by Benjamin Bunting BA(Hons) PGCert
Written by Ben Bunting: BA, PGCert. (Sport & Exercise Nutrition) // British Army Physical Training Instructor // S&C Coach.
You were probably aware that the humble push-up is the barometer of many fitness tests for the entrance of various militaries across the world.
For instance, the US military push-up requirements for the Army is 35 repetitions within 2 minutes for males entering at 17-21 years old if they want to graduate to basic combat training.
In addition, a recent study from 2019 identifies that those men who can complete 40 push-ups have much less risk of cardiovascular disease events compared to those men who could do fewer than 10.
So, while a push up may seem inadequate compared to the myriad of weightlifting machines in a gym, there's certainly high regard for the push-up.
In this article we shall cover the following topics:
- Muscles worked
- Military push up test
- Push-ups for beginners
- How to do a military push up
- Push up vs bench
Push Up: Muscles Worked
Let's first establish which muscles are required to perform the exercise. This may actually give us an insight as to why they are popular.
The Anatomy of Exercise identifies two muscle groups that are worked during a push-up.
- Active muscles
- Stabilizing muscles
The active muscles include:
- Pectoralis major
- Pectoralis minor
- Triceps brachii
Then there are the stabilizers.
These account for an astonishing fifteen muscles.
Let's keep this simple.
The active muscles are the chest, the shoulders, and the rear of the upper arm.
Yet the stabilizing muscles cover areas such as your stomach, back, front of your thighs, and even the frontal area of your lower leg around the shin.
Now we can see why they are employed by the military to set a standard of fitness.
Doing a push up requires a lot more physical ability than just a strong chest, it's almost a full-body workout!
Military Push-Up Test
We have already mentioned that the US Army requires males who are aged 17 to 21 to perform 35 push-ups within 2 minutes.
Additionally, we have also looked at the results of a study that concluded if a man can perform 40 push-ups, he is less likely to suffer from a cardiovascular incident.
Yet, the military tests can vary from a different arm of the forces and different countries.
Some militaries or branches may place a higher emphasis on running, marching, or loaded carries.
For instance, the British Army has changed their fitness assessments. It no longer includes push-ups (or sit-ups for that matter) but does include many more exercises.
In fact, the number of exercises candidates are assessed on has doubled, and each one now accurately demonstrates what physical challenges they may face in battle as learned from the War of Terror.
However, let's take a quick glance to see what the general requirements are from different regions, this way, you can establish where you need to be if you are looking to enter service in the armed forces.
We have listed the minimum requirements typical for a young male adult.
- US Army: 35 (within 2 minutes)
- Royal Air Force: 20 push-ups (continuous)
- US Marines: 40
- Swedish Armed Forces: 8 (by keeping to the rhythm of 25 reps per minute)
- Australian Navy: 15
- Australian Army Special Forces: 40
- Royal Marines: 60 (within 2 minutes maintaining a controlled rhythm set by an audible bleep)
As you can see from even this small selection and variation in requirements, the push up is still considered a good evaluation of a person's strength and stamina.
Obviously for those in more specialist combat roles, the requirements are higher.
The role of a push up is an important test of both muscular endurance and strength.
The exercise employs both fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers.
Whereby fast twitch are the main source of strength (yet they fatigue quickly) and slow-twitch fatigue less quickly and provide endurance.
Slow-twitch muscle is known as Type1 fibers.
Fast-twitch is known as Type 2 fibers
As we have covered, push-ups can be a test of both endurance and strength.
Additionally, it has been established that performing push-ups involves the use of 20 different muscles whilst clinical analysis has found an association between the higher repetition of a push-up and decreased risk of a cardiovascular incident. Plus there's also the hormonal benefits associated with resistance training to consider.
So, already we can see that training is a worth while cause.
Let's find out why else the push up should be part of your workout routine.
Yes, in a world of expensive gym memberships and high priced home gym equipment, the push up is as free as they come.
Not only that, barely any space is needed to perform them. Win, win.
Target different muscles
The Journal of Physical Therapy Science discovered in one study that by simply moving your hands either in a wider position or a more narrow place you can concentrate either on the chest muscles or the triceps.
A great beginner exercise
You may be new to physical training, or you may be recovering from injury.
Either way, if you are looking to ease your way into fitness or rehabilitation, a bodyweight exercise such as the push-up could be key.
You can start off with low repetitions and slowly build up. You can start with a really light resistance by initially kneeling on your knees, furthermore, you could progress all the way to elevating your feet to increase the intensity.
By doing so you can create a firm foundation for further exercise and even gym sessions.
Help prevent injury
As we age, we can be more susceptible to falls.
However, performing push-ups can help improve muscle memory helping a person react more quickly and also handle the impact by absorbing the fall with strength gained from the exercise.
Gauge Your Strength
It has already been covered that push-ups are used to gauge strength and endurance, but we haven't yet mentioned that the push up can also be a good predictor of your one-repetition maximum effort on the bench press.
However, that was the conclusion by a study published by the Journal of Human Kinetics.
You get bigger
Testosterone and Erectile Dysfunction
Increased testosteorne has also been associated with improving libido and sexual desire amongst women which can result in an increased sex drive.
Disease Prevention & Control
Incorporating push-ups as part of a HIIT workout for those with chronic diseases has demonstrated improved quality of life and functional capacity.
Push-Ups for Beginners
Clearly there are great benefits to incorporating push-ups into your daily fitness regime, and why wouldn't you?
They are free, no equipment is required, and no special training area.
There are some excellent proven health benefits and you can even predict how strong your current bench press is.
So, one of your initial questions maybe along the lines of;
“How many push-ups should I be able to do?”
Good question! Well, the answer varies.
Okay, so the push-up world record is...wait for it...okay, this also varies.
The Guinness world record has different categories.
So let's keep it simple...
As of 2020, The Guinness World Record for as many push-ups in 24 hours is 46,001 and this record was set in 1993.
Considering these records have not been surpassed for such a long period of time, do not be disheartened by these huge feats of endurance.
Particularly when you learn that the latter record holder (Paddy Doyle who was in the British Army's Parachute Regiment) is often dubbed as the 'worlds fittest man' due to his long list of records held.
Therefore, if you are an absolute beginner with little to no experience with physical exercise, do not be put off if all you can do is one repetition.
In some cases, a person may only be able to do one push up whilst kneeling.
However, it is a start point from which progress can be made.
Yet, as a guide, a healthy male aged in his thirties should be able to perform 12 push-ups as a minimum with anything over 17 being considered a good performance.
Females in the same age bracket should be able to do 8 with up 14 being considered good.
Clearly, as we have covered earlier, the requirements for military personnel are a bit higher, but they are expected to be more physically active.
However, if you are not up to the expected standards, start off low and gradually build up the repetitions.
You may find that you can do three reps. In which case, do 3 reps, wait a minute or so and try another three reps and then try another set of three reps.
Continue with this every other day for a week.
Then try to add one more repetition to the first set, then gradually add an additional repetition to the second set, and so forth.
You may be astonished by the progress you make over what could be considered a short period of time.
Within a month you that initial three reps set could turn in to twelve reps. Even if it just doubles within a month, you are making progress and improving your health.
If you start making good traction with your results, do not be tempted to do push-ups every day.
Research suggests that to achieve the potential benefits from training a beginner should rest a muscle group 48 hours between training.
Therefore, if you are doing push-ups, do not be tempted to do them again the next day, maybe try a lower body exercise that doesn't involve the muscle groups that are recovering.
You could train push-ups on a Monday and a Thursday. Leaving rest days can help you focus on other areas, especially if you get the 'bug' for training due to the release of chemicals in the brain that makes you feel good.
Progression could see the use of wearing a rucksack with weight, a weighted vest, or holding bottled water to increase resistance.
Push-Up Workout Plan
A simple, yet effective training schedule for a beginner could look like this:
- Push-Ups: Monday and Thursday.
- Lunges/Squats: Tuesday and Friday.
If you struggle with 10 push-ups, try doing three sets of 10.
Then try to increase each set with one extra rep every week.
Therefore your progression may look like this over a two week period:
Set 1: 10
Set 2: 10
Set 3: 9
Set 1: 10
Set 2: 10
Set 3: 10
Set 1: 11
Set 2: 11
Set 3: 10
Set 1: 12
Set 2: 11
Set 3: 11
What we are seeing is a slow increment of progress.
How to do a Military Push-Up
A military push-up requires the correct form that would be associated with a traditional push-up.
Essentially, place your palms on the floor about shoulder-width apart with your arms locked out straight.
Your body should be extended in a rigid line to your feet with the toes of your feet making contact with the ground. Your bottom should not be extended upwards or sagging.
Your whole core should be tight, then lower your body in a controlled manner by bending your arms, you shouldn't touch the floor but your sternum should be lowered to approximately 4 inches/10 centimeters above the floor and your upper arms are parallel to the ground.
Then reverse the movement by straightening the arms (do not lock) and keeping your whole body rigid as you raise upwards.
Ensure your arms are close to the truck of your body and your elbows face rearwards.
A regular and military-style push up is down to the placement of the hands. By keeping them shoulder-width apart this distributes the weight proportionality across the shoulders, chest, and arms.
Your fingers should be spread with your middle finger pointing straight.
As covered, the military-style push-up evenly distributes the weight across the upper body.
However, we can change positions slightly to focus more on different areas of the upper body.
If you are wanting to really focus on working your triceps, a diamond push up is ideal.
Instead of placing your palms on the floor shoulder-width apart, you place the hands close to each other and create a diamond shape with the thumb and forefinger of each hand.
By having your hands positioned so closely together, the upward movement of the push up is concentrated on the triceps more than the chest or shoulders.
The movement and results are very similar to a narrow grip push up where the hands are positioned approximately 5 inches/12 centimetres apart.
These two variations emphasize load on the triceps because at the bottom of the stroke, the forearm is almost completely parallel with the floor and elbows are completely flexed.
This is basically the opposite of a narrow grip or diamond push up, whereby you position your hands wider than the shoulders, as a result, the more mechanical load is placed on the chest and shoulders.
Balance is the key, as is strength.
One hand must be tucked around the lower back or grasping at the hip. The other hand is positioned more centrally on the floor.
Then, as with a regular push up, maintain a rigid core and use the one arm to perform the movement.
Single leg push-up
Whilst you perform a regular push up, raise one leg off of the floor for the set.
When you go on to the next set, raise the opposite leg from the floor.
Push your self up away from the floor with explosive force and clap your hands before your body is about to return to the lowering position.
Ensure that you can actually push your upper body up from the ground high enough to clap your hands otherwise you may face-plant the ground.
When performing a push-up, on the arm extension and rise of your body bring one knee up to your elbow.
Alternate legs for each repetition.
If either of the above weren't challenging enough for you, try a commando press.
This is like a spider-man, so as you lower your body bring one knee up to the elbow, return your leg so it is in the straight position.
Instead of raising your body and extending your arms, perform the same movement on the other side of the body.
Then you raise your body by extending the arms upwards.
If the rigors of commando push-ups don't sound like your thing, you can perform a standard push up but using handles.
These handles provide a more comfortable base for your wrist, but more importantly, they increase the range of motion.
This allows you to bend your elbows past parallel and works your chest harder.
The handles are very cost-effective and give a good bang for your buck in terms of results.
Push-up for lower and upper chest
Just like incline and decline bench press, you can mimic similar exercises with the push-up.
However, if you have ever used an incline or decline bench when doing the push-up, you want your body positioned at the opposite angle to what you would have been whilst using the bench.
We explain it below.
To concentrate on the upper muscles of the chest, you would perform a push up as normal, but have your feet raised so they are higher than your shoulders.
You could use a sturdy bench, chair, or jump box.
In this case, you want your chest and upper body raised much higher than where your feet contact the ground.
You could use the same bench or box or any raised platform that can accommodate your hands being placed shoulder-width apart.
Push-up vs Bench Press
Off the bat, we can say that whilst they both concentrate primarily using the same group of muscles, you can potentially build more strength using a bench press and develop a higher 1 rep max.
Quite simply this is because of the limited methods available to increase the resistance that can be applied to callisthenic exercises such as the push-up compared to a bench press that can be loaded with hundreds of pounds or kilograms.
You can use items such as resistance bands or a weighted vest, but it won't compare to a very heavy barbell.
However, while the same primary muscle groups are engaged, there are fewer stabilizing muscles used for the bench.
That said, when both the push-up and the bench press were compared (simulating the same weight), more push up repetitions were completed as reported in this study.
This is could be due to the arms having to engage the arm muscles more during the pushing movement (concentric) of the bench press than the push-up.
In addition, further study notes that the center mass of the load has to be pushed vertically farther during the bench press compared to the shorter distance for the push-up.
While the exercise movements are similar the center of mass load isn't.
Due to the body position during a push-up, it is more similar to performing a decline bench press with a shorter distance required to extend the arms.
Therefore the result is slightly skewed as the movement isn't entirely equal.
For effective strength training, the number of repetitions needs to be around 6, and the weight used is 70% of your one-rep max, although 8 to 12 reps have shown to be effective.
With the push-up, once strength develops further, the only option other than using the limited methods available is to increase the number of repetitions.
However, once the repetitions are greater than that required for strength stimulus (6 to 12 reps), we no longer see a development or improvement of strength as seen in this study.
As a result, it was reported weight training is better at producing greater strength gains than calisthenics.
You can build strength with push-ups, but not necessarily as much strength that weights can provide due to the limitations already covered.
However, hypertrophy gains are possible.
Yet, like the bench press is more beneficial for strength training, the results of this study also saw greater muscle size gains from the bench press compared to the push-up.
A study investigating the ability to perform both push-up and equally loaded bench press repetitions to failure, both men and women could not perform as many bench presses using a barbell compared to push-ups whilst maintaining a tempo of 60 beats per minute.
The push up is a very simple exercise that costs nothing to perform and can be done anywhere with a stable surface.
It targets a wide range of musculature, and as such, as the science has proven it is a barometer of strength and endurance, hence why it is still a focal part of many military fitness assessments and part of physical exercise regimes.
There are a great number of benefits from this simple exercise that range from reducing the risk of cardiovascular events, helping prevent injury from falls, strengthening bones, and even contributing to hormone balance.
Unlike expensive gym equipment that requires different apparatus for different variations, the push up can be performed in a variety of ways to target different muscle groups all by just changing the position of your hands or other limbs.
This makes it an incredibly accessible way for people of all ages and abilities to gains strength, muscle size, and endurance.
If you want to reignite or even start a new fitness regime from scratch, the push-up should be your first port of call.
Always remember to keep hydrated when performing exercise.