While building muscle mass is most commonly associated with weight-lifting, you can increase your muscle size and strength with body-weight exercises like push-ups. Though they primarily target the pectorals (chest muscles), they also work with triceps, biceps, quadriceps and core.
Yes, push-up benefits include increased muscle mass, strength and endurance, primarily working the chest and triceps but also activating other muscles in your arms, shoulders, core and legs.
The Basics of Gaining Muscle Mass
Gaining muscle mass doesn't happen overnight. When you first begin a new strength-training regimen, your nervous system adapts to the new stimulus and begins to recruit additional motor units (a neuron and the muscle fibers associated with it).
With continued training, your body will begin to create new muscle fibers, resulting in increased muscle mass. This can take three to six months, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). But exactly how fast this happens and how much muscle you gain varies, depending on factors like genetics, diet, hormone levels and training intensity.
For the greatest muscle growth, the ACE recommends doing 3 to 6 sets of 6 to 12 reps with 60 to 90 seconds of rest between sets. If the reps are too easy, your gains will slow or stagnate. Increase the intensity by upping the weight or trying more challenging variations.
Building Muscle Mass With Push-Ups
Unlike many weight machines that target specific muscles, push-ups work multiple muscles simultaneously. They primarily target the pectoralis major, triceps brachii and deltoid, according to ExRx.net. Other muscles that help stabilize the movement include the biceps, quadriceps and core muscles. To do a push-up:
- Start on all fours with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Straighten your knees so you're in a high plank, keeping your spine in a neutral position and your body in a straight from your head to feet.
- Lower your body by bending your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body.
- Push your body back up until your arms are straight.
To gain muscle mass, you'll want to be near muscle failure after completing your sets. While you may feel this level of fatigue from a body-weight push-up when first starting out, as you get stronger, you'll need more advanced variations.
One simple way to increase the intensity is to do a weighted push-up. Have a partner put a weight plate on your back between your shoulders as you do the push-ups. It's important that your partner help guide the weight as you move so that it doesn't slide off your back and injure you. If you are working out solo, wear a weighted vest when doing push-ups.
Increase the weight slowly to avoid injuring your joints and muscles. If you find you're sacrificing form, decrease the amount of weight you use or decrease the number of reps.
While your push-ups do help build muscle mass, be sure to add other exercises to hit muscles not directly targeted in the push-up like the biceps and leg and back muscles.
5 Push-Up Variations for More Muscle Mass
If weights aren't an option, or you want to add some variety to your push-up routine, try a few different push-up variations. Weights will certainly help increase your strength but playing with your body weight in different positions will help build muscle mass, too.
Once you're ready to take your push-ups to the next level, Matt Cheng, CSCS, offers the following alternatives. These are progressively challenging, so start with the first move and see how far you can go down the line.
Move 1: Push-Up to Resting Tiger Position
- Begin at the top of a push-up with your hands directly beneath your shoulders, body in a straight line from head to hips to toes.
- Bending your arms at a 45-degree angle from your torso, lower your body until your chest hovers just above the ground.
- At the bottom of the push-up, lower to your forearms, pressing your heels back.
- Then, return to the lowest portion of the push-up, coming back onto your hands.
- On an exhale, press into the ground and finish the push-up, returning to the top of the push-up position.
Move 2: Staggered Push-Up
- Begin at the top of a standard push-up, body in a straight line from head to hips to toes.
- Bring your hands into a staggered position, moving your right arm forward a few inches and place your left arm back a few inches.
- Keeping hands staggered, bend your elbows about 45 degrees from your ribs and lower your body toward the ground until your chest hovers above the floor.
- On an exhale, push into the ground and return to the top of the push-up.
- After you finish your first set of staggered push-ups, swap the positioning of your hands.
For this variation, you can play with the distance between your harms to find what feels most challenging for you.
Move 3: Archer Push-Up
- Kneel on the ground and position your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width distance. Turn your hands out to the side.
- Extend your legs straight out behind you as in a standard position. Avoid sagging or hiking your hips.
- Shift your body weight to the right and bend the right elbow, keeping it close to your ribs. Your left arm will extend out almost straight.
- Lower your body until your chest hovers just above the floor.
- On an exhale, press into the right palm and push up and out to bring your body back to the center.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
This variation really emphasizes single-arm strength, Cheng says. Make sure to take a deep breath as you lower your body and exhale as you return to center.
Move 4: Single-Arm Push-Up
- Begin at the top of the push-up. Bring your hands in a few inches and spread your feet several inches wider.
- Put your weight in your right arm and bring your left arm off the ground, either behind your back or at the side of your body.
- On an inhale, lower your torso toward the ground, balancing on your legs and right arm.
- Once your chest hovers just above the ground, exhale and push back up to the starting position.
- After you complete your reps, switch to the other side.
Your body should form a triangle or tripod shape with your single arm out in front and legs spread wide behind you.
Move 5: Superman Push-Up
- Start at the top of a push-up, legs extended behind you and hands directly beneath your shoulders.
- Bend your elbows and lower toward the ground until your chest is right above the flower.
- On an exhale, push into the ground with explosive force.
- As you push-up into the air, bring your toes off the ground and extend your arms straight out in front of you.
- As you land on the ground, drop right into the next push-up.
If this move is a bit too challenging, you can try a clap push-up, Cheng says. Instead of launching your entire body into the air, keep your toes on the ground and clap your hands every time you come to the top of the push-up. As in the superman, land right into the next rep.
Other Considerations When Building Muscle
When you're trying to build muscle, it's tempting to keep pushing yourself harder until you see results. Don't fall into this trap. Rest is an important part of training and gives your muscles time to recover. Take days off from the gym and aim for 6 to 8 hours of sleep each night, according to Wexner Medical Center.
Other mental and emotional stress in your life can alter your hormone levels and contribute to the problem of overtraining, affecting your gains. So make time for stress-relieving activities like meditation, yoga, foam rolling or massage.
Your body needs fuel to grow muscle. Stay hydrated and make sure you're eating enough calories, choosing healthy foods and getting sufficient protein. Depending on the intensity of your routine, consume 0.55 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight, according to Colorado State University.
Avoid processed foods and sugars and focus on getting carbohydrates from fruits, vegetable and whole grains. The recommended diet includes:
- 45 to 65 percent of calories from carbohydrates
- 10 to 35 percent of calories from protein
- 20 to 35 percent of calories from fat
As for supplements, the compounds found in supplements are also available in food, so adjust your diet first, according to the University of California, San Diego Health. For example, one common supplement for muscle growth is creatine. This is a substance that is made in your liver, pancreas and kidneys and is found in food.
Branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) are another common supplement that you find in your diet in meat, dairy and legumes. If you're working out at high intensities and eating a good diet, consider workout supplements to help with recovery or to prepare for a competition or event.
- American Council on Exercise: "How Muscle Grows"
- ExRx.net: "Push-Up"
- Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: "Five Things Preventing You From Building Muscle"
- Colorado State University: "Macronutrient Needs for Athletes"
- ExRx.net: "Weighted Push-up"
- University of California, San Diego Health: "Supplemental Information: Building a Body of Evidence"