Regular Push-Ups Are For the Weak
The standard push-up is an effective movement, if you're weak. The structure of the movement, and the fact that your scapulas are free to move instead of being smashed against a bench, makes it a safer and mechanically correct exercise compared to the bench press.
But past the beginner stage, conventional push-ups by themselves aren't hard enough to really help you add muscle. And most people don't do proper push-ups. They cut their range of motion by stopping with the chest about two inches from the floor. This dramatically decreases chest activation.
People will also cheat by not keeping the body in a straight line. They let their hips sag down which changes the angle of the torso in relation to the weight placement. This makes the movement easier, but less effective. But one "new" push-up variation takes care of all these issues.
The Single Best Push-Up
It's called a "hand release" push-up. And though it's probably been around for a long time, it's gained popularity through CrossFit. They needed a way to standardize push-ups for competitions to keep people from cheating the movement.
How do you judge push-up depth when dozens of reps are supposed to be done in 30 seconds? The answer was simple: have each push-up start with the body (chest, abdomen, and quads) resting on the floor, and the hands completely off it. This solved the range of motion issue.
But it didn't quite solve the cheating part. You can raise the chest first, then the hips. This makes the exercise much less effective for building muscle, so you'll have to be disciplined and keep your hips up.
A proper hand release push-up will give you a much stronger pectoral contraction than a regular push-up. You'll see why in a sec, but first get up and give them a shot.
How To Do Hand Release Push-Ups
- Lie face down on the floor with your head neutral (aligned with the spine). Keep the lower half of your chest, abdomen, pelvis, and quads touching the floor. Your ankles should be flexed so that your toes (not the top of your feet) are touching the floor.
- Contract or create tension in the abs, glutes, and quads.
- While keeping everything tensed, take your hands off the floor, and pull your shoulders back. Imagine doing a barbell row.
- While keeping the upper back, abs, glutes, and quads tight, bring your hands back down to the floor and push yourself back up. If your goal is to build muscle, you should do the first quarter of the movement under control to maximize chest activation.
- Push until your arms are fully extended and locked. At the top, your body should be at a downward angle but in a straight line with the head, shoulders, hips, knees and feet aligned. To increase pec activation even more, at the top try to bring both hands inward and squeeze for two seconds.
- Slowly lower yourself back down to the starting position.
Why These Are Better at Building Muscle
- Each rep starts from a "dead" position where there's no contraction in the prime movers. This forces a much stronger initial contraction to get the body moving. During a regular push-up the stretch reflex and pre-activation of the muscles contribute to force production at the beginning. This makes the hand release push-up a superior pectoral exercise.
- They'll give you roughly 10% more range of motion than regular push-ups. This is significant for muscle building, especially when you're doing higher reps. And this extra range of motion is added at a position that maximizes pec recruitment.
- The hand release action allows you do get in a "big chest" position before pushing. In a regular push-up the chest is normally "closed" or down. This "open" chest pressing is done by not only taking your hands off the floor in the start position, but pulling your arms back as if you were doing a row.
- Try to have the lower portion your chest on the floor and the upper part elevated. When you start the push-up, maintain that high chest position and the tight shoulder/back position. This will shift the stress away from the shoulders and place it mostly on the chest and some triceps.
- When properly done, hand release push-ups primarily recruit the pecs. So it teaches you to better use your chest when doing pressing movements. Over time you'll become much better at recruiting them in other pressing exercises.
- They improve core rigidity. Your goal is to push up while keeping the whole body perfectly aligned. In a way, it's similar to a plank.
- They help with bench press mechanics. When you do them right, they train you to set your back (retract the scapula, keep the back tight, raise the chest) prior to pressing. Over time it's a habit that can be transferred to the bench press, making it more effective and safer while increasing your performance.
- They can build power if you push your body up as explosively as possible. Basically cock your arms back fast and quickly reverse the motion to strike the floor.
Think You're Too Strong?
In a push-up, hand release or regular, you have to lift 60-65% of your body weight. So if you're 180 pounds you're pressing between 110 and 120 pounds. This can be fairly light if you're remotely decent at any horizontal press. So if you can bench 265 pounds, then your push-up will be 45% of your max – not hard. Of course the hand release will make it a bit tougher, but it's still fairly light.
How To Make It More Challenging
- Use a slow tempo. Doing either the concentric, eccentric, or both phases slowly (4-5 seconds) will make the exercise harder and will improve your mind-muscle connection. You could also do slow reps until they become too hard then finish the set with regular reps.
- Bring your hands down – closer to the hips and further from the shoulders. This puts you at a mechanical disadvantage that drastically increase the difficulty of the movement. Even just one inch further down makes the exercise significantly more difficult.
- Place your hands wider. This also puts you at a mechanical disadvantage and will make the start of the movement a lot harder on the pecs.
- Elevate your feet just a few inches. Obviously this means that the quads and hips should not be on the floor. This variation makes it a lot harder for the core and shifts tension toward the front delts.
- Combine any one of the first three methods with the fourth one (elevated feet).
- Superset the hand release push-up with another lift. Try doing 6-8 reps of the dumbbell bench press followed immediately by as many hand release push-ups as possible.
- Do it at the end of your pressing or chest session when the muscles are already tired.
- Do high-density work. Only rest for a brief period between sets. Do 8-10 reps EMOM (every minute on the minute). Or try this:
- 10 reps, rest 20 seconds
- 9 reps, rest 20 seconds
- 8 reps, rest 20 seconds
- Continue dropping a rep until you're down to one 1
Simple Can Be Effective
We tend to avoid some very effective exercises because we think of them as not advanced enough. Push-ups feel like a gym class exercise, not like training. But that's a flawed way of thinking. The body doesn't know where the resistance is coming from: machine, free weights, a sandbag, your body, or the corpse in your trunk.
All it knows is which muscle needs to tense up and how hard. If you find a way to make the reps challenging, the hand release push-up can build just as much muscle as any other pec exercise, and it might even help you better recruit your chest in the future.