Among push-based compound chest exercises, few are as effective and commonly practiced as the weighted push up and the bench press - two highly intense upper body movements that make great use of a wide muscle group activation set in order to produce strength and size developments in the exerciser’s musculature.
However, despite their similar function and purpose, the weighted push up and the bench press are in fact quite distinct from one another in terms of safety, kinetic chain type and exercise mechanics.
As such, it is vital for an exerciser or athletic coach to understand the minute differences between both chest exercises so as to choose one that best fits the needs of the exerciser’s training goals.
The weighted push up is a combination of free weight and bodyweight training stimuli in a single compound movement performed with a variety of different make-shift or specially made exercise equipment.
Generally, the weighted push up makes use of some sort of heavy exercise implement that may be attached to the exerciser’s torso, such as a weighted vest, a backpack with weight plates inside or simply a single weight plate itself so as to increase the resistance of the exercise.
Performed with relatively higher volume than other free weight resistance exercises, the weighted push up is noted for taking the advantages of both calisthenic exercises and free weight utilizing exercises in order to help the exerciser improve the strength, size, and function of various upper body muscle groups such as the pectoralis and triceps.
The bench press is one of the most common upper body exercises performed, with its recognition as a highly intense free weight compound movement that utilizes an open kinetic chain and a barbell or pair of dumbbells landing the bench press a prominent place in practically any upper body workout session.
It is considered an exercise of intermediate complexity that is otherwise appropriate for practically any healthy individual, with a muscle group activation pattern nearly identical to that of the weighted push up, but with a few key mechanics in its performance that make it somewhat more difficult than the form of a standard push up.
Unlike the weighted push up, however, the bench press requires more than simply a weight plate, and will usually be performed for less repetitions and a higher amount of weight due to the angle of resistance involved, as well as the fact that the exerciser is not moving their own bodyweight alongside the barbell.
While both the weighted push up and the bench press share the same purpose of building the triceps brachii, pectoralis and similar muscle groups in the upper body - their particular ability to do so and the factors involved therein may be quite different, especially in terms of their function as exercises.
The largest difference in regards to the function of both exercises is the weighted push ups’ variable efficacy and loading when compared between individual exercisers and their own relative body weights.
What this means is that, between two exercisers of the same training age but different body weights, it is the heavier exerciser that would undergo more resistance and thus be unable to move as much weight or perform as many repetitions as their lighter counterpart.
This presents several challenges to exercisers and coaches alike, as the weighted push up will require custom tailoring in terms of volume, weight used, and even what sort of equipment may be applicable in certain situations.
Another point of distinction between the two exercises that may hamper or otherwise alter their function as exercises is the difference in natural or comfortable form with the weighted push up, something that is otherwise not present in the bench press due to its rather strict form and bar path.
Despite these two differences, however, it has been clinically established that the weighted push up and the bench press do not actually differ significantly in terms of muscle group activation intensity or end training results.
As was previously mentioned in this article, both the weighted push up and the bench press are performed for the purposes of inducing muscular hypertrophy in many of the push-type muscle groups located in the upper body, such as the triceps, deltoids and pectorals.
However, muscle groups used as stabilizers and secondary movers may in fact be somewhat different between the two - a distinction primarily due to the difference in angle of resistance and limb positioning, but also from the difference in equipment used as well.
The weighted push up (or even just push ups in general) require the exerciser to place themselves in a plank position prior to beginning the set, a stance that greatly activates the various muscles of the core and lower back, such as the rectus abdominis and erector spinae - all of which are responsible for ensuring that the exerciser remains stable throughout the weighted push up.
In addition to the core and lower back, the exerciser’s gluteus muscle group is also activated both in a secondary capacity as a co-contraction muscle group as well as a stabilizer muscle group throughout the movement of the push up.
This results in a stabilizer muscle group activation set that is otherwise not present in the bench press, though the two exercises nonetheless share the same primary mover muscles of the pectoralis, triceps brachii and deltoids.
One important muscle group relegated to simply acting in a stabilizing capacity during the bench press is that of the serratus anterior, a secondary mover muscle and occasional primary mover muscle recruited to a great extent during the performance of the weighted push up - with the particular role of the serratus depending on the hand placement of the exerciser.
While the bench press does not activate the core, lower back or glutes in the way the push up does (because of the fact that it is performed on a bench), it is capable of activating the deltoids to a far more significant extent due to the angle of resistance provided by the barbell - especially during the eccentric portion of the movement.
A similar case is found in the activation of the serratus anterior, wherein the weighted push up is capable of activating the muscle group to a noticeable extent whereas the bench press barely recruits it at all.
However, this reduction in total muscle groups activated can equate to the muscle groups that are activated being done so to a far more intense extent, with the bench press inducing greater pectoralis minor and anterior deltoid head activation due to the form of the movement.
This particular point of contention has little evidence pointing to a definitive answer, as the weighted push up’s kinetic chain type and exercise mechanics have been clinically established to activate certain upper body muscle groups to a greater extent than a bench press.
Conversely, the bench press has also been established as being significantly effective at inducing muscular hypertrophy and other developments in the pectoralis muscle group due to the more narrow bar path, specific range of motion and the fact that the exerciser’s body does not need to stabilize itself.
This is further supported by the smaller muscle group activation set of the bench press, freeing up more energy for pectoral muscle fiber recruitment that is otherwise diverted to the core, serratus, latissimus dorsi and glutes during the weighted push up.
For the most part, current research points to the weighted push up and the bench press being comparable in terms of chest building potential - with any differences in results being up to how they are performed, how they are programmed, and biological differences between individuals.
Though both exercises are relatively safe when performed with proper form and an appropriate amount of weight, it is the weighted push up that doubtless wins in a comparison of safety - as not only does the bench press involve raising a barbell over the exerciser’s torso, but is also known for placing significant strain on the shoulder joint.
As such, individuals with a poor grasp of bench press form, or exercisers with a history or risk of shoulder injuries may find that switching out the bench press with the weighted push up can greatly reduce their incidence of injury.
Perhaps the most obvious distinction between the two exercises is that of their equipment requirements, with the weighted push up simply requiring some sort of heavy and stable object be placed on the exerciser’s back in order to act as a source of resistance.
This simplicity and convenience is not so much the case with the bench press, which not only requires the obvious exercise bench or similar apparatus, but also a barbell and pair of weight plates - and a rack or spotter in order for the exerciser to position the bar over their torso at the start of each set.
As such, individuals without access to gym equipment will find that the weighted push up makes a more than excellent substitute for the bench press in their workout program.
As was touched upon earlier in this article, the weighted push up is considered a closed kinetic chain movement as the exerciser’s extremities are kept in place against the ground throughout the exercise, changing how synergist muscle groups act in unison and resulting in somewhat a somewhat different muscle group activation in comparison to the bench press.
The bench press is an open kinetic chain movement because of the free moving manner in which the exerciser’s hands (and subsequently the barbell) are capable of moving with, thereby requiring less stabilizer muscle group activation and allowing the primary mover muscles to be contracted to a more significant extent.
However, the closed kinetic chain of the weighted push up has also been shown to reduce shear force on connective tissues involved in the movement, also resulting in a linear stress pattern and reinforcing the exerciser’s conscious use of sequential movement patterns - thereby resulting in more caloric expenditure and better bodily coordination.
The most important differences between the bench press and weighted push up have to do with the specific exercise mechanics and form cues involved when performing either exercise.
One particular instance of this is in the case of scapular or shoulder blade retraction, with the bench press’s form cues requiring the exerciser to “pin” their shoulder blades to the bench beneath them in order to help prevent elbow flaring and reduce shoulder joint injuries.
During the push up, the exerciser’s scapula will retract and protract dynamically during the eccentric and concentric portions of the movement respectively - requiring greater shoulder and shoulder blade mobility, as well as resulting in greater muscle coactivation around the elbows and shoulder joint.
Another difference between the two is the usage of leg drive during either exercise, with the bench press’s elevated position allowing for the legs to “drive” downwards and aid in the movement to an extent, while the weighted push up does not benefit from this particular exercise mechanic.
Finally, there is the case of the arch of the spinal column in each exercise; the bench press generally requires that the exerciser arch their back during the repetition while keeping their hips in contact with the bench, allowing more flexible exercisers to reduce the exercises’ range of motion while simultaneously eliminating any strain placed on the spinal column and back.
This is not present in the weighted push up, as the exerciser must maintain a neutral spine in order to retain proper hip joint biomechanics and to stabilize the torso throughout the exercise - placing a small but still present amount of stress on the lower back if the exerciser has poor mobility.
For the purposes of general muscle hypertrophy and muscle group activation, the weighted dip and the bench press are at the least on par with the other, providing a nearly equal level of training stimulus and subsequent training results.
However, in terms of safety, functionality, improved mobility and ease of performance - it is the weighted push up that is clearly superior, with the bench press otherwise being the better choice for developing strength sports specific ability or activation of the anterior deltoid head and pectoralis muscle group.
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