The push-up may be as close to a perfect exercise as it gets. You don’t need equipment, you can do them anywhere, and when done correctly, they work muscles throughout your body (not just in your chest and arms).
If you have trouble banging out at least 10 consecutive reps of the classic push-up with good form (hands in line with shoulders, body straight, elbows tucked, chest to within a few inches of the floor), then the typical advice is to drop to your knees. There’s only one problem with that.
“The knee push-up doesn’t work the same muscles in the same way as the classic push-up,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content. “So it doesn’t help you build the strength you need to eventually progress to the classic push-up.”
A better option: The incline push-up. Like the knee push-up, it’s an easier variation of the classic exercise. But because it shares the same body position and movement pattern with the classic push up, it works the same muscles in a similar way.
It’s also more adaptable to your current fitness level. “The greater the angle of your body to the ground, the easier the exercise becomes,” says Thieme.” As you become stronger, you can move your hands progressively closer to the floor.”
How to Do the Incline Push-up with Perfect Form
- Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart on a bench or other stable, elevated surface, and assume a high plank position with your feet together and body straight from head to heels.
- Keeping your back flat and core engaged, lower your chest to within a few inches of the bench.
- Pause, and then push yourself back up to starting position.
How to Make the Incline Push-up Easier (or Harder)
There are several ways to modify or progress the incline push-up.
Change the angle
As noted above, you can perform incline push-ups at nearly any angle: the steeper the incline, the easier the move becomes. People new to strength training can even perform the incline push-up with their hands on the vertical surface of a wall.
Change the tempo
The slower you perform any exercise — including the incline push-up — the greater your muscles’ time under tension will be, and the more challenging the exercise will become. Try taking three to four seconds to lower your body, and see if you don’t agree.
Add Some Instability
To increase the challenge to your balance and core, lift one foot off of the ground as you perform the move, alternating legs every rep. Another option: Place your hands on a stability ball instead of a stable surface.
Want a serious challenge? Push yourself up as fast and hard as possible, perhaps even with enough force for your hands to leave the bench for a split-second. In so doing, you’ll work your type II muscle fibers (which have the most growth potential) even harder.
Benefits of the Incline Push-up
As mentioned previously, incline push-ups work the same muscles as classic push-ups, but are easier to perform, making them more accessible to beginners. Also like classic push-ups, they hammer a muscle group that typically gets off easy with other chest exercises like the bench press: your core. Indeed, you can even think of the incline push-up as a plank variation, as both exercises (plank and push-up) share the same starting position.
What Muscles Does the Incline Push-up Work?
Chief among the muscles worked by the incline push-up are the pecs. The larger of the two, the pectoralis major, has three primary functions: To raise your upper arms, to rotate them inward, and to bring them toward the midline of your body (like when you clap or hug). Located underneath the pec major is the pectoralis minor, which helps draw the shoulder blade forward and downward.
Your shoulder joints are each controlled primarily by the deltoid and the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that helps stabilize the shoulder joint. The deltoid sits on top of the rotator cuff, giving your shoulders their size, definition, strength, and power.
The triceps brachii are the muscles found on the backs of your upper arms, and which connect your shoulder blade (scapula) to your upper arm (humerus) and forearm. Together they straighten your elbow.
Distinguishing the push-up from other chest-centric moves like the bench press and fly is its engagement of the core muscles, principally the rectus abdominis (i.e., “abs”). This sheet of muscle extending from the bottom of your rib cage to the top of your pelvis pulls your chest toward your hips, and vice versa. Also involved in the incline push-up are the internal and external obliques flanking your torso, the transverse abdominis (embedded beneath the rectus), and the spinal erectors of the lower back.