How to Use Incline or Decline to Prevent a Workout Plateau

If you're a creature of habit and enjoy sticking with some tried-and-true exercises or running routines, you may find yourself in a plateau before long. Luckily, you don't have to abandon the workouts you know and love. All you need to do is change one little thing that'll make a world of difference.

The incline bench press is a great exercise to add some variety to your chest exercises. (Image: Jun/iStock/GettyImages)

Adding incline or decline to strength-training exercises or running sessions can add variety to your routine, change up your muscle recruitment, build overall strength and help you push past that plateau. Next time you hit the weight room or fire up the treadmill, try these incline and decline varieties to get more from your go-to routine.

Using Incline and Decline in Strength Training

If you're already well-established in a strength-training routine, increasing the incline on the bench while strength training is a great tool for making exercises more challenging, says SJ McShane, certified personal trainer. Because using incline or decline distributes the weight differently, your body has to use other stabilizing muscles that aren't usually targeted when lying flat.

Especially if you've been repeating the same exercises for a while, using incline or decline can help you increase your strength and avoid a plateau. If you feel comfortable testing these out, McShane recommends switching up your angles for only one or two sets to start of the exercises listed below, then gradually adding more.

Warning

These progressions can be challenging and are best for more advanced lifters, so make sure you have a solid foundation of strength and can do the regular, flat versions of these exercises with proper form first.

1. Incline Bench Press

  1. Increase the incline of your bench just slightly at first.
  2. Set your grip on the barbell at a distance wider than shoulder width, keeping your pinky fingers within the rings marked on the barbell.
  3. Wrap your thumbs completely around the bar.
  4. Place your feet on the floor, directly under your knees and point your feet straight or angled out at 45 degrees.
  5. Un-rack the bar and bring it directly out directly over your clavicle at chest height.
  6. Contract your glutes (don't lift them off the bench) and drive your feet into the ground as you press the weight up and slightly back toward your face.
  7. Press until your elbows lock out and the bar is back at the starting position.

Tip

McShane recommends starting with a lower weight than you use on a flat bench, as your muscles aren't adapted to this angle. This can help prevent injury.

2. Incline Dumbbell Fly

  1. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, sit on a bench inclined at 45 degrees and rest a dumbbell on each thigh.
  2. Lie back and bring the dumbbells into position over your chest, one at a time.
  3. Slightly bend your elbows and internally rotate your shoulders so your elbows point out to the sides and palms face each other.
  4. Lower the dumbbells to the sides of your chest in an arcing motion until you feel a mild stretch (not pull or pain) in your chest or shoulders.
  5. Exhale as you reverse the motion and press the dumbbells back to start.

3. Decline Push-Up

  1. Start in a plank position with your wrists under your shoulders and your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Place your feet on top of a step or bench so your body angles downward.
  3. Bend your elbows and lower your chest until it's just above the floor.
  4. On an exhale, push back into the starting position.

4. Decline Barbell Bench Press

  1. Secure your legs at the end of the decline bench and slowly lie down on the bench.
  2. Use a medium-width grip (a grip that will create a 90-degree angle between the forearms and upper arms at the bottom of the movement).
  3. Lift the bar from the rack and hold it straight over you with your arms locked. Your arms should be perpendicular to the floor. This is the starting position.
  4. As you breathe in, bring the bar down slowly until you feel the bar on your lower chest.
  5. Pause for a second and bring the bar back to start on an exhale, using your chest muscles to push the weight.
  6. Lock your arms and squeeze your chest in the contracted position, hold for a second and then repeat.

Tip

In order to protect your rotator cuff (shoulder), it's best if you have a spotter to help you lift the barbell off the rack before you begin the exercise, McShane says. It should take at least twice as long to bring the bar down as to press it back up.

Using Incline and Decline in Running

Incline and decline modifications aren't only reserved for strength training. You can use incline or decline while running outside or on the treadmill to improve your performance. Elevating the incline on your treadmill is great for activating your hamstrings, while decline running can improve your overall muscle control, says Meg Takacs, trainer at Performix House and creator of the #RunWithMeg app.

Treadmill running can be a quad-dominant exercise, as the pace is constant, Takacs says, whereas with outdoor running, your gait conforms to more of a pulling motion, recruiting your hamstrings. For this reason, increasing the incline on your treadmill can help target the muscles that go largely neglected and potentially imbalanced.

Running on an incline is also great for improving your power and increasing your lung capacity. Takacs loves hill repeats, as they allow you to push your power and lungs on the incline and recover on the downhill. On the decline, be sure to slow your pace and increase your step frequency. Focus on landing softly to protect your knees and hips, she says.

30-Minute Incline Treadmill Run

  1. For the first 10 minutes, jog on no incline at a conversational, easy pace.
  2. For the next 10 minutes, set your incline to 10. Alternate between walking one minute at 2.5 miles per hour and running one minute at 6.0 miles per hour. Repeat this sequence for five rounds.
  3. For the final 10 minutes, perform five one-minute sprints on no incline, followed by a one-minute walk between each sprint interval.
  4. Cool down with 5 to 10 minutes of walking and static stretching.

"I love this type of workout because people fly on the sprints after doing the hill work," Takacs says. By improving your power and stamina, incline sprints will prime you for more effective sprinting on flat ground.

40-Minute Decline Hill Run

  1. For the first 10 minutes, jog at an easy pace with no incline or decline.
  2. For the next 20 minutes, alternate between running uphill at a sustainable pace for two minutes at a moderate incline, followed by two minutes at a moderate decline. Repeat this sequence 5 times.
  3. For the final 10 minutes, perform five 60-second sprint intervals with no incline or decline, following each interval with a minute walk.
  4. Cool down with 5 to 10 minutes of walking and static stretching.
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