Among upper-body exercises, the bench press gets all the love. Sonnets have been written extolling its virtues. If you want, you can buy a T-shirt proclaiming that you “enjoy long romantic walks to the bench press.” But no such T-shirts exist for the lowly push-up, or its more challenging first cousin, the decline push-up (aka feet-elevated push-up). And that’s too bad, because decline push-ups are among the best chest builders there are — rivaling even the much-adored bench press and all its variations.
For stronger, more advanced exercisers, the decline push-up is the natural progression of the flat version. “When you elevate your feet, you throw more weight onto your hands, forcing you to lift a greater proportion of your body weight with each rep,” says Openfit fitness specialist Cody Braun.
Mess around with tempo, range of motion, and explosiveness, and you’ll have enough challenging variations to last a long time. Add weighted vests, resistance bands, and other forms of external resistance, and the decline push-up can challenge even the strongest lifters for life.
How to Do the Decline Push-Up With Perfect Form
- Assume a standard push-up position with your hands on the floor and your feet elevated on a sturdy bench or box. Your arms should be straight, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, and body straight from head to heels.
- Keeping your body straight and core engaged, slowly lower your chest as close to the floor as possible.
- Return to the starting position.
How to Make the Decline Push-Up Harder (and Easier)
Yet another sign of push-up greatness: versatility. Just check out all the ways you can adjust the difficulty of the move.
1. Change the angle
Let’s say you’ve built sufficient strength to pump out 15 good push-ups in a row. You don’t have to position yourself in a steep angle. Elevate your feet just 4 inches — an aerobic step works well for this purpose — and build your way up in the new position. Once you can do 15 reps with your feet elevated 18 inches, move on to a new strategy.
2. Change the tempo
One minor downside to push-ups: People tend to bounce out of the low position. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily — learning to be “springy” is another aspect of fitness — but it does place less work on the muscle. If your goal is strength and size, increase time under tension by slowing your descent to 3–4 seconds, then push yourself back up. Twelve of those will smoke just about anyone.
3. Change the base of support
In the early 2000s, “unstable surface training” was all the rage: Everyone was performing their squats, deadlifts, and curls on a wobble board, Bosu ball, or Swiss ball. The trend, shown to slow improvements in lower-body strength among healthy athletes, passed quickly.
But instability still has its place: In the decline push-up, you can increase the core challenge by performing the move with one leg lifted (alternate legs with each set or each rep), by placing your hand on a Bosu ball (use the flat surface), or both. We don’t recommend using a Swiss ball with this movement — the risk of injury is too great.
4. Change the resistance
Think you’ve mastered the decline push-up? Add resistance. This is easier than you think: Put a resistance band across your back like you’re wearing a backpack. then assume the decline push-up position with your hands on the handles. The band will tighten progressively as you complete the move, improving your “lockout” strength.
Another option: Perform the move with a weighted vest or backpack, or some other form of weight on your back. Got small kids? Have them cling to your back as you do the move. Keep it up, and by the time they’re teenagers, you’ll be a superhero.
Benefits of the Decline Push-Up
You get all of the following without a single piece of equipment. No barbell, no kettlebell, no cable-crossover monstrosity. You don’t even need shoes. You can do decline push-ups anywhere there’s gravity, an elevated surface, and enough floor space to lie down.
By doing the decline push-up, you’re refining a skill you need every day of your life. Pushing yourself up from a flat surface is among the first movements you learn as a baby, and probably one of the last ones you’ll need before you shuffle off this mortal coil. This functional movement is step one in our evolution from belly crawlers to bipeds.
It activates the core and improves posture
The decline push-up is also a great multitasker. Not only do you work the pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, and triceps), you also work the core. Retract your head as you perform the move (as if making a double chin) and pull your shoulder blades together, and you’ll fire up your postural muscles, too.
Speaking of the shoulder blades, the decline push-up encourages them to move — something that’s essential for shoulder health. Bench pressing effectively glues your shoulder blades in place, so that when you lower the weight, all the movement occurs at the shoulder joint. Over time, that could be a problem.
What Muscles Does the Decline Push-Up Work?
There are two major muscles comprising your chest: The pectoralis major is the one you can see; it pulls your arms toward your body’s midline, helps raise them in front of you, and rotates them inward. Lying underneath the pec major is the pectoralis minor; it draws the shoulder blades down and forward. The decline push-up in particular targets your pectorals, increasingly emphasizing the upper, or clavicular, head of the pec major the higher you elevate your feet.
Occupying roughly two-thirds of your upper-arm musculature, the tricep is one muscle with three heads (hence the “tri” prefix): long, medial, and lateral. It’s responsible for straightening your elbows, which is central to pressing movements like the decline push-up.
These are the muscles surrounding and supporting the shoulder, which is the body’s most mobile joint. That makes developing and strengthening the muscle’s three heads — anterior, lateral, and posterior — vitally important. The decline push-up emphasizes the anterior fibers of the deltoid.