Exercise, EMG & Strength Gains: Why it’s Time to Re-Examine the Push-Up
Generalisation is bad. Generalisation offends people when you blanket blame, or leave people out. Generalisation is a one-size-fits-no-one approach.
This is unfortunate, because I’m about to generalise. My guess is there are many of us who are guilty of seriously neglecting or underappreciating the humble push-up. (You see, this is the problem with generalisation. There are probably plenty of you out there now saying indignantly ‘I don’t neglect it!’ Sorry, bear with me.)
The push-up is a great exercise. It’s probably one of the very first exercises you did: it requires no equipment, and it’s safe for beginners. It’s the exercise that everyone knows how to do. Yet surprisingly few people know how to do the push-up well, and still fewer who know to do it regularly.
…surprisingly few people know how to do the push-up well, and still fewer who know to do it regularly.
Because the push-up is seemingly so simple, it’s often overlooked in favour of ‘harder’ exercises. Precisely because it’s an exercise you can do very early on, it is easy to have the mentality that you have now somehow progressed beyond the push-up. It’s also, let’s be honest, a fairly dull exercise. There’s a reason it’s used as a punishment by PE teachers and Drill Sergeants.
There can also be a pressure in the gym to look impressive, so on ‘Chest Monday’ people tend to hit the bench press, not the push-ups. The bench press is an excellent exercise, and I am not in any way disrespecting it – it’s not called the King of upper body exercises without reason – but it is also a very macho thing to do. If you take a look at the meatheads with their fake tan and fake rage music in their expensive headphones, the chances are they’ll be queuing up to do the bench press, not the push-up.
by adding resistance bands or a weighted vest to the exercise, you can make it much harder.
Of course, one big advantage of the bench press is that you can easily vary the intensity by varying the weight on the bar. This isn’t quite so easy with a push-up. Nevertheless, by adding resistance bands or a weighted vest to the exercise, you can make it much harder.
Which brings me on rather nicely to a recent study that examined the benefits of a standard push up compared to the bench press. The researchers tested 30 university students with previous resistance training, and split them into two groups. Over 6 weeks, one group performed resistance band assisted push-ups, whilst the other group trained using traditional bench presses (6RM) performed on a Smith Machine.
The researchers measured EMG activity levels and strength gains. EMG (electromyography) is a ‘commonly-used method in sports science that can help researchers understand how strongly a muscle is contracting. Exercises that display high EMG levels in certain muscle groups are thought to be those that are most effective for developing those parts of the body.’Using surface electrodes attached to the skin, the researchers measured EMG activity in the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid during the two exercises. after six weeks of exercise, they compared the results of EMG tests and also looked at the strength gains made by the two groups.
not only was the push-up just as effective at recruiting the major muscles as the bench press, it also led to the same level of strength gains.
We should point out the fact that the bench presses were performed at 6RM (that is, 6 reps maximum before failure). This is the sort of heavy weight that has been proven to be effective for strength gains. The results were therefore quite surprising. The researchers found no significant difference in either EMG activity or strength gains between the group doing bench press and those doing push-ups. So not only was the push-up just as effective at recruiting the major muscles as the bench press, it also led to the same level of strength gains. That, for me at least, is surprising.
Now, a few things to note. Firstly, EMG activity was not measured in the triceps brachii, a key muscle used in both exercises. Secondly, the bench press was performed on a Smith Machine, which limits the movement of the bar and may utilise less muscles than a traditional free weight bench press. Finally, the tests unfortunately did not examine the weighted vest push-up (as stated, another excellent way to increase the difficulty of a push-up). While these problems do limit the conclusions we can draw, they do not invalidate the results.
look for ways you can make the push-ups more difficult. Weighted vests, weight plates and resistance bands are a good start.
Nor do they detract from the rather obvious conclusion: the push-up is an excellent exercise. If it isn’t part of your workout, it definitely should be. There isn’t anyone who can’t benefit from doing more push-ups as part of their training. Some people may find that, even with perfect form, they can do endless push-ups with no real difficulty. For you guys, look for ways you can make the push-ups more difficult. Weighted vests, weight plates and resistance bands are a good start. Using two benches, or two chairs, or even large dumbbells, allows you to get deeper at the bottom of the exercise, and work your muscles harder. Elevate your feet, change your hand positioning, or try plyometric or one handed push-ups.
The push-up remains a kickass exercise. It is unpretentious, un-flashy, doesn’t show off or try to be fancy – but it still gets results. I think we can all learn something from that.