11 Push-Up Variations That Burn Out Every Inch of Your Core and Arms

Photo: Getty Images/Paul Bradbury
Much like ice cream flavors, there's push-up variations for every mood. Besides the classic version, there are a variety of twists to the exercise that will let you target practically every part of your body. So if you're asking what muscles do push-ups work, the answer really depends on which type you choose—However, often, the answer is really "all of them."

What muscles do push-ups work?

A traditional push-up works the chest, triceps, and the front and backs of the shoulders. It also requires engaging  your core—and as you may know, the core encompasses a lot more than just your ab muscles. Your core includes the muscles that wrap around your trunk. That means that your obliques and back muscles, as well as your glutes and your pelvic floor, are all part of your core, and have to spring into action during a push-up.

Experts In This Article

Do push-ups build mass?

While push-ups engage your muscles and are strengthening exercises, they're not known as a mass-building exercise. "Pushups do not necessarily build mass, but they build strength, and also shape the upper body and define the muscles," says trainer Denise Chakoian, the owner and founder of CORE Cycle.Fitness.Lagree.

The difference is that building mass usually requires progressively adding load and resistance in the form of extra weight. But there are a lot of other benefits of push-ups. "Push-ups improve upper body strength, endurance, and stability," says Ronny Garcia, a certified personal trainer for Blink Fitness. "They can also help with posture which can help reduce the risk of injury. The biggest problem with push-ups is that it is difficult to make them more challenging by increasing the resistance, as you would for a weight-based exercise which lowers its effectiveness for building mass. I still recommend that everyone incorporate push ups into their routines due to its functional aspect. "

What are the benefits of modified push-ups?

In fact, you'll be hard-pressed to find an upper body workout that doesn't include some sort of twist on the push-up, since it requires zero equipment, and is easy to figure out how to do in proper form. So it's no wonder that over the years, trainers have gotten creative and concocted push-ups of all types—that work as strength training for every inch of your arms and abs.

From easy to hard variations, these modifications can allow you to work different muscle groups. Changes with tempo can also make the exercise a cardiovascular one. "Push-ups have cardiovascular and aerobic benefits, especially when they are done with high intensity or as part of a circuit or with interval training," Garcia says. "Push-ups are also awesome for improving flexibility and range of motion in the upper body."

What is the most difficult type of push-up?

The answer to this question can vary based on your levels of difficulty. Is it the push-up that gives you the biggest upper body, core, or full body workout? Is it the one that leaves you most out of breath? To find the most difficult type of variation for you, we suggest giving different variations a spin, and seeing which is most personally challenging. That said, experts do have some favorites that they recommend for advanced students.

"For advanced push-up variations, I love the diamond push-up where hands close together in a diamond shape or the plyo push-up which is more for building power," Garcia says. "Both of these increase difficulty and target different muscle groups in the upper body."

To turn the classic push-up into a full-body workout routine, keep scrolling to see which ones hit which muscles... and then drop down and get to sweating.

The muscles worked in push-ups of 10 different variations

1. Standard push-up: chest, shoulders, triceps, core

With the standard push-up, you'll hit these staple muscle groups in the moving plank position. "The regular push-up provides the most amount of stability and the greatest opportunity to train strength in your chest, shoulders, triceps, and core with your legs extended," says Ben Lauder-Dykes, Fhitting Room trainer. If this move is still a challenge, no worries—consider adding the best exercise for push-ups into your weekly workout routine to build up your strength.

2. Tricep push-up: triceps

By simply tucking your elbows into your sides during a push-up, you'll get an extra burn in your triceps. The setup is the same, but your elbows and arms remain squeezed toward your ribs the entire time you push down and up.

3. Plyometric push-ups: chest muscles plus a cardio burst

Corey Lewis, CEO of 1AND1 Life and certified personal trainer, recommends trying a plyometric push-up to hit your fast-twitch muscle fibers. "Due to the utilization of more muscle fibers with this exercise, you're able to maximize the workout effect on your chest muscles," he says, adding that it's also great for building the functional explosiveness of your upper body (which helps with everyday movements by spiking your heart rate). From a high plank position, engage your abs and keep your body in a straight line with your hands underneath your shoulders. Lower until your chest is almost touching the floor, then generate power to pop off of the ground completely.

4. Spiderman push-up: obliques

For a challenging upgrade that turns the push-up into an ab burner, try the Spiderman push-up. Set yourself up for a standard push-up, but as you lower down, bring your leg toward the elbow on the same side, squeezing your obliques. Return to start and alternate sides.

5. Sphinx push-up: triceps and core

Emulating a Sphinx in this push-up variation works your arms, shoulders, and particularly your triceps, since your hands are out in front of your head throughout the move. As an added bonus, you're also getting a big-time stretch throughout the back of your arms.

6. Iranian half-moon push-up: obliques

This move blends a downward dog, chaturanga, standard push-up, and plank into a single rep. Though you're strengthening your upper body muscles in the exercise, you'll feel the most burn in your obliques, which are in charge of winding and twisting your body throughout the move.

7. Russian push-up: core

The Russian push-up recruits all of your upper body muscles and your entire core as you flow between a forearm plank and full push-up.

8. Incline push-up: shoulders and chest

Though doing a traditional push-up on an incline—with a bench, box, or another elevated surface—makes the move easier, it's hitting your chest muscles and shoulders more than when you're doing it flat on the ground. Experts also recommend starting with this move, or doing push-ups from knees, if you are just beginning your push-ups journey. If that amount of incline is too much for you,  you can also stand with your arms against a wall.

"Use the wall at home, and stand shoulder distance apart with your hands and feet; lift your heels up onto your toes and start to push your arms and chest open towards the wall, then pushing away," Chakoian says of the incline push-up. "This will teach the movement pattern in a safe way especially for people that cannot get onto the floor, and also who are coming out of a surgical procedure and are trying to build their strength back up."

9. Weight-plate pushups: chest, triceps, shoulders, core

Remember how we said it was difficult to add resistance in the form of extra weight to a push-up. Well, where there's a will, there's a way. Place a weight plate on your back for an extra challenge (you'll probably need a workout partner to actually do this). You'll use all the same muscles as a standard push-up, but you'll be turning things up a notch.

10. Elevated push-ups: core

Just as incline push-ups take some of the load off of your muscles, elevated push-ups, also known as decline pushups, make things more difficult.

"My favorite pushups are ones that are elevated which means my feet are up onto a bench, or a platform to enhance the core much more than feet on the floor," Chakoian says. "This creates a challenge in the core and the upper body.  This should only be done when you are confident that you are strong enough to hold your core in a stable position without dropping your hips."

11. Diamond push-up: chest, shoulders, core, and extra emphasis on triceps

Also known as close grip push-ups, the diamond pushup places an extra emphasis on your triceps. Start in a plank, and then move your hands toward the center under your chest, until they meet. Touch your thumbs and fingers together to form a diamond shape. Then, lower and lift.

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