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Pushups are compound exercises that target major arm, shoulder and chest muscles. Specifically, pushups help develop your deltoids, pectorals and triceps. They also involve many secondary muscle groups, including your abs, glutes and even your quadriceps, which keep your legs extended throughout the exercise. While pushups aren't necessarily better than lifting weights, they can be an effective part of your overall strength-training program.
Pushups are convenient. You don't need anything more than floor space to do a pushup. Beginners should ask a certified fitness instructor for advice on perfecting form, but the basic movements are as follows: Get in a plank-like position by placing your palms on the floor roughly shoulder-width apart and your feet close together. Brace your abdominals and core muscles to maintain a straight line from head to heels. Extend your elbows to rise fully, then slowly drop back down until your chest or chin touches the floor. Repeat as many repetitions as you can, but stop when your form begins to falter.
Pushups are effective exercises for upper-body development, but alone they probably won't lead to significant muscle gains. First, body weight pushups don't challenge your muscles much, especially after several months of training. If you can perform more than 15 repetitions of any strength-training exercise, you must increase the weight involved to keep challenging your muscles and spur muscle growth. So once you can do more than 15 pushups, you won't make any more significant strength gains. Second, pushups can't challenge all of your body's muscles to the same degree that a comprehensive weightlifting regimen can. For example, an effective weightlifting program includes lower-body exercises too -- such as squats and leg presses -- to ensure overall muscular development.
You don't have to choose between pushups and lifting weights. You can incorporate pushups into your strength-training program, for example, by using them to warm up before lifting weights. Or you can wear a weighted vest to increase the intensity of the pushup. Weighted vests have pouches that allow you to add weight slugs or plates so you can increase the resistance involved in your pushups to match your body's development.
If you're a beginner, ask a certified fitness instructor to help you develop a thorough and effective strength-training program. An expert can help you avoid overtraining. For example, if you do pushups in a workout, you probably shouldn't do bench presses during the next day's workout. Bench presses target many of the same muscle groups that pushups target, and exercised muscles need about 48 hours to heal. Otherwise, you'll inhibit your strength gains.