If you know anything about me, it's probably that I'm a calisthenics fanatic. This means I absolutely hate anything involving barbells or other external loading, right? Think again!
I'd be lying if I tried to tell you that the bench press isn't a fantastic exercise. In fact, for many years, bench presses were a cornerstone of my training. Though bodyweight training is my main modality these days, I can still recognize the benefits of pushing a loaded barbell.
That said, I thought it might be beneficial to compare the two movements side by side to see which one deserves to be a higher priority. Let's take a closer look at some of the pros and cons of the barbell bench press and the push-up, two of the all-time pec-blasting classics!
Approachability Push-up Wins
We all know the most obvious advantage of a barbell: the ability to gradually add a few pounds at a time, letting you track your progress incrementally. Keep track of the number, and you'll always have an answer to the age-old question, "How much ya bench?"
But that advantage is also a disadvantage. The numbers game that accompanies bench pressing keeps many people who don't have an answer to that question from getting under the bar—and maybe even from trying to get stronger at all. Maybe they just don't want to get into the chest thumping that often goes along with the number, or they've just heard too many war stories about the injuries.
So let me put this out there: I don't care how many push-ups you can do. Few people do! I only care how good your push-ups are—and I'm confident that, pretty much whomever you are, I can teach you to do a few good ones.
Sure, you could keep adding more push-ups to gauge your progress, but at a certain point, you'll need to find harder variations if you want to build raw strength instead of strength endurance. This demands a certain degree of creativity. It also demands a willingness to feel like a beginner again the first time you try (and fail) at a move like, say, an archer push-up.
That's not a downside to me, though. I love new challenges!
Five Advanced Push-up Variations
Watch the video - 1:16
Simplicity and Portability Push-up Wins
This isn't important for everyone, but for me, it's a huge draw. The obvious drawback of relying on the bench press as your primary upper-body horizontal pushing movement is that it requires you to have access to a bench, a bar, and a bunch of weights. Unless you have a garage gym, that also means you need access to a gym.
Push-ups, on the other hand, require nothing more than the floor beneath your feet. This is important to me not only because I travel a lot, but also because I prefer to train outdoors in my favorite park. We don't all have access to weight-training equipment, but if you don't have any floor or ground under you, you've got a serious problem!
Additionally, if you are benching with a weight that is challenging enough to stimulate your muscles to grow bigger and stronger, you'll eventually need a spotter to ensure your safety. If you fail midway through a rep of the bench press and don't have someone to help you finish the lift, you may find yourself in a dangerous situation.
Conversely, the worst injury that will happen to you if you fail on a push-up is a bruised ego, which typically does not require medical attention.
Strength Gains Tie
Here, it really depends on what you consider "strength." If you want to be able to push as much weight as possible, there's no better choice than the bench press. While push-ups can help you create greater relative strength, the bench can foster greater absolute strength.
Sure, there are many ways to manipulate the leverage of the push-up to make it more challenging, but if you want to become good at pressing an external load, you need to get under something heavy. The downside to this, unfortunately, is that it's easy to get caught up in wanting to add as much weight as possible to the bar, which can cause you to compromise your form or chase a certain definition of strength even when your body is screaming for mercy.
Poor form on a heavy bench-press attempt can cause shoulder problems or other issues, particularly over the long term. Push-ups with poor form can be problematic as well, but when your body is your only resistance, there's not going to be as much shearing force on your joints.
Additionally, the push-up will keep you honest about building pound-for-pound strength. As I explained in "Al Kavadlo's 20 Pull-up Challenge," that's the type of strength that is important to me. If your bench-press numbers are going up, but your push-up numbers are simultaneously suffering, that's a sign that you are not gaining real, functional strength.
Adding weight to your bench press while adding weight around your midsection means that you are simply improving your leverage to move another object; you aren't really getting stronger.
Variety and Adaptability Push-up Wins
If you want to add variety to your bench routine, you really only have a few options, such as switching from a barbell to a pair of dumbbells, taking your grip wider or narrower, or adjusting the incline or decline of your bench.
Push-ups, on the other hand, can be varied in a nearly infinite number of ways. You can adjust your hand position, foot position, and weight-to-limb ratio by elevating your feet to increase the amount of weight on your arms. You can practice push-ups on your knuckles, fingertips, or even the backs of your hands.
You can also make push-ups asymmetrical by practicing single-arm push-up variants to target your weak side and help promote symmetry between both sides of the body. Mixing up your training with different types of push-ups will not only provide mental stimulation, it also will make you better at moving your body through various functional patterns.
Muscle Activation Push-up Wins
I hear you typing, so let me explain.
I'm not going to tell you that the bench press isn't a great muscle-building movement; history—and a quick walk around any weight room in the country—clearly shows that it is. But if we're talking about which move activates more muscle around the entire body, the push-up makes a solid case.
When done properly, push-ups will engage your entire core, not just your upper body. This is even more the case in the one-armed variation, which forces you to engage your lats, opposite-side leg, lower back, and glutes, to name just a few. If you don't get those in the game, you don't get off the ground—it's that simple.
When doing a bench press, however, the bench provides stability for your trunk, which means that every muscle in your body other than your pecs, shoulders, lats, and triceps will have relatively little stimulation.
Overall Winner Push-up
So which is the better exercise? I'm going with the push-up, not least of all because it's something I can do anywhere, anytime. So if you're only going to do one of these moves, make it the push-up.
Of course, the great thing about this debate is that you don't have to pick one or the other. Push-ups and bench presses can happily coexist in the same training program, or even within the same workout. You can use the push-up to burn yourself out after doing bench presses, or to warm yourself up prior to getting under the bar. Another approach is to practice push-up variations on some days and bench presses on other days. Mixing up the type of stimulation provided to your muscles can be a good way to continually shock your body into new growth.
If you've been stuck in the same place with either exercise for a long time, switching to the other one might be a great way to bust through your plateau. Try this: For the next few weeks or months, put down the bar and set a lofty push-up goal, like busting out 50 strict narrow push-ups, or 5 strict reps of the single-arm push-up. Then go back to the barbell and see how much it carried over.
Experiment for yourself and you will ultimately find a system that works for you and your goals. But whatever you do, don't skip your push-ups!