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The Ultimate Bodyweight Top Exercise

Guys can be wary of body-weight exercises for building muscle. But that's only because they treat them differently than free-weight and machine-based moves.

"If you stop doing hundreds of reps and instead choose exercise variations that challenge you to do 5 to 10, you'll change the training stimulus," says BJ Gaddour, C.S.C.S., the author of Your Body Is Your Barbell and creator of the body-weight training program below. "You'll prioritize strength over endurance, and every ounce of muscle you build will be usable beyond the gym." Not that you'll ever have to set foot in one, since these workouts can go anywhere you do.

Decline push-up

The push-up must be the most primitive and basically far-reaching exercises in existence in the world of fitness. “Drop and give me 20” is one of the most hackneyed statements used by people who think they’re being coy with in-shape acquaintances.

The truth is, there are plenty of benefits to doing push-ups, and most intermediate and advanced trainees have stopped doing them for one reason: They’re a bodyweight exercise, and they think they’ve “graduated” from them. Because of human nature, that makes perfect sense. If you’re bench pressing 300 pounds, a simplistic push-up won’t do anything for your strength or gains, right?


There are several benefits to push-ups that make them a largely different animal from dumbbell or barbell pressing variations. Here are a few:

The shoulder blades aren’t pinned to a surface like they are on the flat or incline bench press. For that reason, the scapula can move through a healthy range of motion as the arms press.

The hips and trunk need to remain engaged for a good quality rep. That makes push-ups much more than a chest exercise; they train the entire upper body.

It’s easier to manipulate the hand and elbow positions, making the movement safer on wrists, elbows and shoulders than a bench press, which forces a lifter’s hands to be fixed on straight bars.

Long story short, you should be doing them regularly. And it’s time to brush up on your technique.

Form Check

Regardless of your starting position, the push-up must demonstrate a proper plank. That means the hips are held high and there’s a straight line from head to heel.

The chin should be tucked so the eyes are focused downward to maintain spinal alignment. Looking up can cause neck strain and an overarch in the lower spine.

The body should pivot from the toes — in other words, there shouldn’t be a disconnect between the upper and lower body. It all needs to move in sync with each other.

Using full range of motion is mandatory. The body should contact the ground or make it just an inch or two away from it, depending on your hand position and shoulder health. Your chest should be what makes it to the ground first — not your face and not your legs.

Don’t forget to squeeze your glutes. Not doing so can create an overarch in your lower back and disengage your abs from working.

Progressions and Regressions

To take things up a notch, take advantage of the countless push-up variations that can make a simple exercise much more challenging and technical. They include the following: 

Decline Push-Up: Place your feet on a bench or step, and perform push-ups using exactly the same cues seen in the checklist above. When your feet are elevated, you’ll target more delts and upper chest.
Narrow-Grip Push-Up: Bring your hands close together — no more than 6 inches apart — and tuck your elbows during the exercise. You’ll target your triceps and work your core harder because of a narrower base.
Single-Arm Deficit Push-Up: Place a low step or stacked plates under one of your hands and place the other hand on flat ground. Push all the way up, through to full extension on your “top” hand. You’ll be able to reach off the ground with your bottom hand and touch your opposite shoulder. This is your first step toward a one-armed push-up. Switch sides and repeat.
Plyometric Push-Up: This one’s simple. Stay tight and explode off the ground on each push-up. Your hands should leave the floor, but they should not clap. That’s a finger injury waiting to happen. Land softly and keep reps low.
As far as regressions go, it’s fair if you’re not strong enough to do a proper push-up, let alone the advanced variations listed here. We do implore you to avoid doing push-ups from your knees, however. Instead, take advantage of your plank position while raising your hands onto a bench or other raised surface. We recommend the Smith machine for its gradual levels. As you get stronger, lower the bar by another notch (toward the floor) and repeat. You’ll easily be able to gauge your progress and give yourself confidence, too.