How to Do a Decline Pushup

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Decline push up
 Patrik Giardino/Corbis/Getty Images

Targets: Chest, arms, shoulders, core

Equipment Needed: Bench or step

Level: Advanced

A decline pushup is an advanced variation of the basic pushup that increases the difficulty significantly by placing your feet higher than your hands. Adjusting the bench height allows you to customize the intensity of your workout using just your body weight. All you need is a bench, step, or some other solid object you can rest your feet on. Adding this exercise to your upper body strength training routine is a nice alternative to performing a basic pushup.

Benefits

The decline push up is an advanced upper body exercise that targets the muscles of the chest, shoulders, back, and arms. In addition, maintaining the proper rigid body position requires a fair amount of strength and stability through the entire core, legs, and back.

The pectoralis major is the prime target of this exercise, however, the height of the bench slightly changes the focus. A higher bench engages the clavicular head of the pectoralis major, but not the sternal head of pec major. A lower bench focuses on the sternal head of pec major, but it also engages the clavicular head of pec major as a synergist and helps with the movement. Other synergistic muscles that are active during the decline push up include the anterior deltoid and the triceps brachii.

Raising your feet up a bit slightly changes the angle of movement, providing a slightly different range of motion. This minor change works the muscles in a whole new way. The decline pushup is one of many different ways you can modify a pushup.

The functional fitness you develop with pushups will serve you well in pushing motions throughout daily life. As pushups develop the stabilizer muscles around the shoulders, they may help protect you from rotator cuff injuries.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Warm up the shoulders and elbows by performing a few (five to 10) basic pushups in a smooth and steady motion, practicing good core stability and alignment.

Choose the height of the decline. This can be as low as an inch or two or as high as 1 to 2 feet. Going much higher than that can compromise your form, so be careful if you want to lift your feet up to waist high or more.

  1. Start on your hands and knees, place your hands on the ground, about shoulder width or a little wider. Be careful not to have them too wide or you will severely limit your range of motion on the descent. Carefully move your feet in position by extending your body, and propping your feet up on the bench, or step, one at a time. Realign your body so that it is in a straight line for shoulders to hips to toes, without sagging or arching at the hips. Reposition your hands if necessary, making sure your elbows are extended.
  2. Lower your chest by bending your elbows. Maintain an aligned body position and use a smooth controlled motion. As you lower to the ground, you will need to look up slightly to allow full range of motion and avoid banging your nose or forehead on the ground. As soon as you lift your head, you will want to arch your back but resist this temptation. Arching your back during this move is not helpful and could set you up for an injury.
  3. Push up until your elbows are straight, but not locked, returning to the start position.
  1. Repeat as many reps as you can do without compromising your form. When you can't complete another high-quality repetition, stop.

Common Mistakes

It is easy to start making errors with pushups. Look for these and switch to an easier variation if you can't maintain the best form.

Sagging in the Middle

If you don't keep your core braced and torso stiff you will sag and this can lead to back pain. This is a sign that you haven't built enough core strength. Use the modified plank to build core strength and practice easier forms of pushups.

Neck Alignment

While you will need to tilt your head up slightly to get a full range of motion, keep this movement as small as possible. You want your neck to be in neutral alignment with your spine as much as possible to prevent neck strain.

Locked Elbows

Always keep a slight bend in the elbows. Locking your elbows at the top of the movement places too much stress on the joints and can lead to strain or injury.

Hands Too Far Forward

Your hands should be under your shoulders. You will put strain on your shoulders if they are farther out from your body.

Limited Range of Motion

You won't get the full benefit from the exercise if you only go down partially. It is better to switch to an easier modification (such as knee pushups, incline pushups, or wall pushups) that you can do with the full range of motion.

Modifications and Variations

Whether you are a beginner or you need more challenges, there is a pushup for you.

Need a Modification?

If you are having trouble maintaining proper body alignment, you should not begin decline pushups. Keep working until you can do about 20 perfect basic pushups. Then you are ready to tackle the decline style. If not, consider taking the pushup test and find out just how your upper body strength measures up.

If you are finding it too difficult to achieve good form, reduce the height or go back to the basics until you build up. Incline or wall pushups are the easiest, then bent knee pushups, then standard pushups.

Up for a Challenge?

If your decline pushup is too easy, add some height. You can also vary how far apart you place your hands to get different effects on your muscles.

Try these pushup variations for increased difficulty and to work your muscles in different ways:

  • Stability ball pushups: This is an incline pushup with your hands on a stability ball.
  • Medicine ball pushup: Perform a standard pushup with one hand on top of a medicine ball. This works the shoulder in a slightly different range of motion which increases shoulder stability.
  • Alternating medicine ball pushup: This variation adds core stability as well as a modified range of motion during the basic pushup movement. Roll the medicine ball between each hand after a rep and add a new balance challenge.
  • Clapping pushup: This is a plyometric exercise in which you push yourself up with enough power so that your hands come off the floor and you clap in midair.

Safety and Precautions

You should not do pushups if you have a shoulder, wrist, or elbow injury. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist to see if this is an appropriate exercise. If you want to protect your wrists, you can place your hands on dumbbells or pushup bars to keep them in neutral position. If you feel shoulder pain during the pushup or hear a clicking noise in your shoulder, end the exercise.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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