Compared to the bench press, the push-up is often seen as a less effective alternative. After all, bench pressing is hardcore and push-ups are only for prisoners or people without gym access right?
People have this strange misconception that the heaviest exercises get you the most jacked but, physiologically, load is fairly irrelevant when it comes to building muscle.
External load isn't what drives muscle growth, but rather internal force production, otherwise known as mechanical tension. Load or any form of resistance – whether it's band, cables, or your own bodyweight – are merely tools to apply mechanical tension.
Don't believe me? Check out this new study.
Kotarsky et al took 23 intermediate male lifters and divided them up into a bench press group and a push-up group. (1) Both groups did three workouts a week for a month. Each workout had three working sets of about 6-8 reps, so 9 weekly sets total of horizontal pushing for both groups.
Both groups also had an objective progression model. That just means that once a performance was reached, progression was auto-regulated based on the study design.
For the bench press group, they simply added load like you would at the gym. Prove you got stronger by hitting the maximum rep range and slap on some more plates.
For the push-up group, they progressed in push-up variation. The study design had nine variations starting with the wall push-ups your sister did in elementary school all the way to one-arm push-ups.
These progression models are crucial because without them subjects are just training willy nilly instead of actually building strength and creating adaptations. Ironically, plenty of researchers don't implement them and pretty much end up wasting everyone's time.
After four weeks, the study measured chest muscle thickness, explosive medball throw performance, and bench 1RM. Both groups also did a push-up progression test.
From a statistical standpoint, both groups made similar progress on all measures except the push-up progression test where the push-up group did significantly better. Not too surprising there.
While the bench press group had a slightly bigger "effect size" for bench press 1RM, I was surprised that the push-up group did so well considering the law of specificity. The push-up group didn't bench for a whole month and basically got just as strong at benching. Goes to show how versatile the push-up is.
As far as muscle size goes, push-ups were just as hypertrophic as benching. But let's look closer at the data.
When looking at the average raw effect sizes, the push-up group built over three times as much muscle as the bench press group did (4% vs. 1.2%). Considering this was just a four-week study in already intermediate lifters, total muscle growth is expectedly slow indicating that the results were simply underpowered.
Had the study continued longer with more participants, the gap would've got closer, but the push-up group likely would've made statistically better gains.
But enough about statistics. The big takeaway is push-up variations (even ones without weight) are, at worst equivalent to the bench press and, at best, superior.
Remember, load/weight isn't the end-all, be-all in exercise selection. The push-up uses less absolute load, but muscle activation is equivalent to the bench press (2).
After all, the push-up is a closed-chain version with more range of motion while allowing for the shoulder blades to move freely, all of which make an exercise enticingly favorable (3). Also, the push-up is less fatiguing, so in practice it allows you to do more volume.
Oh, and it's definitely worth mentioning that push-ups are much less injurious. I mean, how many people do you know that hurt themselves doing push-ups compared to barbell benching?
Remember, for push-ups to be effective, they have to be challenging, but that's not an issue for most people.
Even the most hardcore of bros can't do 4 sets of 30 strict push-ups with a consistently controlled eccentric/negative. Start there, especially if you're a push-up skeptic.
However, if you're truly a beast, you can do one or more of the following to up your push-up game.
- Increase range of motion: Elevate your feet or hands on blocks.
- Make them unilateral: Do archer push-ups (see video below) or one-arm push-ups.
- Add load: A bumper plate or some chains on your back will go a long way.
- Add gymnastic rings or a TRX: The instability will make push-ups more challenging.
- Kotarsky CJ et al. Effect of Progressive Calisthenic Push-up Training on Muscle Strength and Thickness. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Mar;32(3):651-659. PubMed.
- Calatayud J et al. Bench Press and Push-Up at Comparable Levels of Muscle Activity Results in Similar Strength Gains. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jan;29(1):246-53. PubMed.
- Pozzi F et al. Electromyography Activation of Shoulder and Trunk Muscles Is Greater during Closed Chain Compared to Open Chain Exercises. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2022 Feb;62:102306. PubMed.