Push ups are famed. There’s a reason we all know EXACTLY what “drop and give me 20” means. There’s a reason they’re considered a punishment (OH, the BURN) and strength training exercises meant to both humble us and ultimately make us stronger people, physically and mentally. We know their benefits – they work the entire chest, your triceps, your delts, and your core muscles (thanks to the plank position that is the starting position for a push up). We know how to do them correctly, we know the variations, many of us probably bang out 10-15 push ups every week (or maybe even every day?!) as part of your regular workout routine. Plus, hey! Zero equipment required for a good push up. Just your body and motivation. So, we get it. Push ups are beasts. They work many major muscle groups and help you gain muscle strength. Hooray! But do pushups help lose weight? The answer – it’s complicated.
The Science of Weight Loss
Basic weight loss is all about math. Calories consumed, calories burned. A sports medicine doctor or nutritionist will advise you to be in a caloric deficit, a fancy set of words basically meeting that you need to be burning more calories throughout your day than the number of calories you’re taking in through food and drink. For example, if your starting number is 1800 calories per day, you will need to consume fewer calories to accomplish a deficit and ultimately lose weight. Easy enough.
Experts recommend to lose weight and trim belly fat, do 30 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity five days a week. But they typically suggest starting with cardiovascular exercise for the most effective calorie burn for weight loss. Some examples:
30 minutes of one of these activities will burn approximately 250 calories. A push up burns around 7 calories per minute. So, how many push ups do you need to do to hit this recommendation? That would be push ups (with good form, mind you) at a moderate pace for around 35 minutes straight five days a week. How many push ups total? 245. Per day. No, thank you. So, in other words, it’s probably not feasible to plan on doing push ups as your only plan for weight loss.
One note though: strength training/resistance training fitness journey is important. Strength training can help with weight loss because muscles burn more calories than fat when the body is at rest. So, having more muscle mass can help you burn fat and ultimately lose weight more easily.
Do Push Ups Burn Fat?
Push ups burn fat, but not as effectively as some of the cardiovascular exercises listed above. A good fat loss exercise is effective because you’re burning calories more efficiently to lead to that caloric deficit. So if you want to shed body fat as part of your fitness plan, start by getting your heart rate up. But, if you want push ups as part of your body fat exercise routine, consider doing sets of push ups at a faster tempo, or doing reps until your body begins to burn out.
Let’s talk about belly fat. Push ups do stimulate your core muscles, which are key in helping you lose fat. But remember – push ups mainly are about building muscle in your upper body, and the ab benefits are secondary. Doing a high rep scheme or quick reps of push ups burn calories and can reduce fat because it increases the time under tension for your ab muscles stabilizing your body.
While push ups alone are not necessarily an effective exercise for weight loss, there’s still a lot of reasons they’re such a popular exercise and why you should make them part of your circuit training, or even your daily routine!
Push Ups: Great for Building Strength
But…you probably already knew that. Let’s go over it one more time.
Push ups are a compound movement, meaning push ups work multiple muscle groups all at once. Let’s go over all of the muscles worked and why they fire during a pushup.
– Chest Muscles: Controls the descent of the torso during a push up and the actual “push” back up to the plank position.
– Triceps: Stabilize your torso at the bottom of a push up. They are also the primary mover as you extend your arms.
– Deltoids (or Shoulder Muscles): Help bring your arms inward towards the chest during ascent. They also help stabilize your shoulders as you descend.
– Core: Holding a plank position stabilizes and strengthens your entire core. Same goes for your lower back.
Plus, if you add a weighted vest, there’s similar activation in your chest muscles as the bench press. There’s also research that shows adding regular push ups into your workout routine, you can improve your body composition (aka, more muscle, less fat).
Variations to Make Them Harder
So, you can’t utilize just push ups for losing weight, but if you want more strength gains, you’re in the right place. For starters – if you want to work harder on the standard push up, try a higher number of reps or speed them up. But if you’re looking for more, there are plenty of variations to challenge your upper body even further.
Decline Push Ups
Place your hands on the ground shoulder distance apart (like a high plank position) but put your feet up on a box or weight bench. This will create a further distance you will have to go to reach your chest to the ground (or “chest to deck,” as my coach tells me), giving you more tension. This one works your pecs harder too.
Weighted Push Ups
Same standard push up, heavier weight. You can use a weighted vest or place a barbell plate or dumbbell on your back. You need to have proper form on this one so the weight doesn’t roll off your back.
Pike Push Ups
This is a mash up of push ups and yoga! It’s great for your triceps. Instead of coming to a standard plank, lift your hips back into a U-shape (similar to a down dog or a pike), with your toes resting on the floor. This adds more tension to your shoulders and arms.
Spiderman Push Ups
Think of this as a push up and a variation of the mountain climber. Your starting position is in plank. As you lower down into a push up, bring your right leg up to your right elbow, bent at a 90-degree angle. For an additional challenge, hold for 1-2 seconds before lifting back up. Switch sides, bringing your left leg up to your left elbow.
A little extra love for your obliques here by incorporating a side plank. Begin in a high plank. Lower down to a push up. After coming back up, slowly rotate your body to the right side, with your left arm supporting your body and your right arm straight up in the air. Still not enough? Lift your right leg too. Hold for 3 second. Come back to the high plank on all fours, do another standard push up, roll over to your left side. Try for five on each side.
Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Push Ups
If you want to keep push ups in your strength training routine (and why wouldn’t you?), make sure you’re keeping up with good form. Bad form makes your push ups less effective and could even lead to an unpleasant injury if you aren’t careful. Remember:
– Keep Your Back in a Straight Line: Don’t let your back sag or push your hips high into the air (creating more of a U-shape). Both make your push ups easier and less effective.
– Don’t Flare Your Arms: If you’re creating a T-shape with your arms and torso, you’re doing it wrong. This will strain your shoulders. Tuck your elbows toward your torso.
– Control Your Descent: Losing control and dropping straight to the floor will take away half of your push up’s benefit.
– Don’t Let Your Feet Slide: For this one, best thing to do is choose your surface wisely. If you’re sliding around, you’ll get frustrated in a hurry and you won’t be able to do the exercise effectively.
So, in the end, will push ups help you lose weight? They certainly burn calories and help you gain strength, both which are helpful in losing weight and body fat. Don’t plan on push ups alone doing the trick. But maintain a healthy diet, get your sweat sesh in with some cardio and throw in a few sets of push ups in your fitness plan along with your regular strength routine, and it’s very likely you’ll see results.
Kendra Whittle is a writer, novice CrossFitter, marathon runner and triathlete. She lives in St. Louis with her husband, three kids and two dogs.