13 Push Up Variations For Easier & Harder Progressions

push up variations for progressions

For some individuals, the standard push-up may not be the best option to grow muscle or strength. If you struggle with push-ups or want to make them harder, you need to have a better understanding of how to change your setup to meet your individual needs.

The 13 best push-up variations to make your workouts harder or easier are:

  • Push-Up on Knees
  • Loop Band Push-Up on Knees
  • Incline Push-Up
  • Incline Tricep Push-Up
  • Decline Push-Up
  • Deficit Push-Up
  • Diamond Push-Up
  • Hand Release Push-Up
  • Pike Push-Up
  • Kipping Handstand Push-Up
  • Handstand Push-Up
  • Loop Band Push-Up
  • Plyometric Push-Up

In this article, I’ll explain how to make the push-up easier if you’re working toward your first bodyweight push-up, or how to make it harder if you’re too advanced for the standard push-up.

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Push-Up: Overview

The push-up is a bodyweight exercise that trains the chest, triceps, and front deltoids. The push-up has a variety of exercise variations that you can implement to help you build strength if you cannot do a standard push-up or make them more challenging if you’ve already mastered the standard push-up.

Muscle Worked During A Push-Up

The push-up primarily trains three muscle groups. Each muscle can be trained more or less depending on your range of motion and the angle at which you perform the push-up and its variations.

Pectorals (Chest)

pectorals

The chest is the primary muscle group used when performing the push-up, as long as the reps are in a full range of motion (the chest touches the floor).

Variations like deficit push-ups and decline push-ups have the lifter perform a deeper range of motion, which can help add more training stress to the chest than regular push-ups and the regressed variations.

Triceps

triceps

The triceps are active in push-ups as they extend (straighten) the elbows during the final stages of the push-up (top ⅓ of the movement).

The triceps are targeted more during push-up variations where the elbows bend and straighten more: such as diamond and deficit push-ups. 

They are also trained more heavily when doing resistance band push-ups, as the resistance increases at the range of motion where the triceps must work harder to extend the elbows.

Front Deltoids

front deltoids

The front deltoids are trained during most pressing movements as they assist the chest and triceps in pressing. 

The front delts get plenty of work during most push-up variations, but they are most active in advanced variations like pike push-ups, handstand push-ups, and decline push-ups.


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How To Do A Push-Up

Below is a step-by-step guide on performing a standard push-up with perfect form.

  • Start with your elbows extended and your hands placed on the floor, just outside shoulder width.
  • With your feet together and back flat, contract your abs and brace your core, not letting the lower back arch or the hips sag towards the ground.
  • With your body rigid from the heels to your shoulders, lock the hips and knees to remain straight throughout the entire movement.
  • Bend your elbows and lower your chest to the floor, ensuring that your elbows stay flared out 45 degrees from the body and your chest touches the floor before your thighs or stomach does.
  • Push yourself upwards with your upper body to the starting position, and repeat.

Related Article: The Best Dumbbell Exercises for a More Muscular Chest

13 Push-Up Variations

Below are 13 push-up variations you can include in your program to regress (make the standard push-up easier) or progress (make the classic push-up harder).

4 Easier Push Up Regressions

1. Push Up on Knees

The push-up on the knees decreases the total weight you need to lift during the push, as your thighs and lower body are on the ground. 

  • Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with the elbows fully extended and shoulders above your wrists.
  • With both knees on the ground next to each other, ensure your back is flat.
  • Lower your chest between your hands, keeping your knees on the ground.
  • Once your chest touches the floor, press upwards to the starting position (hands and knees, with your back flat and hips in line).

2. Loop Band Push-Up on Knees

Adding a loop band to the push-up on the knees increases the resistance on the triceps and chest compared to the non-loop band kneeling push-up. This is an excellent way to progress the kneeling push-up and build more strength for the standard push-up.

  • Kneel with both knees on the ground closer than shoulder-width apart.
  • Grab one end of the band and wrap the band across your upper back, grabbing the other end with the other arm.
  • Place your palms directly underneath your shoulders on the ground with the band secured under the palm and in your grip.
  • Start with your elbows extended, then lower yourself to the ground and allow the elbows to flare out 45 degrees.
  • Once the chest touches the floor, push upwards against the bands to the start position.

3. Incline Push-Up

The incline push-up changes the angle of the push-up to allow you to move your body weight more easily, which is helpful for those who cannot perform standard push-ups

  • Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart on a bench with your elbows extended and your shoulders above your wrists.
  • With both feet on the ground next to each other, keep your back flat (no rounding or arching) and your hips and knees straight (not bent).
  • Lower your chest between your hands until the bottom of your chest hits the edge of the bench.
  • Once your chest touches the bench, press upwards to the starting position.

4. Incline Tricep Push-Up

The incline tricep push-up is a regression of the diamond (close grip) push-up and trains the triceps and chest.

  • Place your hands slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart on a bench with your elbows extended and your shoulders above your wrists.
  • With both feet on the ground next to each other, ensure your back is flat, and hips and knees are straight (not bent).
  • Lower your chest between your hands until the bottom of your chest hits the edge of the bench. Your elbows should be closer to your body than they are with the standard incline push-up.
  • Once your chest touches the bench, press upwards to the starting position.

9 Harder Push-Up Progressions

1. Decline Push-Up

The decline of push-up is a more challenging push-up variation due to the more extensive range of motion that must be traveled. This targets the middle and upper chest and the front deltoids (like an incline bench press).

  • Place your feet on a bench hip-width apart and your hands down on the floor. The hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  • With straight arms and shoulders above the hands, bend the elbows and descend into a push-up.
  • Your elbows should be flared out 45 degrees from the body.
  • Once your chest touches the floor, press upwards to the starting position and repeat.

2. Deficit Push-Up

The deficit push-up is when you perform the standard push-up through a fuller range of motion. This will increase the muscular demands placed on the chest and triceps.

  • Place your hands on 2-3” blocks or plates that are shoulder-width apart.
  • With your feet together and hips, knees, and elbows straight, position your shoulders above the wrists.
  • With your hips slightly higher than in a normal push-up, lower your chest to the floor without letting your thighs or hips touch.
  • Press upwards, keeping your hips up and elbows flared out 45 degrees from the body.

3. Diamond Push-Up

The diamond push-up is a close-grip push-up that trains the triceps more than the chest and shoulders.

  • Place your hands 2-3” apart from one another with your feet together and hips, knees, and elbows straight.
  • Position your shoulders above the wrists.
  • Bend the elbows and lower your upper chest to the floor while keeping your hips and thighs off the ground.
  • Press upwards, keeping your hips up and elbows slightly (30 degrees) flared out from the body.

4. Hand Release Push-Up

The hand-release push-up has you pick your hands up off the floor at the bottom of the push-up. This forces people to go all the way to the floor.

  • Place your hands shoulder-width apart and step your feet back behind you.
  • With your feet together and hips, knees, and elbows straight, position your shoulders above the wrists.
  • Bend the elbows and lower your chest to the floor. Lift the palms up off the ground briefly, then plant them back down on the ground where they were.
  • Press through your hands to engage your chest and shoulders and return to the start position.

5. Pike Push-Up

The pike push-up trains the upper chest and shoulders. This is a regressed version of the handstand push-up. 

  • Place your hands shoulder-width apart and step your feet back behind you.
  • Push your hips up above you (higher than the shoulders) into a downward dog position.
  • Bend the elbows and lower your upper chest to the floor.
  • Keep your hips up high throughout the entire movement.
  • Push through the arms to straighten the elbows, and return to the starting position.

6. Kipping Handstand Push-Up

The kipping handstand push-up allows you to use your legs to help generate upwards momentum to make the handstand push-up easier.

  • Turn and face the wall, and place your hands 1’ from the wall on the ground (slightly wider than shoulder width). 
  • Jump your feet up on the wall so that the knees and hips are straight against the wall.
  • Once fully inverted (upside down and elbows are straight), slowly pull your knees to your chest and bend the elbows until your head touches the ground.
  • Without bending your neck, kick your legs up the wall and use your upper body to finish the handstand push-up (straight elbows, knees, and hips).

7. Handstand Push-Up

The handstand push-up is a very challenging shoulder and upper chest exercise. This requires a lot of upper-body strength. 

The handstand push-up can be done freestanding or with a wall as a support (using a wall is most common). 

  • Stand 1’ away from a wall.
  • Turn and face the wall, and place your hands on the ground (slightly wider than shoulder width). 
  • Jump your feet up on the wall so that the knees and hips are straight. 
  • Without bending your neck, bend the elbows to lower yourself until the head softly touches the ground.
  • Push yourself back upwards, and repeat.

8. Loop Band Push-Up

The loop band push-up increases the resistance of the push as you straighten the elbows (towards the top of the moment). This is an excellent way to make the push-up harder with minimal equipment.

  • Kneel with both knees on the ground closer than shoulder width. 
  • Grab one end of a loop band in one hand, and wrap it around the upper back, grabbing it with the other hand.
  • Place both hands on the ground with the band held firmly underneath the hands, and step your legs back so that the hips and knees are straight.
  • With the hips in line with the shoulders and elbows straight, bend the elbows slowly and lower your chest to the floor.
  • Push upwards against the band, thinking about keeping your hips in line as you push back to the starting position.

9. Plyometric Push-Up

The plyometric push-up is an explosive movement that increases the power output of the chest, shoulders, and triceps. This is helpful to increase your force production and can be a great way to progress push-ups. 

That said, there is minimal time under tension during these, so if you are looking for muscle growth, you may want to make sure you are performing slower reps using other variations.

  • Place your hands below your shoulders.
  • With your elbows straight, step your feet back so that the hips and knees are also straight and the feet are together.
  • Brace your core and squeeze your thighs together, and quickly lower yourself to the ground by bending at the elbows.
  • The instant your chest touches the floor, explosively push yourself up so that your hands lift off the floor as you straighten your elbows.
  • Land with soft elbows and allow your chest to go towards the floor and repeat. These plyo push-ups should be done without stopping between reps.

Related Article: Struggle to Gain Chest Size? Try These Movements!


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Other Push-Up Variation Considerations

other push-up variation considerations

Below are some other push-up considerations you should know. 

Since push-ups are not a standard strengthening exercise in which you can add weight easily every week for many weeks, you need to focus more on your ability to progress the number of sets, reps, total volume (sets and reps), and range of motion.

Sets

There is no magic number of sets you should do of push-ups in a workout because this varies considerably based on the lifter and their abilities. 

For most beginners, I recommend 5-10 sets of push-ups of 5-10 reps. However, lifters who can do 10-30 reps in a group may only need 2-5 total sets.

Reps

You will want to do as many good push-ups as possible when starting. Since you cannot add weight to this exercise as quickly as you could dumbbell or barbell chest presses, your primary way of progressing this is going to be doing more reps or choosing harder variations. 

I recommend that most people do as many push-ups as possible (to failure) until they can do sets of 20-30 or more at a time. Once that happens, you can try harder push-up progressions or start including heavier chest exercises to build more muscle and strength (like bench presses).

Frequency

Most people will benefit from including push-up variations a few times a week. You want to monitor your overall work volume (sets x reps) over the week to ensure you are not putting too much stress on the joints and muscles. 

This is typically only an issue if you have bad form, you do hundreds of reps a day for long periods, or you’re failing to balance your pressing with pulling exercises.

Progression

Unlike weights, where you can lift heavier and progress by adjusting the load, you will not be able to add more weight to your frame regularly. 

The only exception is if you added weight plates to your back, but for most people, that is not feasible, and if they can do that, they should just do bench presses with barbells or dumbbells.

To progress the push-up, you can increase your reps, do more sets, increase the range of motion (progress to deficit push-ups from regular push-ups), and even progress the time under tension (slow your reps down to make the muscle work longer).

Once you can do multiple sets of 20-30 push-ups, you may include some machine, dumbbell, or chest pressing to allow yourself to use heavier weights and increase muscle strength and size (as this is one limitation of bodyweight training).


About The Author

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.