What Muscles Do Push Ups Work? + Variations To Add To Your Workouts

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One of the best all-around exercises for the upper body muscles is the push-up.

Although we tend to think of the push-up as an arm-dominant exercise, the muscles worked by push-ups actually extend far beyond just the muscles in your arms, making the push-up one of the best bodyweight calisthenic exercises for the upper-body muscles.

But, what muscle groups do push ups work? What muscles do push ups work if you have your hands close together? What muscles do diamond push ups work? What muscles do decline push-ups work?

In this guide, we will look at how to perform a push up correctly and uiltimately answer your question, what muscles do push ups work?

We will look at: 

  • How to Perform a Push-Up With Proper Form
  • Tips for Performing Push-Ups
  • What Muscles Do Push Ups Work?

Let’s jump in!

A person doing a push up.

How to Perform a Push-Up With Proper Form

Before we look at the muscles worked by push-ups, let’s cover how to perform push-ups.

Here are the steps to perform a push-up with the correct form:

  1. Kneel down and place your hands on the floor with your wrists, elbows, and shoulders stacked in a line. You can spread your fingers out slightly to add stability and your hands should be about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Step your feet back so that you’re weight-bearing on your toes/balls of your feet. Your feet should be on the floor with your toes curled under, contacting the ground behind you. Your elbows should line up directly underneath your shoulders.
  3. Keep your body in a straight line from your head to your heels without your butt sagging down and creating a sway back or hiked up into the air. Imagine that your body is a straight board.
  4. Brace your core by drawing your belly button in towards your spine and squeezing your glutes tightly. 
  5. Lower your chest toward the ground by bending your elbows until they are flexed to a 90° angle. Your elbows should bend towards your feet and not flare out to the sides away from your body.
  6. Press through your palms to engage your triceps and pecs as you straighten your elbows and lift your body back up to the starting position.

Tips for Performing Push-Ups

In order to maximize the effectiveness of push-ups and really target the muscles worked by push-ups, it is crucial to use proper form. 

There are several common technique or push-up form mistakes that beginners and even more advanced athletes make.

Here are the most common push-up mistakes:

#1: Using A Truncated Range of Motion

If you actually want to strengthen the push-up muscle groups, you have to move through the full range of motion.

Many beginners unintentionally “cheat“ when doing push-ups by not going deep enough.

You should be bending your elbows to at least 90° when you lower your chest down. On the way up, extend your elbows fully. 

If you can’t go deep enough with your push-ups, you might lack sufficient strength in the muscles used by push-ups.

Try modifying the push-up by starting on your knees or putting your hands up on an elevated surface such as a weight bench, table, or even a wall.

You will still work most of the same push-up muscle groups but the relative percentage of your body weight will be less the more inclined your body is since you will have less gravity acting upon you.

A person doing a push up.

#2: Not Keeping Your Hips In Line With the Body

Remember to keep your hips in line with your body so that you do not cause excess strain on your lower back.

Plus, if you allow your hips to sag down or stick up into the air, you will be missing out on properly activating your core muscles that could otherwise be strengthened in a functional way when doing push-ups. 

#3: Placing Your Hands Too Far Forward

Make sure your shoulders, elbows, and wrists are stacked in a line and are perpendicular to the floor.

If you angle your hands too far forward relative to your shoulder joint will put excess torque on your shoulders and wrists.

This push-up form mistake can also reduce the mechanical efficiency of your core muscles worked by push-ups to help stabilize your body.

A person doing a push up.

#4: Flaring Your Elbows Too Far Out to the Sides

Flaring your elbows out to the side instead of bending them backward decreases the effectiveness of push-ups for strengthening the triceps and core muscles.

It also decreases the effectiveness of targeting the pecs because bending your elbows more towards your waist rather than out to the side better aligns with the muscle fiber arrangement of the pecs.

Plus, it can cause excessive strain and torque on your wrists and elbows.

Aim to have your elbows angled back towards your hip bones. 

Your shoulders should be dropping down and meeting your hands in the lowered position. Your hands should be pointing forward rather than inward towards one another. 

What Muscles Do Push Ups Work?

Standard or incline push-ups (against a wall or with your hands on a chair) are a great chest exercise for bodyweight chest workouts.

The primary muscles worked by push-ups include the pectoral muscles in the chest, the triceps in the upper arm, and the deltoids in the shoulder.

The chest is composed of two pectoral muscles: pectoralis major and pectoralis minor. The pectoralis major muscle forms the bulk of the muscular pecs. 

A person doing a push up.

This thick, fan-shaped muscle has two separate heads. The clavicular head attaches to the clavicle, the sternocostal head attaches to the sternum, and the costal cartilage is in between your ribs.

Both heads converge and then the muscle inserts on the humerus, or upper-arm bone.

The main role of the pectoralis major is the adduction (pulling the arm back into your body after it’s out to the side) and internal rotation of the arm.

The clavicular portion helps flex the extended arm, while the sternocostal portion helps extend the flexed arm.

The pectoralis minor is a smaller, triangular-shaped muscle that lies under the pectoralis major. Pectoralis minor is involved in stabilizing, lowering, abducting, protracting, and rotating the scapula. It also helps elevate the ribs when you inhale.

Another key muscle group worked by push-ups is the triceps, which assists the pectoralis major in pushing exercises.

The triceps brachii is the three-headed muscle in the back of your upper arm that is involved in any pressing or pushing exercise.

Additional muscles worked by push-ups that help assist the prime movers are the serratus anterior, the deltoids and rotator cuffs in the shoulders, the core muscle such as your abdominals and lower back extensors, and the muscles in your upper back such as your traps and rhomboids.

Two people doing push ups.

What Muscle Groups Do Push Ups Work When You Vary the Exercise?

You can also vary the muscles strengthened by push-ups by altering your hand placement or performing different types of push-ups.

For example, wide push-ups with your hands further than shoulder-width apart will work more of your pecs and serratus anterior muscle groups and will decrease the workload on your triceps.

People also tend to ask, what muscles do diamond push ups work?

Diamond push-ups or narrow push-ups, in contrast, will shift the workload more to your triceps and anterior deltoids.

Push-ups on an unstable surface, such as “chaos push-ups” on a resistance band or push-ups with one arm on a medicine ball will shift the emphasis on the muscles worked by push-ups to involve more of the core muscles for stability.

They will also work more of the muscles on the one side that is moving through the full range of motion when you are performing staggered push-ups with one hand on a medicine ball or other implement.

A medicine ball push up.

Decline push-ups, much like decline bench press, will also target more of the lower pec muscle fibers whereas incline push ups can target more of your upper pec muscle fibers.

An advanced push up variation such as a stability ball push-up with your feet up on the stability ball will also challenge the push up muscles in a different way.

As with a decline push-up, there is more gravity acting upon your body weight, which will require more strength and muscular workload on your core and upper-body muscles.

Additionally, your pecs and the muscles that stabilize your shoulders and scapula have to engage throughout the duration of the exercise because your feet are balancing on an unstable surface.

You have to actively squeeze your pectoralis major and minor, rhomboids, rotator cuff muscles, serratus anterior, and your upper traps to provide a stable base of support for your scapula to control shoulder movement.

As can be seen, there are many benefits to adding different variations of push-ups into your upper body workouts, chest workouts, arm workouts, and even core workouts, as the muscles worked by push-ups shift somewhat depending on the type of push-up you are doing.

If you are looking for shoulder workouts to supplement your push up workouts, check out our shoulder exercise guide here.

Dumbbell push press.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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