Push-ups are the training wheels of chest exercises. They build functional strength and provide the foundation for other upper-body exercises, but body-weight push-ups aren't the key to a truly sculpted chest. Eventually, you'll need to advance your workout and add weights.
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If you've stopped seeing strength gains in your pecs no matter how many push-ups you perform, it's safe to say you've hit a plateau. Luckily, adding some volume to your chest routine will leave you sore but satisfied.
Push-Ups Will Work — Until They Don't
Push-ups are an excellent beginner exercise for building strength in your chest, shoulders and triceps. And if you want to build fundamental upper-body strength (with a side of core work), they're are definitely the way to go.
But if strong pecs and a chiseled chest is the goal (yes, ladies, this applies to you, too), push-ups will only get you so far, says Henry Halse, CSCS. Once you get the hang of the move and perform it consistently, your body will adapt to the exercise. In order to keep your muscles growing, you'll need to introduce a new stimulus, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
In addition to varying your exercises, you'll want to increase your training volume (the weight, sets and reps of each exercise) if you want to improve your strength, according to NASM. Each week, you should increase at least one of these elements. That means, eventually, straight push-ups won't be enough to keep your pecs growing.
"It's difficult to control or even measure how much resistance you're using when you do a body-weight exercise," Halse says. "Weighted resistance is measurable, and it's easy to put more plates on a dumbbell or pick up heavier dumbbells. Using heavier weight helps you build more muscle and gain more strength."
Adding Weight to Your Chest Moves
Once you've surpassed beginner level and can perform 10 standard push-ups with good form, it's probably time to progress to some new exercises, Halse says. To get the perky pecs of your dreams, incorporate these three exercises into your upper-body workouts, progressively tacking on more weight as the weeks go by.
1. Barbell Bench Press
- Lie on a flat bench with a barbell above your head at about eye level.
- Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Remove the bar from the rack with your elbows straight. Keep your feet flat on the ground and root your glutes into the bench.
- Lower the bar to touch your chest right below your nipple line, bending at the elbows.
- On an exhale, press the bar back up over your shoulders, straightening your elbows.
If you haven't worked with a barbell before, make sure to ask a friend or trainer to spot you. Then, once you get familiar with the exercise, tack on some plates.
2. Cable Chest Press
- Adjust a cable machine so that the handles are are at head height.
- Take a handle in each hand and step forward, facing away from the machine.
- Press the handles out in front of your body, arms fully extended.
- With a slight bend in your elbows, open your arms and bring your hands back toward the machine until they're in line with your shoulders.
- In the same arcing motion, press your hands back together like you're giving someone a big hug.
Read more: 4 Signs You're Ready to Lift Heavier Weights
3. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
- Sit on a bench that's set to an incline of about 45 degrees.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, resting on your quads.
- Lean back and bring the dumbbells up to your chest, flattening your back against the bench.
- Press the dumbbells straight above your chest, extending your elbows.
- Lower the weights to chest height, bending at the elbows.
- Then, press them back up.