When it comes to building your chest, shoulders and triceps, most people overlook one of the most basic, yet effective exercises – the humble push-up, or press-up as it is also sometimes called.

People seem obsessed with the bench press, thinking it impossible to build a good set of pecs without the bench press being the mainstay of their chest training routine.

The question, “how much can you bench?” is so common, it just serves to further perpetuate the myth that you HAVE TO be bench pressing, and bench pressing HEAVY in order to build your chest.

Guys become so obsessed with how much weight they are benching and in continuously increasing it, that the movement ultimately becomes counter-productive. Their form becomes terrible, they cheat with the movement and they end up reaching a plateau, making no further gains, or even worse, injuring themselves.

My advice is this – if you are stuck in a bench pressing rut, with your pectoral development going nowhere – STOP bench pressing, yes, that’s right, you heard me, drop the bench press all together! In fact, drop all ‘weight-training’ for your chest. Get back to basics. Learn to properly master some of the age-old bodyweight movements before returning to the iron.

I know many of you are probably thinking, “who the hell does this guy think he is?”, or asking “what the  hell is he talking about, telling me to stop all weight training for my chest?”, but hear me out, let me explain:

Due to the popularity of the bench-press, and the use of various machines, the push-up has been relegated to a high-repetition endurance exercise, believed incapable of building any real muscle or strength. This is where the vast majority of people are sadly mistaken. 

In fact, so was I for most of my training career, until I was forced into a situation where I was unable to get to a gym and had to find alternatives to stay in shape.

Yes, I’ll agree, the way calisthenics (bodyweight training) is performed these days does make it mainly an endurance activity. This was however not always the case. In the latter part of the 19th century and for the first few decades of the 20th century, some of the toughest and meanest guys on the planet relied heavily on bodyweight exercises to build their strength and power.

Don’t for a second go thinking that the men of yesteryear were lesser mortals than today’s jacked-up, bloated steroid-jockeys. Most of the ‘old school’ guys would easily tear today’s bodybuilders in half.

I’ll give you a couple of examples:

Alexander Zass: He was reputed to be able to carry a horse on his shoulders and regularly did strongman displays that involved the bending of iron bars and the breaking of chains.

Eugene Sandow: Often referred to as the father of modern bodybuilding, Sandow was known for his legendary strength. He was reported to have been able to lift two grown men above his head.

John Grimek: The only man to win the Mr. America title more than once. He was not all just show though, he was known to easily tear a phone book in half. Whilst also an avid weight lifter, he attributed much of his upper development to push-ups and other advanced hand-stand movements.

I’m not saying for one second that these guys did not lift weights, the point I’m trying to make is that they placed a MUCH greater emphasis on bodyweight training and calisthenics than most people today do. They had to, there just wasn’t the equipment available back then that we have today. 

These men were masters of their own bodyweight, easily able to perform one arm push-ups, pull-ups and pistols (one-legged squats). Few, if even any of your big, puffy, bloated bodybuilders of today have any real control over their body. Most of them have very little, real-world, usable strength. I have seen guys in gyms able to bench or row huge weights (albeit with sloppy form and plenty of cheating). Yet, they can barely do a proper pull-up and struggle to do even 10 proper push-ups with the correct form.

The ‘strongmen of old’ had a different philosophy compared with the bodybuilders of today. They believed that form-should-follow-function, not the other way round. Being super strong and powerful was their main objective. The beautiful irony of such an approach, is that these guys looked, harder, meaner and more rugged than most of today’s artificially ‘inflated’ bodybuilders.

When you become too obsessed with training only for aesthetics, forgetting the real point of strength training, it becomes counter-productive.

Focus on getting more powerful, stronger and athletic, and your body will change accordingly, remember, form will follow function, not the other way round.

Okay, so if push ups are so great, why isn’t everyone doing them?

The reason bodyweight training and old-school calisthenics has fallen out of favor, has to do largely with the fact that bodybuilding as we see it today is a HUGE BUSINESS. It’s far more profitable to sell weights and new fancy pieces of equipment than to teach people about proper bodyweight training. 

Of course weight training definitely still has its merits, and I still train with weights, the point I’m trying to make, is don’t ever underestimate the power of bodyweight training just because everyone is training with weights these days and tells you it’s the only way.  
Back to the Push-up:
Okay, so now that I’ve made my point about bodyweight training, back to the push-up and how it could be the key to your upper-body development.

For the large part, most people do not know how a push-up ought to be performed if it’s to be a strength and muscle builder. 

Most people perform it in such a way that it ends up being a pointless endurance exercise, and even then most people still perform it incorrectly.

There are hundreds of different variations of the push-up, some of which require so much strength and co-ordination that only a tiny percentage of the world’s population will ever be able to perform them.

If you want to build your strength and develop your upper body, you need to work at progressively being able to master more and more advanced types of push-up, before going back to the bench-press. 
In fact, if you master some of the advanced ones, you may even decide to never go back to the bench press.

You may even find yourself stronger and with greater pectoral development than if you had carried on benching for the same period of time.

By mastering the different types of push-ups and push-up workouts, you end up strengthening your tendons and other stabilizing and supporting muscles, in a safer and far more natural, less injury-prone manner than you would by bench-pressing alone. Also, push-ups will develop your midsection and core, ‘teaching’ these muscles to work in better co-ordination with your bigger upper-body pressing muscles.  

Okay, so how do I get started with my push up workouts then?
For most people in reasonably good shape, the regular push-up should not be too difficult to progress past.

The real strength and muscle building benefits of the push-up lie in mastering the more advanced varieties, moving all the way up to the one-arm push-up and perhaps for an elite few, the planche push-up.

But, you need to be able to walk before you can run, so you need to make sure you are fully comfortable with, and able to master the regular push-up before you even think about trying the progressions towards the more advanced ones. 

Many guys will be thinking that they’ll have the regular push-up licked before they even start out because they hit the iron all the time and are competent bench-pressers, but the truth is they have probably never done push-ups correctly and in the way they ought to be done, for them to be effective muscle and strength builders.

In the video below I explain the first 3 types of push-up that you need to work at mastering before moving to some of the real tough ones. I will be covering the more advanced ones in an upcoming article. 

Check out the video below to start mastering the push-up. Happy pushing! 

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