The term “push-up” wasn’t coined until 1905, but theories say exercises mimicking the push-up can be dated back to the Holy Roman Empire, where warriors would use them to train for battle. The push-up has stood the test of time, and for good reason. The push-up is one of the most effective exercises for building both strength and muscular endurance in your entire body. However, we can all admit that they’re hard! But that doesn’t mean you should give up on them. These push-up alternatives will help you build the strength (and courage) to do them or can replicate the benefits if they’re just not for you.
What is a Push-Up?
If you’re not familiar with the push-up, this breakdown is for you. A push-up is a calisthenic, or bodyweight, exercise starting in a straight arm plank position. Though there are many variations, the traditional version requires you to maintain a straight body position as you bend your arms to at least a 90-degree angle, bringing your body towards the ground and then pushing back up.
What Muscle Groups Do Push-Ups Work?
The better question would be, “What muscle groups don’t the push-up work?” The push-up mainly targets the upper body and core, including the muscles in the chest, back, shoulders, arms, and abdomen. However, because it requires you to hold a plank position, it also recruits the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.
Why Are Push-Ups So Challenging?
Muscular Endurance Meets Strength
You’d think that an exercise that requires no additional resistance other than your body weight wouldn’t be so tough. But when all your major muscle groups are being activated at once in a dynamic plank position, it turns up the burn. Your arms aren’t the only thing holding you up; your entire body is activated in order to hold form. And that takes work! More energy (or calories) are required, which means you’re not only going to feel this in your muscles, your heart rate will also increase.
Coordination is Key
There’s also a level of coordination — you need to make sure your body is staying in one straight line from your head to your feet, hips don’t go up to the ceiling, or your back doesn’t arch towards the ground, all while you’re focusing on bending and straightening your arms under the weight of your body. This is why you need to have enough core strength to execute a proper push-up. What makes this exercise so effective is also what makes it very hard.
How Do You Do a Push-up?
You’ve most likely seen someone perform a push-up, but how’s it really done? Let’s break it down:
Step #1: Start in a straight-arm plank position with your wrists directly under your shoulders. You should be up on the balls of your toes.
Step #2: Get your body into the proper position by pulling your belly button into your spine to engage your core, squeezing your glutes to ensure your back stays straight, and look lightly down and in front of you to get your neck in alignment.
Step #3: Keeping this position, take a deep inhale as you bend your elbows to at least 90-degrees.
Step #4: Pushing through the palm of your hands, release a big exhale as you activate your pectoralis muscles in your chest to straighten your arms back to your starting position.
Step #5: If you can just do one, great! You did it! Work your way up to doing 3 sets of 10 reps with a 30 to 60-second break between each set.
5 Effective Push-Up Alternatives
Want some push-up alternatives that work similar muscle groups while helping you tone and build strength? Here are some great alternatives to consider adding to your fitness routine.
Modified Push-Up/Knee Push-Up
One of the most basic push-up alternatives is simply a modified version, where you are kneeling. This is a great option if you are wanting to train your way up to doing the real thing!
Here’s how to do a modified push-up: Kneel on a mat with your hands shoulder-width apart on the mat in front of you. Tighten your core as you bend your arms and lower your chest down and then press back up — this is one rep. Be sure to focus on form vs. speed here.
Planks are another amazing push-up alternative that can also help build shoulder, core, and upper back strength. Planks are also a great way to help support balance.
Once in high plank position, hold for 15-30 seconds, rest, and repeat 2-3 times.
Want to perfect plank form? Try this Plank Challenge class with Vytas.
Dumbbell Chest Press
This classic strength exercise will still strengthen your shoulders, chest, and core. To add a level of stability that recruits muscles in your lower body, try doing them with your upper back on a stability ball instead of a bench! You’ll have to activate your glutes and thighs to keep your body in one straight line.
How to do it: Start lying on your back on the floor or a bench, feet planted. Hold one dumbbell in each hand with bent arms just to the sides of your shoulders. Your palms should be facing towards your feet. With a big exhale, press your arms straight up to the ceiling — lower back down to your starting position for one rep.
Mountain Climbers are a great HIIT exercise and push-up alternative that will get your heart rate up and burn some major calories. Since you have to hold a straight arm plank position, you’re also going to feel all your major muscle groups activate.
How to do it: Start in a straight-arm plank position, hips in line with your back. Pull your belly button into your spine and bring your right knee into your chest. Come back through your center plank and repeat on the left. Keep alternating legs as fast as you can.
Punching requires multiple muscles in your upper and lower body to activate. It also takes a great amount of core strength to protect your back when performing this exercise. Add in lightweights (if you want), and you’re going to really feel this burner as you burn a ton of calories!
How to do it: Start standing with your dominant foot forward a couple of feet in front of the other in a staggered stance position. Hold one lightweight in each hand. Bring your hands up to your chin, elbows bent and pointing down towards the ground. Pull your abs in to engage your core and start punching one arm forward and the other as fast as you can without losing form. Make sure to not lock out your elbow as you punch forward and keep your shoulders away from your ears!
Pushing Yourself Can Be Fun!
If your relationship with push-ups is going to keep you from exercising, push-up alternatives are a great compromise! There’s plenty of other ways to build strength and burn fat. But remember, growth is found outside our comfort zones. Even when you’re deciding which push-up alternative to do, be intentional about challenging yourself — safely. The more you can equate doing something hard with positive benefits later, the more fun and gratifying they’ll start to feel.
Of course, listening to your body is just as important. There’s a big difference between muscular resistance and pain, so if you’re feeling any strain in your body, here is your reminder to take a breath and find an alternative that isn’t too hard on your body.