Pushups primarily develop your chest muscles, but they also recruit your shoulders and triceps. According to Kyle Brown of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, they’re among the most versatile strength training exercises because you can change your hand placement to target different muscle groups. Women can tone their muscles just as men, though typically not as quickly or significantly because of hormonal differences between the sexes.
For women to tone and build muscle definition, they must complete pushups at a relatively high volume. When you complete a significant number of pushups, you break down your chest, shoulders and triceps muscles, causing small tears throughout the muscle fibers. Your body responds to this damage by healing the muscles back stronger and larger so that they are better equipped to handle your subsequent pushup workouts. For women, the muscles generally become more defined and much stronger -- up to 50 percent stronger during six months of training -- but not larger.
Complete four to six sets of pushups to build muscle tone. Because pushups utilize your body weight as resistance, and that weight is fixed, the number of repetitions in each set will vary. Some people will need to complete more repetitions than others to fatigue their muscles, and some women will need to do their pushups with their knees resting on the floor to accomplish even one repetition. Whether you're doing traditional pushups or modified pushups with your knees on the floor, each set should be done to near exhaustion. The final three repetitions should be difficult to complete. Rest three to five minutes in between sets. Over time, you'll be able to increase the number of pushups it takes to reach exhaustion.
Because a woman’s muscles are broken down following a high-volume pushup workout, it’s important that at least 48 hours of rest are offered between workout sessions. This time is when your muscles will tone and become stronger. Workouts should be done two to three days per week. If you decide to work out twice per week, do so on Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays. If you decide to work out three days per week, do so on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays or Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Consider changing your hand placement sometimes when completing your pushup workouts. Performing pushups with regular hand placement causes your chest to do most of the work. If you only do pushups with the regular hand position, most improvements will be seen in your chest. You can bring your hands in to a more narrow position to put more focus on your shoulders and triceps, which will help build definition in your shoulders and triceps. Holding the plank position allows you to get used to supporting a good percentage of your body weight with your arms, and it strengthens your core muscles. Consider incorporating biceps curls into your training regimen as well so that you develop all of the major muscle groups in the arms.
- National Strength and Conditioning Association Performance Training Journal: The Push-Up
- Fitness and Wellness: A Personalized Program; Werner W. K. Hoeger and Sharon A. Hoeger
- American Council on Exercise: How Women Build Muscle