9 Essential Push-Up Variations That Build Your Entire Body
Add 'em to your repertoire.
Performed correctly, push-ups are a perfect exercise. They’re a functional total-body movement, they increase upper-body strength, they engage the core and the lower body. Oh, and they require nothing but your body to pull off — hence why you can drop and bang out 20 every time you, say, put the baby down for a nap or get up in the morning. But damn are they a boring exercise to do again and again.
Luckily, the types of push-ups you do is easily variable. And with a few modifications, you can easily increase or decrease the difficulty of a push-up, attack additional muscle groups, and, most importantly, vary your workout.
Here are nine variations to the standard push-up courtesy of Matt Kite, a personal trainer and performance coach for D1 Training in Dallas. Keep them in mind the next time you have 30 seconds to spare.
First, Here’s How to Perform a Perfect Push-up
Keys to performing a perfect push-up:
- Position elbows at 45 degrees, effectively sharing the tension across the upper-body muscle groups. Your arms should make an arrow shape of your body and arms — not a ‘T.’
- Keep your core tight and right, moving your entire body as one unit in a straight line from your shoulders to hip and ankles.
- Your back should be straight and not sag.
Now, onto some variations:
1. Incline Push-up
How to do it: Placing your hands on an elevated surface such as a bench or your couch with your arms straight and your hands directly below your shoulders, walk backwards until you’re in a push-up position. Bend your elbows to lower your body until your chest almost touches the bench. Pause, and then push yourself back to the starting position. Repeat.
Avoid: Overusing your shoulders; shrugging. “Like when you’re pushing a barbell, you want to pull the bar apart when you’re pressing,” Kite says. “Your shoulders should be lowered down and back to open your chest.”
2. Decline Push-up
Why? “With your feet elevated, gravity is giving you more load on your upper body,” Kite says. “You’re activating your upper pecs and developing scapular and shoulder girdle stability and strength. It’s the same as doing it on the ground, just more difficult.”
How to do it: Position yourself in front of a bench or your couch with your hands shoulder-width apart. Lift one foot at a time onto the bench so your weight is in your toes. Bend your elbows to lower your body towards the floor. Push yourself back to the starting position. Repeat.
Avoid: Adjusting form; going too wide with hands. “Focus on keeping the same form as for a perfect push-up,” Kite says. “If your hands go too wide, you’re going back into your shoulders.”
3. Diamond Push-up
Why? “These activate your triceps more directly,” Kite says. “It’s less shoulder and more triceps.”
How to do it: Position yourself for a push-up but with your hands close together. Spread your fingers so that your index fingers and thumbs form a diamond. Bend your elbows to lower your body towards the floor. Push yourself back to the starting position. Repeat.
Avoid: Going down too low. “Do not go beyond your range of motion,” Kite says. “You can’t get your chest to your hands — there’s not enough wrist mobility.”
4. Clap Push-up
Why? “This is a plyometric exercise,” Kite says. “It’s great for power development and increased activation. You’re using more muscles, so you’ll get more results. It’s advanced, but most guys can do them after they’ve been training a while.”
How to do it: Position yourself for a perfect push-up. Bend your elbows to lower your body towards the floor. Push up by pushing forcefully down through your palms. At the top of your extension, lift your hands off the floor. Clap your hands and return them to the floor. Repeat.
Avoid: Half-assing. “Some people don’t finish the full press before they do the clap; halfway through the push-up they throw up their lower body, quickly clap, and then land on ground heavily. Do it right: Complete a full honest push-up, clap, and then catch your body smoothly on your hands.”
5. Dive Bomber Push-ups
Why? “As this exercise involves swooping down from a shoulder-activated pike to the face and chest going towards the floor, it’s great for the rotator cuffs and shoulder health,” says Kit.
How to do it: Position yourself for a push-up but with your feet hip-width apart. Push your hips up to create an inverted ‘V’ with your body. Bend your elbows to lower yourself down and forward, bringing your chest nearly to the floor. Curve your back and extend your arms. Pause, and then reverse direction, bending your elbows to lower yourself down and back, then pushing your hips up to return to the starting position. Repeat.
Avoid: Not going low enough before rising back up. “Look at video online to see what it really is,” Kite says.
6. Swiss Ball/Bosu Push-ups
Why? “With your hands on equipment that wants to move, you’re forcing your body to stabilize,” Kite says. “There’s more tension during lowering, and you’re increasing the tension forcing yourself to hold that instable object stable.”
How to do it: Position yourself for a push-up but with your hands on a Swiss ball or holding a Bosu. Bend your elbows to lower your body to the ball. Pause, and then push yourself back to the starting position. Repeat.
Avoid: Going down too quickly. “If you’re lowering into the push-up too fast, you’re not utilizing time under tension,” Kite says.
7. Alternating Medicine Ball Push-ups
Why? “With this you’re moving the whole time with one hand on the ball and one on the ground,” Kite says. “The side on the ball is getting more range of motion and a deeper press, and you have to activate one side of your core to not dip or twist. It’s oblique work on the core, and a range of motion for the shoulders and chest.”
How to do it: Position yourself for a push-up but with one hand on top of a medicine ball. Perform a push-up by bending your elbows to lower your body towards the floor and pushing yourself up to the starting position. Roll the ball to the opposite hand. Position that hand on top of the medicine ball and perform a push-up, rolling the ball back to the other hand. Repeat.
Avoid: Not going all the way down. “Some people might not be able to go all the way down if they have shoulder issues,” Kite says. “But they shouldn’t do this exercise if they have shoulder issues.”
8. TRX Push-ups
Why? “Like the Swiss ball and the Bosu, TRX is not a fixed object — it’ll move,” Kite says. “But this allows more of a rounded grip than a flat grip. If you have wrist issues, the handles are a little bit easier than a Swiss ball or Bosu.”
How to do it Position the TRX loops to knee height. Holding a handle in each hand, position yourself for a push-up with your shoulders over your wrists and your legs extended behind you. Bend your elbows to lower your body, bringing your torso between your hands. Push yourself back to the starting position. Repeat.
Avoid: Wiggling too much. The TRX is meant to make you struggle, but not so much that you lose all your form.
9. Weighted Push-up
Why? “Adding load forces your upper body and core to work harder,” Kite says. “The chain links leaving the floor make it heavier when you’re pushing up, and they’ll make it lighter when they start to hit the floor as you’re lowering down.”
How to do it: Wearing a weight vest or your child in a baby carrier, perform a push-up. Repeat. Or have a friend or workout buddy position a heavy (20-30 pounds) chain over the mid-part of your back, leaving several links on the floor. Perform a push-up. Repeat.
Avoid: Letting the baby fall out of the carrier.
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