Push-ups are a classic exercise with many benefits and several variations, including elbows in close to the body and elbows out in line with the shoulders. Push-ups do not require equipment, so you can do them anywhere -- against a wall, on a bench or on the floor. But the position of your elbows and hands determines how you use your muscles while doing push-ups and the effects you can achieve.
Hand Distance Affects Elbows
Elbows out is used in more than one push-up variation. The elbows-out push-ups have the hands at shoulder-width or greater distance apart, which is different than elbow-in push-ups that generally have the hands slightly narrower than shoulder-width. Elbows-out push-ups include regular chest push-ups and wide push-ups -- with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart. Elbows-in push-ups are known as triceps push-ups, narrow push-ups or close push-ups, although they are essentially the same push-up. You can do both elbow-out and elbows-in push-ups on your knees or toes.
Push-ups work three muscle groups -- chest, shoulders and arms. Wide push-ups with your elbows out emphasize your chest, whereas regular push-ups with your elbows out evenly distribute the weight between your chest, deltoids and triceps. Also, elbows-out push-ups with your arms shoulder-width apart or wider use only your abs as secondary muscles for stabilization, but elbows-in push-ups target the abs as primary muscles, too. Bringing your hands closer together and tucking your elbows in toward your sides emphasizes your triceps.
Triceps push-ups are harder than regular push-ups. The triceps are smaller muscles compared to your chest muscles, so they cannot lift as much weight. When you do triceps push-ups, you work only your triceps and shoulders.
Bringing your elbows in puts less stress on your shoulder joints. By doing push-ups with your elbows closer to your sides, you strengthen the serratus anterior muscles -- the muscles at the sides of your chest. The serratus anterior attaches to your shoulder blade and helps stabilize the joint. Having this muscle strong protects your shoulder from injury and makes other chest exercises -- such as the bench press -- safer and easier due to greater joint stability.