The Science Behind Pushups

science behind pushups

Pushups are one of the most commonly performed calisthenics exercise for developing the upper body through a pushing motion while in the prone position. However, there is more going on with the muscles in your body than you may know. Pushups can easily be performed improperly due to the requirement of balance, use of multiple muscle groups, and use of the body’s core strengths. Let’s take a deeper look at the science behind pushups.


Muscles Used During Pushups

The primary muscles targeted during push-ups are the pectoralis major (chest), anterior deltoids (front shoulder), and triceps (back of the arm) muscles. Thus the reason they are notorious for being used as an upper man doing pushupsbody strength builder and muscle developer.

However, people tend to forget that it is a calisthenics exercise when you do not use weights, which means push-ups are performed for developing core strength and flexibility through bodyweight resistance WITHOUT the use of special equipment.

Yoga mats or some type of floor padding do come in handy to prevent hand or feet slippage.

Note: You could use free weights to place across the trapezius (upper back) to create extra resistance for muscle building and strength purposes. Have somebody help you with this or things might look awkward getting into position.

Other muscles used during pushups are called stabilizer muscles that are found in both the front and back of your body. These muscles include your abs and even your quads. More about the rest in the core development section below.

Core Development

As mentioned previously, you can develop your core strength by performing pushups, which is increasing your posture and ability to exert power more efficiently during compound lifts. Core muscles are in reference to areas around your midsection that protect your spine such as your Rectus (external) and Transverse (internal) abdominis (abdomen, abs).

Also important to your core strength and the movements during a push-up is your lumbar spine (spine in lower back)(spinal erectors). We can even go on as far to say that all three of your gluteal muscles are being activated as well.

pushups instead of planksYou want to perform this exercise with a neutral spine curvature, and if your back sags during the exercise, which is known as being hyperextended, then you face potential injury to your lower back due to unevenly distributed resistance across your spine.

Believe it or not, but push-ups are just about as beneficial for your core as planks are. This is not to say they are better, but should be incorporate as well if you’re a hardcore planker. Think about it for a second. The plank even strikes a familiar resemblance to pushups.

Plane old pushups are a great choice for core training, in my opinion, because they target similar muscles as the plank while also increasing strength and size in your upper body.

Planks are boring, monotonous, and simply make a lot of people not enjoy working out. Maybe this is the trainer or athlete incorporating planks improperly, but it’s a true statement.

I only see them being beneficial for people recovering from injuries, or those focusing on abdominal work, which is why they were created in the first place. Remember, the study that made planks popular is the fact that they contract your abs 100% when performed properly without harming the lower back or spine.

Try to take a dynamic approach to training opposed to only static if you’re capable of full body movement.

Still want to do planks a lot? That’s fine. Everyone has their own training beliefs. However, why not combine all the movements together by doing a superset where you hold the plank position for 30 seconds, and then move into a set of pushups. Just something to think about instead of just laying there all day.


Other Benefits from Performing Pushups

Pushups are great for strength training and core development, but they have further benefits such as bone development. Around the age of 30 bone mass begins to decline, but exercising the body actually encourages bone development and may prevent osteoporosis from forming.

The bones in your arms, from your wrist to shoulders, will become stronger and denser.

You will increase your metabolic rate as well. Pushups also fall into the compound exercise category as well since numerous muscles are used to create balance and movement – your legs are even getting a workout from an upper body exercise during some variations.

That being said, your heart has to pump blood faster to provide oxygen to all the muscles being used, thus increasing your metabolic rate for cardio health and fat loss when performed with higher repetitions.

How to Properly Perform Pushups

In order to even benefit from this exercise, you obviously need to know how to perform pushups properly in the first place. Before trying any of the pushup variations I’ve provided later in this article, you MUST get proper form down with regular pushups.

Simply take the time to get your form and execution of the exercise down before proceeding on to anything else.

  1. Lay on the floor in the prone position then place your feet and hands about shoulder-width apart. (Your hands should be slightly above your chest to relieve pressure off your shoulder joints.)
  2. Push your whole body off the ground to get in starting position.
  3. Your mid-section should be taut (pulled tight) while your back and neck are straight (neutral).
  4. You should be able to see 10-12 inches in front of your hands by tilting your head back slightly.
  5. Lower your body down while simultaneously keeping your neck, back, mid-section, and legs straight as possible.
  6. Lightly touch your chest against the floor and drive your palms “down” to press your body back up.

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The Science Behind Pushups is Pretty Simple

The science behind pushups is simple: perform pushups routinely for better overall health. You can perform them anywhere you go if you travel, or in the comfort of your own home without the need for any equipment.

Pushups are okay to perform daily if being used as a Calisthenics exercise that doesn’t damage muscle cells, but if you use weight to create resistance, or perform variations such as burnouts and negatives, then 24-48 hours of rest are required for torn muscles to heal and grow.

If you want more information on bodyweight training, please checkout my other article on Ask the Trainer.

Different Pushup Variations

Normal pushups are great for your body already, but sometimes it’s best to change up the routine a little to keep things from getting boring. Below is a list of pushup variations you should try out and experiment with.

  • Elevated Pushups – Better emphasis on your lats and lower back
  • Spiderman Pushups – Increases resistance on muscles and more emphasis on core muscles
  • Diamond Pushups – Better emphasis on shoulders and triceps
  • Dive Bomber Pushups – More emphasis on hamstrings and lower back than usual
  • Canyon Pushups – Deeper resistance against your pecs the further down you dip
  • Leg Up Pushups – Increases resistance on muscles and more emphasis on core muscles
  • Incline Pushups – Good for taking a rest during continuous pushup sets. The higher your elevated the easier they are to perform. No significant difference on muscle contractions.

Another pushup variation would be one that uses the equipment known as Elite Perfect Pushup, which can be used for several different movements and will definitely increase the intensity of your workout.

The Pushup Pyramid

This workout consists of only performing the various pushups shown below. A pyramid means that you start off with a high set of repetitions, and then work your way down until you’re performing a lower amount of reps.

Afterwards you will reverse it and go back up the pyramid as far as you can go. All exercises are performed back-to-back. The workout is intended to give you a well defined upper back, chest, shoulders, and slim waistline as well.

pushup pyramid
You will most likely begin to fail at some point, but that is the intention of the workout! If you need to rest, push your butt up in the air and put the weight down onto your hands. This takes the tension off your body and allows your muscles to relax until you’re ready to go again. Don’t stop until your body is completely fatigued!

Brian Pankau

Brian Pankau

Experienced personal trainer and strength coach

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Good to know. I was taught a different way. The wrong way obviously.