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Is bench press better than push-ups?
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Is bench press better than push-ups?

Push-ups and bench presses, which target the upper body muscles, have distinct advantages. Experts share how to get the best out of them
It’s important to understand the right form for bench press to get the most it. Push-ups also target similar muscle groups and are complimentary.
Both bench press (in pic) and push-ups, and their variations, help muscle toning, building and strengthening the upper body muscles and chest muscles.

If you have hit the gym at some point in your fitness journey, regularity notwithstanding, you would have, invariably, been part of this debate/point of contention at least once. Push-ups or bench presses? Which gives a good workout to the upper body? Which is better for specific and quick muscle development?

Push-ups and bench presses, easily the two most popular upper body exercises, both have the potential to tone, strengthen and build muscles. The nature and impact of the exercises vary – one being a bodyweight exercise that engages other secondary muscles, while the other is done with weights targeting two muscle groups. Experts believe getting the form and approach right, and employing variations, will help extract the best out of both these exercises.


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Muscles targeted in push-ups and bench press

Dr Harini Muralidharan, team doctor of the Indian Premier League cricket team, Royal Challengers Bangalore, lists the muscles that are involved in each of the exercises.

Push-ups target the pectoralis major muscles (chest). The secondary muscles that get a workout are the deltoids, triceps brachii and biceps brachii, while the stabilisers which get employed include serratus anterior, pectoralis minor, rectus abdominis, obliques and quadriceps.

Bench press, meanwhile, is more specific. The primary target is the pectoralis major and sternal muscles while deltoids, triceps, and biceps are the secondary beneficiaries.

Push-ups, being an equipment-free exercise, can be performed anywhere with a basic warmup as the only prerequisite. Sunil Kumar, a Bengaluru-based ACE-certified fitness trainer, says its action should be in tune with the body’s natural movement. “The right way to do push-ups is by keeping the elbows close to you, replicating the form that you use in pushing objects away,” says Kumar. “That’s how your body is meant to move, that’s how we are supposed to do it.”

There are several push-up variations targeting specific muscle groups – wide angle push-ups (chest), triangle push-ups (triceps and arms), standard push-ups (chest and deltoids) single arm push-ups (for added resistance), medicine ball push-ups (core engagement) and resistance band push-ups (for additional load).

Besides these, there are variations to change the load.

“Variations include the modified push-ups (knees bent and in contact with the floor, which is used for beginners), inclined push-ups done at varying angles to build difficulty,” says Dr Muralidharan.

Bench press, on the other hand, is done using barbells or dumbbells, and performed lying flat or by varying the inclination of the bench. The incline press, lying down at an angle where the head is on a higher plane to the chest, targets the upper chest muscles. The decline press, lying with the head at a lower plane, targets the lower part of the pectorals.

Push-ups vs bench press

Since push-ups make you deal and get comfortable with the body weight, it is a better exercise to start with. “You can do it in the progressive method by doing the easiest variation like wall push-ups, and then slowly move to the traditional variation,” says Kumar.

Dr Muralidharan lists the major differences between the two exercises.

“Bench press offers more stability, whereas push-ups offer more versatility,” she adds. “The number of push-up variations possible is also higher than in a bench press. Also, a bench press will invariably require a spotter (who supports while lifting heavy weights), but push-ups can be done without aid if the technique is learnt properly.”

In push-ups, contrary to bench presses, you are confined to your body weight and a little extra through resistance bands.

“You will be able to add on more weight, you can put even double your body weight to do the bench press,” adds Kumar. “So that’s where bench press is advantageous, when it comes to building muscle or strength, it aids in hypertrophy and also strength building.”

Common mistakes

Like all exercises, picking up the wrong technique for the bench press or push-ups could lead to lopsided muscle development and injuries. The key is to identify the body dynamics.

“It is the trainer’s duty to find out the right kind of movement that will not harm the muscles or the joints,” explains Kumar. “All those things need to be observed by the trainer and should be understood in the first couple of sessions, only then the workout (and load) should be given to the individual.”

In push-ups, people tend to hold their elbows wider. This puts a lot of pressure on the shoulders. Other errors are letting the head move to the floor first, or the hip staying very close to the floor.

The common mistakes in the bench press, since it involves external weights or machines, are many – from grips being too wide to (wrong) wrist angle and jerky movement.

“While doing the bench press, the shoulders tend to lift off from the bench at the end of the movement, which is wrong,” says Kumar. “The shoulder should always be in contact with the bench, otherwise it adds stress on the muscles there. Your chest muscles can withstand a lot of weight, but not the smaller shoulder muscles. Also, your elbows should be close to your body and your palm, or your upper arms perpendicular to the lower arm, very close to 90 degrees. And when you lift it straight up, it moves in an arc and ends in line with the shoulder. It is the right form for bench press.”

The bottom line, which experts concur, is that both push-ups and bench presses are complementary exercises. Incorporating both will help reap maximum benefits from each.

“The most important thing is, there should be a balance between both. Push-ups help you align your mind with your body, you get to understand how your body moves,” adds Kumar. “So, learning different push-ups variations and using different methods to make it challenging like slowing it down or moving on different planes, will challenge you even more. But when it comes to building muscles and building strength, bench press beats push-ups.”

Takeaway

  • Bench presses and Push-ups are the most popular upper-body exercises that have the potential to tone, strengthen and build muscles.
  • Push-ups are an equipment-free, body weight exercise. Bench press allows you to add and vary the added weight.
  • Both exercises can be performed with different variations that allow the exerciser to extract the maximum benefit from them. But care must be taken to get the form right to avoid injuries.

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