Push exercises are beneficial for developing power and musculature in the upper body — specifically in the chest, triceps, and shoulders, which are all used in push actions.
They’re commonly perform on “push days” if you’re following a push/pull/legs split, though any good strength training program will include a combination of push and pull exercises.
But if you’re creating a push day workout of your own, how do you know which exercises you should be doing?
The 10 best push exercises are:
- Barbell bench press
- Barbell overhead press
- Barbell push press
- Dumbbell shoulder press
- Dumbbell overhead tricep extension
- Dumbbell bench press
- Pec deck
- Single-arm resistance band shoulder press
In this article, I’ll discuss what push exercises are and the muscles that they target. I’ll also show you how to perform each of the 10 exercises above and provide pro tips to help you get the most out of them.
I’ve included movements you can do with a barbell, dumbbells, machines, resistance bands, and your own bodyweight so you can do push exercises regardless of what equipment you have access to.
If you’re looking to get started with a push routine right away, check out the Fitbod app to create a routine you can do based on how much time and equipment you have available.
What Are Push Exercises?
Push exercises are those in which you are either pushing an object away from your body (like a bench press in which you press the barbell off your chest) or pushing against something (like in a push-up, where you’re pressing against the floor).
Push exercises are not only beneficial for helping you build muscle but can make everyday activities like pushing a heavy shopping cart or pushing a heavy piece of furniture easier.
Horizontal vs Vertical Push Exercises
You may be familiar with the fact that there are horizontal and vertical pulling exercises (like barbell rows and pull-ups, respectively). The same is true of pushing exercises. Vertical pushing exercises are done by pushing an object overhead while horizontal pushing exercises are done by pushing an object straight out in front of you.
When creating the list of push exercises below, I included both horizontal and vertical pushing movements. Incorporating a variety of both is essential for developing a well-balanced upper body since they target the various push muscles in different ways.
For example, vertical pushing movements target more of the shoulders while horizontal push exercises target more of the chest and triceps.
Let’s discuss the muscles used in push exercises in more detail.
Muscles Used in Push Exercises
The muscles primarily used in push exercises are the:
- Pecs – the chest muscles that enable you to lift your arms up and bring them close together
- Triceps – a group of three muscles at the back of the arm that are responsible for straightening your arm
- Shoulders – specifically the front deltoids (the front-most head of the shoulder muscle that’s responsible for lifting your arm in front of you) and side deltoids (which enable you to lift your arms out to the side)
The core also plays a small role in push exercises to help keep your torso stable and prevent it from twisting or rotating.
As well, the quad and calf muscles in the legs are considered push muscles. However, when people talk about “push day” at the gym, they’re usually referring to upper body push exercises and will train all of the leg muscles on a separate leg day.
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Push Exercises with a Barbell
1. Bench Press
The bench press is arguably the most well-known push exercise. It is a compound movement (meaning it works multiple muscle groups at the same time) that is good for developing upper body strength and muscle mass in the chest and triceps.
How To Do It
- Adjust a power cage or squat rack to height that enables you to keep your arms mostly straight when you unrack the barbell without causing you to lose tightness in your upper back or lift your shoulders off the bench. It also shouldn’t be so low that you are essentially doing a half rep to rack and unrack the bar.
- If the bench you’re using is too high for you to keep your feet flat on the floor and get good leg drive, put some plates on either side of the bench. Ideally, your shins will be vertical, but you can play around with your foot placement by placing your feet closer together or further apart or closer to your shoulders or further out in front of you.
- Lie down on the bench and position yourself under the barbell so your eyes are directly underneath it.
- Retract your shoulder blades by pulling them down and back. Make sure your hips stay in contact with the bench.
- Grab the barbell with a grip width anywhere from shoulder width to 2x the width of your shoulders.
- Take a deep breath in and unrack the barbell, being careful not to lose tightness in your upper back. Hold it with your arms straight so it’s directly over your chest.
- Slowly lower the bar by bending your elbows. Avoid flaring them too much out to the sides, as this places unnecessary stress on your shoulders.
- Touch the barbell to a point somewhere between your lower pec muscles and your sternum.
- Pause for a moment to avoid bouncing the barbell off your chest.
- Press the bar back up by straightening your arms. Iimagine pushing your feet down into the floor and away from you as you push the weight up.
- Take a deep breath and reset your shoulders again if necessary before starting your next rep.
To feel the bench press more in your pecs, do the movement with your feet on the bench instead of the floor. If you normally bench press with a big arch, putting your feet on the bench removes your ability to arch your back. As such, the bar has to travel through a greater range of motion, which places more emphasis on the pecs.
Related Article: The Best Bulking Chest Exercises: 7 Must-Do Exercises
2. Overhead Press
The overhead press is another compound push exercise. It targets the front and side deltoids, upper traps, pecs, and triceps. The core also plays a role in keeping the torso stable while lifting and lowering the weight.
How To Do It
- Adjust a squat rack so the barbell is even with your armpit.
- Grab the barbell with your hands just outside your shoulders, unrack it, and take 2-3 steps backward. The barbell should be resting on your front deltoids or right along your collarbone.
- Make sure your elbows are slightly in front of the barbell and your feet are about hip-width apart when you’re in your starting position.
- Squeeze your glutes, take a deep breath in, and tuck your chin.
- Push the bar straight up while keeping your spine neutral. Avoid coming up onto your toes or bending your legs to use momentum.
- As the bar clears your head, push your head between your arms. This is often referred to as pushing your head through the window. The barbell, your shoulders, hips, and feet should all be aligned when the bar is overhead.
- Lower the bar by bending your elbows until it is once again resting on your front delts.
- Bring the bar to a complete stop before moving into your next rep.
The overhead press requires adequate mobility in the thoracic spine and shoulders. Without it, you may compensate by arching your back or releasing your core stability as you press the weight overhead.
If you lack the mobility required to do an overhead press properly, try incorporating mobility drills at least three times a week. Many of the same mobility drills that we recommend for Olympic weightlifting can help with the overhead press.
Related Article: 7 Tips to Improve Your Overhead Press (In 3 Months or Less)
3. Push Press
The push press is like an overhead press except you bend your knees to drive momentum from your legs to get the weight overhead. Even though it activates the quads and glutes because of the dip you take to initiate the movement, it still primarily works the shoulders and triceps.
You can incorporate the push press into your program if you’re having trouble progressing your overhead press. It’s also a good movement for Olympic weightlifters as well as CrossFitters since it’s a common exercise in CrossFit workouts.
How To Do It
- Adjust a rack so the height of the barbell is the same height as your armpit.
- Grab the barbell with your hands just outside your shoulders, unrack it, and step back by 2-3 steps. Make sure the barbell is resting on your front deltoids.
- Keep your elbows slightly in front of the barbell and your feet about hip-width apart when you’re in your starting position.
- Take a deep breath in, tighten your core muscles, and squeeze your glutes.
- Bend your knees slightly so you’re in a quarter-squat position or slightly above it. You don’t need to bend your knees too much, as this will cause you to lose power.
- As you straighten your knees, use the momentum from your lower body to explosively drive the barbell overhead.
- Push your head through the window (i.e. between the arms) as the barbell clears your head.
- Lower the barbell back to the starting position and bend your knees again at the same time. Even though this should be done in one fluid motion, you should still lower the bar with control.
- Repeat for your desired number of reps.
Aside from going too low on the dip, a common mistake in the push press is to bend the knees forward. Doing this can throw off your balance and cause the bar to travel too far forward, and you won’t be able to generate enough power to get the weight overhead.
A good cue is to think about putting your weight on the outside of your feet on the dip. This will encourage you to push your knees out to the side instead of in front of you when you bend them.
Related Article: Push Jerk vs Push Press: 5 Main Differences
Push Exercises with Dumbbells
4. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Dumbbell shoulder presses target the front and side delts. They are an excellent push exercise for training the two sides of your body independently from each other. This is beneficial if one side is stronger or larger than the other. You can do them seated or standing.
Seated dumbbell shoulder presses will isolate the shoulders more (specifically the front delts) and are a better option if you don’t have a lot of core strength or are lifting in a room with low ceilings.
Standing dumbbell shoulder presses have more carryover to other sports like CrossFit since it’s unlikely that you have to push heavy weight over your head from a seated position.
How To Do It
- If doing seated dumbbell shoulder presses, adjust an incline bench until the back is at 90 degrees. Otherwise, stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides.
- For seated presses, grab a pair of dumbbells and sit down on the bench. Place one head of each dumbbell on each thigh. One at a time, lift your legs to “kick” the dumbbells up to your shoulders.
- Hold the dumbbells at your shoulders with your palms facing forward.
- Take a deep breath in, squeeze your glutes (if standing), and tighten your core.
- Push the dumbbells straight up overhead and pause for a second at the top. If doing standing presses, avoid coming onto your toes or using momentum to press the weight up.
- Slowly lower the weight back down and allow the dumbbells to come to a dead stop before starting your next rep.
Dumbbell shoulder presses can cause shoulder discomfort if you have a history of shoulder injuries. If the movement causes you pain, you can turn your palms in to face each other instead of facing them forward. You’ll still be targeting the front delts, but the neutral-grip position places a lot less stress on the rotator cuff area.
5. Dumbbell Overhead Tricep Extension
The dumbbell overhead tricep extension is a single-joint isolation exercise for the triceps. This means that it only requires movement of one joint and targets one muscle group at a time.
Since it’s not a movement that will tire out your central nervous system too much, it can be done for moderate to high reps in the 10-15+ range.
How To Do It
- Grab a pair of light dumbbells and stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Lift the dumbbells overhead and face your palms towards each other.
- Bend at the elbows to lower the dumbbells back toward your upper back. Keep your upper arms stationary and avoid rotating your shoulders backward.
- Straighten your arms to push the weight back overhead.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Many gyms only have dumbbells that go up in weight in 5lb increments, which can be too much of an increase for some people. As such, this can be a difficult movement to progress week over week if, say, 10lbs is too light and 15lbs is too heavy for you.
Instead of increasing the weight and failing to complete all of your prescribed reps, you can make the movement more challenging by sticking with a lighter weight and slowing down the movement. Lowering the weight to a count of 3 or 5 seconds increases time under tension for the triceps, which can help boost strength and hypertrophy.
6. Dumbbell Incline Bench Press
The dumbbell inclince bench press is another exercise that can be used to address strength or muscular imbalances since your two sides are worked independently from each other. It isolates the pecs more than a standard barbell or dumbbell bench press.
How To Do It
- Adjust an incline bench so it’s at about a 45-degree angle.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and sit on the bench.
- Place one end of each dumbbell on each of your thighs and lean back against the bench.
- Use your legs to “kick” the dumbbells up to your shoulders one at a time and turn your palms in slightly.
- Take a deep breath in and push the dumbbells overhead so they’re directly over your shoulders. Avoid completely locking out your elbows.
- Hold for a moment at the top, then slowly lower the weight back down.
You may get to a point where you can no longer perform this movement on your own because the dumbbells are too heavy for you to get into position by yourself. If you don’t have someone to spot you and help you get the dumbbells up to your shoulders, this can limit your strength gains.
To not only keep this movement challenging but to also add variety to your routine, you can try doing drop sets.
Let’s say your program calls for you to work up to a top set of 10 reps (meaning this is the highest number of reps or highest amount of weight you’ll lift). You’ll perform those 10 reps, then immediately drop the weight by 10-20% and perform your next set until failure.
You’ll then continue dropping the weight and perform additional sets for failure until you’ve completed 4-5 sets in total. This is an excellent way to promote hypertrophy and keep your training challenging if certain limitations prevent you from progressing in weight.
Push Exercises With Machines/Extra Equipment
Dips target the chest and tricep muscles. Although they’re mostly considered a bodyweight exercise, you can also do them weighted by wearing a dip belt with plates attached to it.
Most gyms have dip stations, but you can also perform them by attaching a matador to a squat rack or using a pair of parallette bars.
How To Do It
- Place your hands on the dip bars with your palms facing each other and your thumbs wrapped around your hands.
- Jump up so your arms are straight and your feet are no longer on the ground.
- Bend your elbows back towards the wall behind you. Keep them close to your sides and avoid swinging your torso back and forth.
- Lower yourself until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle, then push yourself back up until your arms are straight again.
You can change which muscles are used more by adjusting the angle of your torso. If you angle your torso forward, you’ll work more of the chest. If you stay more vertical, you’ll target more of the triceps.
You can also target more of the triceps by placing your hands at the narrowest section of the dip bars.
Related Article: Low Pec Workout: 9 Best Exercises & Sample Program
8. Pec Deck
The pec deck is one of the most effective exercises for isolating the pecs. It’s advantageous over barbell or dumbbell pressing movements for developing the chest muscles because it doesn’t require as much core activation, which allows the focus to remain on the pecs.
The only major downside is that it requires access to a pec deck machine, but it’s a machine that can be found in most commercial gyms.
How To Do It
- Set the weight stack to your desired weight.
- Adjust the seat height so that the arm pads are even with your chest when you’re seated.
- Sit down on the machine, place your forearms against the arm pads, and grab the handles.
- Push against the arm pads to bring them as close together as you can.
- Squeeze your chest, then return the arm pads to the starting position.
Although this seems like a simple exercise, proper form is key to avoiding shoulder pain. Keep your shoulder blades down and back, and resist the urge to bring your arms too close together or let them travel too far back to avoid overstretching the shoulders and putting them in a compromised position.
Push Exercises With Bodyweight/Minimal Equipment
Push-ups are a bodyweight exercise that can be done anywhere with or without extra load. They’re a staple in many HIIT and CrossFit-style routines, and practicing them outside of your usual workouts can improve your ability to do more of them in a shorter amount of time.
Push-ups work the chest, triceps, and shoulders as well as the core, which works to keep your body stable and prevent it from twisting.
How To Do It
- Get down on the floor on all fours.
- Place your hands directly underneath your shoulders and set them slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Straigthen your legs behind you and come up onto your toes.
- Inhale, then bend your elbows to lower yourself to the floor, making sure not to flare the elbows out to the sides. Avoid letting your hips sag.
- Exhale as you straighten your arms to push yourself back up.
Although the default regression for push-ups is to drop to the knees, this is not the best solution if you don’t have the strength to do a full push-up. When you’re on your knees, you don’t get as much core activation, and the core plays an integral role in helping you stay stable during a push-up.
You should instead elevate the hands to a box, bench, step, or even a barbell set to a low height in a squat rack. Elevating your hands will keep your entire body in one line just like it would be if you did full push-ups, which engages your core.
As elevated push-ups get easier, you can progress to elevating your hands on objects that are closer to the floor until you’re strong enough to do full pull-ups.
Related Article: At-Home Upper Body Workouts To Build Muscle (3 Workouts)
10. Single-Arm Resistance Band Shoulder Press
The single-arm resistance band shoulder press is a unilateral shoulder exercise, meaning it works one side of the body at a time. Because you only need a resistance band to do it, it’s an easy exercise to do at home or when you’re traveling. It primarily works the shoulders and triceps.
How To Do It
- Place one foot through an end of the resistance band.
- Hold onto the other end of the band with the same-side hand and bring your hand up to your shoulder. The band should be behind your arm.
- Keep your elbow close to your body and your palm facing forward.
- Straighten your arm to push the band upward. Try not to let your arm swing out too far to the side.
- Pause for a moment at the top, then lower your arm in a controlled manner.
Not locking out your elbows all the way is important when doing resistance band shoulder presses. With resistance bands, the most amount of tension is felt at the top of the movement. Locking out your elbows all the way can overstretch the surrounding tendons and ligaments and lead to injury.
Related Article: 3 AWESOME Resistance Band Shoulder Workouts
Looking for more push exercises to add to your routine, or want to create a pull and leg day routines to complement your push day workouts? Check out the Fitbod app. You’ll get access to more than 600 exercise demos and can create a fully customizable workout plan based on your goals, schedule, and available equipment. Plus, your first three workouts are free!
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.