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Pushups are a quality strength-training exercise for all levels of lifters because they can be modified to increase or decrease difficulty or to place focus on particular muscle groups. One element you can change is where you place your hands on the floor. The width at which you place your hands will impact whether your elbows move out to your sides or stay in by your torso as you lower to the floor, as well as which muscle groups have to work the hardest.
Whether you do pushups from your knees or feet, the exercise remains the same. You keep your torso and thighs in a straight line while your arms raise and lower your body from the floor. The traditional pushup involves placing your hands on the floor just wider than your shoulders. Wide pushups require you to set your hands to an even wider position so they're a few inches outside your shoulders. Military pushups involve positioning your hands to a more narrow position so they're directly in line with your shoulders. Diamond pushups require your hands to be together and touching under the line of your chest, with your 10 fingers creating a diamond shape.
Where your hands are placed on the floor will dictate whether your elbows stay in or go out as you lower your body to the floor. During wide pushups, your elbows will flare out to the sides. With your hands in the military pushup position, they'll stay in by your torso. Traditional pushups will force your elbows to move in a more diagonal plane. Diamond pushups will cause your elbows to move out to your sides.
Your hand placement and where your elbows move during pushups makes an impact on the muscle groups recruited. All pushups develop the chest, shoulders and triceps. The chest muscle, anatomically called the pectoralis major, horizontally adducts your shoulder joints. This means it brings your arms back to center. The shoulders, which are your deltoids, flex your shoulder joints. This means they lift your arms up in front of you. The triceps brachii at the back of your arms extends, or straightens, your elbow joints as you push up off the floor. When your elbows flare out to your sides during the pushup, you're performing a greater degree of horizontal adduction and less of shoulder flexion and elbow extension. Thus, during wide, traditional and diamond pushups, your chest is handling most of the work while the shoulders and triceps assist. When your elbows stay in by your torso, such as during military pushups, you're performing a greater degree of shoulder flexion and elbow extension, so your shoulders and triceps take on more of the work.
The type of pushup you should incorporate into your workout depends on which muscle group you want to emphasize. The military pushup, for example, would be appropriate to add to a workout focused on the shoulders and arms. The wide, diamond and traditional pushup would be a quality exercise to add to the end of a session focusing on the chest. You can also construct a workout that mixes in the different types of pushups if you want the workout to effectively develop the chest, shoulders and triceps.