Pushup workouts to strengthen your back, shoulders, and arms

I dubbed January the month of the pushup progression. We kicked off the month with an overview of the movement and proper form. Then came four ways to incorporate pushups into your warmup routine.

Today, we bring you pushup workouts, variations, and advanced techniques.


Strict pushups are great, right? But once you’ve mastered the strict pushup, you might want to spice things up a bit. Pushup variations with your hands in different positions are fantastic for emphasizing different muscles in the arms, chest, and back.

Hands wide

This variation emphasizes the pectorals and triceps, but limits the full range of motion of the shoulder. If you cannot do a strict pushup on your toes, these are not a good variation as you need to build your strength while striving for full range of motion in your shoulders.

Bringing your hands about six inches outside your shoulders, go to a plank position with your weight distributed evenly between your hands and toes. Lower yourself until your chest hits the floor and pushup.

Repeat for 10 reps.

Hands varied

If hands wide is too difficult or uncomfortable, you can place one hand out wide while keeping the other hand under the shoulder and perform a single pushup. Then switch hand placement and repeat.

Five reps on each side.

Diamond pushups

This variation works those deltoids (shoulder muscles) and triceps. Pectorals are still engaged, but you’ll be feeling these in your shoulders after a few reps.

Kneeling on the floor, place your hands close together, forming a diamond shape with your index fingers and thumbs. Shifting your weight from your knees to your hands and toes, get into a plank position.

Perform your pushup, getting your chest as close to the floor as possible. It may not be possible to get your chest completely to the floor. Push up to the plank position. Be sure to watch for a high butt or a sagging butt when doing this variation as you’ll want to compensate for the increased difficulty.

Repeat for 10 reps or until failure.


This may be my favorite workout to supplement bench press and incorporate those pushups.

The workout:

21 reps of barbell bent over rows and strict pushups
15 reps of barbell bent over rows and strict pushups
9 reps of barbell bent over rows and strict pushups

Barbell bent over rows — bending at the hips, place the barbell so that it is directly under your chest. When ready, hinge at the hips so that your upper body is perpendicular (or close to perpendicular) to the ground. Knees are slightly bent.

Grab the barbell with your hands directly under your shoulder and pull it up to your chest, pinching the scapula (shoulder blades) as close together as possible.

Lower the bar all the way to the floor. Do not lower to a hang and repeat. You will lose crucial muscle engagement doing this.

Doing this movement activates the lats and traps, but most importantly is engages the often neglected rhomboid muscles that directly support your thoracic spine.

Strict pushups — you all know this movement by now. Place hands directly under your shoulders and go into a plank position with your weight evenly distributed between your hands and toes. Lower til your chest hits the floor and push back up.

If 21 pushups in a row is too difficult, lower to your knees or break as you need to. Do not chicken wing when the going gets tough.

Handstand progression

Ready to go to the elite pushups?

Handstand pushups are more and more popular these days thanks to CrossFit and other “elite” workouts.

If you think you’re ready for this movement, grab a towel or pad for your noggin and find yourself a place on the wall.

Placing your hands on either side of your towel or pad, kick your legs up so that you are in a handstand. Lower yourself in the handstand until your head comes to the floor. If you can perform this movement strictly, push back up. Congratulations, you’re an animal.

If you can’t perform this strictly, don’t sweat it. In a headstand, bend your knees and slowly bring them toward your elbows. Then punch your feet straight up. This will create a slight kipping motion that should allow you to engage your shoulders and perform the rest of the handstand pushup.

Too uncoordinated to perform this movement?

Find a bench or a box. Kneeling on your bench or box, place your hands on the floor. If you can, move to your toes or stay on your knees if your balance is lacking. Lower your head to the floor and push back up.

Repeat for five reps.

At your next workout, attempt the handstand to headstand movement and go back to the box handstand pushup as necessary.

All of that too easy? Well, then I suggest you try this routine:

27 Replies to “Pushup workouts to strengthen your back, shoulders, and arms”

  1. I’ve been having some issues with my back on long runs so I’ll definitely be incorporating some of these push ups into my strength training routine!

    1. That 21-15-9 workout is SO great for developing those back muscles. Strengthening my entire back has been a major focus for me these past few months and I’m noticing a huge difference not just in my lifts, but in my posture and everyday movement.

  2. I’m glad you shared this! I”m seeing some bad form on these IG pushup challenges! And people aren’t going all the way down. Here’s the thing, wouldn’t it be better to do bent knee pushups with good form to the floor than the straight legged ones only half way down? Fewer reps but full pushups? My coaches are such sticklers for good form, it’s got me thinking…

    1. YESSSS! It is so much better to go to your knees and do full range of motion. That way you are strengthening your entire shoulder. Does it take longer and feel less “hardcore?” Of course. But will it be the way to greater success? Absolutely. It’s always hard to check that ego, but so so so necessary. You have great coaches!

    1. I find that pushups are one of the quickest exercises to improve in, but also one of the quickest to lose if neglected. Stubborn little boogers…

  3. I look a lot like that t-rex. Just probably not as adorable.

    No matter what I do, my upper body never seems to get stronger. It’s annoying, but I do my best to keep at it.

    1. Jenn, are you doing full range of motion (chest to the ground) when you do pushups? I think that is so key in building strength. You’ll find what clicks. Keep at it!

    1. Find a way to make them fun! I love the inchworms and that’s how I get my fix without feeling like they’re a chore. 🙂

  4. I wish I could do more push ups, but I had a severe shoulder injury a few years back, so I have to do other moves for strength training!

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