June 09, 2021 10 min read

Push-ups are an incredible exercise. 

They’re great for building muscle, they’re easy to vary, and you can do them pretty much anywhere any time.

If you’re smart about it, you can use push-ups to train almost every muscle in your upper body. This time around we’re going to focus on decline push-ups, their many benefits, and how you can do them with perfect form.

Fitness Model Torso showing six pack abs

Muscles Worked

Before you start adding an exercise into your workout routine, you should understand what muscles you’re working out. Exercise is all about finding an activity that serves your needs well. If you’re looking for something that will treat your upper body well, then decline push-ups are going to suit your workout well.

1. Upper Chest

More than anything, decline push-ups are designed to keep your upper chest in shape. You’re going to be working on your pectoralis major. This is a pair of muscles that start on your clavicle and sternum and extend across your chest. Their primary function is to facilitate the movement of your shoulder joint.

Exercises that target your shoulders and pecs at the same time are going to strengthen the range of motion of your shoulder joints, so keep that in mind if you’re encountering shoulder problems later in your life. The motion your pecs are most responsible for is flexion of the humerus.

This is the motion of an underhand throw or lifting things gently off of the ground. Secondarily, they’re responsible for what’s called adduction. This is the motion of moving a body towards yourself, or more technically, “decreasing the angle of a joint.”

To imagine this motion, think of the feeling of flapping your arms, you can feel your pecs engaging when you bring your arm back in towards your body.

2. Delts

Your delts are a relatively small group of muscles. They’re shaped like a triangle and they sit on top of your shoulder and work with your pecs to keep your arms in their socket when you’re lifting prodigious amounts of weight or performing intense day-to-day manual labor. Whatever it is you’re doing with your arms, you can thank your delts and pecs for keeping your body from popping apart.

When your delts contract all at the same time, they move your humerus away from your body. Decline push-ups put a lot of pressure on your delts and upper pecs, which makes them a great exercise for strengthening your upper body. If you’re prone to shoulder pain, or you struggle carrying heavy loads, then your shoulders and pecs are definitely asking you to throw them a bone.

3. Abs

Your abs are going to have to stabilize you during this exercise, which means that you’re getting an excellent core workout while blitzing your shoulders and chest. Your core is a set of muscles that include your abdominal wall, which is made up of your external oblique, internal oblique, and transverse abdominal, and your rectus abdominus.

Your obliques and your rectus abdominus work together to give your torso the strength and structure you need to redirect force to your muscles when you’re lifting weights. Core strength is important to your ability to reach your weightlifting goals.

These muscles are what you use to keep your torso upright to bring your legs and chest together. While decline push-ups aren’t specifically designed to work out your abs, they’re still a great way to work on your stability and core strength if you’re not a fan of dedicated ab workouts.

Decline Details

Decline push-ups as an exercise are exceptionally simple. You just need your hands and a place to elevate your feet. If you’re in the gym or at home, as long as you’re around a bench or you can find a low box, you’ll be able to get in your decline push-up sets.

  • Find an incline to rest your feet on like a bench or a low box. You’ll want your body to be between 20 to 45 degrees
  • Rest your palms on the floor with your hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your back flat the entire time, and brace your abs
  • Lower yourself to the floor until your forehead almost touches the ground 
  • Push yourself against the floor until you’ve returned to the starting position with your arms fully extended

Variations

Decline push-ups, unsurprisingly, are just as variable as regular push-ups. You’re able to add a great deal of challenge to your workout when you feel like your muscles are growing too accustomed to the work.

1. Plyometric Push-Ups

Nearly every single isometric exercise can benefit from introducing plyometrics. Plyometrics are what we call it when you use an explosive amount of energy to launch your body into the air slightly. These are all jumping exercises or something close to that. Think jumping jacks or the push-ups you see in movies where a jacked dude will jump his torso into the air and clap between each rep.

You should add plyometrics into your routines if you’re usually cardio adverse.

The way you’re using the energy in your body is going to force your heart and lungs to keep up, improving your ability to harness the power of your respiratory system.

  • Start in your regular decline push-up position, with your feet elevated and your arms straight out in front of you
  • Lower yourself down until your forehead is nearly touching the floor
  • Pause for a second to kill all of your momentum
  • Explosively push against the ground up past your starting position so your hands come an inch or two off of your exercise surface
  • Keep your arms extended in front of yourself, catching yourself on the floor and allowing your elbows to flex a little on impact. This will absorb the shock of landing and preserve your joints

2. Diamond Decline

This variation of decline push-ups is going to focus on your triceps. It will also put a little bit more pressure on your upper chest, so if you’re starting to acclimate to decline push-ups then throwing in this variation is going to help you out a lot.

If you’re trying to increase the stability of your arms when they’re extended or holding a weight up above your body, then you might want to consider using diamond decline push-ups. As you grow your overall upper body strength, you’re going to want to keep your tricep strength in line with your overall strength.

When they’re trying to beat personal records, a common issue people have when they’re trying to beat personal records is neglecting to work out the auxiliary muscles involved in their lifts. These will become a sticking point as you try to beat your own records or when you’re trying to break through a skill ceiling you’ve been banging your head against for a week or two.

  • Start in your decline push-up position
  • Bring your hands together underneath your chest, touching your thumbs and index fingers together
  • Lower yourself until your forehead is about to touch the floor 
  • Push yourself back up into your starting position

3. Single-arm Decline

If you want to increase your pushing power to much higher levels, then single-arm push-ups are what you’re going to be looking for. You can pretty easily adjust your decline push-ups for this variant.

  • Start in your standard decline push-up position
  • Shift one of your arms directly underneath your chest
  • Lower your body until your forehead is almost touching the floor
  • Push yourself back up into your starting position. Complete a full set and then switch arms

4. Spider-man Decline Push-ups

These push-ups get their name from the wall-crawling motion you make throughout this exercise. It’s a good way to challenge your core while working on your upper body. It’s also a good way to ramp up the amount of energy your body is expelling during your workouts.

  • Start in your decline push-up position
  • When you’re lowering your body towards the ground, bring one knee out until you’re touching your elbow. Be sure to keep your leg as parallel with your body as possible. You should time this elbow touch to line up with the lowest point of your push-up
  • Push yourself back up to your starting position, returning your feet to the elevated surface
  • Your knee should touch your elbow at the lowest point of the push-up. Reverse the movement to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

Increasing the Decline Difficulty

1. Changing the Base

This is the least obvious choice, but when you change the base your feet are resting on, you fundamentally change the difficulty of decline push-ups. Usually, when someone wants to do decline push-ups they’ll opt for something simple to lift their feet up onto like a bench or a box. However, if you look a little bit further outside of your comfort zone, you’ll find surfaces that can challenge your glutes and your core.

If your gym can spare an exercise ball, you can turbocharge your balancing skills. The inherent instability of a workout ball is going to force your rectus abdominis and your obliques to work their hardest to keep your body from wobbling off of the ball and slamming onto the floor.

A wall will also make for an excellent decline push-up partner. It won’t force as many balance challenges into your workout, but it will allow you to adjust the angle of your workout much more severely than a bench, a box, or a ball.

Changing the angle of your push-ups will allow you to put more of your body weight onto your chest and delts. It’s a great way to increase the challenge when your body begins acclimating to the exercise.

2. Increasing the Angle

This goes hand in hand with changing the base, but it warrants its own section here because of how much you can vary the angle and how drastically the shift will affect your workout.

The closer your feet are to the ground, the easier it is for you to execute your push-up. The thing that adjusting the angle of your decline push-up will change about your workout is how much weight you’re placing on your wrists and chest.

Man doing push-up using a elastic band at the gym.

3. Add Some Resistance

Resistance bands are one of the most versatile tools introduced into the workout world.

They’re perfect for progressively overloading yourself to keep your workouts from becoming ineffective after a short amount of time. This is the case with pretty much any bodyweight exercise you can think of, and decline push-ups are no exception.

To add a resistance band to your push-ups you’re going to want to strap it across your back. You’ll slip your arms through either end of the loop like a backpack. If you do it the other way around, attempting to challenge your delts, you run the risk of the band snapping up towards your face, so let’s avoid that.

A resistance band used in this way is great for keeping your body from acclimatizing to your exercises too quickly. If you want to keep your workout routine relatively static during your fitness journey, then you’re going to want to incorporate something like a resistance band to keep the challenge up.

4. Slow Down

It’s common to want to bang out your push-ups as quickly as possible, but you’re cheating yourself out of an honest workout if you do that. When you’re pushing yourself out of the lowest position as quickly as you can you’re taking advantage of the momentum that bouncing upwards immediately will give you.

Taking a couple of seconds to hold your position when you’re at the lowest point of your push-up will challenge your muscles much more than usual. Holding your position, especially during decline push-ups is an excellent isometric activity.

Forcing your muscles to hold a position is a great way to hit them with enough challenge to encourage muscle growth. You’ll also be forcing yourself to push up more weight when you totally stop your momentum.

Don’t Decline These Tips

You might think that dropping decline push-ups into your workout routine is as simple as finding a box and going to town, but that may not necessarily be the case. In the world of calisthenic exercises, it’s relatively unnatural, you’re distributing your weight in a ratio that you’re basically never going to hold yourself in your normal life. To that end, we’ve cobbled together a couple of tips to keep you from injuring yourself or squandering your hard work.

1. Easing Into It

The easiest and most essential tip, by far, is to ease yourself into this exercise. You can technically hoist your feet up until they’re basically over your head, but if your body isn’t ready to take on the weight of your body and the effects of gravity on it, then you’re just going to get yourself hurt.

If you’re going to start using decline push-ups, you should begin by keeping your body at an approximately 30-degree decline. This is going to give you the basic decline push-up experience without running the risk of overloading your arms and chest. You don’t want to figure out what it feels like when your face meets the ground with the full weight of your body behind it.

2. Brace Yourself

Your wrists are going to be a major choke point when it comes to decline push-ups. Your wrists are relatively weak when it comes to the strength of your joints throughout your body. Imagine deadlifts if your knees were the size of your wrists.

You shouldn’t try to outpace the strength of your wrists when you’re working your way up (or down, technically) to harder and harder decline push-ups. If you feel like your wrist strength isn’t able to keep up with your chest and shoulders, then you can work on them with some simple wrist curls.

3. Find The Sweet Spot

Decline push-ups are designed to be an easier form of standard push-ups, but they’re also incredibly customizable. That versatility means that they’re perfect for folks struggling with military-style push-ups as well as people that are specifically aiming to target their upper chests.

The best way to get the most out of your decline push-ups is to find the sweet spot. You don’t want to hoist your feet up so high that you’re pushing a minimal amount of your body weight, but you don’t want to bring them so close to the floor that you’re just doing a regular push-up. Take the time to experiment in the gym with your foot height until you find something that suits you best.

Don’t Decline the Decline

Decline push-ups are a great way to target extremely specific areas of your body without having to commit to an isolation exercise that will waste the precious limited time you have in the gym for the day.

It’s a great way to challenge your core, your chest, and your delts without having to break out the free weights. You can do them practically anywhere, which is a great way to keep up with your fitness goals when you’re on the road or if you’re not in a place to commit to a gym membership.

As long as you follow our guides and you’re realistic about the amount of work your body can take you’re going to chisel out some perfect pecs and dense delts in no time.