Mastering the Deficit Push Up: Technique, Benefits, and Variations

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A gym enthusiast is doing deficit push up

Deficit Push Up | How to do | Muscles Worked | Benefits | Variations | Workout Plan | Precautions

The deficit push up is an advanced version of the regular push-ups. It increases both the challenge as well as the physical rewards expected out of the traditional variant. This exercise opens doors to higher levels of strength, stability, and definition in your upper-body muscles.

Here, we will delve into the intricate details of the deficit push-up, unraveling its technique, benefits, variations, and precautions. If you’re ready to take your push-up game to the next level, the deficit push-up is your ticket to a stronger upper body.

I. Deficit push up: Get the basics right

Deficit push-ups are a dynamic bodyweight exercise that works by incorporating a deficit or an added elevation into the movement.

Here, the body is positioned in the same plank position as in the basic pushup but with both hands placed on an elevated surface (such as yoga blocks/dumbbell/kettlebell/weight plates). 

The elevation creates extra space between the body and the ground. This leaves space for a deeper descent and a more profound chest stretch while also engaging the mid-back muscles.

Your body has to work harder to perform the entire range of motion required for this exercise, and hence, the results are more pronounced than regular push-ups.

II. Step-by-Step Guide to Executing Deficit Pushups Properly

Step 1: Place two yoga blocks or any other slightly elevated surface in front of you, positioned slightly wider than shoulder-width.

Step 2: Keep your palms flat or in a neutral position (depending on the elevating equipment) on the elevated surface.

Step 3: Assume the standard push-up position with your body in a straight line from head to heels.

Step 4: Keeping your body straight, descend, focusing on engaging your mid-back muscles, and enhancing the contraction in the core. 

Step 5:. Lower your body until it is an inch or two away from the floor. At this point, the deficit allows you to experience a deeper stretch in your chest muscles.

Step 6: Explosively push your body upwards and return to the starting position, maintaining a straight and neutral spine throughout.

Step 7: Repeat for a desired number of sets and reps.

III. Muscles worked in deficit pushup

By incorporating a deeper range of motion through the added elevation, deficit push-ups enhance the activation of a range of muscles in both the upper body and core.

Here is a split up of the primary and secondary muscles worked in the deficit push-up:

Primary Muscles Worked:

  1. Pectoralis Major (Chest Muscles): The pectoralis major muscles, commonly referred to as pecs, are the largest muscles in your chest. They are responsible for horizontal shoulder flexion and adduction [1]Science Direct: Pectoralis Major Muscle. Deficit push-ups utilize these muscles to a greater degree than regular push-ups, resulting in an enhanced contraction and enhanced chest development.
  2. Triceps Brachii (Upper Arm Muscles): Located on the back of the upper arms, the triceps brachii extend the elbow joints [2]National Library of Medicine: Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Triceps Muscle. The triceps play a crucial role during the ascent phase of deficit push-ups.
  3. Pectoralis Minor (Assisting Chest Muscle): Positioned beneath the pectoralis major, the pec minor assists its larger counterpart in push-up movements and stabilizes the shoulders.
  4. Serratus Anterior (Shoulder Stabilizer): The serratus anterior, resembling a serrated knife edge, supports shoulder stability. It plays an important role in maintaining stability throughout the movement.

Secondary Muscles Engaged:

  1. Anterior Deltoids (Front Shoulder Muscles): While all three deltoid heads are involved, the anterior deltoids are particularly active. They flex the shoulder joint in tandem with the chest muscles.
  2. Core Muscles: Deficit push-ups demand significant core engagement for maintaining a straight body line. The rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae work synergistically to provide stability throughout the movement.
  3. Quadriceps (Front Thigh Muscles): Though their contribution is isometric, the quadriceps muscles help keep the legs straight during the exercise. However, the load on the quads is relatively low, and deficit push-ups primarily target the upper body.

IV. Benefits of deficit push-ups

The deficit push-up not only targets specific muscle groups but also enhances joint mobility, stability, and overall functional fitness.  Let’s examine the potential benefits of this exercise a little more closely:

1. Increased range of motion

By introducing a deficit, or an elevated surface, to the push-up movement, the range of motion is significantly amplified. In a standard push-up, the chest barely grazes the floor before ascending. 

However, with the deficit variation, the chest can descend lower, subjecting the chest, shoulders, and triceps to an extended range of motion. This expanded motion not only intensifies the exercise but also fosters greater muscle activation and stimulation.

2. Mid-back and mid-chest muscle engagement

Deficit push-ups offer a distinctive advantage by emphasizing the engagement of mid-back muscles, including the rhomboids and the mid-chest region. 

As the descent is extended in this exercise, the shoulder blades undergo a heightened squeeze, activating these muscle groups. This enhanced recruitment results in a more comprehensive upper body workout, addressing muscles that might be overlooked in conventional push-ups.

3. Stabilizer Muscle Engagement

Deficit push-ups are inherently unstable due to the elevated surface. To maintain proper form, stabilizer muscles, including those around the shoulders, back, and core, are actively recruited. This engagement enhances joint stability and reduces injury risk.

4. Core muscle engagement

Maintaining a straight body line during deficit push-ups requires significant core activation through intense isometric contraction. The rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis work isometrically to stabilize the spine, enhancing overall core strength and coordination.

5. Cardiovascular benefits

Push-up exercises, including deficit push-ups, can offer surprising cardiovascular benefits. A study by Harvard researchers [3]Harvard Health Publishing: More push-ups may mean less risk of heart problems revealed that individuals capable of doing 40 or more push-ups had a remarkably lower heart disease risk by 96% compared to those managing only 10 or fewer push-ups.

The study underscores how push-up capacity can boost cardiovascular health and endurance. Given that deficit push-ups increase the intensity of the push-up exercise, its impact on cardiovascular health is expected to be even more pronounced.

6. Overall upper body muscle hypertrophy and stability

Deficit push-ups lead to heightened muscle fiber recruitment. Unsurprisingly, this stimulates muscle hypertrophy, driving muscle growth and enhancing upper body strength and definition.

7. More chest and shoulder mobility

The augmented range of motion in deficit push-ups directly correlates to enhanced joint mobility in the chest and shoulder regions. This dynamic movement pattern encourages flexibility, maintains joint health, and mitigates the risk of stiffness or restricted mobility.

V. Variations of deficit push-ups

There are several exercises that incorporate the movement patterns of the deficit push-ups but in slightly modified ways. The following variations of the deficit push-ups can act as alternative options for those who are struggling to perform a standard deficit push-up or for those who need more challenging variants:

1. Elevated Feet Deficit Push-Up/Decline deficit push-ups

The elevated or decline deficit pushup differs from the incline deficit pushup in that the feet are elevated instead of the hands. This variation places an emphasis on the lower chest and shoulders as they must work harder to bridge the gap in order to complete the exercise.

To perform decline deficit push-ups, elevate the feet on a surface and perform the push-up movement as usual.

2. Deficit Plyometric Push-Up

Adding the plyometric element to a standard deficit push-up can improve your explosive strength and power.

To perform the plyometric deficit push-ups, start with the standard deficit push-up position and movement. As you do this, try to clap your hands before starting the downward movement.

3. Weighted Deficit Push-Up

Incorporating external weight into any exercise is an effective way to add intensity and challenge muscles further. Once you are comfortable with using your own body weight, simply add a weight plate, sandbag, or weighted vest and increase the resistance of your deficit push-ups.

4. Knuckle push-up

The knuckle push-up replicates the same movement pattern as a regular deficit push-up. The difference is that you place your knuckles instead of flat palms on the elevated surface. This variation helps relieve some strain from the wrists and other joints by distributing the weight differently.

Knuckle push-ups are a great exercise for martial artists who need finger strength or for people looking to build up their grip strength. They’re also a great way to build stronger wrists and forearms for those who may be suffering from wrist injury or pain.

5. Single Arm Deficit Push-Up

As with any exercise, you can transition from traditional deficit push-ups to a unilateral version by performing single-arm deficit push-ups.

For this variation, perform the exercise as usual, but lift one arm off the floor at the top of the movement and return it back during descent.

If you are using dumbbells as the elevating equipment then you can perform the renegade row movement at the same time. This helps to target more muscles, especially those of the core and shoulders.

6. Resistance band deficit push-ups

To use this variation, loop a resistance band around your back and hold it in place with both hands while they are placed on the elevated surface.

Performing the exercise as usual will require greater effort due to the increased tension from the band. Increase or decrease the tension of the band depending on your fitness level and desired intensity.

7. Suspension trainer push-ups

A variant of the deficit push-up, suspension trainer push-ups add a whole new level of challenge.

Set up a suspension trainer and loop your arms around the handles on either side. Get into a traditional push-up position with feet placed firmly on the ground and perform the deficit push up movement as usual.

As your body is forced to stabilize itself in midair the body develops stability in the upper body joints and muscles.

8. Dumbbell bench press

The dumbbell bench press(with neutral grip) is a great variation for those looking to target the chest muscles more directly.

To perform this exercise, start by lying flat on a bench with your feet placed firmly on the ground. Hold two dumbbells in each hand at shoulder-width distance and move them up and down, ensuring that the hands remain in a neutral grip position.

9. Parallel bar dips

Dips exercises employ similar movement patterns to deficit push-ups but with a lot more emphasis on the chest, triceps, and shoulders.

To perform this exercise, grip two parallel bars firmly with both hands and lift yourself up as far as possible before slowly lowering your body toward the ground. When you get close to the ground, pause for a moment before pushing back up to the starting position.

VI. Incorporating Deficit Push-Ups into Your Routine

Here is a comprehensive deficit push-up workout plan that includes warm-up, strength-building sets, and a cooldown, ensuring a balanced and effective session:

Phase ExerciseSets/Reps
Warm upArm circles1/10 each way
Jumping jacks1/15
Bodyweight squats1/15
Deficit push ups3/10
Resistance band push ups3/10
Bent over rows3/10
CooldownChild’s pose1/Hold for 1 minute
Seated forward fold1/10 each way
Shoulder rolls2/Hold for 30 secs

Note: Keep 1 minute rest period between each set and every exercise

VII. Precautions and Considerations

It is important to consider a few factors when implementing deficit push-ups into your routine to ensure safety and optimum benefits.

1. Assessing your readiness and fitness levels

Prior to attempting deficit push-ups, evaluate your overall fitness and upper body strength. Adequate proficiency in standard push-ups is essential, as deficit variations are more demanding and may lead to strain if attempted prematurely.

2. Start with a smaller deficit

Begin with a modest elevation to gradually acclimate your muscles and joints to the added challenge. Overambitious deficits can compromise form and increase injury risk.

3. Listen to your body

Pay attention to your body’s signals. If you experience pain, muscle soreness, discomfort, or excessive fatigue during deficit push-ups, it’s crucial to stop. Pushing too hard can lead to overuse injuries.

4. Professional guidance and supervision

Seek guidance from fitness professionals or personal trainers when incorporating deficit push-ups, especially if you’re new to this exercise or have any pre-existing conditions. Their expertise ensures proper form, progression, and tailored recommendations for your fitness level.

VIII. Conclusion

In conclusion, deficit push-ups offer a powerful tool to enhance upper body strength, muscle definition, and stability. Like any exercise, they must be performed with correct form and graduated intensity. With mindful integration into your routine and expert guidance, they can greatly boost your fitness level.


1 Science Direct: Pectoralis Major Muscle
2 National Library of Medicine: Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Triceps Muscle
3 Harvard Health Publishing: More push-ups may mean less risk of heart problems

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