Since the inception of modern strength training, the push-up has remained one of the top body weight exercises for targeting muscles of the upper body.

This essential movement continues to be a staple in the exercise programs of athletes, recreational gym-goers, bodybuilders, and even those recovering from certain injuries.

While most people are familiar with the push-up, some may be unsure of exactly which muscles the exercise works.

This article details which muscles push-ups work, how to perform them, their benefits, common mistakes, and popular variations.

What muscles do push-ups work?

While often referred to as a chest exercise, the other muscles that push-ups work should not go overlooked.

In fact, the push-up is categorized as a compound body weight exercise, meaning that it targets several muscles of the upper body.

Here are the muscles you’ll target when performing a standard push-up.

Pectoralis major

The pectoralis major is the largest of the chest muscles. It’s thick, fan-shaped, and found just under the breast tissue. It serves as the prime mover when performing a push-up.

The muscle consists of two heads. One is the clavicular head, which originates from the medial part of the clavicle. The other is the sternocostal head, which originates from the sternum and upper ribs.

While these heads originate from separate locations, both insert on the upper part of the humerus, or upper arm bone.

During the push-up, this muscle controls the descent of your torso towards the floor and pushes the body back up to the starting position.

Pectoralis minor

The pectoralis minor is a lesser-known muscle of the chest. It’s significantly smaller in size and lies under the pectoralis major.

This small triangle-shaped muscle originates from the front third through fifth ribs. It inserts onto the coracoid process, a small hook-like structure on the front part of the scapula.

When performing the push-up, the pectoralis minor keeps the scapulae, your shoulder blades, in position. This allows for the correct posture of the shoulders and upper back.


The triceps, formally known as the triceps brachii, is a large, thick muscle located on the back of your upper arm.

The prefix “tri” refers to the three heads that form this important pushing muscle. These are referred to as the medial, lateral, and long heads.

Each head has a unique origination point. The medial and lateral heads originate from the back of the humerus, your upper arm bone. The long head originates from the upper part of the scapula below your shoulder joint.

All three heads insert onto the olecranon process, which is the pointed bone on the back of your elbow joint.

During the first half of the push-up, when your chest is nearly touching the floor, the triceps helps stabilize the torso. During the second half, the triceps is the primary mover as you extend the arms.

Anterior deltoids

The deltoids are the large, triangular-shaped muscles located on top of the shoulder joints.

Like the triceps, these powerful muscles are made up of three distinct heads — the anterior, lateral, and posterior heads.

While all heads are active during the push-up, the anterior head is targeted the most due to its location on the front of the shoulder joint.

This head originates from the frontal part of the clavicle bone and inserts onto the outer part of the humerus of your upper arm.

During the upward phase of the push-up, the anterior deltoids help adduct the shoulder joint, meaning they help bring the arms inward towards the chest. They also help stabilize the shoulders during the downward phase.

Core muscles

While push-ups largely stimulate the chest muscles, other muscle groups support the movement.

One such group is the muscles of the core — specifically, the abdominals.

The abdominals are made up of five main muscles called the rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and the pyramidalis.

Additionally, the deep core muscles of the back help keep the torso erect. Particularly, the erector spinae and multifidus assist with this.

Working in unison, these core muscles help keep your spine straight to allow for good form when performing the push-up.

What are the benefits of pushups?

The push-up is a tried and true body weight exercise known to provide several potential benefits. Here are the top benefits of regularly performing push-ups.

Builds upper body strength

Considering that the push-up is a compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups simultaneously, it has great potential to build upper body strength.

When incorporating push-ups as a part of a well-balanced training program, they can build significant strength in the pectoralis, tricep, and anterior deltoid muscles.

Though push-ups predominantly target muscles of the upper body, performing them with good form can also strengthen muscles of the core, specifically the abdominal muscles and lower back.

May improve body composition

Anyone who has done more than just a few push-ups knows they can get your heart pumping.

Adding strength exercises like push-ups to an aerobic exercise program can increase energy metabolism, resulting in more calories burned. This could lead to benefits like increased fat loss.

Thus, adding push-ups to a well-balanced workout regimen alongside a suitable diet can lead to long-term improvements in body composition.

How to do push-ups with proper form

While the push-up requires no equipment and is fairly easy to perform, there are some subtle cues to keep in mind when performing them.

By following the steps below, you’ll be well on your way to performing the perfect push-up.

  1. Start in a high plank position with your arms extended and palms positioned on the floor at shoulder width. Plant your toes on the floor in line with your legs.
  2. Engage your core muscles, glutes, and legs to align your spine.
  3. Maintaining a straight back and keeping your gaze just a few feet in front of you, bend your elbows to descend in a gradual, controlled motion, just until your chest grazes the floor. Keep your elbows tucked close to your sides throughout the movement.
  4. While exhaling, push your palms towards the floor to return yourself to the starting position. Focus on contracting the chest and tricep muscles while keeping your core tight.
  5. Repeat for the desired amount of reps and sets.

Common mistakes

While the push-up is a simple movement, there are a few common errors to keep in mind.

Don’t let your back sag

One of the most common mistakes associated with push-ups is letting your back sag.

By doing so, you lose out on energy that should be going towards the target muscles. It may also cause stress on certain joints and/or your lower back.

To fix this, engage your core and leg muscles, ensuring that your body is rigid from head to toe, from start to finish.

Don’t flare your arms

Another common mistake is flaring out your arms to create a T shape with your arms and torso.

This makes you lose valuable power that should instead be transferred to the working muscles. It may also strain your shoulder joints.

To fix this, focus on tucking your elbows towards your torso and rotating your palms a little outward.

If you’re still struggling to maintain a proper form throughout the movement, choose an easier push-up variation to practice and build strength before progressing to harder alternatives.

Going too fast

A third common mistake when performing push-ups is descending and/or ascending too fast.

This can cause you to lose tightness in your working muscles, often resulting in form breakdown and movement inefficiency.

To correct this, focus on taking at 3–4 seconds to perform each push-up. You may even go slower than this if preferred.

As your technique improves, you may be able to go slightly faster while still maintaining proper form.

DISCLAIMER: These posts should not be used to self-diagnose or self-treat any health, medical, physical or psychiatric condition. Information shared via posts does not replace professional healthcare advice specific to your condition and needs. If you are unsure whether you would benefit from implementing tools discussed in these posts, please contact your healthcare provider.