Everything you need to know about pushups

The pushup is one of the most common exercise you'll ever see. Everyone will do a pushup once in their life, and most likely more than once in their workouts. It's amazingly simple, just lower yourself to the ground and push up, but it's also amazingly effective as a compound exercise. In this post I'll talk about the proper technique to use, the muscles that this exercise targets, and how to target certain muscles over others.



One of the most important parts of a pushup is making sure your wrists and arms are oriented correctly. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning research found that the test subjects supported 69.16% of their body's mass in the 'up' position of the pushup, and 75.04% in the 'down' position.

With that in mind, keep your wrists and hands pointed forward for the 'standard' pushup position, rather than letting them bow in or out. The movement of your elbows is key, as well. They should either be tucked by your sides for the duration of the exercise (which increases the emphasis of the exercise on the triceps) or they should point out at a maximum of 45 degrees. If you let your elbows splay out, not only will it massively drop how much you get out of the exercise, but you put yourself in grave risk of rotator cuff injury.

A key feature of the technique that doesn't come in avoiding injury, but instead works to get the best out of your workout, is to lock your knees, clench your glutes and tighten your abs to make your body form a straight line. As a calisthenics exercise, pushups are really good for your core, but only if you actually engage your core in the first place. Additionally, having a bent body rather than a straight one decreases the range of motion your joints undergo, meaning you won't work out your muscles properly.


The muscles

The pushup targets a variety of muscles, but we'll deal with the three that are used the most in this exercise; the triceps, deltoids (shoulders) and pecs.


The triceps

The use of this muscle group comes from the straightening of the arms as you push off of the ground. It should be warned that often people say that the triceps are the most likely to start cramping first, so if you have experienced this before, take care to not tense the triceps too much on the 'up' part of the exercise.

To target the triceps to a larger degree in this exercise, try 'diamond' pushups, where you place your hands together under the centre of your chest for the pushup. Not only does this increase the load on the triceps (which is a good thing), it also increases the range of motion for the pectoral muscles.


The deltoids (shoulder)

Technically the shoulder muscles can be divided into three groups; the anterior deltoid (front), the lateral deltoid (side) and the posterior deltoid (backside). These groups each have their own function, but it's the anterior deltoid that is targeted in the pushup, when your elbows go from bent to straight.

To increase targeting of the deltoids, you should try to push your hands up and away from you during the 'up' section (don't slip though!), to increase the muscle tension. For variants of the pushup that target the shoulders more, try the 'pike' pushup, a variant where you do the pushup in a sort of handstand position, with your legs rested on an elevated surface. Not only does this target your anterior delts far better, it also hits the lateral deltoids which are notoriously hard to target in calisthenics[5].


The pectorals (chest)

The pectorals (or 'pecs') are targeted when your elbows go from bent to tucked in during the 'up' portion of the exercise. Often beginners will find that pushups workout their chest more than anything else, as beginners tend to have underdeveloped pecs.

To target the chest more in this exercise, I would advise trying to pull your hands together from under your shoulders to beneath your sternum, during both the 'up' and 'down' portions of the exercise. This increases the tension in the pecs. You can also try wide pushups, where you have your hands placed quite widely apart, which increases the load on the chest, but I would not personally recommend these, as they decrease the range of motion for the pecs, and are quite unwieldy as an exercise.


Bonus muscle: The Serratus Anterior

Not many know about this muscle, perhaps because it's too hard to spell. Commonly called the 'boxers muscle', the serratus anterior is responsible for 'protracting the scapula' (the scientific term for bringing the shoulder blade forward). In a pushup, the shoulder blade is brought forward across the ribs during the final moments of the 'up' portion. To help target this muscle; once you are fully in the 'up' position, round your shoulders. This may seem like bad postural advice, but it will fully engage your serratus anterior, which is a key core muscle.



I hope you found what was shared here useful. The pushup is an extremely effective exercise with a huge opportunity for variation to fit your needs. The only thing that should remain the same throughout all variations is that your core should be engaged and your wrists should feel comfortable (or at least not painful).

Happy pushups, everyone!


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