Updated: Feb 21, 2022
The push up is one of the most popular exercises all over the world. It's the easiest way to target the muscles of the upper body with just your bodyweight. If you asked any random person, there's a pretty good chance that they'd know what a push up is.
But what's less well know is the science behind the push up, and how much weight you're lifting during the exercise.
Well, we're here to break that down in this post, looking at how to perform the push up, some of the science behind the exercise, the weight that you're lifting in its positions, and how you can incorporate it into your training.
How to Perform the Push Up
First of all, we need to clarify how exactly the push up is performed. It's a great upper body exercise that you can do with zero equipment, at home, in a park, or wherever you please. A push up primarily works the muscles of the chest, with assistance from the shoulders and triceps. But you can modify it to be easier, harder, or shift the emphasis onto different muscle groups as well.
To do the push up:
Start on the ground in a high plank position, hands just outside of shoulder width.
Lower yourself down with control, until your chest reaches just above the ground.
Tuck your elbows in at a 45 degree angle to work the chest more, or tuck them in completely to your sides to emphasize the triceps.
Keep your abs tight, and body in a straight line.
Avoid sagging of the hips, or rounding of the back.
Press yourself up by driving your hands into the ground, keeping your body straight and elbows tucked in at your appropriate angle.
Fully lock out your elbows at the top of the movement and squeeze the chest muscles hard.
Don't worry if you can't do a push up just yet, they are a pretty tough exercise! If you can't do one yet, start on your knees, or elevate your hands slightly to reduce the load on on your upper body. You'll reach your first push up soon.
Check out the video below by CrossFit® to see a great demonstration of this exercise!
How Much Weight Are You Pressing?
While the push up is a great strength and muscle building exercise, most people do not actually know how much weight they are lifting in relation to their bodyweight. And while this won't have any direct impact on your training, it can never hurt to know more.
According to this study conducted by David N Suprak, you are pressing around 75.04% of your bodyweight in the downward position (chest just above the floor), and 69.16% of your bodyweight on the upward phase. This means that for the average man who weighs 89.6kg or 197.6lb, you'd be pressing somewhere around 61.96kg (136.66lb) to 67.24kg (148.28lb) throughout the full range of motion of a push up.
As for the average woman who weighs 77.38kg or 170.6lb, you'd be pressing anywhere between 53.52kg (118lb) and 58.07kg (128.02lb) throughout the range of motion.
However, you can drop this down to 53.56% - 61.8% on the upward phase and downward position respectively by doing push ups on your knees. This makes the knee push up an easier alternative to the regular push up that might be appropriate for beginners, or those who are not yet confident with their own bodyweight.
Additionally, this study conducted by William Ebben found that: elevating your feet by approximately 30cm increases the percentage of your bodyweight lifted up to 70%, and elevating on a 60cm box increased that number further up to 74% of your bodyweight.
The study also found that there are other ways you can make the push up slightly easier, such as by elevating your hands on 30cm higher, which reduced the weight lifted to 55% of bodyweight. And for the absolute beginners out there, you can reduce the weight lifted down to approximately 41% of your bodyweight by elevating the hands on a 60cm box.
So play around with your push ups! Find a way to make them more or less challenging, and work your way upwards from there.
And if you can do something like a handstand or planche push up, you're lifting well over 90% of your bodyweight, which is pretty impressive!
Incorporating the Push Up Into Your Training
When it comes to incorporating push ups into your training program(s), you need to think about several different factors. These include things like the muscles that push ups hit, the number of reps you can do, your equipment available, and so on.
You have to be careful as the push up is a bodyweight exercise, meaning it can't really be progressively overloaded forever. There will come a point where you cannot do anything to make your sets harder but add more reps.
And once you get to a point where you can do 30+ reps in a set without too much of a struggle, the push up becomes more of an endurance exercise than it is a strength and muscle building one.
So you have to factor that in when you come to incorporate the push up into your training.
You also need to think about the muscles that you're hitting when doing a push up, as you don't want to be doing too much or too little volume for any of your body parts.
The push up works the chest (primarily), shoulders and triceps. This means that if you work out on a regular strength training split such as Push, Pull, Legs, you'd want to perform the push up on your 'push' day.
If you do a full body split (ideal for beginners), you'll want to pick a day or two each week to perform them on for the chest.
We can't give you a set rep range for you to do push ups in, as it would be completely different from person to person.
If we prescribed 3 sets of 10 reps to a person who could do 40 reps in a set, they would not receive much of a challenge at all. Likewise, if we prescribed 3 sets of 10 reps to a person who can only perform 6 push ups in a set, they would not be able to even do the set rep range.
All we can say is, take your sets within 1-2 reps of failure. That way, you ensure that you're providing your muscles with enough of a challenge. regardless of your fitness level. But you may still want to look to incorporate some variations to suit yourself.
The push up can be used very effectively as an accessory movement to the bench press, or even a primary movement if you're training at home, which we know some of you reading this will be.
It's a good idea that you learn to get comfortable doing push ups, as you never know when you'll be stuck doing them. We saw this in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you're more advanced, we recommend picking tougher variations (where you generally perform less reps per set) to do towards the beginning of your workout, and gradually moving back down to easier variations as you progress through your workouts.
If you're more of a beginner, you can start with regular push ups if you can do them, and then gradually ease your way into less challenging variations as you go through your routine.
Overall, the push up is a great exercise that you can do with no equipment, and is great at hitting the chest, shoulders and triceps for a bigger and stronger looking upper body.
Definitely look to incorporate it into your training program somehow, as it does provide great benefits that'll roll over into your other pressing movements like the bench press.
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