Press-Ups, A New Take On An Old Favourite

Press-Ups - varying approaches to ensure you get the most


In this issue’s ‘exercise of the month’, PP regular James Marshall takes a fresh look at one of the old favourites – press-ups. As James explains, recent research indicates that the press-up action can – and should – be tailored to the requirements of your sport

It may seem strange to feature such a common exercise as press-ups in ‘exercise of the month’ – after all, who has never done a press-up at some point in their life? However, because they are so common, researchers like analysing exactly what they do, and in particular, which muscles they benefit the most. Anecdotal evidence suggests that varying the hand position in the exercise alters the intensity and proportion of the involvement of the muscles used, and recent research has confirmed this.

The two main muscle groups involved are the triceps of the rear upper arm and the pectoralis major of the chest. The triceps is the prime mover in extension (straightening) of the elbow; the pectoralis major is the prime mover in adduction of the humerus (moving the upper arm towards the mid line of your body). The press-up action also requires the trunk to remain in a fixed position relative to the upper body; this stabilisation action uses the trunk muscles including the psoas, rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus of the frontal trunk and the erector spinae of the rear trunk.

Hand width and position variations

Recent studies using electromyography (measuring the electric recruitment of muscle fibres) have shown that a narrower than shoulder-width hand position requires more triceps work than the shoulder-width and wider than shoulder-width hand positions and it also results in greater pectoralis (chest) involvement per repetition performed (contrary to popular opinion) (1).

Researchers have also recently studied force generation during six variations of press-ups; the three already mentioned, as well as kneeling press-ups, anterior (with the arms forwards of the body) and posterior (with the arms underneath the body towards the waist)(2). In this case, they found no significant differences in patterns of force generation in any of the variations except for the posterior position, where the pectoralis muscle was used more. The kneeling variant did however produce less force (53% of the body weight of the subject compared to 66% in the other variations).

Benefits and progressions

Assuming that you are injury free, think about why you may want to do this exercise. The hand position you adopt should replicate the most common practice in your sport; if you use a variety of hand positions, then do the same with the press-ups; if you want to get the most time-efficient workout, you should adopt the narrow hand position. If you want to emphasise different aspects of your upper body strength you can look at a few of the following ideas:

  • If you are returning from injury and are not confident in the above variations, start by trying the exercise standing up and leaning against a wall. You can then progress to the kneeling position, as this requires less effort than the standard press-up;
  • To develop shoulder stability, try with one hand on a medicine ball and one hand on the floor. This requires the rotator cuff muscles to work harder on keeping the correct shoulder blade position;
  • To develop trunk stability, try with either one foot off the floor, or with both feet on a stability ball. This will also push more of your body weight into the arms, so it will also require greater strength;
  • Contact development’ – useful for sports that involve falling to the floor, such as rugby. Start by kneeling upright and then fall forward and perform a controlled kneeling press-up to the floor. Progress to standing, then walking forward and dropping to the floor.

Once a sound strength base has been established, you can work on developing power. Try the kneeling press-ups, but push straight back to the upright kneeling position again. Try to have as little time close to the floor as is possible. Other variations include the clap press-up with hands either clapping together after you have pushed up off the floor powerfully, or both hands touching the chest.

James Marshall MSc, CSCS, ACSM/HFI runs Excelsior, a sports training company
Illustrations by Viv Mullett


  1. J Strength and Conditioning Res 2005; 19:3, 628-633
  2. J Strength and Conditioning Res 2005; 19:1, 146-151

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