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Build press-up power!

Master the press-up, and its key variations, to build a bigger, stronger and broader chest

The humble press-up is often assumed to be “too easy” by many gym-goers, and so is overlooked as not worthy of inclusion in their training programme. That’s a big mistake because when it comes to building a bigger and stronger chest, there are not many moves better than the classic bodyweight exercise that most us still associate as an adolescent punishment for forgetting your PE kit.

Done properly, press-ups are a very challenging and rewarding exercise and they can be done anywhere at anytime, making them a fantastic go-to move when you’re short of time, kit and space, and also work your triceps, shoulders and abs, as well as your chest.

And there are a number of great variations that mean you’ll never run out of simple moves that sculpt pecs to be proud of. Here are some of the best press-up variations, as well as some expert performance and progression tips, so you can start to build a bigger and stronger upper body today.

Press-up
The classic press-up is a great way to improve muscular endurance in your pecs, front shoulders and triceps and a fantastic exercise to work these muscles to full failure to encourage muscle size growth. A good way to do this is to perform a set of quality press-ups to failure after every set of bench presses. For example, do your set of eight to 10 bench press reps then immediately move to the floor and do a set of press-ups to failure, which means you literally can not do one more single rep. This will work all those muscle fibres in your chest that don’t get worked during your heavy bench press work to build more muscle size, strength and endurance.

Essential form
• Start with your hands underneath your shoulders and toes on the floor.
• Brace your core and raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from head to heels.
• Keeping your weight on your arms, bend your elbows to lower your chest down towards the floor.
• Pause briefly at the bottom, with your chest as close to the floor as possible without touching it.
• Press back up powerfully to return to the start.

Expert upgrade
Far too many people think the press-up is an exercise that is beneath them and instead favour barbell bench presses, dumbbell flyes, cable crossovers and other weighted moves to build up their chests. But the humble press-up is a tried-and-tested upper-body muscle builder, and the beauty is that it can be done anywhere, anytime. Get the gains you want by not rushing your reps and taking your time to lower and lift your torso up and down. Try a 4010 tempo – a four-second lowering phase, a zero-second pause at the bottom, a one-second pressing phase, then a zero-second pause at the top – to get your muscles better at controlling each movement. Or try a 3110 tempo that introduces a one-second pause at the bottom of each rep. All of a sudden you’ll make this ‘easy’ and ‘boring’ bodyweight exercise a legitimate muscle-building move.

Diamond press-up
Want bigger arms? This is the move for you, because this variation places far greater emphasis on your triceps than your chest, so it’ll pack on size on your upper arms. To really make the most of this move, focus on squeezing your triceps at the top of the pressing part of each rep, and think about how your triceps are contracting when you lower your torso towards the floor, using a good slow and controlled tempo. The more you can focus on a muscle moving during an exercise, the greater the rewards.

Essential form
• Start in the press-up position but with your hands together so that your thumbs and index fingers form a diamond.
• Brace your core and raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from head to heels.
• Keeping your weight on your arms, bend your elbows to lower your chest down towards the floor.
• Pause briefly at the bottom.
• Press back up powerfully to return to the start.

Expert upgrade
This move is a lot harder than it looks, so many people try it then give up quickly because they can’t do many full-range reps. To get stronger so you can do more reps, you can either just do the lowering part of the move, keeping the tempo slow to make your muscles work harder, then kneel back up to return to the start, or lower yourself down in the diamond position then take your hands back to normal width to push back to the start.

Wide-arm press-up
Placing your hands wider apart increases the focus on your chest and lessens the involvement of both the triceps and the shoulders. It’s important to perform the move safely by lowering your torso to the ground slowly and under full control – doing so will reduce the risk of injury and increase the effectiveness of the move. You want to feel a good stretch across your chest as you move closer to the ground.

Essential form
• Start in the press-up position but with your hands about double shoulder-width apart.
• Brace your core and raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from head to heels.
• Keeping your weight on your arms, bend your elbows to lower your chest down towards the floor.
• Pause briefly at the bottom, with your chest as close to the floor as possible without touching it.
• Press back up powerfully to return to the start.

Expert upgrade
You need to ensure that your head and neck stay tight and in line. Allowing your head to hang can cause your shoulders and upper back to round, which is poor form and makes the move less effective. This often happens as you get close to failure, so instead of going until you can’t do another single rep, stop once you notice your form suffering, rest on your knees for a count of ten, then do another set of reps. At failure a second time rest again then do one final set to build better strength in your chest without risking injury.

Side-to-side press-up
This press-up variation is a great way of increasing the difficulty of the basic move to make the muscles of your chest, shoulders and triceps work hard to support, manage and move your bodyweight up and down, and from left to right, whilst your core muscles need to be fully engaged to keep your torso level for the duration of each rep.

Essential form
• Start with your hands underneath your shoulders and toes on the floor.
• Brace your core and raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from head to heels.
• Keeping your weight on your arms, bend your elbows to lower your chest down towards the floor.
• As you go down move your torso towards your left so your head is in front of your left hand.
• Keeping your chest as close to the floor as possible, move your torso over and across so your head is in front of your right hand.
• Press back up powerfully to return to the start, moving your torso back to the middle as you do.

Expert upgrade
This is a hard exercise so it can be tempting to rush each rep to get the set finished as quickly as possible but you need to resist that temptation if you want to effectively work the target muscles. When doing these reps, as with all exercises, it’s always better to focus on quality reps than quantity. Try to add an extra rep or two per set every time you do this move but keeping reps slow and controlled is the first priority to increase muscular time under tension and minimise injury risk.

Spider-man press-up
This heroic variation is not just about the chest, shoulders and triceps, because bringing one knee in at a time to meet your elbow requires your upper and lower abs to be fully engaged to draw your knee in then back out again, as well as fully activating the deep stabilising muscles of your core to keep your whole body stable throughout each rep. It’s a really hard move, but mastering it will benefit you in terms of better performance and a better physique.

Essential form
• Start with your hands underneath your shoulders and toes on the floor.
• Brace your core and raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from head to heels.
• Keeping your weight on your arms, bend your elbows to lower your chest down towards the floor.
• As you go down draw one knee in towards your elbow.
• Pause briefly at the bottom, with your chest as close to the floor as possible without touching it.
• Press back up powerfully to return to the start, straightening your leg back as you do, then repeat with your other knee and then alternating each rep.

Expert upgrade
The first thing you can do to perform this move more efficiently and effectively is to engage your core before starting a set. Do this by pulling in your belly button to tense your entire abs and deep core region. Starting with a strong and stable braced midsection – and focusing on keeping it tensed – will allow you to fully draw your knee in towards your chest whilst keeping your press-up form perfect to maximise your results.

Dive-bomb press-up
The very nature of this move means that for the duration of each rep there are a lot of different muscles fully engaged and under tension, which can only be a good thing when you want bigger, stronger and more defined muscles. The down-and-forwards then up-and-backwards movement also makes your chest, shoulders, triceps and core all work in different and more challenging ways to the standard press-up move.

Essential form
• Start with your hands flat on the floor with your feet flat so that your body forms a v-shape.
• Brace your core then lower your head and chest down towards your hands, moving your torso and head forward in a smooth arc as your head approaches the ground.
• Keep moving your upper body forward in a smooth arc until your eyes are looking forward and your chest is up.
• From there, raise your hips up to return to the start position.

Expert upgrade
Don’t get overly-concerned about completing too many reps per set. Instead think about the muscles working at each point of the rep to build a stronger mind-to-muscle connection that will help you train more efficiently in every session. The nature of this movement means some areas will be far more difficult than others, with the most likely sticking points being where your shoulders or triceps are fatigued whilst your chest is still strong. If so, do this variation to failure, then go straight into regular or wide press-ups to keep working the chest muscles with a slow and controlled tempo for faster gains.

7 Fingertip press-up
This variation is more about your finger and wrist strength than upper-body muscle strength, so is therefore best suited to people who want or need stronger fingers and wrists, such as MMA fighters, climbers and gymnasts. If that’s not you, but you’re still up for a really big challenge, then give them a go, but don’t get disheartened when you try and almost certainly fail. As with anything worthwhile, it takes time and effort to get good at this move, so perform a couple of reps, adding one or two reps per session progressively over the coming weeks and months to build finger strength slowly without risking injury.

Essential form
• Start with your hands underneath your shoulders but with just your fingertips in contact with the ground.
• Brace your core and raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from head to heels.
• Keeping your weight on your arms, bend your elbows to lower your chest down towards the floor.
• Pause briefly at the bottom, with your chest as close to the floor as possible without touching it.
• Press back up powerfully to return to the start.

Expert upgrade
It’s worth experimenting with different finger positions. We are all anatomically different, so some people find the exercise easier with fingers spread, others with fingers quite close, some somewhere in the middle. It all depends on finger length, size of hands, arm length and many other factors. If you’ve mastered one way, then try another. There are so many ways to adapt and progress an exercise, so don’t be afraid to use your imagination and experiment. Maybe one day you’ll be able to do a dive-bomb press-up on your fingertips!