Bench press and push-up at comparable levels of muscle activity results in similar strength gains


Electromyography (EMG) exercise evaluation is commonly used to measure intensity of muscle contraction. While researchers assume that biomechanically comparable resistance exercises with similar high EMG levels will produce similar strength gains over the long term, no studies have actually corroborated this hypothesis. This study evaluated EMG levels during 6-repetition maximum (6RM) bench press and push-up, and subsequently performed a 5-week training period where subjects were randomly divided into 3 groups (i.e., 6RM Bench press group, 6RM Elastic band push-up group or control group) to evaluate muscle strength gains. Thirty university students with advanced resistance training experience participated in the two-part study. During the training period, exercises were performed using the same loads and variables that were used during the EMG data collection. At baseline, EMG amplitude showed no significant difference between 6RM bench press and band push-up. Significant differences among the groups were found for percent change ([DELTA]) between pre-test and post-test for 6RM (p=0.017) and for 1-repetition maximum (1RM) (p<0.001). 6RM Bench press group and 6RM Elastic band push-up group improved their 1RM and 6RM ([DELTA] ranging from 13.65 to 22.21) tests significantly with similar gains, whereas Control group remain unchanged. Thus, when the EMG values are comparable and the same conditions are reproduced, the aforementioned exercises can provide similar muscle strength gains.


Alex’s Notes: The bench press is a main lift. It is one of the three measures of strength in powerlifting and one of the best bodybuilding exercises for chest, shoulder, and arm development. Then you have the push-up; a real measure of someone’s strength and endurance relative to their bodyweight. Unfortunately, after a point bodyweight pushups are unlikely to provide a sufficient training stimulus. No surprise since you must continually overload the body to spur further adaptation. Outside of this, the push-up and bench press are biomechanically the same movement, so one would speculate that if the resistance of the push-up was brought to a level comparable to a bench press, similar strength gains should be seen. Alas, the study at hand aimed to find the answer, as well as see if muscle activation was truly similar between the movements.

30 young university students with experience using both the bench press and elastic band push-ups volunteered to be subjects. Although they had a minimum of one year of resistance training experience and worked with moderate to high intensities at least three times per week, none had experience with a training program utilizing a 6RM load, which was the chosen load for the study at hand. This makes me question the definition of “high intensity.”

The first portion of the study used EMG readings to determine muscle activation during a 6RM bench press and push-up with elastic bands. Just as common sense would allude to, the muscle activity of the pectoral (chest) and anterior deltoid (front shoulder) muscles were identical between groups.

After the EMG testing, the subjects were divided into one of three groups – 6RM bench press, 6RM push-up, or control group – and began a five week training program. They trained at the same time every morning twice per week with two days of recovery minimum between sessions, were not allowed any food, drink, or stimulants (caffeine) three hours beforehand, and no activity more intense than daily living 24 hours before each session. Interestingly, the researchers also instructed they sleep more than eight hours each night but continue their normal diets and sport practices. Both training groups increased their 6RM with push-ups garnering a 21.04% average increase and the bench press pulling ahead with 22.21%. The bench press also beat out the push-up in the 1RM, with a strength increase of 19.84% compared to 13.65%.

So the above differences are minor, but the training was short-lived at five weeks. In the long term this could easily add up to greater magnitudes of strength gain. Although, I am a bit skeptical. The bench press wasn’t a true bench press. Instead, it was performed on a smith machine where the movement is guided and it is easier to generate absolute force because less stabilization of the weight is required. But still, if you are a Calisthenics enthusiast, then take relief in that your push-ups are serving you well, provided you keep increasing the difficulty through angle and lever manipulation.


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