A push-up is not just a push-up. You can do them a myriad of ways, but most people only do them one way. Sure, some variations are better than others, and some might even be more harmful than helpful depending on your experience level, injury history, and obviously, your goal.
Whether you want to improve your shoulder health, improve your bench, develop core strength, or increase your explosive power, these five variations will help you reach your goal.
Most athletes need upper body explosive power. In the quest for improved performance, many athletes unfortunately end up injured because they choose high-risk methods and exercises.
While exercises like plyometric push-ups (clapping push-ups, box push-ups, etc.) can be great, they can also be harmful. With a background of shoulder injury, doing plyometric push-ups will cause a lot of stress in the landing and deceleration phase. Many add to this stress by dropping from way-too-high boxes, increasing the stress even more.
If you're one of those athletes who has to be smarter about your exercise selection, but you still want to increase your explosive power, go for banded push-ups.
To increase explosiveness, you need to do exercises with the intent of being as powerful as possible through the WHOLE range of motion. Ballistic training methods like med-ball throws are perfect for this, but in the world of push-ups, the resistance band does the trick.
There are basically two ways to do this exercise. Either with a pause in the bottom position or repeatedly, without pause. The former will train explosive starting strength, the latter will improve reactive power.
Usually, all regular bilateral strength exercises are performed symmetrically. In most sports, symmetrical actions and positions seldom happen, especially in contact sports. So you set yourself up for weakness if you only train symmetrical exercises in the gym.
There's no need to go all "sport specific" and perform all kinds of circus acts, but SOME exercises should aim to prepare your body for non-symmetrical impact. For the upper body you can do this with staggered push-ups.
Just get into your regular push-up-position, but with one hand placed higher than usual (toward the head) and the other hand placed lower than usual (towards the hip).
Staggered push-ups are a great exercise for improved shoulder stability, athletic preparation and performance. Give it a try!
Even though most push-up variations are based on the regular up and down movement, there's no need to be limited by this plane. You can and should use push-up variations to develop strength and stability in other planes.
The shoulder press push-up is a hybrid of the vertical (think: shoulder press) and horizontal (think: bench press) movement. Beside strengthening this movement pattern, you'll also develop good scapular control and make your shoulders healthier.
This variation will especially be valuable if you have weak or "inactive" serratus anterior muscles. It's a killer exercise for the serratus muscle! Go high rep with this and you'll feel them in the days to come. Over time this stimuli will improve the upward rotation capacity in your shoulders, which is a win for your shoulder health and your performance.
To do it, start in a wide-foot position with the hips held high. Lower yourself as far forward as possible. When the forehead almost touches the ground, press yourself back to start position while you keep the head close to the ground.
Most push-up variations equally load the right and left shoulder and arm. In real life and sports, one side is usually loaded more than the other, and your ability to handle asymmetrical load is important for optimal performance.
The one-arm push-up is a good tool, but it can also be a bit too much for some athletes. You want to train the capacity to handle more load on one side at a time, but you also want to minimize the injury risk.
Most people will be able to perform the one-arm push-up with training, but I prefer the hoover push-up since it's easier for beginners.
To do it, start in a regular push-up-position with a fairly wide hand placement. Lower as usual, and when in bottom position move your body to the left, over the left arm. Pause for a second, then move to the right side before you get back to center and press up to start position.
The hoover push-up looks pretty easy, but it's harder than you think. You have to keep the body tight in a plank position and stabilize the upper body more than usual. You'll feel it!
Most push-ups are done with the hands flat on the ground. This is fine for most people, but if you have issues at the wrists, elbows and/or shoulders you might need to keep the wrists in a more neutral position. A simple way to work around such issues is to do push-ups with a barbell.
The elevated rack push-up is a great exercise, not only to work around those issues, but also to target the core/abs to a higher degree. And don't be surprised if it helps your bench press performance.
To do it, place a barbell in a rack with a step or similar in front. Place your feet on the step and use your regular bench press grip. Move one foot off of the step, then do regular push-ups.
Elevating one foot makes the body want to rotate and this will increase the demand on your core stabilizers. Your job is to keep the body tight and not allow any rotation.
This can also be of great value if you struggle with regular bench press technique. It's pretty much a reverse bench press. You can solidify many important positions, especially upper back and shoulder position, contact point, press-point, and the ability to activate the whole body – an often overlooked aspect during pressing and most exercises in general.