Knuckle Push-Ups: Benefits, Muscles Used, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 22, 2022

With all the dozens of push-up variations out there, it can get pretty confusing trying to differentiate between the various pros-and-cons associated with each.

One of the lesser known variations is that of the knuckle push-up; a standard push-up with the hands formed into fists, rather than splayed palm-down across the floor.

To put it simply - knuckle push-ups do not provide many more benefits than the standard push-up unless you are a martial artist or a contact sport athlete, as the most significant non-sports related benefit is simply a larger range of motion.

What are Knuckle Push-Ups?

Knuckle push-ups are a compound bodyweight resistance exercise quite similar to traditional push-ups, but with the sole difference being that the exerciser encloses their hands into a fist rather than laying them palm-first across the floor.

For the most part, this changes very little about the exercise, and is usually reserved for martial artists or individuals with poor forearm and wrist mobility, as performing push-ups atop the knuckles is arguably less taxing on the joints of the arm.

Knuckle push-ups are most often performed for their athletic carryover potential or for the hypertrophy and strengthening of the triceps brachii, pectoral muscle group and deltoid muscle group.

How to Maximize the Benefits of Knuckle Push-Ups

Maximizing the benefits one receives from performing knuckle push-ups will depend on which benefits one wishes to focus on.

For individuals who are performing push-ups for the development of their upper body muscle mass and physical strength, correct programming and slow repetitions are far more important than they would be for athletes and martial artists performing knuckle push-ups to condition their hands.

For exercisers seeking to improve their range of motion, making use of additional equipment alongside switching to knuckle push-ups can allow them to achieve a far deeper eccentric push-up movement than would otherwise be possible.

Various Push-Up Benefits

Due to the similarity of knuckle push-ups to conventional push-ups, the main benefit of the former exercise is much the same as the latter one; improvement of the mass and strength of muscle groups recruited by the standard push-up movement pattern.

These are the pectoral muscles, the triceps brachii, the anterior and medial deltoid head, the serratus anterior and the core stabilizer muscles.

Apart from muscular development, other benefits such as marginally improved aerobic performance, greater elbow and shoulder flexibility and general reinforcement of all involved joints are also notable benefits of knuckle push-up performance over a longer period of time.

1. Martial Arts and Contact Sports Carryover

Though most individuals imagine the muscular benefits when thinking of push-ups, knuckle push-ups can in fact affect other kinds of tissues due to the pressure it places on certain parts of the hands.

In particular, knuckle push-ups are frequently employed by martial artists and similar types of contact sport athletes so as to condition the connective, osseous and skin tissue of the hands. 

Over time, this can result in the hands of the athlete being more durable and resistant to impact, as well as aid in the psychological conditioning needed to endure the pain of performing frequent and powerful strikes.

2. Reinforcement of Wrist Joints

Just as martial artists and athletes utilize knuckle push-ups to strengthen the tissues of the hands, so too do knuckle push-ups protect and reinforce the wrist joint as well.

A common complaint of conventional push-ups is the pain some individuals will experience in their wrists as they perform high repetition sets of the exercise. Knuckle push-ups avoid this issue by simply placing the wrists in a more neutral and anatomically sound position, reducing or entirely eliminating any pain of the joint and potentially reinforcing the tissues therein.

3. Comparatively Larger Range of Motion

As was touched upon earlier in the article, knuckle push-ups present the benefit of having a comparatively larger range of motion than many other push-up variations, especially the conventional push-up itself.

This is simply because of the fact that the hands are relatively shorter when formed as a fist, and allow for a deeper push-up to be performed, thereby stimulating the muscles of the pectoral and deltoid muscle groups to a greater extent.

While this difference in range of motion is relatively minor, it is nonetheless a distinct benefit that is rarely achievable outside of performing push-ups with additional equipment.

How do Knuckle Push-Ups Compare to Conventional Push-Ups?

For the most part, knuckle push-ups are not all that different to conventional push-ups. 

In fact, the muscular activation, complexity and level of difficulty are practically the same between the two exercises, meaning that they may be used interchangeably within most training contexts apart from that of wrist pain.

knuckle push ups muscles

In terms of mechanics and form cues, knuckle push-ups and its conventional counterpart are also quite similar, with the sole difference being that the wrists are rotated slightly further inwards so as to point the thumbs towards the ribcage and to maintain better balance.

As such, choosing between knuckle push-ups and conventional push-ups is less a case of training stimulus and more that of specificity, as knuckle push-ups are arguably more niche in their usage than the standard push-up would be.

Are There Disadvantages to Knuckle Push-Ups?

Much like any other exercise, knuckle push-ups come with their own set of disadvantages that exercisers may wish to consider prior to adding this push-up variation to their workout plan.

The most significant and immediately noticeable disadvantage is the pressure knuckle push-ups can place on the hands, resulting in pain and potential injury in more extreme cases. This further ties into the relative instability of balancing on your knuckles, increasing the risk of hurting yourself in the event that you lose balance as you do so.

Furthermore, unless knuckle push-ups match your specific use case, there is little need to experience this increased risk of injury and pain, as quite a number of other push-up variations are capable of recreating most of the aforementioned benefits without the same disadvantages.

In Conclusion

Throughout this article, we’ve established that knuckle push-ups indeed have their own set of advantages that are otherwise difficult to achieve without the use of another push-up variation or additional piece of equipment.

So, the question is should knuckle push-ups be incorporated into your workout?

Unless you’re a martial artist, contact sports athlete or experience wrist pain from push-ups - then performing knuckle push-ups is needless, and possibly not worth the inherent discomfort associated therein.

Instead, we suggest trying out block push-ups or chair dips to get your bodyweight chest workout in.

References

1. Cogley R. M., Archambault T. A., Fibeger J. F. and Koverman M. M. 2005 Comparison of muscle activation using various hand positions during the push-up exercise Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 19 628

2. Nadzalan, Ali & Mohamad, Muhamad & Shafiee, Mohd & Omar, Nur & Abd Malek, Nor & Janep, Mandra & abd karim, Zulakbal. (2021). Comparison of Muscle Activation between Traditional, Diamond and Knuckle Push Up Among Trained Men. Journal of Physics: Conference Series. 1874. 012016. 10.1088/1742-6596/1874/1/012016.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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