What muscles do push ups work? The classic strength exercise recruits a lot of different muscles for movement and stability, but it primarily targets your chest, shoulders, and upper arms.
“The muscle that provides the majority of movement during pushups is the pectoralis major (the largest muscle in the chest),” says physical therapist Matt Bushell. KC Health Services (Opens in a new tab). The secondary muscles that aid movement are the anterior deltoid (the front of the shoulder) and the triceps (the back of the upper arm).
Combined, these help push your upper arm forward and across your body and straighten your elbow as you push off the ground. Other muscles involved in stabilizing to perform the pushup include your abs, quads, and hip flexors as well as many of the smaller muscles around your shoulders and upper back.
Matt Buchel is a Physiotherapist and Exercise Scientist with a BSc in Sports and Exercise Science from the University of the Sunshine Coast and an MSc in Physical Therapy Studies from the University of Queensland. He has spent over 15 years in health, rehabilitation and performance. He currently works as a Principal Physiotherapist at KC Health Services in Brisbane, spends individual weekends as a Physiotherapist in Australian Football working hard and conditioning with high-profile athletes.
Simple body weight exercises like push-ups can help you get stronger without equipment. If you want more resistance to a workout, you can invest in some Best adjustable dumbbells (Opens in a new tab) But research suggests that bodyweight exercises are sufficient if you want to build strength.
One small study published in Journal of Exercise and Fitness Science (Opens in a new tab), showed that low-load bench press and pushups can lead to similar muscle hypertrophy over an eight-week period. So you can expect to see some gains if you stick to the right routine. With that in mind, here are the muscles you’ll target every time you do a pushup.
The pectoralis major and minor
These muscles are found in the chest and are often referred to as the ‘chest muscles’. They play an essential role during pushups as they allow you to move your arm in front of your body, but they also allow your chest and ribs to rise and fall.
anterior deltoid muscle
The anterior deltoids are the muscles above your shoulders. It rests on your arms and shoulder, along with the rotator cuff. These large muscles help raise your arms above your head and move them to the sides.
The front deltoid will support your body while performing push-ups, but injuries can occur through overuse. Always listen to your body and allow rest days.
Your triceps are the large muscles at the back of your upper arm and are put to work every time you do a pushup. It helps your body fall and rise during each repetition. They also allow your arm to be extended at the elbow – getting their name because this muscle group is made up of three different muscle heads, all of which meet at the elbow.
The abdominals, or abs, are a large muscle group below the ribs and above the pelvis at the heart of the body. They have several main functions, including stabilizing the body, protecting your internal organs, and helping you move around with ease.
Push-ups — although largely considered an upper-body exercise — can help build abdominal strength. As long as your form is correct, your abdominal muscles are working to stabilize your core during each push-up, keeping your body aligned and supporting your back.
Occupy and brigade
The quads are a large muscle group found in the front of each thigh. Although push-ups don’t specifically target the quadriceps, they are still used every time you do a pushup to keep your legs stable.
The gluteal muscles (Opens in a new tab), located in the buttocks, are secondary muscle groups and are not the focus of the pushup. However, they still played an important role in their execution.
There are three main muscle groups that make up the gluteal muscles: the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus maximus. Squeezing your glutes while performing a pushup will help keep your core strong and your hips stable.
Pay the differences
If you’ve had enough of a standard push-up, there are plenty of variations you can add to your workout routine. You can add a cardio thrust with a plyometric push-up: slowly lower your body to the floor and then come back in an explosive motion, aiming to clap your hands together before going back down.
You can also challenge push-ups by adding a tilt – placing your feet on a bench or stepping exercise with your hands on the floor. This will work your shoulders and chest more vigorously, as well as require the strength of your abdomen to keep your body regular.
Want an extra burn in your butt and chest muscles? In that case, try the one leg pushup, which really tests your balance and strength. To do this, assume a normal propulsion position, but raise one leg in the air, keeping it straight.
And if your whole body push-up is too big, you can always adapt the exercise by falling on your knees, which reduces the amount of body weight you need to lift off the ground.
This article is not intended to provide medical advice and readers should consult a physician or healthcare professional before adopting any treatment or exercise regimen.