Build muscle without weights using these bodyweight push up variations

Develop upper body strength without a dumbbell in sight

Woman performing a wall push up
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There's a popular idea that you can only build muscle with weights like dumbbells, barbells, or exercise machines. But bodyweight exercises like the push up and its variations can be just as effective for developing upper body strength.

Many of us reach for a set of the best adjustable dumbbells for building arm, shoulder, and core muscle at home. These space-saving weights are customizable and quickly adapt to your training, but they aren't your only option.

Calisthenics workouts, a style of equipment-free resistance training, like push ups, sit ups, and squats, are a great way to build muscle. And, helpfully, this isn't only anecdotal, as a recent study has highlighted the push up's effectiveness.

The paper, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, compared the effect of a weights-focused bench press routine against of a progressive push up training program, featuring the variations below. 

  • Wall Push-up (Level 1)
  • Incline Push-up (Level 2)
  • Kneeling Push-up (Level 3)
  • Half Push-up (Level 4)
  • Full Push-up (Level 5)
  • Close Push-up (Level 6)
  • Uneven Push-up (Level 7)
  • ½ One-Arm Push-up (Level 8)
  • Archer Push-up (Level 9)
  • One-Arm Push-up (Level 10)

The team recruited 23 men in their twenties with some resistance training experience for the study. They were split into two groups, one undertaking a progressive push up program, while the other focused on bench press training.

Each group trained three times a week across the four-week trial, and measurements were taken at the start and end of the month. Specifically, the authors looked at muscle thickness, bench press performance, and push up progression (PUP).

There were 10 push up levels, ranging from supported wall push ups through to challenging moves like a one-arm push up. Once a participant could perform a specified amount of sets at a particular level, they could progress to the next variation.

After analyzing the results, they found that both groups had "significant increases" in bench press performance, while the push up participants had the most significant PUP improvements.

There were no differences between them across the other measures, including in terms of muscle thickness, leading the researchers to conclude that "progressive push-up variations increased upper-body strength comparable with the bench press exercise."

If you're after a way to get started, these five push up moves can build muscle without weights, developing upper body strength anytime, no matter where you are. You can tackle them as a routine or integrate them into your regular workout program.

Squats are a similarly effective calisthenics exercise but train your core and lower body instead. Plus, you can learn how to do a barbell squat for when you want to add weights in the mix to increase the load.

James Frew
Fitness Editor

James is a London-based journalist and Fitness Editor at Fit&Well. He has over five years experience in fitness tech, including time spent as the Buyer’s Guide Editor and Staff Writer at technology publication MakeUseOf. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, which spurred his interest in health, fitness, and lifestyle management.

In the years since, he has become a devoted meditator, experimented with workout styles and exercises, and used various gadgets to monitor his health. In recent times, James has been absorbed by the intersection between mental health, fitness, sustainability, and environmentalism. When not concerning himself with health and technology, James can be found excitedly checking out each week’s New Music Friday releases.