Few bodyweight exercises are as effective as push-ups. It strengthens and builds up your chest, core, shoulders, and triceps. The push-up is also accessible for lifters of all skill levels. You don’t need any equipment to do it, and you can easily scale it to be easier or harder. Not to mention there are a seemingly endless amount of push-up variations that folks can use to target specific muscles and improve specific modalities (strength, power, hypertrophy).
This article will take you through eight of those variations and teach you how and why to do them. You’ll learn how to integrate these push-up variations into your existing training program and get a few of your burning push-up FAQs answered.
- Plyometric Push-Up
- Close-Grip Push-Up
- Spider Push-Up
- Stagger Grip Push-Up
- Traditional Push-Up
- Deficit Push-Up
- Incline/Decline Push-Up
- 1 ½ Rep Push-Up
Push-Up Variations Video Guide
You can (and should) check out BarBend’s video, which covers all eight variations mentioned below, led by former training editor Jake Boly.
Why do it: There are just about as many ways to tackle plyometric push-ups as there are to tackle regular-old push-ups. Plyo push-ups are any push-ups of the explosive variety — the kind that have you landing and lowering with control but exploding upward into a clap or hop. Plyometric push-ups are an excellent tool for building upper body power, whether you aim to complete the clapping or explosively press your body away from the ground.
How to do it: While you can get extra creative with plyometric push-ups, perhaps the most classic style is the clapping push-up. To perform this variation, prepare yourself by making sure your wrists are warmed up, then assume a regular push-up position. Lower yourself down with slow control, keeping your core braced to keep your body rigid. Then, explode upward powerfully enough to have your hands leave the ground and — if you can — add a clap. Land back down as gently as you can and repeat.
Why do it: The close-grip push-up is fantastic for building strength in the triceps. As with the close-grip bench press, you’ll still be strengthening the pecs and anterior deltoids, of course — but when you’re looking to target your triceps more specifically, this push-up variation is a solid go-to.
How to do it: Start with your hands just underneath the shoulders — depending on your lever length, you may have to experiment just a bit to see what precise position is optimal for you. (If you’re more familiar with performing close-grip bench presses, this grip width is often pretty similar.) Perform the push-up with slow control while keeping your core and glutes tight to maintain rigidity throughout the body. Keep your elbows tucked alongside your ribcage without flaring them either in or out.
Why do it: The spider push-up is a slightly more advanced exercise, as it requires both upper body strength and core strength to connect multiple movements into one fluid move. You’ll need full-body coordination, and you’ll be increasing your time under tension at the peak of your push-up contraction, which will challenge your strength in all the best ways.
How to do it: Assume a regular push-up position. As you lower your chest toward the ground, bend your right knee and draw it toward your right forearm, holding briefly while your chest hovers near the ground. Bring your foot back to starting position as you push yourself back up. Keep your core tight, and try to avoid dramatically shifting your hips to one side or the other. Repeat with the left leg.
Stagger Grip Push-Up
Why do it: The stagger grip push-up is often neglected, but it’s a great variation for changing things up and strengthening some of the smaller muscles that surround the body parts needed to execute great push-ups. Technically, it’s a bilateral move — since both sides of your body are lowering, then pushing, at the same time — but it simulates unilateral movement since your hands are (intentionally) placed unevenly.
How to do it: Don’t feel the need to start these with a huge separation in your hand placements. Shift your right hand an inch or so below where you would normally position it and perform a set of push-ups. Repeat with your left hand shifted to the same degree and even it out. If that feels manageable, gradually make the gap bigger and bigger.
Why do it: Don’t sleep on the basics when trying to build upper body strength. There’s a reason the traditional push-up is a bodyweight staple across the fitness industry — it improves pressing strength and adds size to the muscles involved. And because it’s equipment-free, it’s easy to perform and build strength anywhere.
How to do it: Start with a grip width that is similar to what you use in the barbell bench press, keeping your fingers pointing ahead. As you descend, keep your core and glutes tight, and keep your elbows roughly between 45 and 60 degrees to the rest of your body. Imagine the path that your elbows travel back behind you during a bench press, and try to simulate that. Hold for a moment at the bottom, press up, and repeat.
Why do it: The deficit push-up is a great variation for improving upper body hypertrophy. By slightly increasing your range of motion, you’re creating a more significant stretch on the muscle, resulting in greater adaptation when it comes to improving hypertrophy.
How to do it: The basic mechanics of deficit push-ups are the same as regular push-ups — but you’re going to keep your hands on two stable, raised surfaces instead of the ground. You can use thick bumper plates, plyo boxes, or dumbbells, starting with a smaller deficit (smaller height) and gradually increasing the range of motion as your body adjusts to the movement.
Why do it: Just like you target various areas of the pecs with different bench press angles, incline and decline push-ups do the same. These are also fantastic for hypertrophy because they’re relatively low stress, easy to scale, and can be performed for very high reps.
How to do it: Once again, you’ll perform these push-up variations the same way you would other push-ups — but you’ll have to pay very particular attention to form. With incline push-ups, brace both hands on a bench, a stable bar (perhaps in a Smith machine), bumper plates, or a step platform. With decline push-ups, your feet will be raised, and your hands will be on the floor. Especially with decline push-ups, be mindful not to let your hips droop on the way down. Push back into the heels and squeeze the core to help keep your body rigid.
1 ½ Rep Push-Ups
Why do it: The 1 ½ rep push-up is an absolutely brilliant variation for stimulating hypertrophy. This movement requires little adjustment to your normal push-up form and adds a half rep, which increases time under tension, isolates particular ranges of motion, and builds muscle.
How to do it: This is a regular push-up but with an extra half a rep at either the bottom or top of the movement. If you’re trying to improve strength at the bottom of your press, add a half rep at the bottom. If you’re trying to improve lockout strength, add the half rep at the top. To do it, you’ll lower yourself, perform half a rep at either the top or bottom of the movement and then complete a full rep.
How to Warm-Up for Training With Push-Up Variations
If you’re diving into a session focused on push-up variations, you’ll want to make sure — as always — that you’ve run through a battery of upper body warm-up moves. It’s not just about swinging your arms around and flexing your chest a bit. You need to really get deep into your warm-up to prepare your shoulders to handle the potential stressors of intense push-up sets, and you’ve also got to get your lats and serratus anterior ready to take a beating while helping you stabilize. Especially if you’re planning to perform many plyometric push-ups, place an extra special emphasis on warming up your wrists.
When you’re integrating push-ups into a more barbell-focused lifting session, you’ll warm up the same way as you normally would — again, with dynamic warm-up moves catered to the specific needs of your lifting plan that day.
[Related: Nail the Pull-Up for Back Muscle, Strength, and Full-Body Control]
Integrating Push-Up Variations Into Your Program
It’s great if you currently have some push-up variations peppered into part of your warm-up, as a finisher, or interspersed into your already-scheduled lifting program. As long as you’re working within your capacity and not negatively impacting your recovery with the volume or intensity of your push-up work, you can continue business as usual.
Programming Push-Up Variations For Power
Plyometric push-ups are a spectacular addition to most training programs, but you need to add them into your routine with intention. Doing a set of plyometric push-ups as a precursor to a heavy bench press session might actually be detrimental toward your day’s goals of moving a lot of weight — but if you’re working a volume-focused upper body day, plyo push-ups can be a great addition.
In terms of recovery, remember that anything explosive is going to tax your central nervous system. So, be mindful of the potential recovery requirements of doing many explosive push-ups the day before a heavy session (like deadlifting, for example).
For reps and sets, you’ll want to keep your rep count low since explosive push-ups can be so stressful on your body — and always plan to stop at least two or three reps before failure to avoid any *ahem* crash landings.
Programming Push-Up Variations For Strength
Since these push-up variations are less about explosivity, it’s a little easier to slide them into your training program. For example, be mindful of accidental pre-fatiguing (you only want to do that when it’s intentional and planned) by programming close-grip push-ups just before close-grip benching. On the other hand, you might want to program close-grip push-ups right after close-grip benching to give yourself a challenging finisher and to really feel that “pump” — make sure you keep your form crisp be aware that you’ll be able to crank out fewer reps when you’re already tired from lifting heavy.
Especially if you’re programming your push-ups more as finishers, incorporate two or three sets to near failure. If you’re interspersing your sets with other lifts, keep a few reps shy of failure with each set so as not to deplete your energy for your weighted lifts.
Programming Push-Up Variations For Hypertrophy
When you’re focusing your push-ups on hypertrophy, you’re going to be spending extra time under tension with enhanced ranges of motion and/or varying angles. This means that you’ll likely get more fatigued from these push-up variations than you will from the same number of reps just for strength. So, you’ll likely approach failure a lot sooner — and you might have to shift these to their own days or at least separate them further, time and recovery-wise, from your heavy barbell or dumbbell lifts.
Again, feel free to approach failure if you’re ending a session with these push-up variations, but stay three or four reps away from failure if they’re more tightly woven into your weighted training.
Is the push-up a beginner friendly exercise?
Yep! The push-up is a great upper body bodyweight training tool for beginners. It can be an awesome tool for progressing beginners into traditional barbell bench pressing. You can check out BarBend‘s beginner push-up program, too, to build up your rep count.
How should I program push-ups?
That depends on your main training goals. If your goal is to use them to accumulate extra training volume, then add them in at the end of your workout and perform high-rep or AMRAP (as many reps as possible) sets.
For those who are newer to training and using the push-up to build strength, then add them at the beginning of your workout and perform sets and reps within your strength levels and means.
What are the benefits of the push-up?
The push-up has a ton of benefits and these include:
- Great for beginners just starting to train.
- No equipment needed.
- Easy to scale for a variety of training needs and goals.
- Good for building strength, increasing power, and improving upper body hypertrophy.
What are some common mistakes with the push-up?
Like every exercise, the push-up has some common pitfalls that newbies and seasoned athletes alike fall prey to. A few of these common push-up mistakes (and how to fix them!) follow:
- Hips sagging when performing the movement.
- Fix it: squeeze your glutes and your quads throughout the movement to lock your low back and hips into place.
- Letting the hands come off the ground and not gripping the floor.
- Fix it: drive each of your fingertips into the ground, like you’re trying to open jars (but your fingers aren’t actually moving/are still pointing straight ahead).
- Not maintaining a hollow body posture.
- Fix it: press your heels back toward the wall behind you throughout the movement.
- Elbows flaring too far out to the sides (“chicken-winging”).
- Fix it: focus on keeping your elbows close to your sides, driving them toward your back pockets so that they form a 45-60 degree angle with your ribcage.
More Push-Up Training Tips
Now that you’re familiar with all these push-up variations for strength, power, and hypertrophy, dive into these training articles on using push-ups to maximize your upper body gains.
Featured image: Oleksandr Zamuruiev/Shutterstock