Prior to high school and the widespread availability of weight-training equipment, push-ups were the only thing my classmates and I had to make relative comparisons of our chest strength, with no heed given to differences in individual body weight or arm length. Once we reached high school, though, all anyone seemed to be concerned about was maximum bench-pressing strength. But as soon as we began preparing for the various physical readiness tests, push-ups once again rose to prominence.
I grasped the fact that bench pressing and push-ups trained the same muscles, and I could also understand that the bench press enabled me to train my chest with weight that far exceeded my body weight. Aside from that, however, I had no sense of the physiological differences between the two, or how my productivity in one didn’t seem to have any direct correlation to my performance in another.
But I am now a far wiser man, with a much better handle on what a push-up accomplishes versus what bench pressing accomplishes.
How are push-ups and bench press different? Aren’t your muscles working in the same general motion?
Push-ups and the bench press have everything in common and next to nothing in common; it’s all a matter of perspective and personal conditioning.
A push-up is a closed-chain exercise that uses your body as the source of resistance as you move it through space in a relatively fixed plane, and also through a rather rigid range of motion as long as your core muscles are strong enough to sustain the flat positioning of your body.
When I say that a push-up is a closed-chain exercise, it means that the part of your body involved in the exercise at the furthest point is in a fixed position; in this case, I’m talking about your hands. As long as your hands and feet stay connected to the ground, there are few directions your body can move in, and you can continue to pump out the reps without any fear that you’re suddenly going to experience a disastrous injury. If your muscles fail, the worst thing that’s going to happen is that you may endure a slow collapse to the floor.
Moreover, if you were to add weight or resistance to the push-up movement, you would do so by placing it on your back, or by otherwise making your back more challenging to move upward and away from the floor. This is another key feature of closed-chain exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, squats and lunges: In order to elevate the degree of difficulty, you’re essentially required to add more resistance or weight to the body itself.
By comparison, the bench press is an open-chain exercise, where the weight or resistance is added directly to the appendage doing the work. Therefore, on exercises like the bench press, military press, bicep curls or tricep extensions, most of the emphasis is placed on a single joint as a weight is moved through space either toward the body or away from it.
What does all of this mean for how the exercises feel?
Well, in comparison to a push-up, during which your hands and feet don’t move and your body is limited in the directions it can shift, a free-weight bench press eliminates many of the built-in failsafes and leaves you totally at the mercy of your own muscle control. Once your arms are fully extended, that weight hovering precariously over your head and chest is susceptible to move in any direction, including tipping forward and backward, or sliding off to the side. Your pectoral and core muscles need to fire adequately just to keep the weight bar locked into an extended and upright position, and that’s before you even think about lowering it toward your chest — making the muscle engagement very different from the push-up.
In terms of how your body can adapt to both exercises as a novice, here’s where things can be tricky and confusing unless you learn to fully understand the physics involved. If you weigh 200 pounds, you’re probably moving roughly 135 pounds through space, because between 65 percent and 70 percent of your body weight is in use during a push-up. Because of this, you may find it difficult to execute even five push-ups because your body hasn’t worked itself into a condition where it can easily handle that type of weight. Meanwhile, you may find it far simpler to bench press sets of 10 with a 100-pound barbell.
Fast forward one full year, and you’ve now been visiting the gym five times per week. At this stage, you’ve recomposed your body so that it carries far more muscle mass, and you can crank out 100 push-ups with ease like a Navy SEAL. However, with 200 pounds on the weight bar, you’re lucky if you can bench press 15 good reps. This is because your body has adapted to the closed-chain nature of the push-up, and you’re able to move 135 real pounds of body weight safely through a controlled path with appreciably more ease than you can move 200 pounds of dead weight that’s capable of sliding off in any direction.
If that’s the case, should I be doing either, neither or both?
If you had to learn to master one exercise as opposed to the other, I’d vote for push-ups. Your likelihood of experiencing an injury is lower, the floor is always free and some of the most legendary strongmen of all time managed to carve out legendary physiques for themselves without needing to rely on the bench press, which wasn’t particularly popular until the 1950s.
Realistically, though, there’s no reason you should have to choose. There is definitely room to incorporate both into your chest-training repertoire, and doing so will enable you to build a fully developed chest that’s capable of handling anything it encounters in the real world. To that end, one exercise will prepare you to lift yourself back up when a building collapse leaves you pinned to the ground, and the other will enable you to remove a log from your body when it lands on top of you.
So your best chance for survival in today’s cruel world is to become the sort of hero who trains themself to do both.