What Is Better: Push-Ups or Lifting Weights?

Active young man doing push-ups with kettlebells
Push-ups build strength and stamina. (Image: shironosov/iStock/Getty Images)

Your goal: a lean, enviable physique. But what's the best way to get it? Fitness isn't an exact science, so you'll get lots of advice — bodyweight exercises, kettlebells, CrossFit, barbell training, circuits — it's hard to know what to do.

When you've narrowed down your choices to push-ups or lifting weights, the best option will always be lifting weights. Push-ups only directly address certain specific body parts; with weights, you can train your whole body. Even when it comes to training the chest, shoulders and triceps only, weights usually prevail.

When you've narrowed down your choices to push-ups or lifting weights, the best option will always be lifting weights.

Push-Up Pluses

That's not to say that push-ups are a waste of time. When you have no equipment, limited space and limited strength, push-ups do your body a world of good. The move primarily targets the pectoralis major, the main chest muscle, as well as the fronts of the shoulders and the backs of the upper arms. Your core and legs also work to provide stability.

Push-ups are modifiable against a wall, on an incline or on your knees, if you're new to strength training or haven't built up the strength to hoist a 45-pound Olympic bar. Increase the challenge of a push-up by performing them with your hands declined below your feet or on an unstable surface such as a stability ball or TRX straps.

Muscular bodybuilder bench press workout
Progressing to heavier resistance is easier with a barbell. (Image: nd3000/iStock/Getty Images)

Push-Up Limitations

Push-ups are a nearly perfect bodyweight exercise, but therein lies the rub — bodyweight. You can only add so much additional resistance to a push-up, as you're limited by your size.

You lift approximately 70 percent of your body weight during a standard push-up. Now, you can add resistance in the form of rubber by strapping a resistance band around your back and holding the handles to increase the challenge.

A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published in 2015 showed that when comparable in resistance, the push-up and bench press provide similar muscle gains.

This means weights and push-ups can offer the same benefit, as long as you're able to make the push-ups hard enough. With weights, upping resistance is simple — you pick up a heavier dumbbell or add more plates to a barbell.

With rubber resisted push-ups, you'll eventually hit a wall; these bands eventually top out in terms of challenge. If you're pushing 300 pounds or more, no push-up — even a resisted one — is going to compare.

Sports dumbbells in modern sports club. Weight Training Equipment
Use dumbbells to train the whole body. (Image: takoburito/iStock/Getty Images)

What About the Rest of Your Body?

Another limitation of push-ups is that they fail to adequately strength your legs, buttocks, biceps and back. For a complete strength-training routine, you need to train all the major muscle groups. While push-ups work your chest and shoulders, you'd benefit from adding weights for the rest of your body.

Dumbbell squats, weighted walking lunges, bent-over rows and biceps curls are just a few of the moves that weights allow you to do. Weights also provide you with lots of options to mix up your routine.

If you're just interested in chest workouts, a weight workout allows you to hit the muscles from various angles with moves such as incline flyes and dumbbell pullovers. Although you can vary push-ups, the general motion in every one is the same and lacks diversity.

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