Push-ups are everywhere — high school gym classes, the military, gym, studios and dojos or even used as a form of punishment. With good reason: Push-ups are tough. While people at gyms spend lots of time on benches and other fancy equipment, push-ups may be an even more effective way to get you stronger, faster. And they’re far more versatile than people think. Push-up variations can strengthen your abs, back, legs — pretty much every muscle in your body, really.
Eliminate Form Mistakes
There are a few classic form failures that can indicate areas of weakness. If your lower back sags, it shows your core is weak. If your shoulder blades flare out from the body at the top, the serratus anterior (muscles along the side of your rib cage just underneath your arms) need work. Try doing high planks for your core, and mountain climbers (bringing your knees to your chest on alternating legs while in a high plank) for your serratus anterior.
Before you jump into variations of the classic push-up, be sure you get the original right. HOW TO DO IT: Keep your back flat, abs tight, butt down and shoulders rotated so that the crooks of the elbows face slightly forward. This position ensures that your core is engaged and that your shoulders are in the position that’s the least likely to cause pain. If your wrists bother you, perform the push-up on your knuckles, which keeps the wrists in a more neutral position. From the plank, bend your elbows in toward your body and lower your chest to the floor. Push the floor away from you to come back up.
Knee-to-Elbow (Spiderman) Push-Up
The following two push-ups increase the demand on your core and upper body by decreasing the number of places where your body is in contact with the ground. HOW TO DO IT: Begin at the top of the push-up position. Keep your back straight and lower the torso under control. At the bottom of the push-up, bring your knee to the outside of your elbow. Then return your leg to the starting position and extend through your elbows until you reach the top of the push-up. Alternate sides on each rep.
Knee-to-Chest (Mountain Climber) Push-Up
By bringing your knee up to your chest, your abs, shoulders and hip flexors have to work overtime to keep you off the ground. HOW TO DO IT: Begin at the top of the push-up position. Keep your back straight and lower the torso under control. Press back up with your arms, and at the top of the push-up, bring one knee up under the chest. Make sure your foot doesn’t touch the ground. Return your leg to its original position, then lower yourself back down and repeat, lifting the opposite leg. Continue alternating throughout the set.
A decline push-up puts emphasis on the fronts of the shoulders and upper portion of the chest muscle and is much more challenging than a standard push-up. HOW TO DO IT: Place your feet on an elevated surface, such as a step riser or workout bench, and your hands on the floor just slightly wider than your shoulders to press up and down.
The wider apart you place your hands, the greater the recruitment from your chest muscles. It’ll feel like doing a bench press but facing the ground. HOW TO DO IT: Start in a standard plank, but step your hands out wider than usual. Lower your chest down to the ground. Your elbows will flare out a little more than usual, but you should still try to keep them as close to your body as possible. Press back up to the top.
Are you ready for an insane test of upper body and core strength? Meet: the one-arm push-up. HOW TO DO IT: Get into position by starting in a standard plank. Center your right hand under your chest and place your left hand behind your back. Spread your feet further apart than usual for added support and stability. Bend your elbow as close to your body as you can and lower down as far as you can go. Press back up.
By Martin Rooney* in 24 Essential Push-Up Variations for Total-Body Strength