The push-up is the most versatile exercise in your training arsenal.
You can perform it anywhere and it has potentially dozens of variations and its benefits are numerous. It has been a training staple of athletes for thousands of years for a reason.
Let’s take a look at the most practical, bang for your buck, push-up variations that you should be doing!
Push-Ups: The Most Versatile Exercise!
With all that we’ve been through in the past year with gym closures, I bet we’ve all done more push-ups than ever before.
I did lots of push-ups when I was a kid in gym class and loads of them in basic training in the military, but adding them to my workouts now has given me a rekindled interest in them, as I’ve rediscovered their benefits.
The push-up is one of the best and most adaptable exercises you could ever do. It is a foundational, functional movement targeting your chest, shoulders, and triceps and core, as well as your back and depending on the variation, also your legs.
Think of it as a dynamic plank, as it is one of the essential movements if you want to strengthen your core.
As far as strength and muscle building go, the Cooper Institute in Texas did research which showed that you support 69.16 percent of your body weight in the up position of a push-up and, respectively, 75.04 percent in the down position.
So, for someone with a bodyweight of 220 lbs, they would be lifting approximately equivalent to 165 lbs in the down position in the regular push-up.
Many of the variations below add considerably to this starting point!
What follows are what I believe based on many whom I have trained, to be the most productive push-up variations out there.
The proper form is to keep a rigid plank position with a neutral spine, setting your hands apart slightly wider than shoulder width. It is important not to flare the arms out at right angles to the body so that your body forms a T-position.
You want to keep your arms so that your elbows are at approximately a 45 degree angle, so that your body forms an arrow-like position.
The closer your elbows are to your body, the more triceps activation. Your wrists should be in line with the lower part of your chest.
Your sternum and chin should almost touch the floor, pausing momentarily and then pushing back up while keeping your body in a straight line to full extension.
If you have shoulder issues, then strive to keep your upper arm parallel to the floor. Inhale on the way down, and out on the way up.
Hand Release Push-Ups
Used more and more now for fitness testing, the hand release push-up makes it virtually impossible to cheat or do partial reps. It is done in the exact same manner as the regular push-up, only that in the downward position, one rests their chest on the floor momentarily which retracting their shoulder blades, pulling them together, as their hands are released from the floor.
Then these movements are reversed, the hands lowered back to the floor and you push yourself back up to extension.
Shoulder Tap Push-Ups
These build core strength and work on balance. With this variation, when you’ve pushed yourself to full extension, shift your weight to your right arm, posting your weight with it, and then lift your left hand off the floor at tap your right shoulder with it.
Then put your left hand back on the floor, re-stabilize your balance, and lower yourself into the next push-up, at which point you repeat the shoulder tap with the other hand. These will really test your endurance and coordination.
These might be one of my favourite ones of all. It puts more stress on the anterior delt and pec minor, almost like the incline press of push-ups.
To perform this, just put your feet on something higher than your head so that you are downwards at 33-45 degrees and perform the standard push-up.
These have been performed in India by Pehlwani wrestlers for thousands of years, and still to this day apparently. The legendary Indian wrestler the Great Gama was said to have done 3000 a day!
This variation is really a full body exercise as it works the back and legs considerably. You start off in the so-called downward dog position and then glide yourself along the floor as if you were pulling yourself under a clothesline and then ending in an upward dog position.
You return back to the starting position by pushing your hips backward and upward.
Dive Bomber Push-Ups
These are another very demanding push-up variation which is very similar to the Hindu push-up, with the exception that instead of pushing your hips backward from the down position, you completely reverse the action, pushing yourself along the exact same plane along the floor back to the starting position.
Clapping Push-Ups are said to put more emphasis on pectoral activation because of their explosive nature. This explosive movement is one I’ve included as is it of special benefit to anyone who does boxing or MMA, as it has a carry-over to punching benefits and functional explosiveness.
The speed comes from the explosive power that is generated by pushing yourself off of the floor with as much force as possible. When your nose is almost touching the floor, simply push yourself up so hard off of your palm heels that both hands come off of the floor high enough for you to quickly clap them together and return to the post position so that you can re-stabilize and lower yourself again.
I would not really recommend these unless you can do 25 reps or so in good, strict form. As a progression, you could perform the push off of the floor to get used to the timing before adding the clap.
Changing Grip Push-Ups
I initially revisited this one when I heard Joe Rogan mention it one day as his favourite.
To do a changing grip push-up, simply do one rep of wide push-ups, then reposition your hands to a medium grip, perform that rep and then finally move them into a narrow grip or diamond push-up.
And then just keep cycling back and forth through them till either failure or desired number of reps.
Another variation also called the alternating grip push-up is instead of changing between narrow, medium and wide grips, laterally, to stagger your hand position vertically, changing between them.
Alternating Medicine Ball Push-Ups
Extremely good for balance and giving your the same benefits as the changing grip push-up, the alternating medicine ball push-up had additional benefits. It will address any potential neurological balance issues or strength imbalances with dominant limbs and the compensatory issues that this causes. These will ensure that you stress and develop each arm equally.
You do a regular push-up starting in the push-up position with a medicine ball under your right hand, perform a push-up and then shifting your body, switching hands so that the right hand is now is the other side of the ball, with your left hand now on the ball where you now will complete another rep.
Just keep repeating this from hand to hand, back and forth. You can substitute a medicine ball for some sort of post or similar.
This one doesn’t get the love it deserves. Talk about a full body exercise, the blast off push-up is as explosive as it sounds. You perform these in the same starting position that you would a bear crawl, almost like a squatting position, but only parallel to the floor. Some call this a crouch hover plank-like position.
You start in a push-up position and push your hips back, bending at the knees as you would if you are squatting. Keep your core tight the whole time while you shoot yourself forward, lowering yourself into a downward push-up at the same time.
The whole motion should flow back and forth. You can even put your feet against a wall, couch or similar.
An extremely advanced and difficult push-up variation, the Archer Push-Up is one that takes some time to master, but is a real test of strength, balance and agility. I think it is also something that is very beneficial or anyone who does rock climbing.
The archer push-up involves great core stability and will also address any strength imbalances in your arms.
To do the archer push-up you start with a slightly wider hand position with your fingers pointing slightly outwards.
You lower yourself, shifting your weight towards your right hand so that your right shoulder is almost right beside your right hand, while you almost completely straighten out your left arm. The wrists move to accommodate the shift in body positioning.
The position resembles an archer pulling their bow, hence the name.
Personally, these are my all-time favourite push-up. It is almost a mix of spiderman crawl and push-up, working your core in transverse while putting more weight on one arm as the leg on that side is lifted and pulled alongside the body, parallel to the floor.
You will hit many large muscles of the body with this one: chest, triceps, shoulders, rectus abdominis, obliques, core stabilizers, hip flexors, quads. Balancing on three limbs also has obvious proprioceptive benefits.
The stabilizing that is going on in the core is purely anti-rotational, which helps with spine alignment and stability.
To perform the Spiderman push-up, simply do a regular push-up and as you lower yourself, draw one of your knees outwards and bring it up trying to bring it under your elbow.
One more thing: I didn’t include the one-armed push-up because it is a really high level movement and one can get all of the same benefits from performing archer push-ups. For those who want a great progression movement to master before getting into one-arm push-ups, the archer push-up would be my recommendation.