How Good are Press Ups for Building the Chest?

When it comes to bodyweight training, there are no better exercises for building the chest than the press up.

The great thing about the press up is that it can be performed absolutely anywhere, at any time and with no equipment needed. It’s also an incredibly functional exercise, meaning that it will build strength that can be applied in everyday life. This is why it is such a go-to exercise in armies around the world, marine corps and other similar units that require excellent levels of physical fitness.

There are also a huge number of press up types, allowing you to target specific muscles and regions of muscles in the upper body with the simple and humble press up.

With plenty of fads and new, Instagram techniques working their way into people’s strength training routines, the press up remains a staple exercise for building the chest that will never go away. It’s a a true classic that should not be overlooked.

My press up confession of 2020

Now here’s a personal admission. I have overlooked the press up in the past. I have been lifting weights for around 15 years and it fell out of my routine in favour the more glamorous exericses of the bench press, incline barbell press and the hammer strength pressing machines.

However, the numerous lockdowns and gym closures in the UK throughout 2020 has seen me use this masterful bodyweight exericse on a regular basis once again. And I have noticed the benefits from high volume press ups. My shoulder health has improved and the muscle mass in my chest has been maintained. It’s also felt fantastic to be doing a functional exercise, alongside a lot of chin ups and dead hangs.

To give you the short answer to the original question, press ups are a brilliant exercise for building the chest with good muscle, especially for people who are new to muscle building. The press up can also be extremely useful for those who are experienced trainers too.

Let’s take a closer look at how.  

Is a press up a push up?

Let’s get one thing cleared up. Yes, a press up is the same thing a push up.

The term ‘press up’ is the more common in British English where the term ‘push up’ is more common in American English.

For both the press up and the push up, you start, finish and perform the exercise exactly the same. To begin, face the floor and place your hands below your shoulders, around shoulder width apart or more. Have your legs stretched out with your toes in contact with the floor, so your body forms a straight line from heels through your back line and to your head. Your feet should be close together or touching to make it more difficult.

Keeping your back straight and core tight, lower your body to the floor in a controlled manner until your nose is just above the floor and arms are at a 90-degree angle. Press back up. That’s one rep.

man doing press up outside

What muscles are used in a press up?

The main muscles that are worked in a press up are the chest, triceps and shoulders.

The press up will also work a number of other muscles, including numerous stabilising muscles and deeper sitting muscles. One of these is the core muscle group which helps to stabilise the body and keep your back straight.

Another is the stabilising muscles in the upper back, such as the serratus anterior which helps to keep your shoulder blades (scapula) in the correct position as they protract (move away from the body) and retract (move towards the midline of the body).

The standard press up will work the following muscles:

  • Pectoralis major (chest muscles)
  • Anterior deltoid (front shoulder)
  • Triceps brachii (back of your upper arm)
  • Serratus anterior (muscle underneath your armpit)

Varying the tilt of the press up and chest position will focus the work on different parts of the pectorals.

A decline press up where your feet are elevated above your chest will focus on the upper part of the pecs muscles, where the clavicular head region is.

An incline press up where you elevate your hands onto a raised surface and keep your feet on the floor will focus work onto the lower part of the chest.

You can also vary the width of your hand position, which will change the load on the chest and part of the muscle that’s worked.

A wider hand position will focus on the lateral (outside) part of the pecs, whereas a narrower hand position will shift the work to the sternal head of the pecs and onto the triceps.

Will press ups build pecs and chest muscles?

Yes, performing press ups will build pecs and develop your chest muscles. To do this successfully, you will have to perform press ups at high volumes, depending on your training experience.

The other key to the perfect press up is to go through the full range of motion on your reps – all the way down and all the way up. This full range of motion will ensure you achieve a fantastic chest contraction that uses the maximum muscle fibres.   

Some people say that the press up doesn’t provide enough resistance, unlike say the bench press or chest press where you can load the plates and weight on. Resistance is a crucial aspect for your body to recruit muscle fibres and build muscle size over time, including with the pecs, triceps and deltoids.

bench press with barbell and weights
Can the press up replace the bench press?

Yes, it’s true that the resistance provided by a press up is only as much as your bodyweight and is likely to be lighter than the load you can lift on bench press. A study by Suprak et al found that in the up position of a full press up you are supporting around 69% of your bodyweight and in the down position this increases to 75% of your bodyweight.

So, if you weight 80kg, the resistance you’ll be getting from a press up is around 55kg in the up position and 60kg in the down position that you will then press up.

Is this enough resistance?

Using press up volume to build the chest

As with building any muscle, it’s all about intensity and muscle exhaustion, which is where volume comes in. Properly fatiguing your muscles with higher volumes has a greater stimulating effect, increasing muscle hypertrophy and helping to increase the size of your muscle fibres aka get bigger.

For a largely untrained individual, you’ll see very good hypertrophy results. For a well-trained individual with good levels of hypertrophy, it will take more volume to reach the required levels of muscle stimulation for growth.

So, to use press ups to build your pecs, focus on doing as many reps as you can to increase the volume your chest. Of course, how many reps you can do and how much volume you can take before exhaustion is down to you as an individual. Find your benchmark, then improve this over time.

The other fantastic thing about the press up is it’s benefit on shoulder health when compared to other weighted chest pressing activities. The press up allows the shoulder blades to move (protract and retract) as intended, whereas a bench press has the shoulder blades pinned back in an immobile position.

Types of press ups for the chest

Armed with this press up knowledge I’m sure you’re itching to get going. Alongside the standard press up there are many, many varieties you can also work into your training routine to target specific muscle areas.

Here are some of the more common types of press up and the muscles they predominantly focus on.

Press up typeMuscles worked
Standard (military) press up Chest, shoulders, triceps
Decline press upUpper chest, shoulders
Incline press upLower chest, shoulders
Wide press upOuter chest, front shoulders
Narrow press upChest, triceps
Diamond press upTriceps (even bigger focus that narrow press up), chest
Plyometric press upChest, triceps
T press upChest, shoulders, triceps, core
Handstand press upShoulders, triceps, chest

Strength Bible Wrap Up

Hopefully this article has shown you that press ups are an excellent chest-focussed exercise to build up the pecs, whilst working a whole load of other upper body muscles. Whether you have access to a gym or not, you will not regret including press ups into your workout routine.

Not only can the press up build a good solid pecs, the functional aspect of the movement, working of the core, plus advantages on shoulder mobility and health will see you reap additional benefits from this all-round king of bodyweight exercises.


References

Suprak, D.N., Dawes, J., Stephenson, M.D. The Effect of Position on the Percentage of Body Mass Supported During Traditional and Modified Push-up Variants. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 25: 497-503, 2011.