The bench press is one of the most popular upper-body exercises. This is justifiable. It undoubtedly has the potential to induce significant strength and muscle size gains.
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The push-up is also generally quite a popular exercise. However, when it comes to building muscle and strength, the push-up is arguably overlooked by a vast majority of people.
But, how do these two exercises truly compare to one another? Is one better than the other for building muscle and strength?
In this article, we’ll be using the current research to compare these two exercises.
Basic Comparison: Bench Press vs Push-up
Overall, the bench press and push-up appear to share more similarities than differences.
Biomechanically, the two exercises are comparable. Both involve shoulder horizontal flexion and extension, as well as elbow flexion and extension.
For instance, a paper by Tillar had 20 trained men perform the push-up and bench press with four different load equated conditions.
Subjects performed the push-up with bodyweight and a 10kg, 20kg, and 30kg weighted vest. The bench press was performed with loads that were equal to the amount of weight pushed on each one of those four push-up conditions.
Electrical activity of the clavicular and sternal pectoralis major, anterior and medial deltoid, long and medial head of the triceps was measured during the performance of the exercises at the four loaded conditions.
During both the eccentric and concentric phases, there was no difference in electrical activity for any of the muscles between the two exercises at the four load equated conditions.
In this study, other variables were also measured. The timing of the electrical activity of the already mentioned muscles was similar between the push-up and bench press.
Vertical displacement (the distance from the lowest position of the exercise to the top position of the exercise), average concentric velocity, and average eccentric velocity were all similar between the push-up and bench press.
Given the many similarities between the two exercises, it is unsurprising that two papers (Eckel et al. and Alizadeh et al.) found a correlation between push-up performance and bench press performance. In other words, the more repetitions a person could perform with a push-up, the more repetitions they could likely perform with a given load on the bench press.
The most apparent difference is that that with the bench press, a barbell is typically used, while with the push-up, your bodyweight is generally the resistance.
In kinesiology (the study of movement), the bench press and push-up would be classified differently. The bench press would be referred to as an open-chain exercise, whereas the push-up would be referred to as a closed chain exercise.
An open-chain exercise describes a movement where the hands or feet are free to move. In the bench press, the hands move as you move the barbell through the range of motion.
A closed chain exercise describes a movement where the hands or feet do not move. With a push-up, your hands are fixed to the ground as you move your body through the range of motion.
Despite there being similar electrical activity noted in the main muscle groups involved in the bench press and push-up (the pectoralis major, deltoid, and triceps), there likely is a difference in the involvement of the abdominal muscles.
A study by Gottschall et al. found that the push-up elicited significantly higher electrical activity of the rectus abdominis compared to the bench press.
This makes sense. You are in a plank position as you execute the push-up, requiring the involvement of the abdominal muscles to support your trunk. On the other hand, the bench press has your trunk resting on a bench, meaning the abdominal muscles do not need to be significantly involved.
Another interesting difference between the bench press and push-up is that when both exercises are load equated, people appear to be able to perform more repetitions on the push-up.
For instance, Alizadeh et al. had 10 men and 10 women perform load equated bench presses and push-ups to failure.
They did this by measuring the mass subjects held in their arms at the top and bottom position of a push-up via special equipment. The average of this value was the load that would be used on the bench press.
The men, on average, completed 26 reps on the push-up and 12 reps on the push-up. The women, on average, completed 15 reps on the push-up and 3 reps on the bench press.
Overviewing so far, although there are some differences between the bench press and push-up, there are still many similarities.
Based on the similarity section, given both exercises appear to elicit similar muscle electrical activity for the main muscle groups, it may be tempting to conclude that both would produce similar growth of these muscles.
However, electromyography, which measures the electrical activity of a muscle, comes with its limitations. Inferring long term outcomes (muscle hypertrophy and strength gains) from EMG data alone is not always justified.
Therefore, it would be preferable if we had research comparing the bench press and push-up longitudinally, meaning studies that measure markers of muscle growth and strength gain before and after participants train the bench press or push-up.
Fortunately, there are two papers looking at this. Let’s go through each one.
The first study is one by Kikuchi and Nakazato.
18 men with at least one year of training experience were assigned to a bench press group or push-up group.
The bench press group performed their exercise for 3 sets to failure with a 40% one-rep max load.
The push-up group performed a push-up variation that was roughly equivalent in loading to a 40% one-rep max bench press. For some participants, this was a regular push-up, for others, it was some variant of a kneeling push-up. Regardless of the variation, the subjects performed 3 sets to failure.
Both groups rested two minutes between sets and trained twice per week for 8 weeks.
Some of you may be questioning the use of the 40% one-rep max load on the bench press and push-up. However, based on a meta-analysis by Schoenfeld et al., loads between 30 and 85% one-rep max produce similar muscle growth, provided reps are taken to failure (as they did in this study). Therefore, for muscle growth, the use of the 40% one-rep max is perfectly fine.
However, for strength, heavier loads (60% one-rep max to 100% one-rep max) are preferred. In this regard, the use of a 40% one-rep max is sub-optimal. We’ll address this more later on.
The researchers measured markers of muscle hypertrophy and strength gain for both groups before and after the 8 weeks.
For muscle hypertrophy, thickness of the pectoralis major and triceps brachii was measured.
For strength, one-rep max on the bench press was measured.
The bench press and push-up group both similarly increased thickness of the pectoralis major and triceps brachii.
For increases in bench press one-rep max, both groups again experienced statistically similar increases.
However, the percentages slightly favor the bench press group. This is expected, the principle of specificity would dictate that for maximizing strength on the bench press, you would want to be bench pressing, which is what the bench press group was doing.
Nevertheless, the push-up did do quite a good job at increasing bench press strength, demonstrating that the push up likely has quite a good carryover to bench press strength.
As mentioned earlier, both groups used a load equivalent to a 40% one-rep max. For increases in strength, this is not ideal. It would be interesting to see how using heavier loads on the bench press compares to the push-up.
Moreover, although it is not a limitation of the study itself, as equating the loading between the two groups is a good idea when conducting a study, it could be considered a practical limitation.
Overloading the Bench Press and Push-Up
Using a 40% one-rep max load would typically mean participants perform around 20-30 reps per set. Although, as already discussed, this produces similar muscle growth to lower rep ranges (5-15), most people do generally prefer to perform 5-12 reps per set.
The bench press can easily be trained in this rep range and consistently. You would simply have to pick a load you could execute in that rep range and progressively overload (add weight).
Things get a little more complicated with the push-up. In essence, a combination of adding reps and using different push-ups variations is a long term solution.
There are numerous push-up variations that exist, with varying difficulty levels (I have an article on how much weight you press during various push-ups):
You could select a variation that has you perform reps to (or close to) failure with lower rep ranges (5-12), and over the next few sessions, you may aim to add reps and eventually switch to a harder push-up variation.
As an example, you may only be strong enough to perform 3 sets of 5 reps with normal push-ups, the next session you performed 3 sets of 6 reps, and the session after that 3 sets of 7 reps.
After a while of adding reps, you may now choose to perform a harder variation, like a push-up with your feet elevated for 3 sets of 5 reps.
You repeat this cycle, adding reps and eventually performing harder push-up variants.
In the second study we will look at, they compared training the push-up as described above (adding reps and performing harder variations) to bench pressing with heavier loads.
This is a study by Kotarsky et al.
The researchers assigned 23 men (with around 2-6 months of training experience) to a progressive push-up group or bench press group.
The subjects in the bench press group started with a load they could perform for 3 sets of 6 reps. Over the next few sessions, once participants successfully performed 3 sets of 8 reps with that load, the load was increased by 4.5kg, and they reverted back to 3 sets of 6 reps.
There were numerous push-up variations used in this study:
As shown in the image, each push-up variation represents a particular level. Also, the variations are split into double-arm variations and single-arm variations.
If a subject in the progressive push-up group could perform 3 sets of 3 reps on a particular single-arm variation, they started off with that variant in their training. If not, they started on the double-arm variation they could perform for 3 sets of 6 reps.
For the subjects who started with a single-arm variation, over the next sessions, once they were able to perform it with 3 sets of 4 reps, they progressed to the next level and reverted back to 3 sets of 3 reps.
For the subjects who started with a double-arm variation, over the next sessions, once they could perform it with 3 sets of 8 reps, they progressed to the next level and went back to 3 sets of 6 reps (if the next level was a double-arm variation). If the next level was a single-arm variation, they performed 3 sets of 3 reps.
Both groups trained three times per week for 4 weeks.
Before and after the study, the researchers took various strength and hypertrophy measurements from both groups. This included thickness of the pectoralis major, one-rep max on the bench press, and the particular level they could comfortably perform (based on the image above).
For increases in pectoralis major thickness, both the progressive push-up and bench press group experienced statistically similar increases.
Looking at the graph, the percentages do favor the push-up group. But, the small sample size and short duration would mean we probably should not read into too much, especially because it was statistically similar.
Increases in bench press one-rep max were similar statistically similar between both groups.
Looking at the graph again, the results do lean towards the bench press group. But again, due to the sample size and short duration of the study, we cannot read into too much because the results were statistically similar.
However, as discussed earlier, based on the principle of specificity, it would definitely make sense that the bench press group would experience greater increases in bench press strength compared to the progressive push-up group.
Nonetheless, similar to the Kikuchi and Nakazato study, push-ups proved to be very effective at increasing bench press strength.
The important difference between this study by Kortasky et al. and the study by Kikuchi and Nakazato is that in this study, progressive push-up training (adding reps and performing harder push-up variations) was compared to bench pressing with heavier loads. As a result, this study supports the idea that progressive push-up training can be similarly effective to heavier load bench pressing for increasing bench press strength and pectoralis major thickness.
For increases in push-up levels, the progressive push-up group, on average, were able to perform a push-up variation 2.78 levels higher than they could before the study.
The bench press group, on average, were only able to perform a push-up variation 0.78 levels higher than they could before the study.
Interestingly, this implies bench pressing does not have much of a carryover to push-up performance.
As with all studies, this study does have its limitations. In my opinion, the main limitation of this study was that it only lasted 4 weeks. It would have been great to see how the protocol used in this study pans out with longer durations.
The push-up appears to have the ability to produce similar growth of the pectoralis major (Kikuchi and Nakazato and Kotarsky et al.) and triceps brachii (Kikuchi and Nazato).
Neither longitudinal study we have looked at measured growth of the anterior deltoid, which is the other primary muscle worked in both the bench press and push-up.
However, remember that in the similarities section of this article, we detailed research finding both exercises produce similar anterior deltoid electrical activity. Combining this with the ideas that both movements are biomechanically similar, and evidence suggests pectoralis major and triceps growth is similar, I think there is good reason to believe the push-up and bench press would similarly grow the anterior deltoids.
Also mentioned in the similarities section was that some papers have found correlations between push-up performance and bench press performance. The longitudinal research does partly support this. In both the Kikuchi and Nakazato study and the Kotarsky study, push-up training resulted in respectable increases in bench press strength.
However, the same cannot be said for the reverse of this. The Kotarsky study found bench press training did not do much for increasing push-up performance. But, remember the study only lasted 4 weeks. Perhaps a longer study would change this.
At the end of the day, despite this article directly comparing the bench press and push-up, it’s important to remember that in practice, you do not need to perform only one of the exercises. The bench press and push-up can both be successfully performed in a training program.