“PRESS-UPS, DONE RIGHT, CAN BE YOUR ONE-STOP SHOP TO BUILDING A BETTER BODY”
IT’S LONG BEEN A BODYWEIGHT STAPLE FOR HOME WORKOUTS AND PRE WEIGHTS WARM UPS, BUT USED RIGHT THE HUMBLE PRESS UP CAN ALSO BE A SERIOUS MUSCLE AND STRENGTH MOVE TO RIVAL ANYTHING THE GYM HAS TO OFFER
Lockdown was all about getting back to basics. Some started baking sourdough; others rediscovered the joys of jigsaw puzzles. And many, deprived of being able to go to the gym, turned back to press-ups to keep in shape.
It makes sense: press-ups were man’s go-to bodyweight exercise long before dumbbells were created, with fans ranging from soldiers in the Ancient Indian army to the Roman emperor Constantine. Yet with all the recent advances in tness tech and gym equipment, the press-up had fallen by the wayside in favour of bulkier weights-focused options.
With some scienti c evidence and plenty of professional expertise, however, you can turn this unassuming bodyweight exercise into the lynchpin of a total-body transformation. So take a moment to consider the power of the press-up – you might just nd the only gym you need is right beneath your feet.
Long before lockdown started, press-ups were the go-to muscle-building move for the locked-up. at’s why, when a young Tom Hardy landed the lead role in Bronson, he turned to them to build a physique worthy of Britain’s most notorious convict. Instead of heavy weights and resistance training, Hardy opted for moves only an inmate would be able to master: a bodyweight-focused routine, centered around an eye-watering ‘bulk matrix’ of 1,000 press-ups a day. If you saw the lm, or Hardy’s subsequent tough guy turn as Batman villain Bane, you’ll know it worked.
So, can you get t using only press-ups? Most prisoners would tell you a resounding yes. In fact, ex-inmate Paul Wade has built
a career around his ‘Convict Conditioning’ method, which posits that inmates need nothing more than a concrete oor and their own bodyweight to gain serious bulk. e science backs him up – in one Sports Medicine International Open study, researchers found press-ups were just as e ective as bench-pressing when it comes to activating upper-body muscle.
But a press-up can also be an e ective total-body move. “You would be hard pressed to nd any single exercise that hits that many muscles with one basic movement pattern,” says Colorado-based calisthenics coach Matt Schi erle, the brains behind bodyweight brand Red Delta Project.
“ere’s the obvious prime movers: chest, shoulders and triceps. But it also does great things for your abdominals and obliques, hip exors, quads, traps and lats for stability – even the calves, the forearms and the muscles in the back of your neck.”
Schi erle is a big advocate of the press-up. Not only has he worked closely with Wade on building the Convict Conditioning method, but he’s also spent time installing gyms for inmates in US correctional facilities. at means he’s seen evidence of the move’s power in prison rst-hand. “You have someone watching you at all times,” Schi erle explains, “so getting down on the oor and busting out reps, making them look easy, exing the muscle – that’s a show of power and prowess.”
Schi erle thinks that’s one of the reasons the press-up is such an enduring show of strength in popular culture. “ere’s something very primal and deep-seated in our understanding of human movement that tells us this is how we are supposed to be moving,” Schi erle says. ere’s even a whole school of bodybuilding theory which attributes our obsession with press-ups and upper-body exercises to an evolutionary human instinct to crawl – like babies, or chimpanzees.
“e theory is that our pectoral muscles in particular are there from the heyday of when we used to support ourselves in moving about on our hands,” Schi erle explains. “at’s why we don't relate to fancy moves like acrobatic cartwheels on the same level. e press-up is a display of functional capacity, not something done for an artistic approach – it’s pure physical power and strength.”
“You would be hard pressed to nd any single exercise that hits that many muscles with one basic movement pattern”
ORIGINAL STRENGTH TEST
Challenge another man to a test of strength, and there’s a good chance it’ll be measured in how many press-ups you can do. at’s because press-ups are still one of the best ways of determining tness in men. Take one JAMA Network study, which challenged a group of US re ghters to exactly that. Participants were told to do as many press-ups as they could, then observed over a subsequent ten-year period. ose who could do the most press-ups were far less likely to su er from heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular events.
Simply put, press-ups are a reliable, universal tness test. at’s because they’re both universally recognised and universally accessible – even to those who’ve never set foot in a gym.
“It’s such a good exercise because anyone can do it,” says CrossFit athlete Zack George. “Someone who’s never done any gym work at all can do press-ups on their knees, compared with some people who can do one-arm pressups with their feet on a chair.”
And while there are those who would turn their nose up at knee press-ups, the evidence is out there that they’re just as useful. One study in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics, for instance, found that there was no signi cant di erence in muscle usage between press-ups on the toes and press-ups on the knees.
Which is all well and good for beginners. But is there really any need for serious athletes to still do press-ups? George seems to think so, and he’s worth listening to on the subject. After all, he currently holds the o cial title of ‘UK’s Fittest Man’. “If you wanted to lose weight, or get a better chest or more de ned shoulders and triceps, you could de nitely use press-ups to do that,” he says. And Schi erle concurs: “You can make press-ups a bread-and-butter exercise of most of your routine and get phenomenal results.”
Press-ups, done right, can be your one-stop shop to building a better body. But if you’re looking to see real results, you’re going to need to rethink everything you know about the world’s oldest workout.
At the peak of the pandemic, a new social media trend was born: the ‘100 Pushups Challenge’, in which home exercisers trained towards the eponymous goal. en the ‘Handstand Challenge’ came along, gyms began to reopen and everyone forgot about press-ups altogether.
It’s understandable. For years we’ve been told that the best way to work your chest is the bench press. Likewise, shoulders are best built on the shoulder press, core at the squat rack, cardio tness on the treadmill. Doing 100 press-ups seems, well, a little pointless. Right? Yes – but only because it’s about quality, not quantity.
“Obviously if you do standard press-ups, four or ve times a week, week on week, you’re going to start to get into a plateau,” says George. So why does the UK’s Fittest Man still do press-ups? It’s because pro athletes like he and Schi erle know that there’s a lot more to press-ups than banging out 100 in a row.
How many press-ups can Schi erle do? “Hopefully no more than ten or so,” he says. “I like to keep them challenging – I wouldn't want to do them in such an easy way that I could reach a high number.”
To re ect how one can progress with press-ups alone, Schi erle has created a muscle-building four-week press-up matrix for you to try at home – or on the gym
oor. But if you’re looking to progress more generally, the route looks something like this: when you can do more than ten standard press-ups, start experimenting with the myriad other variations on o er.
“I like to keep press-ups challenging – I wouldn’t want to do them in such an easy way that I could reach a high number”
“One of the great, yet often misunderstood, things about bodyweight training – especially press-ups – is that there are more ways to progress than with classic weight work,” Schi erle says. In his calisthenics coaching, he has even come up with a ‘Table of Progressive Elements’, consisting of nine distinct areas in which to progress. ese elements include speed and tempo (such as plyo press-ups), adding weight, time and duration (such as AMRAP press-ups or extra-slow movements) and angle to gravity (such as incline or decline press-ups).
e latter is Schi erle’s favourite ‘basic’ progression method: start on an incline, then progressively lessen the incline until you’re at against the ground. “As you get closer to the oor, you’re shifting weight from your feet and adding it to your hands,” he explains. “It does exactly the same thing as adding weight to a barbell.” Once at on the oor, put up your feet on a slight decline to start working your shoulders – then, in time, make that decline progressively steeper and steeper. Before you know it, you’ll be onto the holy grail of bodyweight moves.
“e handstand press-up is the most common variation I do,” says Zack George. “To do one, you’ve got to be comfortable being upside down against a wall to start with. en we would like you to be able to control your own bodyweight being upside down, then we’d normally go into a negative rep.”
Once you can lower yourself to the oor while upside down against a wall, you’ll be ready to do an easy version of the handstand press-up with a few mats beneath you. en you’ll be on your way to performing a perfect handstand press-up – though you might still be a while o matching George’s approach.
“It’s very extreme, but I do handstand press-ups on Olympic rings,” he says. “You do a muscle-up to get into the position, then you go upside down. en you’ve got to stabilise yourself and do a handstand pressup, on the rings, upside down – which is pretty hardcore.”
Start with Schi erle’s four-week press-up matrix, then use the tips above to progress even further. at way, next time someone tells you that press-ups are only for beginners, you can bust out your Olympic rings, get upside down and shut them up for good.
“One of the great things about bodyweight training – especially press-ups – is that there are more ways to progress than with classic weight work”