Pushups have long been considered one of the most effective strength-training exercises because they target a variety of muscles without the use of equipment and they can be done nearly anywhere. Just as importantly, they can be customized to your fitness level and modified to specifically target different muscles based on your body placement.
The pushup is rightly touted as a full-body strengthening move. When performed correctly, it recruits muscles in your arms, core, hips and legs, but the main area it targets is your chest. The standard pushup primarily strengthens the pectoralis major sternal, or front chest, muscles. The synergist muscles, or the main muscles that assist in the move and are thus strengthened in the process, include the pectoralis major clavicular, or upper chest; the anterior and medial deltoids, or front shoulders; and the triceps, or back of the arms.
A large number of secondary muscles are also recruited during the pushup. Performing this exercise recruits much of your core to remain stable in the plank position. This requires several muscle groups to serve as stabilizers to keep your body from sagging onto the floor. The main stabilizer muscles are the rectus abdominis and obliques in your abs. To counterbalance these muscles, your erector spinae, or lower back muscles, are also forced to work. Your glutes and quadriceps are also contracted to keep your legs from sagging or bending. To a smaller extent, your biceps are also strengthened because they serve as dynamic stabilizers, helping to control your elbows as they bend during the exercise.
Changing the positioning of your arms, legs or even your torso will alter the way the pushup affects your muscles. A popular variation is triangle pushup, during which your arms are placed in a triangle position with thumbs and forefingers touching directly below your chest. A study by the American Council on Exercise found the triangle pushup to be the most effective exercise for targeting the triceps muscles. Raising your legs onto a bench and performing decline pushups will shift the focus to your upper chest, or pectoralis major clavicular.
A great benefit to the pushup is that it can be modified for everyone from beginners to the most seasoned exerciser. If you are new to the pushup, you can perform the exercise standing and pushing off a wall. Once you have mastered the move, you can move to the floor but keep your knees on the ground throughout the movement. From this position, you can advance to the standard pushup, in which you are in a plank position on your toes. If you are a more seasoned exerciser looking for a challenge, try plyometric pushups in which you push your hands off the floor and clap them together before returning to the starting position.
Andrea Chrysanthou began writing professionally in 1993. Her work has been published internationally by "The Cyprus Mail," MochaSofa and My Favorite Trainer, among other magazines and websites. She holds a Bachelor of Applied Arts in journalism from Ryerson University. Chrysanthou is a certified fitness instructor and personal-training specialist with more than 10 years of experience in the fitness industry.