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Push-Ups vs. Bench Press

In gyms all around the world, Monday is Chest Training Day, and that invariably means bench presses. The bench press is arguably the most popular strength training exercise today. It’s a bodybuilding cornerstone and one of the lifts contested in powerlifting. The bench press is also part of the NFL combine and used to select new pro football players.

However, despite this popularity, the bench press is actually a relatively new exercise that only came into being during the middle of the 20th century. Before that, most pressing was done standing and overhead. If a lifter did supine pressing at all, they did it while lying on their backs, the so-called floor press.

Predating even the floor press, push-ups are an equally popular chest exercise. In fact, while it’s hard to prove, push-ups are probably the most widely performed exercise in history. From raw beginners to Olympians, almost every exerciser has done push-ups at some point, and most will continue to do so.

This raises the question; which exercise is best. In this push-ups vs. bench press article, we pit these two exercises against each other to find the winner.

Push-Ups vs. Bench Press

Push-Ups Overview

Healthy group of people doing push ups

Push-ups are a bodyweight exercise that can be modified and made harder or easier, so it’s suitable for all fitness levels. Straightforward and convenient to perform, you can do push-ups anywhere, making them ideal for home workouts.

Push-ups are primarily an upper-body exercise and compare favorably with bench presses, dips, the chest press machine, and other chest exercises.

How to do Push-Ups

Get the most from push-ups by doing them correctly!

  1. Squat down and place your hands flat on the floor, roughly shoulder-width apart. Point your fingers forward.
  2. Walk your feet back until your legs and body are straight. Brace your abs and tuck your chin in, looking straight down at the floor.
  3. Bend your arms and lower your chest down until it’s about an inch above the floor.
  4. Push yourself back up and then repeat.

Make push-ups easier by bending and resting on your knees or harder by elevating your feet.

Muscles Worked

Push-ups are a compound exercise, which means they involve several joints and muscle groups working together. The main muscles involved in push-ups are:

Pectoralis Major

The muscles on the front of your chest and known as your pecs for short.

Anterior Deltoids

The front of three shoulder muscles. The anterior deltoids always work with the pecs.

Triceps Brachii

Located on the back of your upper arm, the triceps extend your elbows.

Rectus Abdominus

The muscles on the front of your abdomen and known as your abs for short. This muscle works to keep your body straight during push-ups.

Bench Press Overview

man doing dumbbell flat bench

Most gyms have the equipment necessary for barbell bench presses. This exercise can also be done with dumbbells. The bench press is one of the first exercises that most novice gym-goers learn, and it’s especially popular with men.

A lot of exercisers use the bench press as a measure of strength. “How much do you bench” is a common question among gym-goers.

How to do Bench Presses

Avoid common bench press mistakes by doing them correctly!

  1. Lie on the bench, so your eyes are directly under the bar. Place your feet flat on the floor so your shins are vertical. Drive your feet into the floor to stabilize your lower body.
  2. Reach up and hold the bar with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Pull your shoulders down and back. Arch your lower back slightly and lift your chest up toward the ceiling.
  3. Unrack the bar and hold it over your chest at arms’ length.
  4. Bend your arms and lower the bar down to lightly touch your sternum. Do not bounce the bar off your chest.
  5. Press the weight back up to arms’ length and repeat.

Muscles Worked

Bench presses use most of the same muscles as push-ups. The main difference is that where you use your abs to keep your body straight during push-ups, the bench fulfills this role during bench presses. However, during bench presses, your legs and glutes are usually more active than with push-ups.

The primary muscles involved in bench presses are:

  • Pectoralis major
  • Anterior deltoids
  • Triceps brachii

Differences Between Push-Ups and Bench Press

Push-ups and bench presses are very similar and work many of the same muscles. That said, there are some noteworthy differences:

Functionality

Push-ups are arguably more functional than bench presses. Push-ups involve your entire body and more closely replicate everyday movements, such as pushing open a heavy door, throwing a ball, or dealing out a punch. There are very few examples of the bench press movement in the real world.

Other than bench presses, when was the last time you needed to lift a heavy weight while lying on your back?

Equipment

Push-ups require no equipment, which means you can do them anywhere and anytime. You could even do some now! In contrast, you’ll need a barbell, weights, and a bench to do bench presses, which means they’re much less accessible.

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Push-ups are a bodyweight exercise. While you can make them harder or easier by changing the position of your body, your main form of progression is the number of reps you do. With bench presses, you can adjust the weight to reflect your current strength and make the exercise harder. Because of this, bench presses are arguably better for building muscle size and strength.

Safety

Bench presses are a potentially dangerous exercise. If you cannot complete a rep, you could find yourself with a heavy barbell resting across your chest or neck. This could cause serious injury or even death.

For this reason, heavy bench presses should always be done with a competent spotter on hand. In contrast, push-ups are much safer, and you can do push-ups to failure with no real risk of injury.

Variations

There are over a dozen push-up variations to try, including diamond push-ups, Spider-man push-ups, wide push-ups, decline push-ups, and single-arm push-ups. There are far fewer variations of the barbell bench press. Most bench press variations involve using different benches (incline, decline) or switching from a barbell to dumbbells.

Ease of Learning

A lot of exercisers find the bench press easier to learn than push-ups. That’s probably because you can use next to no weight for bench presses, whereas even kneeling push-ups put a reasonable amount of weight on your arms, making them harder to master initially.

Shoulder Health

Bench presses, especially done with heavy weights, can be hard on your joints. Push-ups have the reputation of being more shoulder joint-friendly. This is because push-ups put your shoulders in a more forgiving position, leading to less joint stress.

Push-Ups vs. Bench Press: Which is Best?

Woman doing angled push ups on a chair

Push-ups and bench presses are both great exercises. They’re similar enough that, for some exercisers, they’re interchangeable. If you work out at home, don’t feel cheated that you can’t do bench presses; push-ups can be every bit as beneficial.

That said, to make push-ups more challenging, your main variable is the number of reps you do. And once you can do 20 or more, this exercise will lose some of its benefits. High rep push-ups are good for developing muscular endurance but much less helpful for building muscle mass or strength.

In contrast, while you’ll probably need to go to the gym to do bench presses, progression is much easier. Just keep adding a little more weight, week by week, as you get stronger. You can also do bench presses to build muscle size and strength by manipulating your reps and the amount of weight on the bar.

On the downside, bench presses are more likely to cause acute and chronic injuries than push-ups. A failed bench press could leave you pinned under a heavy weight, and years of bench pressing can take a toll on your shoulders. Push-ups are a safer exercise, both short and long-term.

So, which is better?

That’s a tough call because it really depends on your training goals and your personal preferences. For some people, the bench press is the best option, while push-ups are the superior choice for others.

Think about what you want from your workouts, and then chose the exercise that fits best. You may even benefit from doing both – bench presses at the gym and push-ups afterward or at home.

Bottom Line

Choosing between two similar exercises is seldom easy. Both have pros and cons, and there is rarely a standout winner. What might be best for one person may not be so good for another. You may even find that what used to be a less than ideal exercise becomes your new favorite if your circumstances change.

In the battle of push-ups vs. bench press, there is no clear winner. Both exercises work your chest, shoulders, and triceps, and contrary to initial appearances, the movements are very similar, too.

The barbell bench press is potentially the best exercise for building strength and muscle size because it allows you to lift more weight. That said, you’ll need a barbell, weights, and a bench to do them, which may be a drawback if you work out at home.

In contrast, you can do push-ups anywhere and at any time. But, after you’ve lifted your feet or maybe progressed to handstand push-ups, the only way to make them harder is by doing more reps. This means they’re good for increasing endurance but not so useful for muscle strength or size. Include a lot of meat into your diet to help those gains.

So, in this battle between push-ups and bench presses, there is no clear winner. The best exercise is the one that matches your workout needs and goals. If you can’t choose between them, why not do both? That way, you can enjoy all of the benefits these awesome exercises have to offer.


References

  1. Fitness Volt, https://fitnessvolt.com/chest-press-vs-bench-press/

Patrick

Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for a fitness qualifications company. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos.

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