So, you’re ready to strengthen your upper body but aren’t quite strong enough for traditional push-ups?
This is actually quite common, so don’t feel embarrassed!
I’ve coached dozens of clients on how to do them, and the incline push-up is a fantastic stepping stone (or complete replacement) for the standard push-up.
So, what is an incline push-up? An incline push-up is a push-up variation that places your body at a more vertical angle. It works your lower chest, front delts, serratus anterior, and triceps. Compared to traditional push-ups, the incline push-up is easier because you lift a lower percentage of your body weight.
In this article, I’ll teach you everything you need to go from rookie to rockstar on the incline push-up, including:
- What is an incline push-up?
- Incline push-ups muscles worked
- How to do it
- Benefits & drawbacks
- Mistakes to avoid
- Best variations
If you’re feeling so inclined, let’s push on to get you a stronger upper body!
Incline Push-Up: Overview
Incline push-ups (sometimes called leaning push-ups) are like regular push-ups, but they’re performed from an elevated surface instead of from the floor.
Doing them at an incline makes you lift less of your body weight when compared to traditional push-ups. Because of this, the incline push-up is easier.
How To Do Incline Push-Ups With Proper Form
When it comes to how to do incline push-ups, it ain’t rocket science.
That said, there’s a specific order that I recommend you follow for safety.
Step 1: Find an elevated surface
To perform the incline push-up, you need an elevated surface. I know, complete shocker there.
Common choices tend to be a sturdy bench or step. No matter what you choose, start with a surface height that’s between your hip and your mid-chest.
Doing this makes it challenging enough while ensuring that you can actually, you know, push back up.
Step 2: Place your grip
Next, place your grip.
This is pretty straightforward. Just put the heels of your open palms against the raised surface, with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
Step 3: Step back into a plank position
Keeping your hands on the raised surface with your arms straight, walk your feet backward until your body is in a plank-like position.
You should be on the balls of your feet, and your body should be in a straight line when looking from the side.
Step 4: Lower yourself
When you’re ready, start bending your elbows to lower yourself toward the elevated surface.
Descend under control until your chest makes light contact against it.
Step 5: Push back up
Lastly, think about pushing the elevated surface away from you to return to the starting position.
Your rep is considered complete once you’re back to the top in the plank position with straight elbows.
Repeat for as many reps as you’d like.
Incline Push-Up: Muscles Worked
You might be wondering, what do incline push-ups work?
There’s actually a bit of confusion out there relating to the muscles targeted from incline push-ups, so let’s clear that up now.
The incline push-up muscles worked include the following:
- Lower pectorals. Your lower pecs, which make up part of your chest muscles, are the main muscle group worked during the incline push-up. The angle of incline push-ups makes it so that the lower fibers of your pectorals are the main driver.
- Serratus anterior. The serratus anterior is a little fan-shaped muscle on either side of your ribcage and helps protract your shoulder blades during the movement. Despite its smaller size compared to your pecs, it’s also a prime mover in the incline push-up.
- Triceps. Your triceps are located on the back of your arm and are a main muscle group targeted with the incline push-up. They assist in extending your elbow so you can return to the top.
- Front deltoids. The muscles at the front of your shoulders (also called “delts”) are the primary shoulder muscles working during the incline push-up.
- Core (abs and low back). Incline push-ups activate your core as well. When I say “core,” I mean the muscles of your abs and low back. If they weren’t active, your body would sag like a wet spaghetti noodle.
Incline Push-Up Benefits
The incline push-up has a bunch of benefits. Let’s explore them now.
It Can Grow Your Upper Body
The incline push-up is a great way to build your upper body.
Since it works your chest, shoulders, and triceps, those will be the muscle groups that will increase in size.
In fact, a study by Katarsky & colleagues compared push-ups versus bench presses for four weeks and found no significant differences in muscle thicknesses between groups.
Go on, start feeling impressed.
It Can Strengthen Your Upper Body
Incline push-ups are excellent for strengthening your upper body.
But don’t take my word for it — a study by Katarsky & colleagues showed that push-ups “using different progressive variations to maintain strength training programming variables, can improve upper-body muscle strength.”
And as long as you increase the difficulty of the incline push-up as you get stronger (i.e., by lowering the height of the surface on which you place your hands), you’ll continue making even more strength gains.
It Works Your Core
A lovely benefit of the incline push-up is that your core gets an itty-bitty workout at the same time.
Your abs and low back muscles are active throughout the exercise to help you maintain a plank position, which will ab-solutely help you if you’re in the quest for washboard abs.
Learn more about why core strength is important for powerlifters and strength athletes and other exercises you can do to strengthen your core muscles in The 9 Best Ab Exercises For Powerlifters (Don’t Skip These).
It Requires No Equipment
One of the best incline push-up benefits is that it (usually) requires no equipment.
Sure, you can do incline push-ups from a plyo box or on a suspension trainer, but a sturdy bench or step works just as well most of the time. You can even do table push-ups on a sturdy table.
And hey, you can’t argue with that juicy price of “FREE.99”
It Can Easily Be Scaled
The last benefit of the incline push-up is that it can be easily scaled, which means you can make it easier or harder.
A suspension trainer or barbell in a power rack can certainly help, but there are tons of incline push-up variations that can be done without any extra equipment.
It Doesn’t Need a Spotter
Listen, a training partner is great since they can yell at you or encourage you gently. And during an exercise like the bench press, a spotter is mandatory to help prevent severe injuries if you fail a rep.
But when you’re doing the incline push-up, you can fly solo without a concern.
If you fail a repetition on the way up, it’s no big deal — bend your elbows until your chest makes contact against the elevated surface, bring your feet forwards, and then stand up.
Drawbacks of the Incline Push-Up
Like any exercise, the incline push-up has some drawbacks.
It’s Hard To Get a Perfect Height
Since incline push-ups usually require no equipment, you’ll likely perform them off stationary objects with a fixed height, like a countertop or a bench.
A fixed height can be perfectly fine at first, but it puts you in a bit of a pickle when it’s time to make the exercise more challenging.
I mean, you can’t exactly lower the height of your countertop multiple times without making your kitchen contractor question your sanity.
It Won’t Build Your Bench Press
If you’re a bench press fanatic, I’ve got sad news for you… the incline push-up won't make you bench more.
Strength is your ability to produce force, measured in a specific situation. The situation depends highly on the exact joint angles, the speed of the exercise, and how your muscles contract throughout it.
So, incline push-ups can be great for building your upper body strength and physique, but they’re just too different from the bench press for your strength gains to transfer over.
If you are looking for ways to increase your bench press, check out How To Increase Your Bench Press By 50lbs (Step By Step).
Tips for Incline Push-Ups
I’ve got lots of experience with the incline push-up, having taught dozens of clients how to do them — here are my best tips for you.
Ensure Your Surface Is Sturdy
This might seem like common sense, but dental work happens every year because of exercise-related mishaps.
So, on behalf of your dentist, please test out the raised surface you’ll be using BEFORE you do a set of incline push-ups.
Give it a forceful push or shake. If the object slides around, it ain’t so sturdy, and you should find something more solid to do incline push-ups against.
Jeez… I’m really hitting it out of the park with these no-brainer tips.
It’s common for people to do a version of angled push-ups at home, like table push-ups. And while cultural norms can differ, people typically wear socks when at home.
But if socks are your footwear of choice when doing incline push-ups, you’ll be slippin’ and slidin’ around like you’re trying to do the Moonwalk.
The only exception to this is if you happen to have a grippy floor, like the rubber flooring you’d find in a gym. Socks shouldn’t slide on material like that.
Otherwise, put on your favorite pair of training shoes and get to work!
Experiment With Your Grip Width
99% of the time, I lean towards comfort being your guide on the width of your grip. But you should experiment with this to find out what hand spacing feels best for you.
To do this, start with your hands shoulder-width apart and do a set of 3-5 reps. Notice how strong you feel, especially on the way up.
Rest for 30 seconds, then widen your grip by half the width of your hand and do another set, reassessing your comfort.
After repeating this process 3-5 times, you should know which grip width feels best for you.
Rotate Your Hands
Depending on the width of your grip, you may find rotating your hands slightly makes incline push-ups way more comfortable on your joints while making you feel stronger.
With the heel of your palms against the raised surface you’re using, rotate your hands inwards or outwards slightly. You’ll have to try both of these to see what style you prefer.
This positions the bones of your forearms in line with the raised surface, which makes it easier for you to push directly against that object, increasing your force production.
Do Them in a Power Rack With a Barbell
This is my favorite incline push-up hack of all time.
Doing your incline push-ups off a barbell placed in the J-cups of your squat rack or power rack is not only super sturdy but often gives you ultra-precise 1-2” height adjustments up OR down.
So, making the exercise just a little easier or harder is a cakewalk if you have access to a couple of pieces of gym equipment.
Incline Push-Up: Common Mistakes
Whether you’re at home or the gym, you’ll want to avoid these common mistakes on the incline push-up.
Not Touching Your Chest
Like touching the bar against your chest during a bench press, this point of contact maximizes the range of motion — a key factor in how much muscle you build.
Even more important, touching your chest against the surface you’re using is an objective way to judge a complete repetition.
Where does a half-rep begin and end? It’s subjective.
Touching your chest, on the other hand, is not.
Touching Too High on Your Chest
Now that you’re touching your chest, you need to make sure you’re touching the right spot on your chest.
Making contact on your upper chest will make you flare your elbows really wide and will just feel downright uncomfortable.
Instead, aim to touch around your breastbone (the base of your sternum). This will let your elbows tuck naturally, target the correct muscle groups, and prevent you from looking like a bobbing pigeon.
Flaring Your Elbows Excessively
Letting your elbows do something similar to the funky chicken is the next mistake on the incline push-up.
Just like on the bench press, excessive elbow flare often puts too much work on the smaller muscles of your shoulders.
You can dodge this rookie mistake by touching the right spot on your chest and tucking your elbows slightly on the way down. Trust me, your shoulders will thank you.
If you still feel like your shoulders are working too hard during your incline push-ups, check out this article for more help: Why Do I Feel Push-Ups In My Shoulders?
Breaking the Plank Position
Not keeping your body in a straight line is the most common mistake when doing incline push-ups close to failure.
Sticking your butt out is definitely something to avoid, so tuck that booty in.
But the most frequent error is letting your hips sag while grinding out those final reps. Doing this puts unnecessary work on your lower back muscles and makes your reps look sloppy.
To bypass this, squeeze your glutes together during the last reps of your set to help keep your body straight.
Hands Spaced Too Wide
Putting your hands too wide is another mistake on the incline push-up.
If your hands are too wide, you’ll have a hard time touching your chest. Even worse, it can reduce the amount of muscle you build.
Research by Cogley & colleagues (2005) found that if “a goal is to induce greater muscle activation during exercise, then push-ups should be performed with hands in a narrow base position compared with a wide base position.”
When in doubt, stick to a grip that’s shoulder-width apart.
Only Progressing By Adding Reps
The final mistake on the incline push-up is a programming one — only progressing by adding more repetitions.
Hey, I get it. This makes sense if you’re doing table push-ups, where you can’t exactly reduce the table height without digging out your hand saw and putting your carpentry skills to work.
But there are more ways to progress your incline push-ups than just adding more reps, which I’ll discuss below.
How To Program Incline Push-Ups
Programming the incline push-up can be done similarly to an incline bench press.
Here’s what I’d recommend:
- Perform 3-6 working sets of incline push-ups once per week
- Aim for sets of 6-12 reps, stopping 1-4 reps from failure
Feel free to start with 3 working sets of incline push-ups once per week. When your progress stalls, add 1 set for the next 2-4 weeks. Repeat this process each time until you get to 6 sets per week.
As far as reps go, the 6-12 range is great to get a mix of strength and muscle gains.
If you’re on the lower end (closer to 6 reps), try to increase the difficulty of your incline push-ups by lowering the height of your raised surface. If closer to 12, you’ll probably have to increase the height to complete all 12 reps, and that’s okay!
Finally, make sure your working sets are difficult enough but not too hard. Research by Grgic & Schoenfeld in 2022 showed that “there was no significant difference between resistance training to failure vs. non-failure on strength and hypertrophy.”
Since stopping 1-4 reps from failure appears to be just as beneficial as training to failure for gaining strength and muscle, that should be your priority for every set.
Plus, keeping a little effort “in the tank” doesn’t carry the exponentially higher fatigue cost — or the increased risk of injury — of training to failure.
Variations of the Incline Push-Up
Making the incline push-up easier is pretty straightforward — just use a higher surface.
This will bring the angle of your body more and more vertical, which decreases the difficulty of the incline push-up.
However, most people struggle with how to make the incline push-up harder. So, here are my best variations that make the incline push-up more difficult.
With a Leg Lifted
Keeping one leg lifted during your incline push-ups makes you less stable, which makes it harder.
Just try to keep the number of reps you do even. If you perform 10 reps with your left foot raised, do 10 reps with your right foot raised as well.
With a Tempo
Incorporating a tempo on your incline push-ups is great for those not looking to spend money on extra equipment.
There are all kinds of tempos you can do on the downward and upward phases of the movement, but I’d suggest adding a simple “3 seconds down” tempo to each of your reps for a greater challenge.
With a Pause
Again with the no-extra-equipment theme here, a pause can increase the incline push-up’s difficulty.
Pauses can be added in countless ways, but a 1-second pause at the bottom is the simplest to start with.
Just remember, you don’t want to physically rest against the raised surface. Try to touch your shirt and “hover” at that spot before pushing yourself back to the top.
With Hands on an Unstable Surface
Similarly, you can put your hands on an unstable surface to add difficulty.
I’d recommend using a BOSU ball, starting with the flat side against the ground. If that’s too easy, flip it upside-down with your hands against the flat side.
For serious instability-fanatics, try doing incline push-ups on a balance/wobble board.
With a Resistance Band
Using a resistance band on an incline push-up is an affordable way to make it harder.
Place the band around your back, with each end in either hand, then sandwich it between your palm and the raised surface. The band will stretch near the top, and that added tension will make the lockout of each rep more difficult.
As you get stronger, use a thicker band.
With a Weight Vest
If you have access to a weight vest, then strap up.
The beauty of a weight vest is that you can keep the same height for your incline push-ups and incrementally add more weight to your vest as you get stronger.
With a Suspension Trainer
Lastly, you can also use a suspension trainer (like a TRX) to up the intensity of your incline push-ups.
Having to actively stabilize your hands will make it harder, and you can increase the horizontal angle of your body to up the ante as well.
Alternatives to the Incline Push-Up
Looking for incline push-up alternatives? Here they are, champ.
If you can’t find a sturdy raised surface, knee push-ups are a fine alternative.
Knee push-ups are usually harder than incline push-ups because you’re lifting a greater percentage of your body weight, but they can also be easier by shortening the range of motion.
Knee push-ups too easy for you? Give the diamond push-up a try.
Knee Push-Up with Handles
Another incline push-up alternative is the knee push-up with handles.
It’s a version of the knee push-up, but using the handles will increase the range of motion, which makes the exercise harder.
For more information on push-ups with handles, read Is It Better To Do Push-Ups With Handles?
Incline Bench Press
The incline bench press is a common exercise in the gym and works similar muscle groups as the incline push-up. It’s much easier to increase the difficulty of this exercise because you can just add more weight to the bar.
That said, it’s a barbell exercise that differs quite a bit from a bodyweight exercise like the incline push-up. Instead of using your body weight as the resistance, you use a barbell. And instead of moving your own body through space, you push a bar.
These small differences have a big impact due to the principle of specificity, so you should pick an incline push-up alternative like the knee push-up if you want to see more strength transfer to your incline push-ups.
For even more incline push-up variations, check out this article: 12 Best Pike Push-Up Alternatives.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can Incline Push-Ups Build Muscle?
Yes, incline push-ups can build muscle. They work similar muscle groups as an incline chest press or bench press and can be loaded progressively to match your strength level.
Do Incline Push-Ups Work the Lower Chest?
Yes, incline push-ups work the lower chest due to the angle of your body. They will work similar muscles as the decline bench press.
Why Are Incline Push-Ups Easier?
Compared to traditional push-ups, incline push-ups are easier because they reduce the percentage of your body weight that you’re lifting.
The incline push-up is a push-up variation that works your lower chest, front delts, serratus anterior, and triceps.
The more vertical angle of your body means it’s easier than the traditional push-up, but there are many ways to make it more challenging (for example, by wearing a weight vest to add more resistance) and level up your upper body training.
About The Author
Kent Nilson is an online strength coach and copywriter, residing in Calgary. When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict.