The push ups vs bench press debate is a never ending one. On one hand, elite and seasoned lifters believe that you cannot achieve chest gains without doing some bench press reps while others believe that the simple and often overlooked push-up is good enough for fantastic gains. So who is correct?
In this article we shall be trying to put to rest the push ups vs bench press debate by looking at which muscles are activated by each workout, the benefits of each exercise, and finally what science and research says in regard to this.
Push Ups Vs. Bench Press Muscles Targeted
At a single simple glance, these two exercises seem to target the same set of muscles but is this true?
Push Ups Muscles Worked
While there are multiple variations of push-ups, the standard ‘straight-arm’ press up is the most common one and the one that we are going to be looking at today. According to medicinenet.com, this variation works muscles in the chest (it is very good for your pectorals) as well as those in your triceps, shoulders, glutes, core (front and back), and legs.
Bench Press Muscles Worked
Mensjoirnal.com considers the bench press among the top 10 greatest chest moves for upper body strength and for good reason. The traditional bench press is a fantastic compound workout that mainly works your pecs and your triceps – this, however, is not all.
Bodybuilding.com states that the traditional bench press as well as its other variations – e.g. dumbbell bench press, incline and decline bench press, narrow-grip bench press, etc. – also target the muscles in anterior and lateral deltoids, forearms, triceps, and your latissimus dorsi (back).
Push Ups Vs. Bench Press: Which Exercise Works Better For Chest And Arm Gains?
If you automatically thought that a bench press workout would work best for gain then you are quite wrong. In fact, the person doing bench presses and the one doing push-ups will most likely end up with the same amount of gains.
This is according to a 2015 randomized controlled trial by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The 30 subjects in the study were randomly selected into 3 groups, 6 repetition maximum bench press group, 6 repetition maximum elastic band push-up group, and a control group.
All the workouts done during this experiment were performed using the same loads and variables and the results were compared using the electromyography (EMG) exercise evaluation. After the study period, researchers found that the EMG amplitude showed no significant difference between 6RM bench press and band push-up (1).
Three years later in 2018, another study was conducted, this time looking into how push-up training and the traditional bench-press would fare against each other in relation to increasing muscle strength and thickness.
Twenty three moderately trained men aged between 23 and 30 years old were randomly divided into two groups (a push-up group and a bench group). Both groups were trained 3 days per week for 4 weeks. At the end of the study researchers found no significant differences within groups for muscle thickness, proving that not only does the push-up give the same gains as the bench press, but also that calisthenics work just as well in increasing upper-body muscle strength (2).
What Are The Benefits Of Push Ups Vs. Bench Press?
When it comes to the benefits of push ups vs bench press in terms of gains, these workouts clearly work in the same way. If you are looking to get bigger arms or chest, just go with your preference as either one will work.
However, separately, do they have any special benefits to your body?
- In relation to push ups, they are cheaper than doing bench presses as you do not require a gym membership to access the equipment. They also help improve cardiovascular strength, core stability, and full body strength.
- On the other hand, verywellfit.com states that bench presses are good for restoring muscle balance for athletes, increasing upper body strength, improving muscular endurance, and can even help prepare your upper body to do movements like pushups.
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Are Pushups Good?
Yes, they are. In fact a post on the Harvard Medical School blog called them ‘the perfect exercise’. Pushups are a compound exercise, which means that they workout multiple muscle groups at the same time.
How Much Of Your Body Weight Do You Lift In A Push Up?
The answer to this largely depends on who you ask as multiple sources have different answers to this.
- According to Harvard Medical School, when doing a regular pushup, you end up lifting about 50 percent to 75 percent of your body weight with this number largely depending on your weight and body shape. If you were to modify this workout and do an inclined push up or one on your knees instead, you would end up lifting anywhere between 36 percent to 45 percent of your body weight.
- On the other hand, Livestrong.com states that while doing a regular press-up, you support 69.16 percent of your body weight in the up position of a push-up, and 75.04 percent in the down position. If you were to modify this and do the simple knee variation, the number drops to you lifting 53.56 percent of your body weight in the up position and 61.8 percent of the same in the down position.
- However, a 2011 study by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research had the following findings regarding how much of your body weight you lift in a regular pushup and several modifications of the same (4):
- Hands on a 60.96 cm box – approximately 41 percent
- Knees on the ground – about 49 percent
- Hand on a 30.48 cm box – around 55 percent
- Regular – approximately 64 percent
- Feet elevated on a 30.48 cm box – about 70 percent
- Feet elevated on a 60.96 cm box – about 74 percent
Do Push Ups Work Shoulders?
Yes, they do, but this is not all. Not only is this exercise great for shoulders and upper body workout, but it is also a fantastic full-body workout.
What Do Incline Push Ups Work?
According to verywellfit.com, incline pushups are a beginner-friendly variation as not only do they put far less stress on your elbows, but they also significantly reduce the amount of body weight you are lifting. This workout workouts the deltoids (shoulders), triceps, pecs (pectoralis aka chest muscles), as well as other muscles in the core, hips, legs, and hips.
Weighted Push Ups Vs. Bench Press Muscle Activation
Weighted push-ups are considered a closed chain movement, whereas the bench press is an open-chain movement. According to a 2019 study, closed chain movements such as the weighted pushups provide greater activation of shoulder and trunk muscles (3).
Incline Bench Press Vs. Push Ups Difference
Other than the fact that they are two very different exercises, the incline bench press is solely a chest workout while the push-up works your is a full-body workout that not only exercises the chest muscles but the rest of your body too. On the other hand, when it comes to dumbbell bench press vs push-ups both work the same upper-body muscles targeting chest, front shoulders, triceps and lats.
The Bottom Line
If you are wondering between push ups vs bench press in terms of getting a bigger chest, science clearly states that both workouts do the same thing and will produce the same results. All that remains is you choosing your favorite workout and putting in the work for those coveted gains.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Bench Press and Push-up at Comparable Levels of Muscle Activity Results in Similar Strength Gains (2015, journals.lww.com)
- Effect of Progressive Calisthenic Push-up Training on Muscle Strength and Thickness (2018, journals.lww.com)
- Electromyography activation of shoulder and trunk muscles is greater during closed chain compared to open chain exercises (2019, sciencedirect.com)
- Kinetic Analysis of Several Variations of Push-Ups (2011, journals.lww.com)