The Ultimate Guide to Perfect Press-Ups

·11-min read
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From living rooms to boutique gyms, the versatile bodyweight move that is a building block in every training programme: the press-up. Whether you can bang out 10 on command or are still working towards your first, press-ups are the number one bodyweight move for upper-body muscle gain and strength.

To pump up your pecs, press-ups dominate when there's no equipment available. However, whilst press-ups are frequently programmed, they are frequently performed incorrectly, rendering gym goers with shoulder niggles and failing to reap the full benefits of the move.

Men's Health cover the muscles worked by press-ups, the benefits, how to do press-ups, FAQs, how many reps and sets, how to get your first press-up, variations and workouts. Time to hit the floor.

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Muscles Worked by Press-Ups

Press ups are a power move to work all upper-body muscles in one go. Here are the muscles worked:

  • Chest: One of the main movers during press-ups are your pec muscles. These include your pectoralis major, the largest pec muscle responsible for press-ups and your pectoralis minor, the smaller pec muscle which supports the scapula during press-ups.

  • Triceps: This long muscle that runs down the back of your upper arm helps drive the floor away from you during press-ups.

  • Shoulders: The anterior deltoids also support your press-ups. During the downward phase of the movement they stabilise the shoulders and during the upward phase they keep the arms tucked in.

  • Core: While keeping your core tight during the entirety of the movement and stabilising your torso to avoid flexion of the lower back, the core works isometrically throughout press-ups.

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Benefits of Press-Ups

We've waxed lyrical about the benefits of press-ups enough, here's why:

No Equipment Needed

Press-ups are the perfect addition to your work from home training plan. By reducing barriers to exercise such as time constraints, a home workout can cut down on travel time and the costs related.

Upper Body Hypertrophy & Strength

Despite press-ups not using any equipment, they pack a punch when increasing muscle size. Research published in The Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness has shown that the muscle gain from press-ups rivals the bench press, concluding that 'push-up and bench-press exercise at 40% 1RM over 8 weeks are similarly effective for increasing muscle thickness and strength gain.'

Improved Health

A 2019 study published by Jama Network Open on 1562 firefighters found that press-up capacity was inversely associated with 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease. According to research 'higher baseline press-up capacity is associated with a lower incidence of CVD events. Although larger studies in more diverse cohorts are needed, press-up capacity may be a simple, no-cost measure to estimate functional status.' Perhaps making it even more important to include this underrated bodyweight move.

How to Do Press-Ups

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  1. Begin in the high plank position with your hands a little wider than your shoulders.

  2. Focus on keeping your shoulders away from your ears with your core engaged and your entire body locked.

  3. Lower your chest towards the ground with your elbows below your shoulders, creating an arrow shape with your body.

  4. Explosively push the floor away from you until you fully extend your arms.

  5. Repeat

How to Nail Your First Press-Up

Press-ups are an advanced exercise for many. If you're struggling to nail your first press-up, try the hands elevated press-up first.

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Hands Elevated Press-Ups

Set the bar below your hips on the squat rack. Place your hands on the bar a little wider than your shoulders and hit a plank position with your core tight. Keeping your shoulders away from your ears, lower your chest towards the bar. Explosively push the bar away from you to return to the starting position.

Men's Health says: The hands elevated press-up is a perfect place to start in order to achieve your first press-up. The benefit of the hands elevated press-up is that as your strength increases, you can lower the bar until you eventually reach the floor. In comparison to knees down press-ups, the hands elevated press-up teaches you to hold the high plank which is important for core strength to support the full press-up.

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What Angle Should I Keep My Elbows At?

The elbows should maintain an angle of about 45-degrees below the shoulder in order to avoid shoulder pain. To find the right angle for you, imagine creating an 'arrow shape' with your body. One study published by The Journal of Athletic Training recommended 'prescribing traditional press-ups with the arms in a self-selected position or at the side, rather than elevated above 60 degrees.'

How Many Reps and Sets?

For press-ups, the reps and sets should depend on your base level of strength and fitness. Ideally for building muscle, evidence supports aiming for 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps. However you might find press-ups particularly easy, enabling you to complete as many as 20 reps plus.

According to research published by The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research into the different variations of press-ups, 'it is possible to progress push-ups from low intensity with hands elevated, to high intensity via feet elevation. These results show that exercise intensity can increase up to 33% from progressing from the lowest intensity to highest intensity push-up variations.'

If you find press-ups very easy, choose a progression from the variations above like feet elevated press-ups or weighted press-ups to bring the intensity of the exercise to at least an 8 out of 10 on the RPE scale (rate of perceived exertion) during your sets:

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10 Press-Up Variations

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Close Grip Press Ups

Begin in the high plank position with your hands close together. Lower your chest towards the ground with your elbows tucked in close to your waist to work your triceps. Explosively push the floor away from you until your arms completely straighten.

Men's Health says: A 2015 study by The Journal of Athletic Training found that close-grip press-ups work the triceps and pecs harder than standard press ups. The study states that a narrow hand position (hands together with the right thumb and forefinger touching the left thumb and forefinger below the centre of the sternum) elicited greater activation for both the triceps brachii and pectoralis major muscles.

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Dumbbell Drag Press Ups

Start in the high plank position with a dumbbell to the side of one hand and complete a press-up. Reach across with the hand furthest away from the dumbbell to drag it along the floor to the other side. Complete another press-up and drag the dumbbell across to the other side.

Men's Health says: Dumbbell drag press-ups incorporate core strengthening by creating instability in the torso during the movement of the dumbbell. The core works harder to resist rotation (anti-rotation) resulting in you targeting multiple muscle groups.

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Renegade Row & Press-Ups

Hit the high plank position with both hands on your dumbbells. Shifting your weight onto your left hand, row the right dumbbell towards your hip. Pause briefly, then lower the weight under control. Repeat on your left side (left and right equals one rep).

Men's Health says: Renegade rows are a great bang for your buck exercise, especially when paired with press-ups. You hit your back, chest and core muscle in one go whilst also raising your heart rate considerably.

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Feet Elevated Press-Ups

Begin with your feet raised on a box or bench in the high plank position with your hands a little wider than your shoulders. Lower your chest to the floor while keeping the elbows tucked just below the shoulders. Push the floor away from you whilst maintaining a locked core.

Men's Health says: Feet elevated press-ups are a great option to increase the load and therefore difficulty of normal press-ups by varying the angle.

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Band Resisted Press-Ups

Make regular press-ups more challenging by crossing a band across your back and looping your thumbs through each end. Assume the press-up position. Lower yourself, then press up, hard–pushing explosively against the extra resistance of the band to activate more muscles in your upper body.

Men's Health says: The dynamic nature of bands (they ostensibly get ‘heavier’ throughout a movement) will force you to actively accelerate through each rep, resulting in greater muscle recruitment and fostering some seriously explosive gains.

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Staggered Press-Ups

Start in the press-up position with your core locked and shoulders away from your ears. Move one hand slightly further away from you and the other slightly closer to you. Lower your chest to the floor and explosively push yourself back to the starting position. After the allocated reps on one side, switch sides.

Men's Health says: Staggered press-ups are a good option for building overall chest strength and targeting the anterior deltoid and triceps alternately by the differing changes in hand placement.

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Weighted Press-Ups

Take a weight suitable for your abilities and place it on your upper back while lying on the floor or ask someone to help you. Push yourself into the high plank position and complete your press up reps without letting your hips or shoulders dip from side to side in order to keep the plate balanced on your back.

Men's Health says: If you find your press-ups at bodyweight increasingly easy, try weighted press-ups. Start with a low weight you can manage. By keeping the plate even, you will work the core anti-rotationally by avoiding the torso twisting.

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Ring Press-Ups

Begin with the rings set up at a height suitable for your ability. Take hold of the handles with a neutral grip (palms facing inwards) in the plank position. Hold your core locked and lower your chest in between the rings without them drifting away from each other. Explosively push yourself back to your starting position.

Men's Health says: Including instability in your press-ups creates another dimension of intensity and places extra demand on the shoulders. According to research published by The Journal of Human Kinetics, 'when an increased challenge is warranted, a suspension training device may be incorporated to increase muscular activation and possibly enhance neuromuscular adaptations with the push-up.'

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Chaos Press-Ups

Place a thick resistance band across the squat rack hooks at a height suitable for your ability. Hold on to the band a little wider than your shoulders and hit the high plank position. Take a second to lock your core and set your shoulder blades down your back. Lower your chest towards the band and resist any additional motion caused by the bands. Push yourself back the starting position under control.

Men's Health says: To further increase the challenge, 'chaos' press ups are aptly named. They generate a huge amount of instability in the upper body, forcing your core to work tenfold in order to keep stable.

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Clap Press-Ups

Set up in your high plank position with your core locked. Lower your chest to the floor and with explosive force, push your entire upper body upwards and clap the hands. Replace the hands under the shoulders and lower yourself into your next rep.

Men's Health says: Clap press-ups are a form of plyometric exercise. Evidence published by The Journal of Human Kinetics supporting its benefits, stating that 'plyometric push-ups (3 sets of 5 repetitions) lead to a performance enhancement of the bench press exercise at 70%1RM.' In other words, plyometric exercises such as clap press-ups could have great carryover to your other lifts.

10 Best Press-Up Workouts

Now you know how to do press-ups plus the best variations, it's time to put them to the test with these ultimate press-ups workouts.

  1. This Dumbbell Press-Up Challenge Will Supersize Your Pecs

  2. How to Turn the Humble Press-Up into an Ultra-Effective, Full-Body Workout

  3. This Killer Press-up Challenge Will Supersize Your Chest, Arms and Back

  4. Pump up your Chest with This Five-Minute Press-up Matrix

  5. This Bodyweight Press-Up Challenge Will Pump up Your Chest and Arms, Anywhere

  6. This Bodyweight Finisher Will Boost Your Mobility and Balance

  7. Score a Huge Chest Pump in Just Ten Minutes

  8. Pack on Upper-body Bulk at Home with Tom Hardy’s Press-up Circuit

  9. Get Ready for the Weekend with Our 'Sun’s Out, Gun’s Out' 15-minute ‘Pump’ Session

  10. The Press Up And Plank Workout To Build a V-Shape In 60mins

Are Press Ups and Push Ups the Same Thing?

Press-ups and push-ups are exactly the same exercise, with 'press-ups' being more commonly used in British English. Either way, the benefits of the calisthenic exercise still remain and should be a staple in your programme, regardless of the semantics.

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