Push ups are one of the most effective bodyweight exercise available to us in the entire of resistance training. Getting your first push up can be a challenge, once its achieved, building to around 10-15 repetitions can be actually an easier process that getting your first repetition. However there reaches a point when just performing push ups can get a little repetitive and using different push up variations can be very beneficial. I have provided 8 different bodyweight exercise and 4 different push up variations with equipment. Let’s walk through 12 different push up variations you can use in your training.
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This article is for intermediate to advanced individuals who are looking for variety in their push up training and are not looking to get their first push up. If you are still a beginner and are looking to move towards your first push up, please refer to our article on Push Up Variations for Beginners.
The most obvious and probably the most important reason to be consistently changing the push up variation your using is the mundanity of constantly repeating the same exercise. Resistance training is a behaviour we perform both to stay healthy and strong whilst progressing and enjoying the sessions. If we find our training mundane, it is very unlikely that we will be consistent in our output. This lack of consistency while create a lack of progression. Thus making the ability to design fun and novel training cycles an important part of the training process.
Progressive overload involves adding intensity to a movement pattern or exercise over time. This increasing of intensity (load/volume) causes an increase of stimulus, allowing us to progress our physical characteristics over time. When we perform the same exercise over and over again, we are missing the chance to progress the difficulty of the exercise and therefore increase the stimulus used. Exercise selection is one of the most effective ways to add progressive overload into your training regime, through progressively selecting exercises which are more and more challenging.
Adaptive resistance relates to using an exercise for too long a period and therefore being unable to adapt to the movement. In this case, using push ups weekly for a very long period of time might lead to adaptive resistance, making it harder and harder for the push ups to create the desired adaptations. Think about it like when we become de-sensitised to caffeine or alcohol, eventually we need more and more to create the same effect. This is when changing the type of stimulus through changing exercise selection can be very beneficial.
So we know that variety is good, we need to be changing the intensity over time to create progressive overload, we need to be changing the exercises to avoid adaptive resistance and find our training novel and interesting. However, if we are constantly changing our sessions, and there is no plan of how we are progressing over time, the sessions we perform will just be random drops of physical output that do not lead us to a specific point. This is why we need to have a clear plan of how long you are going to use an exercise, how you are going to progress it over time and what the short term and long term goals for that movement pattern are. If you come to the gym and randomly create your session, some weeks performing push ups, some weeks not, it is unlikely that you will ever create enough stimulus to progress over time. You need to orientate your training towards a specific goal and build towards it over time.
Shiny object syndrome is something that a lot of people struggle with in the gym, they see a new exercise and want to “test” it. This sort of random exercise selection based on what you find exciting is much better than not moving at all, but it can make it very difficult to make any real progress over time. Jumping from exercise to exercise and never taking your time to pick one exercise and stick with it will drastically hinder your long term push up progression and general progression as you strive to get fitter.
The archer press up adds a great deal of difficulty to a standard push up so you will need to be able to perform at least 20 push ups to attempt this exercise. The difficulty of the archer press up can be modulated by how much weight is put into the extended arm. The archer press up can be performed for as little as 3 reps per side to be an effective strength training exercise for the horizontal press movement pattern.
The feet elevated push up is a perfect variation for those looking for their first exercise that is a progression to the standard push up. The difficulty of the exercise can be changed by changing the height of the feet. It can be great to start with the feet low and increase the height progressively over time.
The long lever press up is an exercise only for those who are extremely competent with the standard push up to perform. I have never used this with personal training clients as personally I find it very challenging and none of my clients are competent enough to attempt it. If you do chose to perform this, make sure you do so with precision and control, paying attention not to create pain in the elbows.
The staggered stand push up is similar to the archer push up in that it puts the majority of your bodyweight onto one hand, making it a uni-lateral exercise and increasing the difficulty dramatically. It is slightly easier than the archer press up however, so if you are looking for your first uni-lateral push up variation, attempt this one to start with.
The negative 1.5 push up is another variation great for those who can perform 20+ repetitions. Doing 10 repetitions of these can be very challenging for very experienced individuals. Staying strict on the tempo throughout a set of these can be very challenging but it is important to do so if you want to progress this exercise over time.
These are great for athletes looking to build explosivity in the upper body. To perform these correctly you will need to have a great deal of established strength in the upper body. The clap is of little importance, the main point here is to use as much power as possible and send your body as high as you are able. This exercise should not be performed for high repetitions, it should be considered like a power exercise, do not exceed 10 repetitions here.
I added this in as it can be a fun challenge, that being said, it depends more on finger strength and stability than upper body strength. I would not use this in my training or in that of my clients, but if you want a fun exercise to challenge yourself you can try this one out.
The Russian press up is a very challenging push up variation, especially for the elbows and the shoulders but also the pectorals. I use this progression personally when I am trying to improve my ring muscle ups, the movement on the floor is very similar to that when bringing the chest over the rings in a ring muscle up. This exercise will require excellent levels of upper body strength to be able to perform for a meaningful number of repetitions.
Weighted push ups are a brilliant way to build both strength and muscle mass in the upper body. For many of us who are advanced at push ups, they are much more of a muscular endurance exercise than a strength exercise as we can perform 30+ repetitions. Adding weight onto this exercise can allow us to completely change the adaptation. Adding 20-30kg on your back may mean you can only perform 5 reps, putting emphasis on your upper-body strength. I suggest doing this with a training partner who can both put they weight on your back and take it off when you are finished.
The TRX Archer Push Up is a great example of how the press up can be used to build single arm strength for advanced individuals, this exercise will require you to be a very advanced individual. When performing this exercise, make sure before you lower the chest towards the hand that you have created a lot of tension in the shoulder and core to prevent you from falling to the floor rather than moving with control.
The feet elevated archer press up is the most challenging press up variation in our movement library, it is a single arm exercise, with the feet in a raised position, on the rings which lack stability. Performing this will allow you to build very good levels of strength in the upper body, but you should only be doing this if you are an advanced gym goer who can perform 30+ push ups.
The diamond KB press up is a push up variation that demands a great deal of strength from the triceps. It is a good progression to the typical diamond push up, but will put a great deal more pressure on the elbows due to the positioning of the hands on the kettlebell. Only perform this variation if you are comfortable with standard diamond press ups.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.