Why push ups are just as good for gaining muscles as the bench press

Don't want to go back to the gym? Science says you can gain muscle just as well by doing push ups

push ups
(Image credit: Getty Images)

With the global health crisis still very much dominating what we can do safely, many of us have been shying away from the gym and learning how to do a push up properly at home. Lots of gyms have reopened with new safety measures in place, such as social distancing, sanitising equipment regularly between uses, limiting the amount of members and enforcing mask-wearing policies. 

However, while lockdown has been in place, lots of us have picked up fitness after a long absence, or have gotten used to saving money by not paying for a membership. 

While there's lots of benefits to using free weights to overload your muscles, or target different muscle groups with dumbbells, one study has found you can gain muscle just as easily by doing bodyweight training exercises, such as push ups.

Push up

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Southampton Solent University in the UK published a literature review analysing studies on resistance training and muscle growth, finding very little difference between free weights, exercise machines and bodyweight training. 

The study found "all resistance types (e.g. free-weights, resistance machines, bodyweight, etc.) show potential for increases in strength, with no significant difference between them, although resistance machines appear to pose a lower risk of injury."

If you've already done some strength training, you can use free weights to make sure you can target specific muscle groups, using (for example) a set of the best adjustable dumbbells or best resistance bands.

However, taking into account the three factors of intensity, load and repetition range across over 130 studies, the review found you can gain strength almost equally across bodyweight, free weight and machine training. This means the vast majority of gym-goers will be able to train effectively at home for the time being, even without machines or large free weight set-ups.

Gym machines

(Image credit: Humphrey Muleba/Unsplash)

Our writer has been back to the gym and fitness classes since the pandemic to get a good idea of the new measures the fitness industry has in place, and felt very safe. "Anyone who's feeling nervous or a little wary of returning to the gym, from my experience I can tell you there's no need to be," she wrote in her exclusive report.  

"Like everyone, gym owners do not want to see a second coronavirus wave and the return of lockdown, so they’re doing absolutely everything they can to ensure hygiene and safety is a priority."

Even with these measures in place, there's the looming threat of a "second wave" of coronavirus cases keeping people away from public places, including the gym. Many of us are more comfortable working out at home, and have already cleared space and made investments in exercise equipment. 

So for those still staying away from the gym, the idea you can work out and gain muscle just as well as you could in the gym is a comforting thought.

The one small drawback for beginners is that machines are much more difficult to injure yourself on. Because you're locked into a set plane of movement when on a machine such as a leg press or adductor, you're guided in performing the move safely. 

If you're able to get back into a gym safely, machines can help with rehabilitation and protection against injury, while free weights build your body quickly as you have to recruit more muscle to maintain strict form. 


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Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and is currently Fitness and Wellbeing Editor at TechRadar, covering all things exercise and nutrition on Fit&Well's tech-focused sister site. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.