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The Upper Body Exercise We Should All Be Doing

push ups

Ranking exercises and trying to come up with the best move to work any given body part can be fun, but it’s usually a lost cause.

Mostly because exercise is so subjective and so much depends on individual goals, styles, and so forth.

That said, there is one exercise that works pretty much every muscle from the waist up, doesn’t require any equipment, can be done anywhere, and is modifiable to any fitness level.

That’s right, I’m talking about the lowly push up.

Pound for pound, I consider the push up to be the best overall upper body exercise out there (with the pull up ranking second, mostly because it’s not as modifiable and requires additional equipment).

I think the above reasons are more than enough to justify this statement, but the fact that push ups can be used to create an entire workout on their own or used in tandem with other strengthening exercises easily puts ’em at the top of the list.

So, if you’re looking to improve upper body strength or add a little variety to your chest day, I highly encourage you to add push ups to your routine.

If you need a little more convincing, keep reading.

I Started Doing Push Ups And This Happened

The push up is a classic move I’m sure we’ve all had to do at some point in PE class and even though we have a ton of fancy fitness equipment to choose from these days, this classic exercise is still as relevant as it’s ever been.

I actually decided to add push ups back to my routine in an effort to improve my chest and shoulder strength and I’ve been seeing good results.

I’ve done a lot of push ups over the years, but I have to admit I gave ’em up for a while because I got tired of ’em.

Doing P90X will do that to ya.

Long-story-short, I used to go through P90X once a year or so (usually in January when I needed a fitness pick me up), making that a big part of my exercise routine.

And if you aren’t familiar, P90X is a great program, but it consists of a ton of push ups and pull ups.

Anyway, when we moved to our new home, we had space for more fitness equipment (which we took advantage of by investing in Force’s X15 Pro, which we absolutely love), so I didn’t have to rely on push ups so much.

It’s been great being able to do bench press and all these other strength training exercises again, but I decided to add push ups to my routine again in an attempt to tighten my chest up a little and improve overall strength.

I started doing 1 set of max out push ups a day and I’m really happy with the results I’m seeing (if I’m being real, I always miss a day or two each week, so it’s really more like push ups 5 days/week).

When I started, I was able to do about 35 push ups in one set – after a couple of weeks, I’m able to do just over 50.

This is awesome, but I’m also starting to notice improvements in my bench press.

I’ve never been a particularly skilled bench presser and my numbers are pretty average, but I’ve already added about 10 lb to my 1 rep max.

For the sake of transparency, that means I’ve gone for a max bench of 235 lb to 245 lb.

Again, I’m not breaking any records here, but that’s not bad for a dude in his forties.

I’d also like to mention that my shoulders are starting to look a little more defined than usual (I’m too shy to provide pics, so you’ll have to just take my word for it).

Anyway, this experiment has reminded me how awesome push ups are as an exercise, so I thought I’d try to convince everyone else to do more push ups too.

push up benefits

Push Up Perks

As my daughter likes to remind me, “nothing is perfect”, but when it comes to upper body exercises, I’d argue the push up is pretty darn close.

Don’t believe me, consider the following…

Work Tons of Muscles

We may think of push ups as a chest targeting exercise, but this exercise works a whole lot more than just the pecs.

It’s true, the pecs are one of the primary muscle groups used during this move, but there’s a lot more going on.

Here’s a quick list of some of the muscles being engaged during a proper push up:

  • Pecs
  • Deltoids
  • Triceps
  • Core
  • Biceps
  • Rhomboids
  • Serratus anterior
  • Middle/lower trap

It’s easy to picture the first few muscle groups listed engaging, but think about all the other muscle groups that have to turn on to stabilize your core and shoulder blades too.

As mentioned earlier, push ups engage pretty much every muscle from the waist up and if you engage your core correctly, you hit a lot of the muscles in your abdomen and legs too.

FYI, the activation of specific stabilizing muscles may vary a little depending on your hand placement.

Can Be Done Anywhere

The fact that push ups work so many muscles at the same time is great, but they can literally be done anywhere as well.

Think about it, all you need is enough floor space to position yourself in a plank position… that’s it.

You don’t need any equipment – no weights, no bars, no bands, nothing.

And even if your home was so cluttered you can’t find a few open feet of floor space, guess what – you can do ’em outside.

So the ol’ “I don’t have room for fitness equipment” excuse doesn’t cut it for push ups.


Another great feature of push ups is how versatile they are – regardless of your fitness level, you can rest assured that there’s a push up you can do.

Not only are there tons of different kinds of push ups to choose from, but this exercise is highly modifiable too.

Folks who struggle with traditional push ups can start with wall push ups or get on the floor with their knees bent and folks who excel at push ups can challenge themselves by elevating their legs, using a Swiss ball, or even getting plyometric.

And again, with so many different kinds of push ups to choose from, you don’t have to keep doing the same move everytime.

Feel free to mix things up and get creative and when in doubt, simply try changing your hand position to get a different feel (narrow grip, standard, wide grip, etc).

Push ups even make a great starter exercise for kids of all ages, as kids can have fun seeing how many more they can do as they get stronger.

Cardiac Benefits

Push ups can be used to improve upper body strength and to help tone your chest, shoulders, and triceps, but they can also be used as part of a comprehensive cardiovascular program.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve ever done many push ups… I mean they really get your heart rate up.

And some studies have suggested that being able to do push ups is a good indicator of risk for developing heart disease in men.

In one study, the results showed that men that could do at least 40 push ups had a 96% lower risk of developing heart disease than men who couldn’t do 10.

That’s a pretty huge difference (and the men who could do 11 or more had a really big decrease in heart disease as well, so don’t get too worried if you can’t hit that 40 number just yet).

You could create an entire workout around push ups or simply add them to a comprehensive body weight workout for added intensity.

Or, like me, you could augment your existing weight training workout with the addition of weekly push ups.

Final Thoughts

I’m really happy with the results I’ve been seeing by simply adding a set of push ups to my workouts ~5x/week.

And for the days I don’t get to workout, knocking out a set of push ups does help me feel like I at least got a little something in.

The benefits of push ups massively outweigh the possible downsides, but that doesn’t mean this exercise is perfect.

If you start doing them more often, you could start experiencing discomfort in your wrists or shoulders, but making sure you’re using proper form can often take care of this.

And if your shoulder pain isn’t going away, check out my tips to help solve this issue.

Otherwise, I encourage you to add push ups to your regular workout routine so you can start enjoying all the benefits this classic exercise has to offer.


Will's a licensed physical therapist (DPT) with over 15 years of experience treating patients from all backgrounds. He's been lifting weights and exercising in one form or another since middle school and has been working out in his own home gym for over a decade. When it comes to fitness equipment, there isn't much he hasn't tried. In his spare time, if he isn't writing or working out, he's likely playing basketball, watching movies, or hanging with his family.

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