The king of all upper-body pushing exercises, push-ups are extremely effective for increasing upper body strength, particularly for the chest, shoulders, triceps and core. However, once an individual learns how to properly perform a push-up and gets strong at them (i.e. able to perform three sets of 20-plus reps), the basic move no longer provides adequate stimulus for improvement. To keep challenging the body, forcing it to adapt and change, here are five variations that will take your fitness to the next level.
1. Feet-Elevated Push-Up
This challenging push-up variation can be used in place of an incline bench press in a pinch, but is particularly helpful for those who have difficulty pressing overhead. “Elevating the feet in a push-up helps transfer the load toward the upper chest and anterior deltoids,” says David Larson, CSCS, a strength coach based out of Pulse Fitness in Scottsdale, AZ. “This is essentially the push-up equivalent of an incline bench press.”
How to: Get in a push-up position, but instead of leaving your feet on the ground, place them on an object that’s about one foot high. This is the start position (a). Lower your chest towards the ground, keeping your forearms vertical (b), and push yourself back to the start position (c).
Sets: 3, Reps: 10, Rest: 2 minutes
2. Valslide Push-Up With Reach
Using a Valslide under each hand puts an extra emphasis on the core, the first area that tends to give out once fatigue sets in. Larson cautions that the position becomes more unstable, but it gives the benefit of working more muscle fibers in the chest, shoulders and triceps.
How to: Place a Valslide under each hand in a push-up position. Begin to perform a push-up, and as you lower your chest towards the ground, slide one of your hands out in front of your body, keeping the extended arm straight, until your chest almost touches the ground (a). Push both hands into the ground and squeeze your abs to return to the start position (b). Repeat in an alternating fashion until all prescribed reps are completed.
Sets: 3, Reps: 5 each side, 10 total, Rest: 2 minutes
3. TRX Suspension Trainer Push-Up
For those who already have a strong core, the weak point of push-up may be the prime movers, or in the case of the push-up, the chest, shoulders and triceps. Larson says the TRX is an especially useful tool because it’s easy to find the ideal intensity. “Furthermore, there’s a moderate amount of instability provided by the device, thus enhancing motor unit recruitment,” he says.
How to: Set up a TRX or any suspension trainer hanging from a sturdy object so the handles are shoulder-width apart, about 12-18 inches off the ground. Hold onto the handles and extend your legs behind you in a push-up position. This is the start position (a). Lower your chest towards the ground, keeping your forearms perpendicular to the floor, until your chest is in line with your hands, then push yourself back to the start position (b).
Sets: 3, Reps: 8, Rest: 2 minutes
4. Puncher’s Push-Up
Push-ups can improve stability and strength, but what about power? To get more bang for your buck, try a puncher’s push-up, a naturally plyometric move that can be effective for those seeking to increase power, Larson says.
How to: Take a firm medicine ball and place it under one hand in a push-up position with your feet spread wider than hip-width apart and core tight. This is the start position (a). Perform a push-up, exploding upwards so that the hand on the ground comes off the floor and lines up with the hand on the medicine ball (b). Pause for a second, then lower yourself back to the ground (c).
Sets: 3, Reps: 4 on each side, Rest: 2 minutes
5. Stability Ball Push-Up
Got the above moves down pat? Test your strength, balance and coordination by placing a stability ball under your hands. “This is an effective variation for increasing shoulder and core stability while simultaneously training the chest,” Larson says.
How to: Place a stability ball under your hands and squeeze the ball (a). Keeping your forearms perpendicular to the floor, lower your chest so it lightly touches the ball, and return to the start position (b).
Sets: 3, Reps: 10 or more, Rest: 2 minutes
Photos by Jordan Shakeshaft