Incline Push-Ups Are a Safer and More Effective Modification Than Knee Push-Ups

Person in workout clothes doing an incline push-up on a box outdoors
An incline push-up challenges the same muscles as a traditional push-up, but it takes the pressure off your shoulders and wrists.
Image Credit: brizmaker/iStock/GettyImages

The push-up is one of the best body-weight exercises out there — but it's also one of the most difficult. The incline push-up is a variation that's easier for beginners and even avid exercisers who can't nail the move just yet.

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What makes doing a push-up on an incline a great alternative is that it works the same muscles as the traditional exercise, so getting strong in this position will directly translate into doing the full, parallel-to-the-ground move.

  • What is an incline push-up?​ It's a push-up variation done on an incline, such as a box, bench, chair or counter. The incline push-up muscles targeted are the same as the traditional push-up, but the incline push-up emphasizes your lower chest and puts less pressure on your shoulders. It's a great move to do if you're working up to a standard push-up. You can do incline push-ups at home or at the gym.
  • Are incline push-ups harder than regular push-ups?​ Nope, they're easier than full push-ups! Increasing the angle of your body to the floor takes some of the weight out of your upper body, so you can focus on form and get stronger before adding more of a challenge. The lower the incline, the harder it gets. Decline push-ups, where you elevate your feet and keep your hands on the floor, are even more challenging than normal push-ups. (More on the differences between these two exercises below!)
  • What are incline push-ups good for?​ "This move is perfect for beginners, older people and anyone struggling to use full range of motion or those who are only able to perform one or a few reps with proper form before reaching muscle fatigue," Peri Lindh, CPT, a certified personal trainer at Parker Cote Elite Fitness in Boston, tells LIVESTRONG. "Additionally, they are great for anyone who might have an elbow or shoulder impingement, requiring them to minimize or reduce the amount of stress placed on the joint."

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How to Do an Incline Push-Up With Proper Form

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Skill Level All Levels
Activity Body-Weight Workout
  1. Stand facing a chair, bench, box or any other elevated surface with your hands flat on it.
  2. Walk your feet back until your body is at about a 45-degree angle and in one long line. Your shoulders should be stacked over your wrists.
  3. Tightening your glutes and quads and bracing your core, bend your elbows so they are moving in toward your ribcage — not out laterally from your shoulders — and lower yourself as close to the chair as possible while keeping your spine in one straight line.
  4. Press your hands firmly on the chair and push yourself back up to the starting position.

Watch the Full Tutorial

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Incline Push-Up vs. Decline Push-Up: Which Is a Harder Exercise?

While an incline push-up is an easier modification, a reverse incline push-up, most commonly called a decline push-up, is a harder variation of the move.

The decline variation targets your upper chest and the front of your shoulders more aggressively than a regular push-up performed on the ground. The incline push-up does the opposite, targeting your lower chest a bit more and taking some heat off your shoulders.

A beginner should work on perfecting the incline push-up, then a regular push-up before attempting a decline push-up.

3 Incline Push-Up Benefits

1. It Modifies the Push-Up

The incline push-up is probably the most highly recommended push-up modification. While some trainers say push-ups on your knees are OK, others note that the incline push-up better mimics the motion of a full push-up and is therefore a superior modification.

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The reason they work so well all comes down to physics.

"Performing push-ups on an incline allows you to control the angle, and therefore significantly reduce the amount of weight that is applied," Lindh says. "The higher the incline, the less weight your upper body has to support and push against gravity. This allows you to nail down form and tune into the proper muscle groups while executing a push-up as you continue to progress technique and adjust the height of incline."

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When you can bang out a bunch of reps with good form, it's time to slightly decrease that incline to make the move more challenging. Eventually, you'll be able to eliminate the incline altogether.

2. It Takes Pressure Off Your Shoulders

Incline push-ups engage your lower chest muscles slightly more than the standard move, Lindh says. They also take a little pressure off the front of your shoulders and your triceps, making them great for anyone who finds a full push-up just too hard.

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"They are also great for anyone who might have an elbow or shoulder impingement, requiring them to minimize or reduce the amount of stress placed on these joints," Lindh says.

If you have wrist pain with push-ups, you may also find the incline push-up feels a little better than a standard push-up.

3. It's a Compound, Total-Body Movement

"The incline push-up is a compound movement, meaning it works multiple muscle groups at once," Lindh says. "It primarily targets your chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) while also recruiting your shoulders (deltoids) and arms (triceps) to help," she adds.

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But wait, there's more! The incline push-up also engages your entire core, including your abs, glutes and back if you're doing it right — maintaining a natural spine and not arching your back.

How to Choose an Incline Push-Up Height

The best height for incline push-ups depends on your current strength. In general, the higher the incline, the less weight applied and therefore the easier the movement, Lindh says.

“If you are totally unsure of where to start, a good gauge of strength might be to start at a 45-degree angle, and aim to perform around 8 to 12 reps with good form,” she recommends. “If this is not possible, you know right away that a higher angle will be better suited until you gain more strength. If you can perform the reps with ease, you might try lowering the angle and going from there.”

Like most strength-training moves, you want to feel challenged but not so challenged that you can’t do the move with good form.

3 Incline Push-Up Tips for Better Results

1. Line Up Your Chest With the Surface Edge

"Before you begin, you want to make sure your body is shifted far enough forward and over the edge of the incline you're using," Lindh says. "If your weight is shifted back too far, or you are set up too low, your chest will not align with the edge at the bottom of the rep."

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Do one rep and check where your chest ends up in relation to the surface.

"If you find that the edge is, in fact, closer to your collar bones or neck when you reach the bottom, you have to move forward more," Lindh says.

If your chest is too far behind the surface, it can put unwanted stress on your shoulders and elbows — and also won't engage your chest as fully, Lindh says.

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2. Engage Your Core

"When it comes to form, one of the most important things to keep in mind is beginning the movement with intentional abdominal engagement and maintaining that core stability throughout the duration of your reps," Lindh says. "Performing any type of push-up with a weak or relaxed core will lead to arching or dipping of your back. This puts unnecessary strain on your spine and can cause a shortened range of motion."

To practice engaging your core, get into a plank. In this position, you can get the hang of core engagement before applying it to a moving plank — aka a push-up. Before every rep of your incline push-up, brace your core first and foremost.

3. Find Your Best Incline

If the angle of your incline is too low, the move will be too difficult and you might hurt yourself by doing it with poor form.

"You will not get the strength-gain benefits of the move if you are continuously performing with incorrect form," Lindh says.

If the incline is too high, you won't challenge yourself — which is what you need to do to progress and get stronger over time.

"Just like with weighted movements, you want to find that proper 'weight,' or in this case incline, that is just challenging enough to have you really trying hard with all of your reps, while always maintaining form," Lindh says.

Can I Do Incline Push-Ups Every Day?

Doing push-ups every day won't give your muscles enough time to recover and generally isn't recommended. The same rules apply to incline push-ups. It's best to work on this exercise 1 to 2 nonconsecutive days per week so you don't overtax your muscles and cause a potential injury.

An Incline Push-Up Modification to Make the Move Easier

Wall push-ups are a great alternative to incline push-ups because they make the exercise easier and put less pressure on your wrists while helping you hone in on your form

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Skill Level Beginner
Activity Body-Weight Workout
  1. Stand arm's distance from a sturdy wall with your feet under your hips.
  2. Place your palms on the wall, shoulder-width apart at shoulder height. This is the starting position.
  3. Bend your elbows and bring your chest toward the wall. Keep your elbows pointing away from your body at a 45-degree angle, rather than out to the side.
  4. Press back to the starting position.

An Incline Push-Up Progression to Increase the Challenge

If you're ready to level up your incline push-ups, consider doing a stability ball push-up. This variation works your shoulders and chest while challenging your core to keep your body from falling to the sides.

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Skill Level Intermediate
Activity Body-Weight Workout
  1. Begin in a high plank with your hands pressed into the ball, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lower your chest to the ball, elbows at a 45-degree angle from your ribs.
  3. Try to tap your chest on the ball if possible but don't rest your body on the ball.
  4. Push into the ball to return to the starting position.

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