The Very Best Push-Ups for Athletes

5 Functional, High-Performance Variations

Try these five push-up variations to boost strength and power, nail your core, and improve shoulder health.

A push-up is not just a push-up. You can do push-ups in various ways, but most people only do them one way. Sure, some variations are better than others. And some might even be harmful (like plyometric push-ups) depending on your experience level, injury history, and goal.

Whether you want to improve your shoulder health, improve your bench, develop core strength, or increase your explosive power, these five variations help you reach your goal.

1. Banded Push-Up

Most athletes need upper-body explosive power. In the quest for improved performance, many unfortunately end up injured because they choose high-risk methods and exercises.

While exercises like plyometric push-ups (clapping, box, etc.) are great, they can also be harmful if you’ve had past shoulder injuries. Plyo push-ups cause a lot of stress in the landing and deceleration phases. Many add to this stress by dropping from super-high boxes, increasing the stress even more.

If you want to increase your explosive power safely, go for banded push-ups. (Good bands on Amazon).

To increase explosiveness, perform exercises with the intent of being as powerful as possible through the WHOLE range of motion. For push-ups, the resistance band does the trick.

There are basically two ways to do this exercise: with a pause in the bottom position or repeatedly without a pause. The former trains explosive starting strength, and the latter improves reactive power.

2. Staggered Push-Up

Usually, we perform bilateral strength exercises symmetrically. But symmetrical actions and positions seldom happen in most sports, especially in contact sports. You set yourself up for weakness if you only use symmetrical exercises.

There’s no need to go all “sport specific” or perform circus acts, but you need SOME exercises to prepare your body for non-symmetrical impact. For the upper body, do staggered push-ups.

Just get into your regular push-up position but with one hand placed higher than usual (toward the head) and the other hand placed lower than usual (towards the hip).

Staggered push-ups are great for improved shoulder stability, athletic preparation, and performance.

3. Shoulder Press Push-Up

Even though most push-up variations are based on the regular up and down movement, there’s no need to be limited by this plane. Use push-up variations to develop strength and stability in other planes.

The shoulder press push-up is a hybrid of the vertical (think: shoulder press) and horizontal (think: bench press) movement. Besides strengthening this movement pattern, you’ll also develop good scapular control and make your shoulders healthier.

This variation is especially valuable if you have weak or “inactive” serratus anterior muscles. It’s a killer exercise for the serratus! Go high rep and you’ll feel them for days. Over time, this stimulus improves the upward rotation capacity of your shoulders – a win for shoulder health and performance.

To do it, start in a wide-foot position with the hips held high. Lower yourself as far forward as possible. When the forehead almost touches the ground, press yourself back to the start position while keeping your head close to the ground.

4. Hoover Push-Up

Most push-up variations equally load both sides of the body. In real life and sports, one side is usually loaded more than the other, and your ability to handle asymmetrical load is important for optimal performance.

A one-arm push-up is a good tool, but it can be a bit too much for some athletes. You want to train the capacity to handle more load on one side at a time, but you also want to minimize the injury risk. Most people are able to do the one-arm push-up with training, but I prefer the hoover push-up since it’s easier for beginners.

To do it, start in a regular push-up position with a fairly wide hand placement. Lower as usual. When you’re in the bottom position, move your body to the left, over the left arm. Pause for a second, then move to the right side before returning to the center and pressing up to the start position.

The hoover push-up looks pretty easy, but it’s harder than you think. You must keep the body tight in a plank position and stabilize the upper body more than usual. You’ll feel it!

5. Elevated One-Legged Rack Push-Up

Most push-ups are done with the hands flat on the ground. This is fine, but if you have issues with the wrists, elbows, or shoulders, keep the wrists in a more neutral position. A simple way to work around such issues? Do push-ups with a barbell.

The elevated rack push-up is a great exercise to work around those issues and target the core/abs to a higher degree. And don’t be surprised if it helps your bench press performance.

To do it, place a barbell in a rack with a step or similar in front. Place your feet on the step and use your regular bench press grip. Move one foot off of the step, then do regular push-ups. Elevating one foot makes the body want to rotate. This increases the demand on your core stabilizers. Your job is to keep the body tight and not allow any rotation.

This is also a great exercise if you struggle with the regular bench press technique. It’s pretty much a reverse bench press. You can solidify many important positions, especially upper back and shoulder position, contact point, press-point, and the ability to activate the whole body – an often overlooked aspect during pressing and most exercises in general.

Note: More interested in using push-ups for hypertrophy? Try these variations out.


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