Push-ups are often viewed as less effective than bench pressing. This is mostly due to the hardcore feel of benching. However, are pushups really less effective? The answer is NO, and there is a current study that proves it.
As reported in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning, the researchers took 23 intermediate male lifters and divided them up into a bench press group and a push-up group. Each group did three workouts per week over the course of a month, with each workout having three sets of 6-8 reps. Both groups also had an objective progression model, meaning that once a certain performance was reached, progression was initiated.
For the group performing the bench press, this was done as standard progressive overload. In other words, they added weight to the bar. For the push-up group, however, the researchers progressed the participants by changing up the style of pushup. In fact, there were 9 variations in the study design, ranging from relatively easy to very difficult.
After four weeks of training, the scientists measured chest muscle thickness, explosive medicine ball throwing performance, and 1 Rep Max bench press. Further, both groups also did a push-up progression test.
Statistically, both groups made similar progress on all measures except for the push-up progression test. In this case, the push-up group performed significantly better. That would support the case for specific adaptation.
And yet, that wasn’t the case with the 1RM bench press. The bench press group performed better on the 1RM bench press, but not by much. In fact, the push-up group did very well, after not benching for an entire month! They basically got just as strong as the benching group, just from doing progressive variations of push-ups. Quite interesting and unexpected!
In terms of hypertrophy (muscle size), push-ups ended up building just as much muscle as the bench press. Here is the key data point.
- The push-up group built over three times as much muscle as the bench press group did (4% vs. 1.2%).
People have a misconception that the heaviest exercise is what will get you the best results, but the truth is that load is not what really matters when it comes to building muscle. The true underlying driver of muscle growth is internal force production, otherwise known as mechanical tension.
So, load (i.e. resistance) can come effectively from bands, cables, or bodyweight, as these are all simply tools to apply mechanical tension. If you don’t have access to a bench and a barbell or dumbells, don’t give up your chest and shoulder training. Do your push-ups!