Weight lifting is usually associated with building muscle mass, but you can increase your muscle size and strength with calisthenic exercises like push-ups. When doing a push-up, muscles used includes pecs, triceps, biceps, quadriceps and core muscles.
Push-up benefits include increased muscle mass, strength and endurance. The push-up primarily works the triceps and chest but also activates many other muscles in your arms, shoulders, core and legs.
Increasing Muscle Mass
Gaining muscle mass does not happen overnight. When you first begin a new strength training regimen, your neural system adapts to the new pressure and begins to utilize new motor units. A motor unit is a neuron and the muscle fibers associated with it.
With continued training, your body will begin to develop new muscle fibers, resulting in increased muscle mass. This can take three to six months, advises the American Council on Exercise. How fast this happens and how much muscle is gained varies greatly. Some people have a greater genetic potential to gain muscle. Other factors include your diet, hormone levels and training intensity.
For the greatest muscle growth, the American Council on Exercise recommends doing three to six sets of six to 12 repetitions with only 60 to 90 seconds of rest between sets. If the repetitions are too easy, your gains will slow or stagnate. Increase the intensity by trying more challenging push-up variations.
Do not sacrifice technique to achieve the recommended sets and repetitions. Pushing yourself beyond your fitness level and using poor form may lead to injury and halt your progress. If you experience pain during your workout, stop and consult your doctor.
Push-Ups: Muscles Worked
Regular push-ups primarily focus on the pecs while close-grip push-ups shift the focus to the triceps. Other muscles that help stabilize the movement include the biceps, quadriceps and core muscles.
To do a push-up, your hands should be placed slightly wider than shoulder width. Keep your spine in a neutral position and your body straight from your head to feet. Lower your body by bending your elbows; then push your body back up until your arms are straight. For a close-grip push-up, move your hands in so that they are slightly narrower than shoulder width.
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.
Add Weight to Increase Intensity
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 bodyweight push-up when first starting out, as you get stronger, you may need more challenging 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 is important that your partner help guide the weights as you exercise so that they don't slide off your back and injure you. If you are working out solo, wear a weight vest when doing push-ups. As you progress, simply add more weight.
Increase the weight slowly to avoid injuring your joints and muscles. If you find you are sacrificing form, decrease the amount of weight you use or decrease the number of repetitions.
Push-Up Variations and Alternatives
If weights aren't an option, or you just want to add some variety to your push-up routine, try some other push-up variations. For example, do push-ups with your feet elevated, which allows your upper body to take on a greater percentage of your body weight.
Another variation is a clap push-up. Do a regular push-up, but at the top of the motion, push your hands off the ground and clap them together before catching yourself with your hands again and doing another push-up.
Increase your range of motion and increase difficulty with a depth push-up. Position yourself between two slightly raised platforms with your hands just inside of the blocks. Lower your body and as you come up, jump your hands up onto the platform
Lower your body again and when you come up, remove your hands from the blocks and land back on the floor. When these become easier, increase the intensity again by doing the exercise with your feet on a raised platform.
Considerations When Building Muscle
When trying to build muscle, it is 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 six to eight hours of sleep each night, advises 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.
Your body needs fuel to grow muscle. Stay hydrated and make sure you are eating enough calories and choosing healthy foods. When focusing on building muscle mass, your body needs protein.
Depending on the intensity of your routine, try to consume 0.55 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, advises 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
What about supplements? The compounds found in supplements are also available in food, so adjust your diet first, advises 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 are another common supplement that you find in your diet in meat, dairy and legumes. If you are 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"
- ExRx.net: "Close Grip 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"
- ExRx.net: "Depth Push-Up"
- ExRx.net: "Clap Push-Up"
- University of California, San Diego Health: "Supplemental Information: Building a Body of Evidence"