Decline Push-Ups vs. Regular Push-Ups

Close up portrait of a smiling man doing push ups
The push-up is a staple in any workout routine. (Image: m-imagephotography/iStock/Getty Images)

If you're going to do just one exercise ever, the push-up should be it. It teaches your muscles to work in coordination, strengthens your upper body and core and is fuss-free enough to do just about anywhere. A regular push-up may get boring over time, however, so add in variations.

One variation that changes up how the push-up affects your upper body muscles is the decline push-up. You elevate your legs on a surface that's usually 12 to 20 inches off the floor and place your hands on the floor, by your armpits and slightly wider than shoulder-distance apart. From this angle, you then perform a classic push-up movement by bending and extending your elbows.

A decline variation targets your upper chest and fronts of shoulders more aggressively than a regular push-up performed on level ground. Perform it in addition to a regular push-up -- as well as with other chest exercises -- to get the most well-rounded chest development.

Attractive young man is exercising outdoors. He is doing push-ups on the staircase.
Steps, a workout bench or riser, create a decline. (Image: Milenko Bokan/iStock/Getty Images)

Where Your Chest Develops

The pectoralis major is a fan-like muscle that makes up the chest wall. The upper portion of this muscle is known as the clavicular region and the middle-to-lower portion is the sternal region. Being angled down in a decline puts more weight and emphasis on the clavicular head of the chest. A regular push-up emphasizes the sternal portion of the pectoralis major primarily. The clavicular region is still activated, but not as intensely as it is in the decline variation.

The more dramatic the angle, the greater the activation of the upper chest region. But, if you elevate too high, so that you're close to or in a handstand position, the shoulders do the primary work as you push up and down; the chest only assists.

Shoulder Activation

In addition to increasing activation of the upper chest, decline push-ups also force the fronts of your shoulders -- known as the anterior deltoids -- to work more intensely than they will in a regular push-up. This makes decline push-ups an effective shoulder exercise.

Form Considerations

Both a regular push-up and a decline push-up call for a rigid torso, which is achieved by strongly bracing your abs. If your hips sag or hike upward, you lose a big benefit of both types of push-ups -- serious activation of your core.

Who's It For?

A person just starting out exercising should master the regular push-up before attempting a decline push-up. With a regular push-up, you can easily modify the move, so that you don't break form, such as by putting your knees down or pushing up against a wall or incline. A decline push-up doesn't come with such modification -- if you put your knees down, you've lost the angle.

Complementary Exercises

For an evenly developed chest, include the regular push-up and decline push-up in your workouts. Other exercises that the American Council on Exercise found of most benefit for chest development include:

  • Bench Presses
  • Bent-Forward Cable Crossovers
  • Pec Deck Machine
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