Push-ups may be simple, but they're simply amazing. They can build your chest as effectively as lighter-weight bench press, per a June 2017 study in the Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness. And they just might help predict your risk for cardiovascular disease.
In a February 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, men who could do 40 or more push-ups were at a lower risk of serious cardiac events over 10 years than those who could only do 10.
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But when you get into higher rep ranges like that, standard push-ups can start to cause pain — and eventually overuse injury — in your wrists. One solution: Do push-ups on closed fists, propping up your body on your knuckles.
"On your palms, you feel your wrists being overloaded from that bent position. [On my knuckles], it feels like the wrists are left out of it," says Eva Clarke, owner of Frontline BJJ Australia and Guinness World Record holder for most knuckle push-ups in an hour by a female (1,206) and most knuckle push-ups in 24 hours by a female (9,241).
Here's a roundup of pros and cons of knuckle push-ups compared to the classic move, as well as instructions for doing both safely — and how to incorporate more of the knuckle variety if it fits your goals.
Knuckle Push-Ups Benefits
We've already covered the main benefit of knuckle push-ups — it's easier on your wrists. But the variation has other advantages.
1. Larger Range of Motion
Performing push-ups on your knuckles means you have to do more pushing — because you push farther.
"You're actually getting probably two or three more inches of range of motion as you come down," says Martin Rooney, founder of Training for Warriors. "I consider it a much more complete push-up."
It makes sense: When you perform a classic push-up, you can only bring your chest as far down as your wrist. But with the knuckle variety, you go past your wrists and your whole hand before hitting the deck. And more range of motion means more challenge and work for the chest.
2. Increased Work for Your Forearms
Pushing on your knuckles can help you pump up like Popeye: In a December 2018 study from the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology comparing different push-up hand positions, knuckle push-ups activated the forearms more than push-ups on the palms.
One of the forearm muscles, the extensor digitorum, averaged more than double the activation during knuckle push-ups when compared to classic.
"The closed fist required for performing a knuckle push-up is similar to the hand posture used for gripping, which naturally facilitates forearm muscle activation and stabilization," the study authors write.
3. More Natural Rotation of Your Shoulder
"[The knuckle push-up] helps you to really externally rotate a lot better at the shoulder, which is more natural for the movements of the elbows," Rooney says.
"When you see people in the traditional push-up with the palms on the floor, a lot of times what happens is people's elbows flare out," he says. "Now you're putting increased pressure or stress across the AC joint [where your collarbone and shoulder meet]."
4. Doubles Activation of the Biceps
In the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology study, scientists found that the peak biceps contraction during a knuckle push-up was twice as hard as with a classic push-up. So while you're working your chest, forearms, abs and more with a push-up, you're also pumping up your upper arms.
5. Harden Your Knuckles for Punching
Knuckle push-ups have their origin in the martial arts world, and they're popular for strengthening the hands. Clarke and Rooney are both martial artists, and both say the variation has helped them develop stronger, more callused knuckles for striking.
If you're not a fighter but you've used a punching bag at your gym, you may have found that your knuckles gave out sooner than your arms or lungs. If you're not a budding fighter or boxing fitness enthusiast, though, this benefit may not mean much to you.
Cons of Knuckle Push-Ups
1. Might Hurt Your Hands
They're easier on your wrists, but propping your body up on your knuckles can wear on your hands and knuckles.
To ease your way into them, do your first knuckle push-ups on a soft yoga mat or other forgiving surface, says Luis Vargas, a 54-year old oil and gas consultant who's broken 12 Guinness World Records for push-ups, including the most knuckle push-ups in three minutes (192).
His other tip: Focus on keeping your body weight on the knuckles of your ring and pinky fingers rather than your index and middle fingers. This can take some stress off the knuckles.
If your hands still hurt, you can get a similar, wrist-saving benefit from performing push-ups on handles, Clarke says. Your wrists will still be in a punching-style position, but you won't be pressing your fists into the ground.
2. May Do Fewer Reps
The strain on your hands and the increased stabilizing by your forearms means you'll probably be able to do fewer knuckle push-ups than you could regular push-ups. For example, compare the Guinness records for knuckle push-ups in an hour (2,175) to more than 3,000 for classic push-ups.
So even though you'll get more forearm and biceps activation, you'll get less work overall if you're doing fewer push-ups. To combat this, Clarke suggests starting with shorter sets of knuckle push-ups so you can perform more overall sets (and the same number of overall push-ups).
3. Might Compromise Proper Form
Because you're so focused on the stress on your hands, Vargas says, your form can slip while doing knuckle push-ups. For example, your hips can sag, or your shoulders may hike up into a shrugging position.
To make sure this doesn't happen, combine Vargas's and Clarke's tips: Perform shorter sets, concentrating on your form, and do the knuckle push-ups on a softer surface, like a springy yoga mat.
4. Potential for Wrist Injury
Even though the punching position of a knuckle push-up won't strain your wrist, knuckle push-ups aren't without risk. Vargas says that when he was starting to do them, his wrists would occasionally buckle and he'd fall. And he's not alone: In 2012, NBA star Kevin Love broke his hand performing the exercise, putting him out of commission for weeks.
So before you crank out a bunch of reps, make sure your wrists are strong enough to handle the load. And gradually build up the number of reps you do at once.
How to Do Knuckle Push-Ups
- Assume the classic push-up position, but on your knuckles: Your hands should be under your shoulders, your body forming a straight line from head to heels. You can have your hands in a neutral position (palms facing each other) or with your index fingers turned slightly in.
- Maintain this rigid body line as you bend your elbows to lower your chest toward the floor. Don't reach with your head!
- Press back to the starting position and repeat.
How to Do Classic Push-Ups on Your Palms
- Assume the classic push-up position: Your hands should be under your shoulders, your body forming a straight line from head to heels.
- Maintain this rigid body line as you bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle to you body to lower your chest toward the floor. Don't reach with your head!
- Press back to the starting position and repeat.
The Takeaway: Which Should You Do?
You don't have to do knuckle push-ups. If you want to take some pressure off your wrists but worried about injury risk or don't want to have painful knuckles, you can perform push-ups in a similar position by using push-up handles or a pair of hexagonal dumbbells. Even Clarke uses this method.
If you'd like to do push-ups on your knuckles, though, start slowly. Concentrate on your form. Perform shorter sets so you can maintain a rigid body line through each repetition. Start out on a soft surface, keeping more weight on your ring and pinky knuckles than on your index and ring fingers.
And keep doing classic push-ups, too, to maintain your overall push-up strength. Over time, you can increase the number of knuckle push-ups you can handle while decreasing your classic push-up numbers.