Do Push-Ups Burn Chest Fat?

Stress and unhealthy lifestyle. Heart attack at the fat guy.
Push-ups will help contour pectoral muscles but they won't burn fat. (Image: VladOrlov/iStock/Getty Images)

Push-ups are a superb all-around exercise for tightening and building the chest muscles, as well as the shoulders and upper arms. In fact, some trainers call it "the perfect exercise." But do push-ups burn fat in the chest region?

The short answer is "no," but that doesn't mean that push-ups can't contribute toward acquiring a flatter, firmer chest. Understanding more about how your body sheds fat and builds muscle could help you formulate a plan for a leaner upper-body profile.

What Push-Ups Do

Push-ups work a number of muscle groups, starting with muscles in the neck and moving down through the shoulders, upper arms, chest, back and even the abdominal muscles.

Because of the prone, plank-like position you assume when doing them, push-ups are great for aligning posture. The plank tones your abdominals and the stabilizing muscles of the back. Weak back muscles lead to sagging posture which causes pectoral muscles to shorten. Push-ups restore balance and alignment.

While exercises such as push-ups do build muscle, it's a myth that fat is directly "converted" to muscle by working out. Exercise burns calories, which in turn shrinks fat cells, though push-ups in and of themselves don't burn a lot of calories.

Muscle development, however, is a different matter and actually occurs as kind of a healing process. Technically speaking, resistance exercises such as push-ups or lifting weights injure muscle tissue. New muscle tissue is formed when the body repairs or replaces the damaged fibers to form new muscle protein strands called myofibrils. As you continue working out, these repaired myofibrils thicken and proliferate to create muscle growth. That soreness you feel when you first start doing push-ups is a sign that you're building muscle.

Man doing push-up exercise with dumbbell
The soreness you feel when you start doing push-ups is a sign that you're building muscle. (Image: Mina3686/iStock/Getty Images)

What Push-Ups Don't Do

People accumulate fat in different places depending on their genetics and body type. Men in particular may find it dismaying when fat settles across their chest and pectoral muscles, bestowing them with the proverbial "man boobs." Male or female, you can have highly toned chest muscles, but if they're buried underneath a thick layer of fat, your chest might still look flabby and underdeveloped. So building up your pecs into a solid fortress of muscle and losing fat are two very different, but highly complementary things.

As for losing fat, it's important to understand that -- just as there is no Santa Claus -- there is no such thing as "spot reduction." Shedding pounds of fat is a full-body proposition, but which areas of fat give in to your heroic efforts is something only your DNA profile knows for sure. If you want a flat chest and you're carrying a lot of excess weight, consider diet and exercise as two wheels of the same bicycle.

Speaking of bicycles...

Move It and Lose It

Losing fat is pretty straightforward: burn more calories than you consume. Losing a pound of fat means burning 3,500 calories more than you take in, which is best accomplished through a combination of diet and exercise. The National Institutes of Health recommends 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, such as treadmill, jogging or stairs.

So dieting is inevitable but it doesn't have to be torture and while there are numerous diets out there making outlandish promises that may actually work if you stick with them, the sticking with them part is indeed the sticking point. Find a diet that suits your lifestyle. However, according to a 2004 paper in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine, there is some strong evidence that reducing carbs like bread and pasta in favor of vegetables and lean protein will make losing weight easier.

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