by Joe Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS
Adjunct Professor of Exercise Science
Since the time glossy covered fitness mags first appeared on the shelves of newsstands, Mondays, which usually mark the first day of the training week, became “international chest training day”.
This doctrine was plausibly triggered by countless fitness enthusiasts leafing through the pages of those magazines and salivated over the pec development of Arnold or Lee Haney and perhaps by scores of former high school and collegiate athletes desiring to reprise their glory years, christening their workout with the bench press.
The bench press is indisputably a premier pec builder. We’re not debating that. But the bench press pales in comparison to the versatility possessed by its bodyweight kissing cousin — the push-up.
For those arriving to the gym a minute past the Black Friday-esque surge of the lunch or early evening rushes, in which gym-goers flock to benches to lay claim with a mishmash of iPhones, ear buds, key fobs, and towering water bottles atop its upholstery of flat benches, push-ups might serve as an ideal stopgap substitution.
As we’ll see, push-ups spare the shoulders, strengthen the core, can help one sustain efforts in gaining size and strength, ideal for circuits and super- and giant sets, and when performed with an external load, can add a bevy of strength.
Push-ups permit greater shoulder mobility, allowing for the shoulder blades or scapulae, to move more freely, since they’re not pinned against firm padding of a bench. The scapulae, or scapulothoracic joint, is one of four joints comprising the shoulder girdle and is governed by the (17) muscles anchoring to each shoulder blade to permit an array of movement — protraction and retraction, upward and downward rotation, elevation and depression, and tilting — as they “ride up” the posterior rib-cage and long the length of the thoracic spine.
Push-ups also require increased core stability as the lumbar spine must be locked in neutral through the coactivation enveloping core musculature. Also, the hips must remain extended throughout the set, meaning the posterior chain muscles, particularly the gluteus maximus, are activated and continually engaged.
Researchers at Nippon Sport Science University in Japan, discovered that push-ups performed over an eight week period mimic the hypertrophic and strength improvements of the bench press performed with 40% of 1RM (3).
At the University of Valencia in Spain, researchers asserted that banded push-ups performed as a 6RM set elicited comparable EMG activity within the pectoralis and deltoid muscles to a 6RM bench press (2). And over a five week period with experienced college aged test subjects, the separate protocols were both found to be effective in improving their 6RM bench press performance and 1RM.
Alternatively, one can add loads with a weighted vest or by gently stacking plates on the back. It is highly recommended that one place plates with smaller diameters on the back and ideally below the shoulder blades to permit optimal scapular tracking, characterized by retraction and depression during the eccentric and upward rotation, protraction, and posteriorly tilting during the concentric.
A year earlier, the same team of researchers at the University of Valencia, found that push-ups performed on a variety of suspension trainers require a far greater degree of core stability than your standard, floor based fare (3). The same researchers demonstrated greater EMG activity of the rectus abdominus and erector spinae, essentially consolidating three exercises — the push-up, the plank, and an isometric back extension — into one. Increased EMG activity was also noted in the triceps and trapezius muscles which were respectively called upon to stabilize the elbow in the sagittal plane and influence the tracking of the scapulae during the eccentric and concentric portions of the movement.
And in a crowded gym, in which finding an empty bench is akin to winning the Powerball, the opportunity of supersetting or performing giant sets involving different pieces of equipment and accessories becomes more diminished.
In that scenario, it is most prudent to alternate push-ups with other movements, particularly horizontal rowing exercises, if performing a push-pull session, or a squat or deadlifting variation, if performing a total body session. They are also ideal to sprinkle atop a challenging a metabolic conditioning circuit involving Olympic lift variants, strongman training exercises, or kettlebell movements.
In conclusion, embrace the versatility of push-ups and be overcome by disappointment if you’re in the midst of a crowded gym and defaulted into doing them.
Calatayud, J., Borreani, S., Colado, J.C., Martin, F.F., Rogers, M.E., Behm, D.G., & Andersen, L.L. (2014). Muscle activation during push-ups with different suspension systems. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 13 (3), 502-510.
Calatayud, J., Borreani, S., Colado, J.C., Martin, F., Tella, V., & Andersen, L.L. (2015). Bench press and push-up at comparable levels of muscle activity results in similar strength gains. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29 (1), 246-253.Kikuchi, N. & Nazakato, K. (2017). Low-load bench press and push-up induce similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gain. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, 15 (1), 37-42