Are push-ups comparable to the barbell bench press?
I was reading Shane’s new article on bodyweight training over at Bony to Beastly a few days ago (it’s a good one), and there was a study he referenced that caught my eye.
When doing six reps to failure of bench press and six reps to failure of push-ups, their strength gains after five weeks in both groups were almost the exact same.
Not only that, but both exercises had pretty much the same levels of activation noted in the pecs and deltoids (shoulders).
Now, there are a couple of things to note:
- The bench press was a smith bench press instead of a free moving barbell.
- The push-up was “weighted” with elastic bands to match the intensity to the bench press at six reps.
- They timed the velocity of the movement with a metronome—2 seconds lowering, 2 seconds pushing. (Speed can influence the style of muscular adaptation, forcing this to be the same could have erased any differences.)
- It wasn’t very long—only five weeks. The researchers noted we’d have to look at a longer-term study to learn more.
Weight Is Weight
What does this mean for us?
When looking at the total body of evidence, your body doesn’t care where the weight comes from—and so as long as you can make the push-up heavy enough, you can get great strength gains from it. And if you do enough volume, then you can get great size gains from it.
Now, personally, I wouldn’t go out and buy bands if you’re looking to train at home. You may do even better just by loading yourself up with more weight. Bands tend to challenge your muscles when they’re most contracted (instead of at their biggest stretch, like a bench press.)
So, our favourite option is to take a backpack and load it up with the densest, heaviest thing you have at your place. In terms of density, metals and water are the heaviest. Some people may have loose weight plates, others may have water jugs, but even an entire backpack full of books could be enough to challenge yourself. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d be able to get 30–40 pounds in that bag.
Then wear the bag and do your push-ups. It’s common for muscle size to focus on the 6–12 rep range when doing sets.
- Get less than 6 reps? Lighten the bag up a bit. Still too heavy? Try bodyweight push-ups (or do countertop push-ups.)
- Get more than 12 reps? Load that bag up to the brim. If you’re still getting high-reps, keep in mind that you can get reasonable growth up to 20, 30, and possibly even 40 reps per set. It may just burn a bit more. The other thing you could try is controlling your push-ups for another way of progression. Try lowering for a count of three, push for a count of 3.
You can also put weight plates on your back as you do push-ups, or even buy weighted vests.
Go For The Stretch With Push-Ups
When you’re ready to take things to the next level, you can try the deficit push-up for a bigger range of motion.
This is when you make two stacks of books and put your hands on it. This allows you to stretch the pecs, even more, helping to unlock more muscle growth than normal.
Let me quote from Shane over at Outlift.com about the importance of loading muscles when they’re most stretched:
“If we look at a meta-analysis evaluating the effects of challenging our muscles at different lengths, we see that challenging our muscles in a stretched position stimulated nearly three times as much muscle growth as challenging our muscles in a contracted position.”
Both Benching And Push-Ups Are Solid Exercises
Anyways, this isn’t an exhaustive list of differences. There are a ton of differences, like push-ups working your abs and obliques more. Benching allows you to isolate the upper body more, allowing you to go heavier. One exercise is open chain, one is closed chain. They all have their place.
I’m not claiming that benching or push-ups are better than one another.
But what I am trying to say is that if you’re looking to build muscle and you want to work out at home, you don’t need to be discouraged. You can still make great progress in both size and strength.
In fact, I’d challenge you to experiment a bit today and see what you can accomplish even if you can’t get access to weights.
The last benefit is that it’s a lot easier to do backpack push-ups out in the fresh air and sunshine rather than hauling out a bench and barbells. Sunshine is huge when it comes to proper hormones, stubborn belly-fat burning, and improving sleep at night.
This spring and summer, I’m trying to spend as little time training down in my basement gym and doing as much of it as I can outdoors. Don’t forget, the sun reduces all-cause mortality (2018 review, 2017 review, 2016 review, 2016 study) and will help you reach your health, strength, and leanness goals.
If you want more help getting an incredibly strong, lean, and healthy body, I’d suggest checking out our True Gains program.