A new study shows that push-ups, give at least as much muscle growth as the bench press. It may sound strange when you look at how popular a bench press exercise is and how few people, in turn, lie on the floor doing push-ups. Nonetheless, push-ups can provide you with a huge chest and strong triceps just as well as bench press can.
Aren’t you convinced yet? Fine.
This is precisely why in this article we need to take a closer look at the results of some studies, and the many benefits that the overlooked push-ups otherwise have.
Briefly on the studies
Kikuchi and Nakazato ( 1 ) recruited 18 young men, with no previous strength training experience, thus bench-pressing an average of about 60 kg. for 1-rep max (1RM) at the trial start, with an average body weight of ~ 65 kg.
These subjects were divided into 2 groups, each to follow their exercise program for 8 weeks. Thus, one group had to train 3 sets of bench press with 40% of 1RM, twice a week.
The other group should instead do 3 sets of push-ups, twice a week. These were performed on the knees so that the load matched the weight they used in the bench press group ( 2 ).
All the subjects raised to muscular exhaustion, under the supervision of the coaches. After each workout, they drank a protein shake with 25 g of protein to give them good conditions for muscle building during the exercise program.
Following the exercise protocol, muscle thickness of the pectoralis major, triceps, and biceps were measured. In addition, they tested their 1RM in the bench press, as well as how many repetitions they could perform at a maximum of 40% of 1RM, and power output at throws with a medicine ball.
What did the researchers find out?
After 8 weeks, both groups had increased their muscle mass in the chest and triceps to the same extent. Thus, both the bench press and the push-up group had increased their muscle thickness in the chest from an average of 17.0 mm to 20.8 mm. Triceps had grown from 26.3 mm to 27.8 mm of bench performance, and from 27.7 to a full 30.4 mm of push up protocol, but without the difference between groups was statistically significant.
However, biceps grew more in the bench press group (from 28.4 to 31.5 mm), with no significant difference in the push-up group. But the progress in the pressing musculature was at least as good for the subjects who made push-ups.
Surprisingly, there was no significant difference in the 1RM progress between the groups in the bench press. Thus, the bench press group increased their max from 60 to 65 kg and the push-up group from 61.1 to 64.2 kg. A little striking when you think about the principle of specificity (you first become good at bench press), but conversely you don’t get much better at bench press heavy for one repetition when exercising with as lightweight as 40% of 1 RM ( 3 ).
In the endurance test and the medicine ball throw, none of the groups achieved significant improvement over the 8 weeks.
What are the conclusions of the study?
The study first shows us two things:
First, it shows that you can achieve just as good muscle growth by working out with light weights as with heavier weights if you are training for muscular fatigue. Although the load is as low as 40% of the 1RM, the fatigue rate in itself will suffice for us to end up activating all motor units in the muscle.
Some will criticize the study for using untrained subjects, and this is a limitation in some respects, but a more recent meta-analysis (including experienced individuals) shows that just as good muscle growth is achieved by training for failure with weights below 60% of 1RM, as with heavier weights ( 3 ).
In fact, in a study by Burd et al. trained individuals achieved a greater increase in muscle protein synthesis after exercise when exercising leg extensions to failure by 30% of 1RM than by 90% ( 4 ). Thus, there is no evidence that it provides better muscle growth in the chest and triceps to perform heavy squeezing exercises than doing bodyweight push-ups (even on the knees, in this study).
A new study by Lasevicius et al. shows, however, that muscle growth from strength training will be impaired when coming down to 20% of 1RM ( 5 ). But when you do 30+ repetitions in your push-ups sets, it is also natural to add weight to your back or move on to more advanced push-up variants. That leads us to point two.
Second, the study showed that push-ups are a great exercise for the chest muscles. Thus, previous studies have shown that the activation of the press muscle is quite similar between bench press and push-ups (6 – 7 – 8), and the same now appears to be the case for muscle growth.
In addition, push-ups have some advantages that one does not get in the bench press.
First, the shoulder blades are not fixed down to a bench but work freely. It is, in principle, a healthier movement pattern for the shoulders, and at the same time gives a greater training effect on especially the serratus anterior (the sawed muscle on the ribs) that controls and stabilizes the shoulder blade.
However, it is not only the muscles around the shoulder blades that gain more volume. Your abdominal wall muscle (what some call “core”) also gets to work aplenty with push-ups. In practice, push-ups mimic a plank where you simply have movement in the elbow and shoulder joints but keep the upper body static.
For extra core stimulus and a higher overall load, you can add weight to your back or raise your feet to lift a greater portion of body weight. Most centers also have handles to raise your hands off the floor, allowing you to do your push-ups with a greater range of motion, for a more challenging exercise, and more stretch on the chest muscle for extra hypertrophy. There are many applications.
Push-ups are thus a great exercise with many benefits, and there are virtually not many people who (when they get strong enough) do not periodically have push-ups with an extra range of exercise in their exercise program. Not least because this exercise simultaneously works with the structural qualities that are a prerequisite for making painless dips with a full range of motion.