The pushup is among the most basic exercises you'll find in just about every type of workout program. There's a beauty in its simplicity—just assume the high plank position, lower yourself down, then use what strength you have to press yourself back up. That's why the humble pushup is the centerpiece to so many bodyweight training programs. You'll be hard-pressed (pun intended) to find a better method to develop your upper body muscles using only yourself and gravity.
But there are limits to what you can achieve using standard pushups alone. "The greatest challenge of pushup training is finding ways to increase the load," says Men's Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. "The downside of the classic pushup is that while it starts out as challenging, once you've done enough reps, it ceases to push you. You're always lifting only a portion of your bodyweight." Yes, the exercise will target the muscles of your chest, shoulders, and arms efficiently—but there are ways that you can up the ante. If you tweak something as simple as where you place your hands on the floor, you'll put even more focus on your triceps. Change the tempo by slowing down your descent or pausing at the bottom of the position, and you'll increase the time under tension, maxing out your muscle building potential. You can even begin to introduce different implements like elevating your hands or feet to change up your focus.
All of these are examples of pushup variations, which can be slotted in place of standard pushups—or alongside them—when you want to expand the scope of your workouts without introducing more equipment and/or different concepts to your training. You can pack a few different types of pushups into one workout, like this one, or parcel out one per day to start a new healthy habit with a 30-Day Challenge.
For now, check out the following pushup variations you can master to upgrade your training plan. This list isn't exhaustive, so don't fret if your favourite variation isn't included. Just remember, all of these moves stem from the same progenitor, the standard pushup. Make sure that you have a solid grasp on the most important things that go into good form—full body tension, positioning, etc.—and apply them as is necessary.
Try These Pushup Variations
Close Grip Pushup
As mentioned above, this is among the simplest variations of the pushup you can do. By moving the position of your hands closer together, ideally with your hands slightly narrower than shoulder-width, you'll increase the recruitment of your triceps. Just make sure that you don't bring your hands even closer—say, into a diamond shape—since you'll have a tougher time maintaining that position. Keep your elbows tight to your torso, and carry on through your reps.
Mixed-Style Close Grip Pushup
This spin on the close grip pushup features some of the principles mentioned above like pausing and mixing tempos, all of which serves to increase time under tension. Instead of finishing through your reps, pause at the halfway point as you come back up. Use that time to make sure your form is perfectly on point.
Get your hips involved with this web-slinging variation of the pushup. It's tough, but it's worth the effort. As you lower into each rep, open your hips and drive your knee forward toward your elbow. You should get your knee in position as you reach the lowest point in your pushup. As you press to finish the rep, reverse the movement with your leg to return to the starting position. Too difficult to coordinate? Perform the knee drive ahead of the pushup rep. Want to maximise your time under tension? Wait to perform the knee drive until you're already in the bottom position.
This variation allows you to train unilaterally (one side of your body at a time), which is typically an option with traditional pushups. Start with your hand placement further away from your torso than the standard position, and face your hands out away from yourself. Lower yourself down to one side, then the other, keeping control of your body by maintaining tension in your glutes and core. If this is too difficult, scale by only lowering to one side at a time.
Here's another unilateral variation—and a great sub or first step to scale up to the notoriously tough single-arm pushup. You'll need a solid anchor point like a pole or squat rack, then retain all the important form cues from the standard variation sans one arm. You'll need to put an extra emphasis on bracing your core to fight against rotational forces to retain good body control (the post does help, but you'll need to fire your obliques, too), so focus up when you give this a try.
Level up your archer pushup with this exercise that gives your chest and extra challenge as you transition from side to side. Set up just like you did for the archer, but instead of just lowering to one side of your body and pressing back up, stay low to the ground and press to shift to the other side. Work up to the full movement by following the progression in the video above.
This CrossFit favourite gets you vertical into a position that puts the onus on your shoulders rather than your chest—so sit this out if you have any preexisting problems with your shoulders. Find a wall, and kick up into a handstand position (if you struggle to do that, you should also skip this variation). Adjust your hand placement so they are just wider than shoulder-width, and brace your core and squeeze your glutes, which should help to keep yourself from toppling over. Lower your head down just in front of your hands, and either come just short of the floor or lightly tap on the ground. If you can't keep your reps slow and controlled to avoid a head injury, leave this off your training plan.
Another superhero inspired variation closes out the list, because this is potentially the toughest type of pushup you can attempt. The Superman pushup builds power in a way that most other variations do not, and the level of skill and strength needed to pull it off—we have a whole progression plan to work your way up to reps—gives it one of the highest barriers to entry. Nevertheless, it's one of the coolest looking stunts you can pull in the gym that isn't flat out unsafe, so if you can work your way up to it, the Superman is well worth the effort.
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