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Almost anyone who is interested in weight loss or improving their overall health will want to burn more calories via exercise. One of the first steps someone in this position usually takes is to research how many calories particular exercises burn. Push ups are a common exercise found in many workout programs, so the question of “how many calories does a push up burn?” may seem appropriate. However, the actual answer may surprise you.
If you’re trying to calculate “How many calories does a push up burn?”, you’re going to find that the answer is way more complex than you might think. First, you have to take into account how much you weigh, and this changes how much weight is moved during the push up. Then you have to figure in bodyfat percentage, as more muscle means you can likely do a push up more easily. Speaking of which, how strong you are plays a factor, as the easier the push up is, the fewer calories it will burn. Then you have to take into account how tall you are, as this will change how your bodyweight is distributed, which in turn, affects how much weight you’re moving during the push up. Your height will also affect the leverage you can apply to push ups, making them easier or harder.
A study performed by a Arizona State University found that an average of 8.56 calories was burnt in a minute (approximately 20 push ups). Other findings vary wildly, but almost all of them are in the low range (less than one calorie per push up).
On average, a 200lbs man doing “vigorous calisthenics” for 30 minutes would burn approximately 380 calories. Even though this seems like a somewhat concrete answer, you have to realize that “vigorous calisthenics” covers a wide range of exercises. A burpee is going to burn more calories than a push up, and a push up is going to burn more calories than a stomach crunch. But then you have to consider just how hard “vigorous” actually means, how little rest is being taken, and how much total work is being done. Then consider the difference in calories burned by doing harder, more intense push ups for fewer reps vs easier push ups for more reps. There just isn’t a simple overall answer.
The real question here shouldn’t be about how many calories you burn by doing a push up, but whether or not it really matters. If burning calories is the primary goal of your workout, there are simply better and more efficient ways to do it. Applying the same vigorous level of sustained effort to rowing, stationary cycling, or even a stair-treadmill can burn as much as nearly 40% more calories in the same 30 minutes. If you’re set on sticking with calisthenics, that’s fine, but just ensure that push ups by themselves aren’t the only exercise you perform. Rather, they should be one of several movements you do, preferably in circuit-style fashion, including burpees, bodyweight squats, mountain climbers, and more.
The better way to think about push ups is to consider them a muscle and/or strength-building exercise. At the very least, they’d be a contributor to muscular endurance and overall work capacity. When you consider push ups in that light, rather than worrying about how to eek out a few extra calories burned (which will still end up being fairly minimal), you can instead approach them with the goal of building more muscle or improving your strength. These goals are much easier to achieve utilizing push ups.
If (when) you do approach push ups in this way, don’t forget to consider that different push ups work the body differently. Standard push ups are a good “all around” exercise for the pecs, shoulders, and triceps. Elevating your feet will shift more emphasis to the upper pecs and shoulders, while bringing your hands close to one another will target the triceps more. Doing a Hindu push up or dive bomber can improve shoulder stability, as well as even indirectly target the upper back. These would all contribute much more to overall muscular development than calories burned.
Push ups can definitely burn calories, but to calculate just how many you can burn is almost a task not worth the effort. You’d have to do too many for it to be a significant number, and there are much more efficient ways to burn more calories. Instead, utilize push ups for muscular/strength development, and you’ll get much more out of them.