead of the floor decreases the resistance of the movement, making it less difficult. The closer you stand to the wall, the easier the movement.
Your feet should remain flat on the floor while you position your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width. Descend towards the wall until your head touches slightly, then push off the wall to return to the starting position.
3. Incline push-up
The incline push-up is a variation where your hands are slightly elevated on a weight bench, step-up platform, park bench, or similar.
This reduces the resistance slightly, making the exercise easier.
Complete the movement just as you would with a standard push-up.
4. Decline-push up
Contrary to the incline push-up, the decline variation includes elevated feet instead of hands.
This creates more tension for the muscles of the chest, making the movement slightly harder.
In addition, this variation targets the upper pecs, known as the pectoralis, more than a standard push-up.
5. Weighted push-up
Another way to increase the difficulty is to add resistance.
You can do so by wearing a weighted vest or having a partner place a weight plate on your back.
From there, perform a standard push-up, paying close attention to maintaining proper form.
6. One-arm push-up
The one-arm push-up represents the pinnacle of difficulty when it comes to this exercise.
This variation requires you to perform a push-up by raising and lowering your body with just one arm.
You’ll set up just like a traditional push-up. Then, just before you descend, lift one arm behind your back and perform the movement with one arm.
Only the most advanced should try this option as it puts great stress on the working arm. It can result in injury if not performed correctly.
These six push-up variations range in level of difficulty, giving you room to grow as your upper body strength progresses.
While the push-up is a simple movement, there are a few common errors to keep in mind.
Don’t let your back sag
One of the most common mistakes associated with push-ups is letting your back sag.
By doing so, you lose out on energy that should be going towards the target muscles. It may also cause stress on certain joints and/or your lower back.
To fix this, engage your core and leg muscles, ensuring that your body is rigid from head to toe, from start to finish.
Don’t flare your arms
Another common mistake is flaring out your arms to create a T shape with your arms and torso.
This makes you lose valuable power that should instead be transferred to the working muscles. It may also strain your shoulder joints.
To fix this, focus on tucking your elbows towards your torso and rotating your palms a little outward.
If you’re still struggling to maintain a proper form throughout the movement, choose an easier push-up variation to practice and build strength before progressing to harder alternatives.
Going too fast
A third common mistake when performing push-ups is descending and/or ascending too fast.
This can cause you to lose tightness in your working muscles, often resulting in form breakdown and movement inefficiency.
To correct this, focus on taking at 3–4 seconds to perform each push-up. You may even go slower than this if preferred.
As your technique improves, you may be able to go slightly faster while still maintaining proper form.
Some common errors to be aware of when performing push-ups include letting your back sag, flaring out your arms, or going too fast.
The push-up is a staple upper body movement in the training programs of athletes, recreational gym-goers, bodybuilders, and those recovering from certain injuries.
While it’s often thought of as a chest exercise, it also works the pectoralis major and minor, triceps, anterior deltoids, and core muscles.
Notable benefits of performing push-ups include building upper body strength, reducing the risk of cardiac events, and improving body composition.
There are numerous variations of the standard push-up that allow you to increase or decrease the difficulty depending on your level of experience and strength.
Common mistakes to be aware of include letting your back sag, flaring out your arms, or going too fast.
If you’re looking for a tried and true exercise to build upper body strength, you may consider adding push-ups to your workout regimen.