Because you’re working more than one muscle (or group of muscles) at a time, push-ups are considered a compound exercise. While doing them, you’re working the deltoids, located on the tops of your shoulders, pectoral muscles in the chest, triceps and biceps (front and back of upper arms), glutes and hip muscles, as well the erector spinae, which are the long, rope-like muscles of the back that run up and down the sides of the spine. As a result, push-ups give you a full-body workout in less time, keeps your heart rate up and generally burns more calories than exercises that don’t recruit as many muscles.
- Katie Kollath, CPT, co-founder of Barpath Fitness
Learn to pull off the perfect push-up from certified trainer Charlee Atkins:
Given their versatility, you can make push-ups a part of any bodyweight exercise session, circuit training workout, or strength workout. Plus, modifications and progressions allow you to make them easier or harder, so you can work on them no matter your fitness level. For more advanced exercisers, if you’re looking for a challenge, try a decline push-up, a 2.0 take on the classic move that’ll place more emphasis on your shoulders and arms.
What’s a decline push-up?
By placing your feet higher than your hands, you increase the difficulty, explains Katie Kollath, certified trainer and co-founder of Barpath Fitness, based in Colorado. She also says it improves shoulder mobility as it allows you to access an increased range of motion. “This change in stimulus and increased range of motion can recruit additional muscle fibers and increase strength and muscle mass gains,” Kollath explains. The higher you elevate your feet, the more difficult this workout becomes. When it gets too easy for you, increase the angle of decline.
How to do a proper decline push-up
Performing a proper decline push-up requires a bench, chair, step, or other solid object to place your feet on—the prop can be as low or as high as you want, but consider going small at first and increasing the angle of decline as you get stronger.
How to: Start in a high plank with your feet on your prop and wrists under shoulders or slightly wider. “Think about your feet as the pivot point and the rest of your body as the lever that moves together as one unit,” Kollath says. Bend your elbows to lower your body toward the floor, and when you hit your lowest point, press the floor away with your palms to return to the starting position.
To effectively work your muscles, push-ups, like all exercises, require proper form. “Common mistakes include shooting the hips up first when you’re pressing away from the floor, Kollath says. “The hips and shoulders should rise at the same time. On the flip side, dropping the belly down and having too much of an arch in the lower back is another common issue. It’s important to find a solid position that’s close to a neutral spine.”
If your stomach is sagging and you’re having a hard time engaging your core, that’s a sign that you may not being strong enough to do decline push-ups. In that case: “Master the regular push-up first,” Kollath suggests.
Decline push-up variations
If you’ve already mastered the decline push-up, lucky for you, there are more difficult variations to choose from.
- Stability ball decline push-up. Elevating your feet on an unstable surface will make your core have to work harder to keep you from tipping over.
- Single-leg decline push-up. Lifting one leg a few inches into the air increases the stability challenge even more and also requires more effort from your obliques to keep your torso squared toward the floor.
- Single-arm decline push-up. Performing push-ups with only one are will also challenge your core more (especially your obliques) as well as increasing the load for your working shoulder and helping it build more strength.
- Decline clap push-up. When pushing back up from the floor, do so with enough force to raise your hands into the air and clap them together in front of your chest before performing another rep. Now only with this help you build power, but it’ll elevate your heart rate more, too.
No matter your fitness level or fitness goals, you can make push-up variations, like the decline push-up, work for you.
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