I have been a personal trainer for over a decade and worked with some of the most famous actors modern-day Hollywood has to offer. As you would expect, a lot of them become best known due to their incredible physical appearance and presence on screen and, more often than not, your eyes will be drawn to their blockbuster arms.
Like fashion or food, training goes through trends and phases. There are always articles promoting one new method or another, but if we go back to basics and look at some of the tried and tested movements for creating big arms, we will find a selection of underused and incredibly effective moments. We have them in our locker already, so let’s use them. Before we get on to that, let’s look at the exercise itself and try to answer the question “do push-ups build your arms?”.
The traditional push-up is generally considered to be a chest exercise, and not one that you would normally focus on to increase your arm muscles. However, push-ups do target the triceps brachia muscles, which are located on the back of the arm. They also help with the coracobrachialis, a small muscle on the front. Therefore, a standard push-up can definitely increase the strength and size in these muscles, providing they have the correct loading.
So, when you combine push-ups and additional upper-body exercises, you can increase the size of your arms, but what do I mean by ‘correct loading’. I’m glad you asked.
In order to effectively grow your triceps with training, you need to provide them with sufficient stimulus for growth. This comes in the form of your training volume.
In order to continue to make progress with muscle development, you need to progressively add training stimuli. If you don’t, you will soon plateau which negatively affects your motivation, enthusiasm, not to mention the hard work you’ve already put in. This progression can come in many forms, whether that’s more reps, more sets or an increase in the weight being lifted.
I’d love to be able to tell you exactly how much weight you need to add or how many reps you need to be doing, but it doesn’t work that way. If, for example, you can knock out 50 reps, then you will likely need to add some extra resistance for optimum muscle gains, but don’t take that as gospel.
Depending on how many push-ups you can do, your requirement for added weight and increased set numbers will vary from person to person, but let’s look at that in more detail.
Muscle building training is traditionally categorised into a specific rep range, normally between 8 and 12. Whilst these ranges are appropriate for muscle building, they’re not the be-all-and-end-all. Both higher and lower reps will help you to pack on the size.
Using heavy sets of just 4 - 8 reps will help you boost your strength and stimulate the muscle growth you’re looking for. Also, using high rep sets of 12 or more will also help add a lot of extra stimulus for muscle development.
I would certainly recommend trying a session combining a selection of rep ranges for the best possible results.
Not all push-ups are created equally. The usual movement can be adapted to make your workouts more efficient. Everyone will know the triceps brachii assist in extending the arm outward during a push-up, and this just happens to be the most exerted muscle during the move.
However, if you want to focus on this muscle even more, modify your push-up to a narrow-grip version. A small study published in 2005 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that muscle activation during a narrow-grip push-up, for both the triceps and the pectoral muscles, was greater than during a wide-based position.
To properly do a narrow-grip push-up, get into the standard push-up plank position. Move your hands so your thumbs and index fingers are about 2 inches apart from their companions on the other hand. Your hands will be almost in a triangle position. From there, complete a push-up by lowering your chest to the ground and pushing back up. Repeat accordingly.
We’ve talked a lot about the triceps, but you might be asking if push-ups also work your biceps? Most people will tell you that they do, but push-ups really don't target the biceps at all. The biceps are a ‘pulling’ muscle, whilst the aforementioned triceps are for ‘pushing’.
To balance your workouts across your upper body, you should do an equal number of pulling and pushing exercises. This variation increases the muscles in your arms, rather than just relying on the push-up itself which really only works the triceps.
When it comes to muscle building, calories are all to often the missing link. Whether you’re doing push-ups or any other exercise, in order to build muscle you need to be hitting an adequate calorie intake that ensures you are in a calorie surplus.
In addition, your protein levels need to be high to promote effective recovery and muscle growth. Personally, I would recommend protein levels at around 30-40% of the calories coming from protein as a rough guideline but, as I always say, everyone is different.
To get your calories right, you first have to learn what your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is. This is the amount of calories you burn whilst at rest in a neutrally temperate environment. Once you know this figure, you can then add the extra calories you burn during exercise. When you combine these numbers it will give you your maintenance calories. In order to build muscle, I suggest going 20% above that figure.
There’s no denying that push-ups are a tried and tested upper body movement that can be used for muscle building under the right loading parameters. It’s important to note, however, that when I talk about muscle building, I always emphasise goal-focussed nutrition.
To build muscle you need to be getting your calories and macros right, otherwise you’re not optimising your efforts. For every pushing movement you do, also do an equal number of pulling movements to ensure good muscle balance.
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