Incline Push-Ups Build the Arm Strength You Need To ‘Drop and Gimme 20’

Photo: Getty Images/zoranm
Recently, our minds were completely blown when trainers told us that you should never, ever do push-ups from your knees. Because apparently, that's a sure-fire way to keep you from building up enough strength to be able to do a standard push-up. But now that our go-to modification is suddenly a no-go, how else are we supposed to build up to mastering the move in full form? Allow us to introduce you to the incline push-up.

What is an incline push-up

"Incline push-ups can serve as a progression towards standard push-ups, helping build strength and improving technique," says trainer and boxing coach Romie Dalal.

Experts In This Article

Incline push-ups make the traditional move more beginner friendly by elevating your hands, which changes the plane you're moving your body from. This gives you more leverage, and lightens the load that you have to lift each time you physically push your chest up.

"Instead of having both your hands and feet grounded on the floor, in an incline push-up, your hands are planted on an elevated surface, such as a box step, weight bench, stair steps, countertop, or racked barbell," says Brianna Bernard, Isopure athlete and personal trainer. "They're easier than regular push-ups because you are lifting less of your own bodyweight and they reduce pressure on your shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints."

The benefits of incline push-ups

Though raising your push-up on top of the platform requires a smaller range of motion than one you'd do on the floor, that doesn't mean it isn't effective. That makes it a great strengthening exercise.

"While the degree of engagement may vary, both incline push-ups and standard push-ups work the same primary muscle groups, with the incline variation placing slightly less emphasis on the chest and front shoulders," Dalal says.

What does an incline push-up work?

The muscles worked in incline push-ups are your deltoids (shoulders) and triceps (back of the arms), and actually work your shoulders and upper chest more than an OG push-up does. In addition to the primary muscles that they hit Bernard adds that incline push-ups require you to engage your abs, low back, glutes, hips and legs, which she says are necessary for maintaining proper form. This becomes especially important as you start to get tired (and ideally work your muscles to exhaustion), as it will keep your mid-body from collapsing and messing with the effectiveness of the move. Another bonus is that "they reduce stress on wrists, elbows, and shoulders, making them joint-friendly," says Dalal.

How to start doing incline push-ups

A general rule to keep in mind: The higher the incline, the easier the push-up will be. That's because the further your chest is from your feet, the smaller your range of motion will be, which means you won't have to move as much weight each time you raise and lower your chest.

"If you are a beginner to incline push-ups, I recommend starting with the highest incline possible," says Bernard. She's a fan of using a set of stairs with your feet on the ground and your hands on the fourth step, then working your way down to the third step, then the second step, then the first step until you're ready to move to floor.

Dalal says that if you follow these five steps, you'll build enough strength to work up to the full standard push-up form.

  1. Choose an appropriate incline that allows proper form and control.
  2. Start with a comfortable number of repetitions and gradually increase over time.
  3. Decrease the incline progressively to make the exercise more challenging.
  4. Increase the number of repetitions and sets as you become comfortable.
  5. Practice proper form, be consistent, and be patient with your progress.\

How many incline push-ups should I do a day?

That question really depends on you and your fitness level. A standard number of reps is 12-15, done three-to-five times. But if doing 3 push-ups at a high incline pushes you to your limit, start there. If you're finding yourself easily completing three sets of 15 incline push-ups, it's time to get lower and decrease that incline.

Proper incline push-up form

With incline push-ups, you'll want to keep the same standard practices in mind as you would for a regular push-up. Squeeze your core, engage your glutes, and try to keep your body in one straight line from your head down to your ankles—avoid raising or lowering your hips, and keep your gaze fixed on the mat.

1. Place your feet on the floor and your hands on an elevated surface (a chair, a table, a bench, a stair) slightly farther apart than your shoulders.

2. Inhale as you bend your elbows to lower your chest down to kiss the bench, keeping your core and glutes engaged to maintain a straight line down the back of your body.

3. Exhale to straighten your arms and push straight up, continuing to squeeze your core and glutes.

4. Repeat until your muscles fatigue.

Common incline push-up mistakes to avoid

There are two golden rules to keep in mind when doing incline push-ups: Maintain proper form, and gradually increase the intensity.

When it comes to form, try to keep your body as ram-rod straight as possible. This means no sagging, arching, or rounding in the back. Keep those hips level! You'll also want to "keep your shoulders down and back to maintain stability and prevent rounding," Dalal says. Finally, make sure you're not cheating yourself, and lowering your chest all the way down, so you get that full range of motion.

In terms of progression, make sure to keep adding reps, and lowering your incline, as the incline push-ups become more doable. However, this should be gradual: Don't sacrifice form for the desire to move on to the next level of difficulty.

"If you're able to complete multiple sets without feeling challenged, it may be time to increase the difficulty by adjusting the exercise variation, such as decreasing the incline, moving from knee push-ups to standard push-ups, or exploring other advanced variations," Dalal says. "Practice proper form, be consistent, and be patient with your progress."

Push-up variations

Once you've perfected the art of the incline push-up, there are a number of other push-up variations you can try in order to amplify the move and work different muscles. Try one of these moves, listed here from easiest to most challenging.

1. Traditional push-up

There's a reason why the traditional push-up has stood the test of time as a fitness class staple. It works your chest, shoulders, and core, and challenges you to move the weight of your entire body. Start in a high plank position, then inhale as you bend your elbows to lower your chest to the floor, squeezing your abs and glutes to keep your body in a straight line (be sure not to raise your butt or drop your hips, as it will prevent you from reaping the full benefits of the move). Exhale to push back up to start.

2. Tricep push-up

To fire up an entirely different set of upper-body muscles, drop down into a tricep push-up. Lower down to the floor keeping your elbows close to your body (instead of going out to the side, the way they would in a regular push-up), until they’re parallel to your shoulders. Straighten your arms to push back up, keeping your abs engaged, your hips directly in line with your shoulders, and your tailbone tucked in.

3. Decline push-up

Instead of placing your hands on a raised surface, decline push-ups require you to raise your feet. "Decline push-ups work more the upper back, core, and upper chest, and are harder than incline push-ups," says Smith. Place your feet on top of an elevated surface (a chair, a bench, stairs, a coffee table) and your hands slightly farther apart than your shoulders. Inhale as you bend your elbows to lower your chest down to the floor until your nose nearly touches the mat, engaging your glutes and core to keep your body in a straight line and moving as a single unit. Exhale to straighten your arms and push back up.

4. Spiderman push-up

Touted as the "impossible push-up," Spiderman push-ups up the ante on the move by challenging your obliques. As you lower down into a standard push-up from the floor, pull your knee toward your elbow to crunch your side body. Return to start, then repeat on the other side.

5. Explosive push-ups

One way to raise the intensity (and your body) in a push-up is by adding an explosive element.

"Coming from a boxing background, I keep my elbows close to my body when I do push ups to simulate throwing a punch, [and] I also add an explosive element by pushing up as hard as I can so my hands briefly come off the ground," Dalal says. "I do these to help generate explosive power."

6. One-armed push-ups

Keeping your whole body in a straight line while lowering yourself up and down becomes way harder when you take away 1/4 of the limbs that are enabling you to do that.

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.

Loading More Posts...