Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Pushup vs. The Bench Press

As I previously mentioned in my Perfect Pushup review, I've come across a surprising amount of information claiming that the pushup might in fact be better for overall development than the gold standard in weight lifting, the bench press. In the past half century or so, the single greatest way for a man to prove his power was to flaunt his bench press number. Now, the pushup is an exercise as ancient as civilization itself but it had, for a while, fallen out of place in serious strength training. Since you could pile on more weight than just your own bodyweight with a bench press, it has been the assumption that its superior. The pushup is merely an exercise for muscular endurance. In other words, it doesn't build power and size. So, which one is really better for building strength?


My take is a no-brainer, the pushup. However, I have evidence. Even some from people who train with and teach weightlifting. The problem with the bench press is the bench. Your upper body is immobilized on the bench. Your core doesn't do any work in order to stabilize your body. It's all done for you, and that's a bad thing. If you really want to be honest with yourself, core strength is one (if not the biggest) of the biggest sources of power, strength and health in your body. Probably more than any other part of your body, if you don't have core strength you don't have strength at all. The pushup demands it and the bench press skips it.


Even worse is the lack of recruitment of the serratus anterior. I won't go into detail when I can post a link where a guy smarter than me can explain it better.


Yet again, the pushup demands more muscular recruitment and the bench press skips over.


Geeze, isn't the bench press starting to sound like a lazy exercise yet? Still, it builds a huge chest though. Plus you can add weight and make it more difficult. Let me ask you this: Is that really a good thing? This is one of the things that many of us BW guys believe about weight lifting: all of that iron isn't good for your body. It places a lot of stress on your muscles (good) which in turn strengthens your bones (good too). It also places a lot of stress on your tendons and ligaments (not so good) and if you put too much on, it ruins your cartilage pads in between your joints (BAD).


So, if you want the maximum in overall strength and development, the bench press simply can't touch the pushup. The pushup demands less out of your pectoral major muscles than a bench press can but the bench press omits far more muscles which are critical to muscular power. Plus, you can do a pushup anywhere you want to. That is one thing that a bench press will never be able to touch.

15 comments:

Risasi said...

I know this is an old article, but I got to give an amen to it.

I got up around 320 on my incline press, even worse I started using weights, because I was chasing 400 on a regular press. Well long story short, I found all my stabilizer muscles weak. Then to make matters worse, I tore my rotator cuff pitching in a Nintendo Wii game. Why? Because I didn't balance. My back was way weaker than my chest. Go job me!

I've come full circle now. I do BW and a mix of multi-joint free weight lifting. Plus running. I'm chasing the secret service snatch (200 in 10:00) and just trying to keep my body from wearing out before I hit 50. Take it from me ability trumps looks, or nerfed exercises like the BP.

Justin_PS said...

Hey risasi,

I'm glad that you're doing better and that you found a combination of exercises that keeps you in the game.

Thanks for the comliment and for stopping by.

Justin

FalterNot said...

i was recently on a basketball court and there was this gigantically ripped black guy. his body was simply ridiculous (awesome). he kept doing pushups on the sidelines and kept looking up around at everyone else, seemingly trying to tell us something. he seemed somewhat disgusted by everyone sitting around lazily. i still wonder if pushups are really what made his body look like that or if he goes home and straps on the weights. i shoulda asked by going over to him and doing 20.

FalterNot said...

ty for free web info!!! :)

Danger is my middle name said...

i dig what you're saying but how do you increase the intensity of a push up?

Anonymous said...

Intuitively, one might expect the top position of the standard pushup stance to be much like a three-legged stool, where each leg supports 1/3 of the weight, more-or-less.

However, as you get closer to the floor more weight is borne by the hands, and less by the feet.

Thus, unlike a bench press, the weight is dynamic. It increases as you get closer to the floor.

This is easy to confirm. Assume the standard pushup stance, but place both hands on a medical scale. Record the weight. Ease your chest to the scale's plate, then record again.

In my case...
170 = Body Weight
112 = Top of Stance (66%)
125 = Bottom of Stance (74%)

ERRATA:
+ I use dumbbells for pushup handles, which zeros-out the scale's surface height.
+ Your mileage will vary, based on height and arm length.

Anonymous said...

IF you want to increase the intensity of a push-up exercise raise your feet. This will put more weight on your hands. Starting with your feet high enough so your torso is level to the floor is a good start.

Then you can also do the following: Bring your hands in together to form a diamond. Killer for back, shoulders, and triceps. Widen your hands to push your chest more. Turn the fingertips out to work the biceps. Walk your hands forward one handlength, or back one handlength it'll work your stabilizer muscles, and minor muscle groups. Do "dive bombers" or any other variations.

Look up the Dolf Lundgren workout on youtube. He may have been a terrible actor, but back in the day he had world class physicality.

Brent said...

Can you please recommend one or two good books on BE training?

jj said...

Bench presses are far superior to pushups for the exact reason you said. The core does not need to work and no stabilization is required, therefore max empasis is placed on the chest, delts, and triceps. Stabilization is not a good thing. More stabilizaion required may work the distal stabilizers more but the prime movers will work less. It results in less mass and strength. so, if your goal is mass and strength, the bench press is far superior than the worthless pushup

Wisdom from Cellblock G said...

@ JJ -I will quote Paul Wade ,the author of the Convict Conditioning "The pushup is the ultimate upper body exercise. It generates strength, builds muscle, develops
powerful tendons and trains the upper body pressing muscles to work in coordination with the midsection and the lower body. No other exercise in the world can achieve all these things.The bench press is often touted as a superior upper body exercise, but this is a fallacy.
Not only does bench pressing isolate the upper body in an artificial way, it also destroys the rotator cuff muscles as well as irritating the elbow and wrist joints when performed over even
short periods. The pushup protects the joints and builds functional strength, real-world strengthnot
just the kind of strength that can be used in a gym. This is why the pushup is the number one muscle-building exercise in military training camps and academies the world over. It always has
been, since the first warriors trained for strength.
Unfortunately, because the bench press became the favorite kid on the block, pushups have been
relegated to a high repetition endurance exercise. This is a shame-if you know how to progressively master the pushup movements, you can develop crushing upper body strength that will rival and surpass any bodybuilder or powerlifter. And your shoulders will thank you!
[...] Different forms of pushup work the muscles to different degrees, but all the variations of the pushup provide great strength and muscle-building benefits. Pushups dynamically develop the network of pressing muscles around the torso, strongly working the pec major, anterior deltoid and
pec minor. Pushups also build up all three heads of the triceps, the major muscle of the upper arm.
Pushups train these important muscles through their ideal range of motion, but in a correct
pushup many additional muscles get a good isometric workout-meaning that they have to contract
statically, to lock the body into place. Muscles trained isometrically during pushups include the lats, all the deep muscles of the chest and ribcage, the spinal muscles, the abdomen and waist, the hip muscles, the glutes, the quadriceps and the anterior tibialis (which is the shin muscle). Even the feet and toes gain some isometric benefit!
When performed progressively and with correct form, pushups also have a strengthening effect
on the joints and tendons, adding to their overall power and health. The tiny yet vital deep muscles
and tissues which support the fingers, wrist, forearm and elbow become much stronger over
time when pushups are performed, reducing the chances of carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow,
Golfer's elbow and general aches and pains. Some pushup variants utilize unstable surfaces, and this effectively bulletproofs the vulnerable rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder, muscles which cause a great many strength athletes endless injury problems.The increased blood flow associated with pushups removes waste products built up in the joints, eliminates glue-like adhesions and relaxes old scar tissue. Weight-trainers who include progressive pushups in their routine suffer a lot less from joint injuries in these important areas than guys who only pump iron.[...]Whoever you are, the ability to perform full one-arm pushups deeply, slowly and for reps-with
picture perfect form-is an incredible achievement. Unless you are over seventy years of age or are carrying a permanent disability, you will be able to achieve this goal if you diligently work through the ten steps as outlined in the previous section.[...]Two sets of fifty is an amazing achievement. It should be considered an elite level of mastery. If you get to that level, you'll be able to challenge virtually any athlete in any gymnasium to the world and they'll be unable to match you. But for a dedicated athlete with good potential, the ultimate muscular endurance goal has to be one hundred reps." I end the quote.

Wisdom from Cellblock G said...

@ JJ - I ask you JJ , regardless of your records in the bench press, CAN YOU PERFORM PUSH-UPS WITH LEGS KEPT TOGETHER IN A CONTROLLED MOVEMENT? I bet that your answer is NO and even in 100 light-years you will not be able even if you will move some decent weights on the bench press.
Until then please do not say that push-up is worthless because the bench press is not providing half of the benefits of the push-ups does, bar none.And by the way, I think that once you will be able to move your body 100 times in a One Arm Push-Up movement by keeping your legs together then I will presume that you will be able to bench press more than you could bench press after 100 light-years of bench pressing only.

Anonymous said...

1/The difference between training for muscular endurance vs strength is overestimated: high reps transfer to strength gains, & heavy weights transfer to endurance. In the push-up vs bench press, the main reason they don't transfer very well is due to the different skills involved, not the difference in rep number. As similar as they seem to be, we must train -specifically- at what we want to improve. 2/Big guys like the bench press because they don't have to hoist their bulk while straighten their spine & keeping their gut off the floor.

Anonymous said...

Wisdom from Cellblock G said...
"@ JJ - I ask you JJ , regardless of your records in the bench press, CAN YOU PERFORM PUSH-UPS WITH LEGS KEPT TOGETHER IN A CONTROLLED MOVEMENT? I bet that your answer is NO and even in 100 light-years you will not be able even if you will move some decent weights on the bench press.
Until then please do not say that push-up is worthless because the bench press is not providing half of the benefits of the push-ups does, bar none.And by the way, I think that once you will be able to move your body 100 times in a One Arm Push-Up movement by keeping your legs together then I will presume that you will be able to bench press more than you could bench press after 100 light-years of bench pressing only."


@ Wisdom - What is this comment? Light-years measure distance, not time. You mean years.

Anonymous said...

The comment about mastering the pushup will make you rival or surpass any body builder or power lifter is so stupid. If this were the case every body builder and power lifter would be doing pushups instead of lifting weights. Even Body builders and power lifters train quite differently from each other. One utilizing Rep range from 8 -15 the other rep range 1-6. This whole functional strength argument is stupid too, to say someone that lifts weights isn't functionally strong? How is a pushup any more functional? If your building a house, carrying a baby, or doing garden work dropping down and doing 20 isn't going to help any more than bench press. I'd wager that most people that workout do it to look better and feel better. If your goals are to just generally be in better shape sure go for the pushup. It's even challenging enough for most new people to build some decent size and strength, but if you want the earth to move when you walk, the ability to push trees over, and for people to make sculptures of your body you better stack on some weights. -Brent

Anonymous said...

The comment of jj that the bench press is superior because "your body is supported therefore you get maximum muscle gain in chest, shoulders, etc rather than having to recruit muscles for stabilisation" is a massive contradiction.

The same people (i.e. Powerlifters) who argue that the bench press is superior also say the squat is superior to the leg press for the opposite reason, i.e. "the squat is superior because many muscles other than the leg muscles are recruited for stability".

So how can the bench press be superior because muscles are not engaged in stabilisation but the squat is superior because it engages many stabilisation muscles and the leg press is just for pu$$is. Yep, makes a lot of sense to me. Can anyone else see the genius logic?