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Anatomy of a Push Up

Updated on October 14, 2011

Think a Simple Push Up Can't Build Some Serious Muscle?

Well, think again. Body builders, fitness models and strongmen and women have been using the push up to effectively build muscles and upper body strength since the beginning of time. Or, at least since they realized that pushing yourself off of the ground was a good way to get in shape.

Most people don't realize it, but the lonely push up is one of the most effective exercises when it comes to building lean muscle and strength in the upper body. There are easily over ten ways to do a push up and each of these variations are capable of building different muscles in the upper body. So if you want to know if push ups really can build muscle, this is the lens for you!

So let's go ahead and get into the anatomy of the push up, shall we?

Photo courtesy of The U.S. Army

Upper Body Anatomy 101 - Muscles Worked When Doing Push Ups

So, before I go into all of the different types of push ups out there and how to do them, it's important that you know which muscles you're hitting with each exercise. In this case, I'm going to go over the muscles in the upper body that are most frequently worked when doing any variation of push up out there:

Pectoralis Major - Most of us know these as pecs for short and it is actually made up of two muscles, the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. These muscles sit right on the chest for men and just under the breast for women. This muscle is one of the major muscles worked out when doing push ups of almost any variation.

Deltoids- Your deltoids are the muscles that wrap around your shoulder from front to back. Known as "delts" for short, this muscle is actually made up of three different parts. Developing these will give your frame a nice, filled out square look which is very attractive on both men and women.

Triceps - The triceps are located on the back of your upper arm, just opposite your biceps. Like the name suggests, "tri" - this muscle is also made up of three parts as well. The triceps is worked out during all push up exercised, but specifically targeted when doing triceps push ups.

Biceps- The biceps are located on the front of your upper arm, just opposite the triceps. These are the muscles that pop up on Popeye's arms after he downs a can of spinach (consequently, he also does a lot of push ups too). The biceps are also worked out with each variation of push ups as well

Trapezius - The trapezius or "traps", as some call them, are a long muscle that extends from your neck to the middle of your back. In case you're wondering, it runs along the spine. People with well developed traps muscles often have a lot of bulk between their neck and shoulders, sort of like the Incredible Hulk. Nonetheless, there are a couple of variations of push ups that will help build these up.

So, now you know a little bit about the muscles worked when doing a push up, lets move on to the different types of push ups so that you can start working those muscles!

How Many Push Ups Does It Take....

10 Variations on the Common Push Up

Classic Push Up - The classic push up we all know and love! Space your hands shoulder width apart and make sure to keep your body straight and rigid. This exercise will work out your pecs, biceps, triceps, delts and core.

Decline Push Up - to do a decline push up, place your feet on a chair or stability ball (if you want more of a challenge). Place your hands on the ground and keep your core tight. Doing your push ups on a decline will work your upper pectorals, biceps, triceps, delts and traps.

Incline Push Up - an incline push up is just the opposite of a decline push up. In this version, place yourself between two chairs or stability balls. Put a hand on either chair/ball with your feet on the floor and do your push ups between them. This exercise will hit the lower pecs, biceps, triceps and lats.

Dumbbell Push Up - Dumbbell push ups are excellent for building shoulder muscle. To do these, place a dumbbell (which you can easily lift) in each hand. Get into classic push up position with the dumbbells in your hands. At the top of each push up, lift each dumbbell as if you are doing a rowing motion. Muscles worked include delts, traps, lats and triceps.

Hindu Push Up - Ok, so the Hindu push up originated in India and is a special way doing push ups that is reportedly much better for your joints. These push ups will hit your traps, lats and core specifically but is really a great workout overall. Check out the video below to see how these are done....

Hindu Push Ups

Everything You Need for the Perfect Push Up - Products You Might Like

Plank push up - the plank push up is one of my personal favorites because it works out both the abs and chest area. It's kind of like killing two birds with one stone. Plank push ups are done by starting in a plank position and holding it for 30-60 seconds, then pushing up onto your hands and going back into plank. Super simple, yet this will make you break a sweat!

Wide Push Up - the wide push up is done by positioning your hands just slightly wider than shoulder width apart. This will make the push up harder and also works out your pectorals even more.

Diamond Push Up - a diamond push up is the opposite of a wide push up. Here, you will position your hands close together so that your hands form a diamond shape. These push ups target the back muscles and deltoids.

Walking Push Up- Walking push ups are exactly what they sound like. Begin in a classic push up position and as you push up move your hands and feet to either the right or left. While this exercise works out the same muscles as the classic push up, it does require more strength and make things much more challenging.

Plyometric Push Up - finally, we have the plyometric push up. There are a few variations on how these can be done, however - a quick demonstration of the basic plyo push up is probably the best way to show you how to do these. Check out the video below...

Plyometric Push Ups

Best Push Ups - You Decide!

Which Push Up Do You Prefer

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