Can You Really Build Muscle With a Push-Up-Only Workout?

Push-ups are a fantastic exercise, but they shouldn't be the only exercise in your routine.
Image Credit: Luis Alvarez/DigitalVision/GettyImages

Push-ups are a great exercise to strengthen your arms and chest, but can you really build muscle mass with a workout consisting only of this exercise? Fitness experts weigh in on the best way to exercise your upper body to gain muscle and strength.

Muscle-Building Benefits of Push-Ups

Combining the core and upper-body strengthening of both a plank and a bench press, push-ups have many benefits.

"Push-ups, if done correctly, are a great way to gain body control, muscular endurance, strength and can even increase your heart rate and fat utilization," says Joey Thurman, certified personal trainer and nutrition expert.

They strengthen your chest and shoulder muscles, including your pectoralis major and deltoid, your arm muscles, including your biceps and triceps, and your core and back muscles.

But can you really build muscle mass with a push-up only workout? "Absolutely!" Thurman says. "Muscle can be built using a plethora of modalities from traditional weight training, variable resistance with bands, chains, HIIT and even body-weight exercises such as push-ups."

In order to create a stimulus for muscle growth, however, Thurman says the muscle tissue needs to be stressed enough to grow. You have to work them to the point of technical failure — the point at which you can't do any more reps with proper form, says Rob Sulaver, CPT, founding team member of Rumble and trainer on Equinox+.

"The truth is, you can use a wide variety of sets and reps to build muscle. What matters is that you're working close to failure."

How Fast Will You See Results?

How fast you build muscle depends on several factors, some you can control, such as how hard you train and your diet, and some you can't control, such as your genetic makeup, sex and age, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Regardless, with the right training everyone can build both strength and mass in their muscles.

If you're looking to build your chest and shoulders, the ACE recommends doing 3 to 6 sets of 6 to 12 reps with a 30- to 90-second rest in between. With that wide variety of recommended reps and sets, Thurman says to listen to your body for the most benefit.

"Whether you perform 25 push-ups to failure or you can only do a few push-ups with good form until you reach form failure, you can create an environment for growth," he says.

Tip

Building new muscle mass, called muscle hypertrophy, can take 3 to 6 months, according to the ACE. Be patient and continue to challenge yourself for the fastest gains. Remember, those last few push-ups in a set need to be really challenging, otherwise you aren’t working your muscles hard enough to build muscle mass.

Why Push-Ups Aren’t Enough

Sure, push-ups can build muscle mass, however, both Thurman and Sulaver say it's important to add other exercises into your routine as well.

"All push and no pull does not a happy shoulder make, so I wouldn't suggest ​only​ doing push-ups," Sulaver says. "At the very least, it'd be a good idea to balance out your routine with upper-body pull exercises like chins-ups and inverted rows, as well as lower-body strength exercises like squats, deadlifts and lunges."

Thurman agrees, saying it's important to add in exercises that retract your shoulder blades or pull your shoulders back to avoid a slumped forward posture. "These include exercises like dumbbell and machine rows, lat pulldowns, pull-ups and posterior deltoid options such as the reverse fly," he says.

In addition, once you can progress through several sets of push-ups with ease, you need to add in a push-up progression or add more resistance, such as with a weighted vest, to continue to build muscle.

It's also important to incorporate weight machines or free weights to round out your upper body strengthening routine. "If you have access to weights, you can also add the upper-body lifts into the mix like bench press, overhead press, bent over rows and pulldowns," Sulaver says.

Try These 4 Push-Up Variations

Ready to mix up your push-up routine? Thurman shares four of his favorite push-up variations.

1. Narrow Squeeze Push-Up

1. Narrow Squeeze Push-Up
Image Credit: Joey Thurman/LIVESTRONG.com
Sets 3
Reps 12
Type Strength
Body Part Arms
  1. Start in a high plank. Place your hands slightly closer than shoulder width, so you're in a narrow push-up position.
  2. Slowly lower down by bending your elbows back, keeping the rest of your body in a straight line.
  3. Stop when chest is slightly below elbow height.
  4. Press back up to the starting position.

Tip

"People may see this as a triceps push-up, but the narrow push-up also produces great muscle activation in the pectoral major versus a standard push-up," says Thurman.

"When doing this, think about squeezing your hands toward one another to get the adduction feeling of your hands coming together like a chest fly. Squeeze throughout the entire motion."

2. W Push-Up

2. W Push-Up
Image Credit: Joey Thurman/LIVESTRONG.com
Sets 3
Reps 12
Type Strength
Body Part Arms
  1. Start in a high plank with your arms slightly wider than your shoulders. Instead of palms flat down, place your hands in a fist with your thumbs up.
  2. Bend your elbows and perform a small push-up.
  3. Press back up to the starting position.

Tip

"[This exercise] hits the hard-to-reach areas of the back underneath the shoulder blades," Thurman says.

It's a smaller and more controlled movement than a regular push-up. Think about driving your fists into the ground as you make controlled movements.

3. Elevated Push-Up

3. Elevated Push-Up
Image Credit: Joey Thurman/LIVESTRONG.com
Sets 3
Reps 12
Type Strength
Body Part Arms
  1. Place your feet on a bench and start in a high plank with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  2. Bend your elbows and slowly lower yourself down, keeping your core tight throughout the motion.
  3. Press back up to the starting position.

Tip

"This push-up variation places more force on the working muscles and is one to try once you have master the regular push-up," says Thurman. "This can be done with your feet on a bench, step or even pressed against a wall."

4. Bench Push-Up

4. Bench Push-Up
Image Credit: Joey Thurman/LIVESTRONG.com
Sets 3
Reps 12
Type Strength
Body Part Arms
  1. Place your hands shoulder-width apart on a bench. Extend your legs straight out behind you in a high plank.
  2. Keeping your core tight, bend your elbows and come down until your chest is just above the surface. Keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body.
  3. Press back up to the starting position.

Tip

You can also challenge yourself by adding an unstable surface, such as a BOSU ball or medicine ball, to your push-up routine, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. You can also add in push-up rows using a dumbbell or kettlebell to work your upper back muscles.

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