Push-Ups are one of the most underused and underrated exercises for people of all fitness levels. I honestly used to think the Push-Up was more of a punishment than an exercise, because it seemed to be the go-to penalty for youth sports and military personnel.
Think about it. How many times have you had to "drop and give coach 20" for messing up at football practice? And if you've served in the military, you're undoubtedly familiar with the popular punishment of Push-Ups "until your drill sergeant gets tired." Turns out, there has been a method to the madness all along.
Over the years, I've embraced the Push-Up, and it's one of my favorite exercises to get creative with. It's obviously a great chest and arm builder, but it also happens to be one of the better core activators. No matter who you are, there's always room for improvement on core strength.
If you've mastered the standard Push-Up and want to take it up to the next level, here are five killer Push-Up variations you can use to gain size, strength and power.
1. Tempo Push-Up
One of my favorite program variables to adjust the temp of an exercise. If you've read my previous article on exercise tempo, you know you can alter the time under tension or overload the eccentric portion of a lift with a simple tempo tweak—both leading to strength and size gains.
You can take several approaches to your execution of the Tempo Push-Up. Depending on what you want to get out of the exercise, you can switch up your tempo or loading to reach a specific goal.
For example, if you're looking for cardiovascular work that supports muscle growth, you can do an EMOM (every minute on the minute) set of Tempo Push-Ups using a 5-0-5-0 tempo—performing 3 reps on the minute for 10 minutes. It should take 5 seconds to lower yourself and 5 seconds to push yourself up. Leave a little bit of tension and, dare I say it, don't lock out. Only in certain situations is that OK. You may be thinking, "That's only 30 reps in 10 minutes; that's weak." Trust me, this upper-body finisher is not for the faint of heart. It'll blast your core, chest, arms and, in my opinion, this counts as cardio.
Another option is to load the exercise with a weight vest and perform the Tempo Push-Up using a 2-3-1-0 tempo. Lower for a 2-count, hold the isometric contraction at the bottom for a 3-count and push-up as explosively possible. This will help you produce more power through your upper body, which will translate nicely to your Bench Press.
Those are my two favorite Tempo Push-Up variations, but the possibilities are endless. There's no reason not to include this in your program at some point soon! (Note: The video shows a 5-3-5-1 tempo.)
2. Neutral Grip Push-Up vs. External Load
Like tempo, hand position and grip are great variations you can experiment with. A neutral grip on pressing exercises can be especially helpful. In this case, the Neutral Grip [Weighted] Push-Up is one of the best variations out there.
To set up, the best-case scenario is to use the low pegs of a dip station, if you have one. If not, you can use dumbbells elevated on boxes or risers. You also want to slightly elevate your legs.
Since the neutral grip helps save the shoulders, feel free to load this exercise with bands, chains or weight vests and pump out some heavy, intense sets of 5-10 reps based on your goal. In this case, I used a sand bag to demonstrate, but I believe chains are the most beneficial option for this variation of Push-Up.
3. Stability Ball Squeeze Push-Up
Stability Ball? You may have thought those were for pink-handweight lifters only, but you can get a brutal Push-Up variation with one.
The Stability Ball Push-Up is great for developing your inner chest and core. Simply squeeze the sides of a stability ball as hard as you can while you perform the Push-Up. In the video demo, the stability ball is a little too large for my liking, but it gets the job done. If you can find a smaller ball, you'll be able to lengthen your range of motion and get more out of the exercise—but as with anything else in the gym, you must work with what you've got access to.
Performing this to failure is a great method. Since loading this variation isn't ideal, you can go for "the pump" on these.
4. Single-Arm Rollout Push-Up
If the Push-Up and ab wheel had a baby together, this is what that lovechild would look like. It's the perfect amount of awful, and I mean that in the best way possible.
This move engages lots of core, lats and even serratus, in addition to the obvious arm and chest involvement. It's one of my favorite choices for adding a little flair to the basic Push-Up, and it serves as an intro to a Single-Arm Push-Up.
Find a ball about the diameter of a volleyball. This is the perfect elevation for your off-hand during the movement. Set up with one hand on the ground in push-up position and the other on the ball. As you lower your chest to the floor, extend the arm with the ball until your arm is at (or near) full extension. Pause for a comfortable amount of time, then push up as you roll the ball back into the starting position.
This is not an easy variation to load. Perform it as part of your total body warm-up or disguise it as a core exercise that fits into your programming. Eventually, you can progress to a Single-Arm Push-Up, which is probably one of the toughest Push-Ups a person can do.
5. Kettlebell Partial Push-Up
This final variation uses kettlebells with the handles pointed back toward you. Set up with your hands close together and at an angle that will help stimulate your inner chest. I call these Partial Push-Ups because the range of motion is cut a little bit short at the top due to the angle of your hands on the kettlebells.
During the movement, squeeze into the kettlebells similar to the Stability Ball Push-Ups, creating a lot of tension throughout the chest. This is definitely more of an assistance exercise for people whose chest development is lagging.
Quick note on partial range of motion: If you're stopping short of full ROM and believe you're doing the exercise perfectly, that is when problems happen. If you're purposely using a partial ROM to target a certain muscle or have a specific reason for the partial ROM, there are times when that is perfectly OK. 99% of the time, full ROM is the way to go, but there are exceptions.)
You can also turn the kettlebells around so the handles face away from you. This simple tweak makes it a completely different exercise, giving you more of an elevated Tricep Push-Up and allowing you to lock out the top position (unlike the Partial Push-Up).
As with most things in lifting, you can make small adaptations to customize an exercise to suit your goals. These five Push-Up variations have helped me out, as well as my clients, so give them a try if you see a fit in your programming.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock