3 reasons why push-ups are better than bench pressing!
Alec Enkiri | 1/29/21
I've been doing a lot of pushups these last few months, which prior to this past year is, regrettably, an exercise I had ignored for quite some time. And that was a big mistake! I should not have ever allowed myself to get into the mindset of thinking that I was "too good" for pushups just because I have levels of relative strength or can bench press 315lbs or whatever. Regardless of how much you can bench press there is always a reason to include push-ups in your training routine. And just to make sure that you guys never forget that, like I once did, today I'm going to give you guys my top 3 reasons why the push-up is BETTER THAN the bench press!
Reason #1: Massive Core Activation
When performing a push-up you're essentially assuming a plank position the entire set. The core and the hips must be locked in and stable in order to keep the body in a rigid line during the movement. As you repeatedly descend to the bottom of the push-up and then ascend back to the top this positioning is challenged. Maintaining a strong, solid brace here can actually become quite difficult as you fatigue and the reps take longer to get through. As well, if you're doing weighted push-ups then this effect becomes much, much more pronounced as any external weight that you add onto your back is is directly working against your core as you fight to maintain that rigid body position and prevent your hips from sagging or your lower back from arching into extension.
This effect is what's known as "anti-extension" and it's one of the primary functions of the core musculature - to prevent the spine from buckling and being pushed into a hyperextended position. And training this function concurrently with your upper body actually makes push-ups one of the most "functional" upper body strength builders out there. Think of it this way, it doesn't much matter if you can bench press 400lbs if your core muscles cant also resist that force. When you push at something in real life you're standing up and that means that in order for you to come close to producing the force you can produce during a bench press your hips and abs and back must also be able to resist it, and if they cant then the nervous system is simply going to dampen that force production so that you don't accidentally hurt yourself.
The standing ab rollout is another example of "anti-extension."
And so, unlike the bench press, the push-up gives you the opportunity to train both of these things concurrently, which ensures that neither aspect will lag behind. So then you can rest easy knowing that not only is your body going to be more resilient and functional overall, but also that the strength you are building in the upper body is going to be highly transferable to many other activities beyond simply the bench press itself.
Reason #2: The Shoulder Blades Can Move Freely
The push-up takes place in a closed kinetic chain , which in this case means that the hands are anchored to the floor and cannot move during the exercise and the bulk of the movement takes place by moving the body through space. Contrast this with the bench press, which is an open chain exercise. Here the body is fixed while the limbs move freely. The difference here is that during a bench press the shoulder blades are pinned down against the bench, typically in a retracted position, and they can't move during the set. Whereas with a push-up the shoulder blades are not pinned to anything and can move freely during performance of the exercise. This allows the scapulae to both retract and protract and move about freely against the ribcage as you move from the bottom of the rep to the top of the rep, and this confers a couple important benefits:
For one thing, it actually allows the serratus anterior muscle to join in, which is impossible during a bench press because the serratus anterior primarily engages when the scapula protracts. It's even been nicknamed the "boxer's muscle" because it's largely responsible for the protraction that occurs when throwing a punch, which can greatly bolster punching power.
Additionally, this dynamic movement, this scapular freedom, is a more natural way of utilizing the shoulders and pressing things in general, whether off the chest or overhead. It forces more muscles to become involved in the exercise, and it preserves and reinforces the natural scapular movement that takes place during activities which require significant movement of the humerus. Strengthening and reinforcing this natural pattern can go a long way towards creating more resilient and overall stronger shoulders. Whereas the problem with the bench press is that it forces you to keep the shoulder blades pinned in retraction and so if that's all you do then eventually this natural scapular movement can degrade.
This in part explains why so many people have issues with the overhead press. If the scapula doesn't move properly then it's not going to elevate properly during an overhead press. And if the scapula doesn't elevate as the arms move overhead then you risk getting impingement at the shoulder joint which can lead to inflammation, and pain, and possibly even tears. So because of this its incredibly important to learn how to hold the barbell in the proper overhead slot position.
As well, this is the same reason why it's important to allow the shoulder blades to protract at the bottom of rowing movements. This can be tricky during free standing rowing variations because you're already having to maintain a hinged position and hold the spine neutral throughout the set so I'm not a huge stickler here, but when it comes to variants like the inverted row or the seated row it's super easy to allow the scapulae to retract in the finished position but also to fully protract at the bottom, so there's no excuse to shortchange yourself of that benefit during those exercises.
Reason #3: Easy Volume (Very Favorable Stimulus:Fatigue Ratio)
The final reason why the push-up is superior to the bench press is easy fucking volume. Push-ups just don't beat you up like the bench press does, even when you go heavy. They don't tax the nervous system in quite the same way as heavy or even moderately heavy bench presses do and as such they can be done for very high volumes or very high frequencies. The pint is they allow for large amounts of high quality, easily recoverable work to be performed. As Doctor Mike Israetel would say, the stimulus to fatigue ratio is very very favorable with his exercise which means it can be a fantastic tool for taking your upper body strength and hypertrophy to the next level. Personally, since I started doing push-ups again I've actually added about 2 inches to my upper body circumference - as of this morning my chest is about 44 inches around, whereas just about a year ago it was only about 42 inches.
And that's not a perfect science or anything because I'm not controlling any other variables, but I can tell you truthfully that the only other big change I've made to my upper body training in the past year, other than adding in the weighted push-up, is putting a big emphasis on inverted rows, which I actually already made a video about a couple months ago. So that has probably also played a role in the upper body growth I've experienced lately, but I suspect that bigger reason is the incorporation of plenty of weighted push-ups of all different kinds!
I've been using close grip push-ups, wider grip push-ups, feet elevated push-ups, push-ups with a pause in the bottom, push-ups with no pause, push-ups where you deload the chest onto the floor with every rep, heavy push-ups, light push-ups for super high total rep counts, etc. So I've been doing a lot of different kinds of pushups and a hell of a lot of total volume of pushups and I think the results speak for themselves at this point.
So there you have it! 3 big benefits that you can't get from the bench press that actually make the push-up superior to the bench press in many respects. These 3 benefits alone are more than enough reason to make sure that you treat this classic exercise with the respect that it deserves and make it a staple in your upper body training routine for the foreseeable future.
This blog post in video format. Enjoy!