5 Push Up Variations For Strength, Size, and Power
Oftentimes the Barbell Bench Press is hailed as the king of pressing exercises and while I may be tempted to agree; I still to this day believe the Push Up and it’s many variations to remain the undisputed champion for the press category. Why? Simply put, the push up offers a tailored approach to the person, freeing the shoulder blades, enforcing total body stability and allowing for a variety of actionable goals with little to NO equipment. I see that as an absolute WIN! The massive benefits to programming push ups should NEVER be overlooked in any type of health, fitness or performance program.
The push up pattern creates an ideal environment for improving your pressing strength and skill due to the closed chain biomechanics of the shoulders. With hands stable on a solid surface, kinematics of the shoulder complex change, freeing the shoulder blades to dynamically stabilize and move on the thoracic cage while reducing stress on the front side of the true shoulder joint. In addition, the lower body and core are automatically in play during push ups, making it a full body integrated movement pattern.
In order to get strong AND build muscle, we will aim to progress push ups with load, NOT just more reps. People will tend to claim that loading push ups is too inconvenient or hard to setup but realistically, simply adding range of motion, instability, or pauses can easily reduce the load needed to efficiently train the Push Up. If you’re an absolute machine at push ups, adding a little bit of load can go a long ways in addition to these other nuances! However, keep the plates off your shoulder blades, as it negates the benefits of freely moving shoulder blades with closed chain pushing. Load plates, chains, whatever you got over the lower back instead. This will work the core harder AND integrate the lower body. Train for strength in the 6-12 rep ranges and muscular hypertrophy in the 12-20 rep range while adding appropriate load.
Without further ado, let’s dive right in to my top 5 favorite Push Up variations for MORE gains!
1. Deficit Stretch Push Up
The traditional push up is inherently trained through partial range of motion, with chest or face being blocked out by the ground before the shoulders can fully extend and rotate. Fix this by elevating your hands to achieve a deeper range of motion that works the pecs through more of a stretch, improving shoulder mobility and strengthening the undertrained end ranges which also happen to be the most restricted and vulnerable ranges of motion predisposing pain and injuries.
Our height for the deficit doesn’t have to be much, either. Simply placing the hands on a single bumper plate with your head and torso directly above the ground will offer just enough additional range to get a thorough stretch through the pectorals. Now, as if this wasn’t challenging enough, I do often like to add either a pause to the bottom of this variation to extended the amount of time spent in that loaded, stretched position or load across my lumbar. Remember, with load placement, a little goes a long way (Have a training partner load and remove the plates for you) and keep the load off of the shoulder blades- free the scaps!
2. Suspension Trainer Push Up
Next up on this list is probably one of my favorites for specifically training dynamic total body stability and up regulating motor control and coordination for the shoulder complex. That is, the suspension trainer push up! What I enjoy so much about this variation is the sheer amount freedom involved throughout the hands, shoulders, and torso position. The ability to allow the hands to rotate mid-repetition and subsequently the arm to rotate and remain close to the rib cage allow us to maintain a HIGHER level of joint centration at the shoulder, and in turn, higher force output from the pecs, delts, and triceps. With this exceptional level of novelty, we can also adjust the handle height to accommodate different levels of push up strength or skill. The higher the handles, the more vertical we are, the “easier” this variation will be. Comparatively, the lower the handles, the more horizontal we are, the more “difficult” this will be. If you’re truly out for blood on this variation, trying getting declined by using a low (shin level) handle position and elevating the feet on a bench or box- tell me that won’t provide a proper challenge for you!
3. Banded Plyometric Push Up
Ready for some power priming action? The Band assisted plyometric push up is my go to explosive press variation for it’s surprisingly easy setup and effectiveness of priming the pressing muscles while incorporating total body pillar stability. You will simply set up in a rack with a light to medium resistance band anchored horizontally via band pegs. If you don’t have a set of band pegs for this super easy setup, you can opt for a longer (or lighter) band and loop it overhead on the crossbar. You’ll have MORE assistance this way most likely but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because you will want to keep these repetitions FAST and POWERFUL for this specific variation. With your bands set up appropriately, place the band across the pecs so that they wrap underneath your armpits. Starting from the top, drop down fast into the bottom of the push up and as you make contact with the ground immediately press to take advantage of the stretch reflex on top of the band assistance to launch yourself off of the ground. Not so fast- keep those hands in place directly in front of you to catch yourself upon landing. No fancy parlor tricks here like clapping behind your back or over your head. Maximize your efficiency by keeping the hands in place, ready to eccentrically load your body back down to the floor. For power priming purposes, stay in the 3-5 repetition range and make your repetitions fast and back to back explosive with no rests or pauses.
4. Partial Push Up
Training full range of motion, all of the time, on all exercises is not always the call. As there are plenty of benefits with partial range of motion training- provided it is implemented appropriately and inclusive with full range of motion variations in the same program. With that in mind, training partial range of motion Push Ups is truly a great functional training option for lengthened or mid range bias for the pecs or a triceps demolisher. For most applications, I like implementing partial range of motion push ups as a finisher. You have some options as far as what partial portion of the push up you want to train. Traditionally, we can place the hands on the ground and with some foam pads or bumper plates between the hands, we can focus on the mid range for the pecs and triceps- still aiming for about parallel depth on each repetition. You could also work from the bottom up in the lengthened bias for the pecs, delts, and triceps. Create a deficit like we would for variation #1 and start your repetitions from that deficit and stop about mid range, avoiding lock out. Both of these methods work beautifully for their intended goal and continue to show why the push up is so versatile of a training tool and deserves to be in all training programs.
5. Chaos Band Push Up
While Unstable Surface Training gets a good deal of hate (mostly from dogmatic meatheads) for being an inefficient and ineffective way to train, I find great benefits with this method for improving dynamic stability.
Are you up for giving unstable surfaces another shot? Try one of my favorites, the Banded Chaos Push Up that’s guaranteed to challenge your functional strength, stability and smooth tension simultaneously. Here’s how it works:
The elastic properties of the band create reactive resistance and changes in lengths most sensitive to fast movement or quick pick ups in tension. Perturbations from banded support surface travel up chain to challenge key stabilizers like the rotator cuff while the push up is being performed. This foundational closed chain push movement pattern showcasing freely moving shoulder blades and full body core dependent position throughout, challenged even more by the instability of the bands. Yes, the banded chaos push up is a highly effective form of unstable surface training best used for improving reflexive stability, proprioception and irradiation.
Best programmed with higher rep schemes and lower loads, the banded chaos technique is more about neural adaptation than building muscle or strength. So train it to technical failure and don’t be worried if you shake like a leaf, that’s normal and absolutely to be expected. For pristine execution, ensure you find the proper balance of bands that can support your weight but also provide enough perturbation to make it a challenge to complete quality reps. Slow and smooth is the goal, as this technique will chase out cheaters real quick. Use this exact setup in your next upper body workout as a brutal core integrated upper body finisher, or as a shoulder prehab exercise inside the foundational movement prep portion of your 6-phase dynamic warm up.
Results aren’t achieved by chance, they’re earned. Those aches, pains and injuries? Also earned. A smarter way of training is upon us, and I invite you to experience it for yourself by training the king of pressing patterns.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is a sports performance specialist and injury prevention expert that has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, barbell sport competitors, and over 10,000 clients from all walks of life with his innovative pain-free performance programs and systems, which has gained him the reputation as the go-to industry expert for rebuilding after pain, injuries or plateaus. Dr. Rusin is also the founder of the Pain-Free Performance Specialist Certification (PPSC) that has certified over 10,000 personal trainers, strength coaches and rehab pros from across the globe in the pain-free performance training system since 2019.