Push-ups are one of the most versatile body-weight exercises. They use several muscle groups and take no equipment. Although traditional push-ups are a fantastic exercise, several variations more specifically target alternate muscle groups.
Traditional push-ups primarily target the main chest muscle (called the pectoralis major), the triceps, anterior deltoid (back of your shoulder), and the serratus anterior, which helps protect and stabilize your scapula. Push-ups also work your core muscles—the back and abdominals, as you engage them in a plank position throughout the movement.
For more push-up variations, we spoke to British Columbia–based, NASM-certified kinesiologist and Built With Science founder Jeremy Ethier, and Jordan Duncan, DC, owner of Washington-based Silverdale Sport & Spine, to get their recommendations.
Knee Push-Ups: Chest, Triceps, Shoulders
“This is a standard push-up but performed on your knees instead. Research has shown that this orientation reduces the amount of body weight you’re lifting to only about 53%,” says Ethier. Performing push-ups from your knees makes the movement easier for beginners. “This is a great way to gradually build up the strength needed to perform the standard push-up, where the amount of weight you’ll be lifting increases to about 66% of your body weight,” says Ethier.
- Get on your hands and knees and tighten your core while maintaining a flat back.
- Position your hands on the ground in front of you directly below your shoulders or slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Cross your feet and begin to lower your chest toward the ground, bending your elbows at a 60-degree angle until your chest is just above the ground. Hold for a count of one.
- Push yourself back to the starting position by straightening your arms, and avoid locking your elbows. Hold for a count of one before repeating.
Close Grip/Diamond Push-Ups: Chest and Triceps
“Contrary to popular belief, orienting your hands in this narrower position has been shown to provide significantly greater chest and triceps activation than using a wider hand placement,” says Ethier.
- Place your hands around shoulder-width apart, or close together in a diamond shape, depending on what’s most comfortable for you and your wrists.
- Perform a push-up as you normally would, keeping your core braced and body aligned.
Decline Push-Ups: Upper Chest, Serratus Anterior
“In addition to training the same muscles as the traditional push-up, you increase activation of the serratus anterior, a crucial muscle which helps to stabilize and prevent ‘winging’ the shoulder blade (scapula),” says Duncan. Decline push-ups are more challenging than traditional ones, and so offer a great way to progress when regular push-ups become easier.
- Facedown, place your hands on the floor, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Place your feet on top of a sturdy bench or box, with only your toes and balls of feet touching the floor.
- Keep a flat back and engage your core while lowering your chest toward the ground, bending your elbows at a 60-degree angle.
- Once your chest comes just above the ground, hold for one count before pushing yourself back up to the starting position by straightening your arms.
- Avoid locking out your elbows, hold for one count, and then repeat.
Push-Up Plus: Serratus Anterior
“This push-up variation targets a muscle called the serratus anterior, which is an important and often overlooked muscle when it comes to correcting our posture and adding more stability to our shoulders,” says Ethier.
- Get into traditional push-up form and perform a push-up.
- At the top of the movement, protract your shoulder blades by pushing your hands into the ground while rounding your upper back like a turtle. You should feel a muscle by your armpit working as you do so; this is the serratus anterior.
- Come back down to the starting position, then repeat for more reps.
Duncan recommends trying this in the feet-elevated position for an extra challenge.
Pike Push-Ups: Shoulders
“This move will put more emphasis on the shoulders instead of the chest,” says Ethier.
- Assume a push-up position. Then, crawl your hands closer toward your feet while keeping your legs straight. Your body should now make an upside-down V shape.
- Bend your elbows and lower your upper body until the top of your nose nearly touches the floor. Your head should move forward past your hands as you reach the bottom position.
- Push-up until your head returns to between your hands at the top position to perform one rep.
- To progress this movement, you can elevate your feet onto a chair or even a countertop.
Medicine Ball or Physio Ball Push-Ups: Chest, Core, Triceps
Duncan and Ethier recommend performing a push-up on a physio or medicine ball to increase the challenge to your core muscles, as well as the triceps. As a bonus, ball push-ups improve proprioception. “Proprioception is defined as ‘the perception of the position and movement of the body’ and is excellent for balance and sports-specific training,” says Duncan.
- Kneel on the ground with your feet together and toes tucked. Place your hands on the sides of a medicine or physio ball and bend forward into a plank position, with your legs straight out behind you.
- Lower your chest toward the ball with a straight torso, keeping your core engaged. Lower until your chest touches the ball, with your elbows slightly flared outward.
- Press yourself upward by straightening your elbows to return to a plank position before repeating.
Single-Leg Push-Ups: Chest, Core
“Single-leg push-ups also increase the proprioceptive and core stability demand on the body, in addition to working the muscles targeted in traditional push-ups,” says Duncan.
- Get into a push-up position, with your hands flat on the floor, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Keep a straight line from your neck to your feet, and then lift your right leg off the ground.
- Keep your right leg elevated while bending your elbows and lowering your body toward the ground until your chest is almost touching the floor.
- Push yourself back to the starting position while straightening your arms, lower your right leg to the floor, and repeat with the left leg elevated.
Clap Push-Ups: Chest, Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers
Duncan recommends the clap push-up variation to train power and explosiveness. “This variation targets similar muscles as the traditional push-up; however, you are promoting fast-twitch muscle fibers, making it great for sports-specific training,” he says.
- Get into a plank position, with your hand slightly wider than shoulder-width. Keep your core engaged and a flat back while lowering yourself down to the floor.
- Explosively push yourself up, extending your elbows and lifting your hands off the ground, clapping them together in front of your chest. You'll have to be very quick!
- Return your hands to the ground, just outside of shoulder-width, and lower yourself back to the starting position before repeating.
Handstand Push-Ups: Shoulders, Trapezius, Triceps
And finally, the most advanced push-up variation on our list, a popular exercise for Crossfitters everywhere.
“Handstand push-ups are a challenging push-up variation in which you are pushing nearly your entire body weight up, as opposed to 60%–70% of your body weight when performing a traditional push-up,” says Duncan. You’ll get more activation of your shoulders, increasing the load on your triceps and upper trapezius muscles while decreasing the activation of your pectoral muscles.
- Get into push-up position with your feet up against a wall. Walk your feet up the wall until the crown of your head is pointing toward the floor.
- Keep your core engaged and allow your feet to support you while you slowly lower yourself toward the floor.
- Hold for a count at the bottom before pushing yourself back up to the starting position.
- Carefully walk your feet back down the wall when you are finished.
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