Somehow the push-up got a reputation as an easy exercise. We say, “somehow,” because the push-up is actually an incredibly challenging move. It involves every single muscle, strong body awareness, and takes time to perfect.
A well-done push-up is a moving plank and an amazing exercise for building a solid core and glutes, says online coach and Trifecta athlete Michael Dean. He explains that when most people — especially those who call push-ups "easy" — do the exercise, their form is lacking.
“In order to progress with your push-up, begin with a few reps and do them very well,” he says.
Related: 3 Ways to Bang Out 100 Unbroken Push-Ups
But once you nail traditional push-ups, you have so many more variations to take on for the chest, core, triceps, and shoulder muscles.
What Are the Most Productive Push-Up Variations?
If You're New to Push-Ups: Scapular Retraction and Protraction
Strengthening the muscles in and around your shoulder blades is the foundation to accomplishing your first push-up, Dean says. However, a lot of people miss these muscles.
How to do it: Get in a high plank position. While keeping your arms straight, relax the muscles of your upper back to let your chest sink toward the floor. Feel your shoulder blades flare around your back. Return to start and repeat.
Pro tip: Remember that you’re only moving a couple of inches, so keep those elbows locked, abs tight, and glutes squeezed.
If You Want to Build Your Core and Glutes: Hand-Release Push-Up
This variation strengthens the core and glutes while teaching you what it should feel like to fully engage the muscles in every push-up variation that you do.
Related: 5 Ways to Build Muscle Without Weights
How to do it: Lie face down on the floor. With your hands under your shoulders, hover your hands just above the floor and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Maximally contract your core and glutes. Take a deep breath, drive your hands into the floor, and bring your whole body into a high plank. Lower back down and repeat.
Pro tip: Don’t let your hips drop. The key to this one is to stay rigid and move your entire body as a single unit.
If You Have Wrist Pain With Push-Ups: Dumbbell Push-Up
You have two options: do them with an incline barbell or a pair of dumbbells.
How to do it: Place two dumbbells on the floor and grip them with your wrists straight and in line with the handles. Position the dumbbells to where they are most comfortable for your wrists, elbows, and shoulders. From there, do your push-ups.
Pro tip: Before doing any push-up exercise, it’s always best to work in wrist mobility exercises.
If Your Chest Is Ready to Take Things to the Next Level: Single-Hand Elevated Push-Up
This unilateral push-up variation significantly increases the load on your chest muscles, Dean says. You’ll need a sturdy way to elevate one hand a few inches from the floor. Try a bumper plate, a thick textbook, a kettlebell, or a dumbbell.
How to do it: Set up in a high-plank position with one hand on the elevated surface, elbow slightly bent, and the other flat on the floor with that arm fully extended. From there, perform your push-ups.
Pro tip: Keep in mind that the higher the object is, the more difficult the movement will be.
If You Want Explosive Strength and Upper-Body Power: Tempo Push-Up
“Eccentric push-ups with quick concentric action will be most beneficial for building power,” Dean says.
By quickly contracting your muscles on exertion, you’ll recruit your powerful fast-twitch muscle fibers and strengthen your muscles’ elastic components. In other words, you’re helping your muscle become more “springy.”
How to do it: From a high-plank position, lower your body toward the floor over the count of three seconds, then drive through the floor to raise back up as quickly as possible. Pause and repeat. Inhale as you lower, and forcefully exhale as you press up.
Pro tip: Experiment with different counts on the way down to add in variety.
If You're All About the Triceps: Diamond Push-Up
Changing your hand positioning with this push-up variation takes some load off of the chest and moves it to the triceps, Dean says.
How to do it: Get in a high-plank position and place your hands together on the floor with your index fingers and thumbs touching each other to form a diamond shape. Do your push-ups from there.
Pro tip: To ensure that you’re keeping tension on your triceps instead of your chest, tuck your elbows to your sides.