It’s probably the most common complaint about push ups, namely that you don’t feel your chest working whiile performing them.
The push up is primarily a chest exercise, so surely you should feel your chest whenever performing them.
Admittedly, the push up also works the shoulders and the arms.
And as the anterior deltoids and the triceps are smaller muscles than the pecs they will typically fatigue quicker.
However, you should still feel your chest whenever you’re doing push ups, unless you’re making the following mistakes.
The main reasons you don’t feel your chest during push ups are all down to positioning. This includes the position of your elbows, shoulders, hands, and forearms. Additionally, to increase chest activation you should also concentrate on the mind-muscle connection and an increased range of motion.
Elbows Flaring Out to the Side During Push Ups
Your elbows should remain tucked into your sides throughout the movement.
For me, the most important aspect here is hand position.
Your hands should be directly below your shoulder blades during push ups.
If you regularly perform the bench press then this may also have a bearing on incorrect hand position.
The standard bench press will typically see the hands placed wider than shoulder-width apart.
However, when performing push ups aim to have your hands in the same position as you would when doing narrow-grip bench presses.
This will generally mean that your hands are still wider than shoulder-width apart, but only just.
I would also recommend spreading your fingers out wide and turning your hands out ever so slightly.
If your fingers are spread wide then ensure that your index fingers are pointing straight ahead.
Many of us have a tendency to have the hands pointing inwards and this will automatically make the elbows flare out.
Lack of Shoulder Retraction and Protraction
The next mistake I often see with push ups is not allowing the shoulders to retract at the bottom of the movement and protract at the top.
I believe this is due to trying to perform push ups at speed rather than focusing on actual technique.
Push Up Shoulder Retraction
At the bottom of the push up in order for the shoulders to retract you need to concentrate on getting the shoulder blades as close to each other as possible.
Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s the best way I can describe shoulder retraction.
Stand up and place your hands against a wall and stand at arm’s length away.
Now slowly bring your hands in towards your chest, but concentrate on what your shoulders blades are doing.
As your hands reach your chest and your elbows are now behind you, notice how your shoulder blades have automatically retracted.
It’s almost as though if an object was placed on your upper back you could hold it in place with your shoulder blades.
As I’ve mentioned, this is slightly exaggerated.
But, I want you to be aware of how the shoulder blades draw in towards each other as your hands come closer to your chest.
You should aim for the same effect during the bottom part of the push up.
Push Up Protraction
This is the exact opposite to what I have just mentioned.
When you’re in the top position of the push up you want the shoulder blades to protract.
Once again, an exaggerated version of this would be how your shoulder blades spread out when you hug someone.
A common mistake is not fully extending your arms at the top of the push up, and therefore not protracting the shoulders.
So, in effect you’re almost trying to separate the shoulder blades as far as possible from each other.
Don’t worry I’ve included a video below that covers everything that I mention in this article, including shoulder retraction and protraction.
No Mind-Muscle Connection
I actually think that mind-muscle connection is crucial with any exercise, not just push ups.
This is something that most of us tend to ignore.
However, not only will the mind-muscle connection help you to concentrate on a specific muscle that is being worked during an exercise, it can also lead to greater muscle and strength gains.
In terms of the push up I like to contract my chest at the top of the move.
You can achieve this by basically really squeezing your chest muscles.
Then maintain this contraction throughout your set.
I would also suggest slowing down the movement.
You’ll probably find that you won’t be able to perform as many push ups per set when the chest muscles are properly contracted.
Plus, by performing push ups more slowly, fatigue will set in after fewer reps too.
Throughout the entire movement, keep squeezing your chest and really focus your mind on keeping this tight contraction.
Even after just one set you’ll notice far more of a pump in the chest.
Your Forearms Don’t Stay Vertical
Your forearms should remain vertical during push ups.
Once again, poor hand positioning could be to blame here.
I’m not sure why, but I generally see people placing their hands too far forward when performing push ups.
In fact, I often note that some people have their hands more in line with their head than their shoulders.
By having your hands placed in such an advanced position you’ll notice that your forearms angle towards the lower body.
However, if you place your hands directly below your shoulders it’s much easier to maintain a vertical forearm position throughout.
This may take a fair amount of practice to perfect if you’ve gotten into a bad habit of allowing the forearms to angle backwards.
Poor Range of Motion
This ties in quite well with ensuring that your shoulders retract at the bottom of the movement and protract at the top.
And yet again, a poor range of motion could be down to the speed at which you’re performing push ups.
I like to ensure that my nose touches the ground at the bottom of the push up and that my arms are fully extended at the top.
When people are performing what I like to sarcastically refer to as “half push ups” the range of motion is drastically cut down.
This will also work the delts and triceps much more and will explain why you don’t feel your chest during push ups.
Basically, you’ve got no real chest activation with a limited range of motion and you’re quickly fatiguing the delts and triceps.
Increased Range of Motion With Push Up Variations
One of the main reasons that many people turn to push up bars (apart from applying less pressure on the wrists) is that it increases the range of motion.
You can get a far better stretch in the pecs, thus more chest involvement during push ups.
You don’t need push up bars for an increased range of motion.
This is also why people perform push ups on dumbbells too.
For me, I simply like to do push up variations that allow for a greater range of motion.
The most obvious starting point is the decline push up, so having your feet placed on a raised platform.
Your aim should be to get as close to the floor as possible.
Once more, I usually go all the way down and ensure that my nose touches the floor.
This is also another reason to slow-down the tempo of your push ups, as there’s a good chance of breaking your nose using my method, LOL.
Another fantastic way to increase range of motion and really feel your chest during push ups is to have one hand on a raised platform.
I typically use a thick book.
I’ll place my left hand on the book, my right hand on the floor, and complete a set of push ups.
Then I’ll simply swap hand positions for my next set.
With both the decline and raised-hand push ups you’ll definitely get a far greater stretch in the chest, which is perfect if you want to feel your chest working.
Frequently Asked Questions
What follows are some frequently asked questions (and answers) about push ups, mainly focusing on chest involvement.
What is The Best Push Up Variation For Chest?
There are three specific push up variations that I prefer if I really want to target my chest and feel those pecs working.
The Chest Squeeze Push Up
One of the best ways to target a specific muscle, and to actually feel it working, is through isometric contractions.
This simply means that you squeeze the working muscle as you perform your exercise of choice.
And I would say that the chest is definitely one of the best muscles to perform isometric contractions with.
Now, this is going to seem slightly strange, but in order to achieve this through push ups you’ll need to significantly narrow your grip.
Essentially, your hands are going to be extremely close together.
The reason I say this may seem strange is because you’ll typically bring your hands closer together during push ups if you wish to target your triceps more effectively.
I’m not going to lie, you are going to feel your triceps more with this variation, but with the added bonus of really feeling your pecs working too.
If you think about it, when you bring your arms out in front of you and then squeeze them closer to your body you also automatically engage the chest muscles.
So, you can take advantage of this during chest squeeze push ups.
Basically, you’ll want to contract your chest muscles hard and as you lower yourself towards the ground, hold for a second or two, squeeze your pecs even harder, before pushing yourself back up.
Now, you can perform these types of push ups with your hands on the ground, but I’ve found that you can kick that chest squeeze up a notch or two by having your hands on a medicine ball.
Trust me, even though your triceps are going to get a much harder workout you’re definitely going to feel your chest working with this push up variation.
Spiderman Push Ups
I can’t actually believe it took me so long to discover spiderman push ups.
I believe I first came across them in Craig Ballantyne’s original Turbulence Training program, circa 2005.
And up until this point I have already performed literally hundreds of thousands of push ups in my life.
My main aim with Spiderman push ups was that they provide much more core activation.
The fact that you’re bringing one knee at a time towards your elbow (at the bottom of the push up) will activate the abs, obliques, erector spinae muscles, and glutes to far greater effect.
However, a massive added bonus with spiderman push ups is that I always really felt my chest working during my workout.
Furthermore, if my workout involved a high number of reps of spiderman push ups I could feel that “nice soreness” in my chest, more typically associated with a big bench session.
I believe that this has a lot to do with the fact that when you bring one knee towards the elbow you are then balancing on three points rather than four, i.e. only 2 hands and 1 foot in contact with the floor.
This obviously forces your entire core to work much harder in order to stabilize the body and help you maintain balance.
But, it also has the added bonus of isolating the chest muscles much more too.
Basically, if you want to build your chest, and you’re not doing spiderman push ups, you’re missing out.
Plyometric Push Ups (With a Clap)
The pecs are approximately 60% fast-twitch muscle fibres and 40% slow twitch.
Therefore, as the chest is primarily made up of fast-twitch muscles your pecs will respond better to certain forms of training.
Firstly, if you’re looking to build your chest by lifting weights then you should aim for heavy weight with lower reps.
A great rep range for chest training is 5-7.
However, fast-twitch muscle fibres typically react best to fast and explosive movements, and this is where plyometric push ups come in.
So realistically, you’re using push up to train your pecs for power and speed.
As I’ve mentioned, stick to the 5-7 reps range, plus you should also encompass a clap of the hands with plyometric push ups.
This goes back to something I mentioned earlier, the fact that you can contract the chest muscle more effectively when you bring your arms in towards your body.
And what better way to achieve than to clap with every push up rep you perform.
If your entire training session is focused on push ups I would suggest that you always start with plyometric push ups.
It’s always best to perform power and speed training while you’re fresh, and this is a great way to activate the chest muscles, which you’ll now feel working throughout the remainder of your workout.
Why Do My Arms Give Out When Doing Push Ups?
This is nearly always going to be the case with compound movements, whether with weights or your own body weight.
And push ups are certainly no different.
You are activating your chest, shoulders, and triceps when performing push ups, as well as a variety of core muscles.
However, the triceps are obviously the smallest muscle group here, which relatively speaking makes them the weak point during push ups.
Therefore, your triceps are always going to fatigue first during push ups, and this is regardless of how strong or well-developed your arms are.
That being said, if your triceps are severely restricting your ability to perform push ups then it’s likely that they are undeveloped.
So, this being the case, it makes a lot of sense to train your triceps separately.
As I say, even with well-developed arms, your triceps are still going to be the “weak point” during push ups, but obviously the stronger your triceps are the better you will become at push ups.
Can You Build Your Chest With Just Push Ups?
I have to look at my own chest development over the years and say, yes 100%, you can build a great chest just from performing push ups.
In fact, I actually went through a stage where I didn’t perform the bench press for 5 years because of my new-found love of daily push ups.
However, the main issue for myself (and most people) is that you’ll eventually get to the stage where you just cranking out a high volume of push ups.
And then unfortunately, your push up training turns into a muscular endurance and conditioning workout.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I can confirm that performing a high volume of push ups regularly will do a great deal for your physique.
But, what I found worked best was to add lots of variation into my training.
This would encompass a number of push ups variations, as well as differing training protocols.
So, this definitely isn’t just about getting down and pumping out standard push up after standard push up.
I’ve already mentioned 3 of my favourite push up variations for targeting the chest, namely chest squeeze, spiderman, and plyos.
I’ll also add decline push ups, ring push ups (probably one the best bodyweight chest exercises there is, but a fairly advanced exercise), and archer push ups.
When it comes to training protocols a couple of favourites include descending ladders (20 reps down to 1 rep), every minute on the minute, and supersets with dips.
In fact, I absolutely love performing descending ladders with dips and push ups, which gives me one of the greatest chest pumps ever.
Simply perform 10 parallel bar dips, and then get down on the ground and immediately perform 10 push ups.
Then perform 9 reps of each exercise, then 8, 7, 6, and so on, all the way down to one rep of each exercise.
Your aim is to get through all 110 reps without taking any rest (or as minimal rest as possible).
I find this is a fantastic finisher after a chest workout.
Then again, you could simply take 2 minutes rest between supersets, and perform the dips/push ups descending ladder for a total of 3-4 sets.
Trust me, that chest is going to burn, and then grow.
Key Learning Points
- Don’t allow your elbows to flare out to the sides when performing push ups. Your upper arms should form approximately a 45-degree angle to your torso.
- Spread your fingers wide and turn your hands out slightly so your index finger are pointing straight ahead.
- Ensure that you retract your shoulder blades, so pull your shoulder blades back and down.
- Work in the mind-muscle connection by contracting your pecs and really squeezing while doing push ups.
- If you’re using a poor range of motion, e.g. half reps, you’re never going to feel your chest working. Ensure you lower yourself all the way down and return all the way up to the starting position.
- You can increase range of motion to work your chest harder, e.g. push ups on dumbbells, decline push ups, etc.
- Slow down the tempo of your push ups in order to increase time-under-tension.
- My 3 preferred push up variations to target the chest are, chest squeeze push ups, spiderman push ups, and plyometric push ups with a clap.
- If you find that your arms are giving out first from push ups this is completely natural, as your triceps are the “weak point” in the exercise. However, it makes sense to train your triceps separately, which will also improve your push ups.
- You can definitely build a fantastic chest from push ups alone. However, you should use a number of variations and different training protocols. This will allow you to hit your chest from a variety of angles, while providing sufficient volume for growth.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.