Can push-ups help build muscle and burn fat? • Common Purpose

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Can push-ups help build muscle and burn fat?


Words by Common Purpose Team

Published 8th April 2022

Can push-ups help build muscle mass?


For gym novices, push-ups can provide enough of a muscle stimulus to grow, especially if reps, sets and tempo are progressed over time.


Once a certain level of strength and size is attained, however, this stimulus may not be sufficient for further gains. Push-ups will therefore need to be used as part of a progressive resistance training program. They can be used as “primers” as part of a warm-up, or “finishers” to help build a pump at the end of a lifting session. 


Do push-ups burn fat?


Push-ups use energy, which can contribute to the calorie deficit required to utilise fat as fuel, but push-ups are not necessarily more superior to any other form of exercise in this regard. 

Which muscle groups do push-ups work?


Push-ups are an upper body horizontal press exercise that works the muscles of the chest, shoulders and back of the arms. Technically, the agonist muscles (the muscles that shorten/contract) whilst performing the concentric phase of the push-up are the pecs, front deltoids, triceps and serratus anterior, whilst the antagonist muscles (the muscles working opposite to the antagonists in a lengthening/eccentric fashion) include the biceps, traps and rear deltoids.


What push-up variations are there? And how do they work?


You can vary push ups in many ways, here are 3 common examples; 


Distance Between Hands 


Adjusting the distance between the hands can change the mechanics and leverages of the press up, thereby emphasising different aspects of the muscles that are being exercised.


A wide distance between the hands places more demand on the distal portion of the pecs (furthest from the sternum) and front deltoids, whereas a narrower distance between the hands works the triceps and inner pecs more.


Body Angle (Centre of Mass) 


Adjusting the angle of the body (flat, decline or incline) shifts the centre of mass towards or away from the working muscles. 


Moving the centre of mass towards the upper body by raising the feet off the ground (decline) makes the push-up more difficult. 


Moving the centre of mass away from the upper body by elevating the hands (incline) makes the push-up easier.




Speeding up or slowing down a push-up can impose different stimuli on the body. 


Increasing the speed can improve neuromuscular synchronicity, potentially improving the power output of the press up. 


Slowing a press up down will increase the metabolic stress and time under tension placed on the muscles being used. 


Both of these progressions place a higher demand on the muscles being used (albeit in different ways), thereby increasing the specific training stimulus required to improve specific outcomes (power, strength and size etc.).


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