For Stronger Shoulders, Try This Push-Up Variation

Decline push-ups work your shoulders

Who doesn’t want strong, well-defined shoulders? Wider shoulders create the appearance of a smaller waistline, even if the size of your waist doesn’t change. How can you get those prominent shoulders? By strengthening and hypertrophying the deltoid muscles, the largest muscle in your shoulder, and the one responsible for shoulder abduction. The deltoid muscles also hold the head of your humerus, or upper arm bone, in place when you carry something heavy. If your deltoid muscles are weak, you’re more at risk of dislocating your shoulder.

The deltoids, or shoulder muscles, are divided into three components: the anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoids. For wider shoulders, you need to work all three heads of the deltoid, but for that wide-shouldered look, emphasize the lateral deltoids. That’s the portion of the deltoids that when strong gives you that enviable look of strong, defined shoulders when you wear a tank top.

Although you can use weights to work your deltoids, you can also tweak bodyweight exercises, like push-ups, to target your shoulders more. Push-ups are one of the most popular exercises for the upper body, and for good reason. The humble push-up works multiple muscles in your body, including your chest, triceps and shoulders. The push-up also targets the muscles in your core in an isometric manner. Although a classic push-up works the shoulders, the main focus with this exercise is the chest and triceps, the muscles in the back of the upper arm. However, you can tweak the push-up to make it work your deltoids harder.

Try Decline Push-Ups

For more shoulder emphasis when you do push-ups, decline push-ups are an effective alternative. What is a decline push-up? It’s a push-up where you elevate your feet so they’re higher than your hands. With this push-up variation, you work your deltoids and your upper chest harder. As a bonus, you’ll also give your rotator cuff muscles, the ones that keep your shoulders healthy, more emphasis. Are you ready to try one?

How to Do a Decline Push-Up

  • Grab a bench and place it behind you.
  • Get down on all fours as if doing a standard push-up.
  • With your hands on the floor, lift one leg and place it on the bench followed by the other and extend both legs until they’re straight behind you and elevated on the bench.
  • Make sure your body forms a straight line from head to feet and you’re in a standard push-up position with arms shoulder-width apart.
  • From this position, do a push-up in the usual manner by lowering your chest toward the floor and bringing it back up again.

You should feel the movement more in your shoulders and upper chest. Push-ups are more challenging from this position, so you may not be able to do as many repetitions than with a standard push-up. It’s also important not to try a decline push-up until you can comfortably do at least 15 standard push-ups using good form.

Watch the Height of the Bench

The higher you place your feet, the harder a decline push-up will be and the more emphasis it places on your shoulders. When starting, use a bench with a height of only a few inches and gradually increase it as you get more comfortable with the exercise and it starts to feel easy.

Also, monitor the health of your shoulders. If you experience shoulder pain or discomfort when you do decline push-ups, make sure you’re using proper form. Common mistakes include:

  • Holding your breath when doing the exercise. Make sure you’re inhaling as you lower your body and exhaling on the way back up.
  • Letting your hips sag when you do the exercise.
  • Allowing your head to sag and not maintaining a straight line from head to feet.
  • Trying to use a bench that’s too high for your skill level.
  • Placing your hands too wide apart or too far forward. (Places extra stress on the shoulders)
  • Doing the exercise too quickly. Slow down and watch your form.

If you still experience pain with this push-up variation, it may not be for you. Check with your health care provider or a sports medicine doctor to make sure your shoulders are healthy enough to do this push-up variation safely.

The Bottom Line

Decline push-ups are a more advanced variation of push-ups that target your shoulders and upper chest more than the standard. They will help boost your shoulder development. But it’s important to do them correctly and avoid mistakes that increase the risk of injury. Make sure you’re ready to tackle this more challenging variation by mastering a basic push-up first. You should be able to do 15 standard push-ups before trying the decline variation.

Don’t advance too quickly either. Gradually increase the height of the bench you place your feet on. The higher your feet, the harder the exercise is and the more emphasis it places on your shoulders. Keep working at it and combine push-ups and push-up variations with other exercises that target your shoulders, and you’ll see results if you’re patient. Include exercises that target your rotator cuff muscles too. These are the muscles that stabilize your shoulders and are critical for shoulder health. Make sure your shoulder workout is balanced to maximize your gains and lower the risk of injury.


  • com. “Which muscles do pushups work?”
  • Journal of Physical Education and Sport (JPES) March 2012;12(12):71-80.
  • NASM.org. “Powering Through the Push-Up: Variations and Progressions”
  • com. “Push-Up Grip Guide: How Different Hand Positions Change the Exercise”
  • Sandhu JS, Mahajan S, Shenoy S. An electromyographic analysis of shoulder muscle activation during push-up variations on stable and labile surfaces. Int J Shoulder Surg. 2008;2(2):30-35. doi:10.4103/0973-6042.40456.
  • Kim YS, Kim DY, Ha MS. Effect of the push-up exercise at different palmar width on muscle activities. J Phys Ther Sci. 2016;28(2):446-449. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.446.
  • com. “Push-Up Grip Guide: How Different Hand Positions Change the Exercise”

Related Articles By Cathe:

The Part of Your Shoulders You’re Probably Not Training Hard Enough

Shoulder Shrugs Don’t Get the Attention They Deserve & Why You Need Them

Building Strong and Beautiful Shoulders: is Your Shoulder Workout Balanced?

Problems Caused by Rounded Shoulders and How to Correct Them

Narrow Shoulders? What’s the Best Training to Make Them Look More Defined?

The Best Exercises for Broader Shoulders


Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs:

3 Best Exercises for Building Wider Shoulders

STS Strength 90 Day Workout Program

All of Cathe’s Strength & Toning Workout DVDs

Total Body Workouts

Upper Body Workouts

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Hi, I'm Cathe

I want to help you get in the best shape of your life and stay healthy with my workout videos and Free Weekly Newsletter. Here are three ways you can watch and work out to my exercise videos:

Get Your Free Weekly Cathe Friedrich Newsletter

Get free weekly tips on Fitness, Health, Weight Loss and Nutrition delivered directly to your email inbox. Plus get Special Cathe Product Offers and learn about What’s New at Cathe Dot Com.

Enter your email address below to start receiving my free weekly updates. Don’t worry…I guarantee 100% privacy. Your information will not be shared and you can easily unsubscribe whenever you like. Our Privacy Policy