The Incline Bench Press Targets Your Upper Chest for Stronger Pecs

Aim for about 45 degrees for the incline bench press angle, but you have other options, too.
Image Credit: Vladimir Sukhachev/iStock/GettyImages

If you're trying to build your pectoral muscles, you're likely already bench pressing: It's one of the most popular — if not ​the​ most popular — chest exercises. But if the upper area of your chest doesn't get as much attention — or the regular bench press causes pain — try the incline bench press.

Advertisement

"When you do an exercise at a different angle, you're going to recruit the muscles differently," Steven Head, owner of Headstrong Fitness in Centreville, VA, tells LIVESTRONG.com. But the incline press does more than just activate the upper chest: Lifters, including Head, say it can help reduce shoulder discomfort that sometimes accompanies a flat bench press.

Advertisement

This guide will tell you everything you need to know to do the incline bench press correctly, including setting the height of the bench and performing the move without getting injured.

  • What is an incline bench press?​ An incline bench press is a horizontal pressing exercise where a barbell or dumbbells are pressed away from the chest while the exerciser is seated on a bench that's slanted so head and torso are at an angle above parallel to the floor.
  • What muscles does the incline bench press work?​ The muscles most involved are the pectoralis major (chest muscles), triceps and anterior deltoid (front of your shoulder). You'll also use your core to stabilize your body, and your upper trapezius muscles (your "shrugging" muscles) get involved, too.
  • Does the incline bench press work the shoulders?​ Yes, but that's not its main goal. Most people who perform the incline bench press want to target their "upper chest," or the clavicular head of the pectoral muscles. But the incline press does work the shoulders more than a flat bench press, according to a May 2013 study in the ​Journal of Sports Medicine.

Advertisement

How to Do the Incline Bench Press With Perfect Form

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Activity Barbell Workout
Body Part Chest, Shoulders and Arms
  1. Lie on your back an incline bench with your spine in a neutral position and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing out) that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  3. Set your shoulders back and down, then unrack the bar and hold it directly over your chest. Brace your core.
  4. Bend your elbows to lower the bar toward your sternum, controlling the weight as you lower it.
  5. When the bar touches your sternum, press the bar back to the starting position. Keep your shoulders back and down so you feel the press in your chest, not the fronts of your shoulders.

Tip

As you lower the bar, don’t let your elbows flare straight out so that your body forms a T. Instead, keep your elbows closer to your sides so that your torso and upper arms form an up arrow shape, with the angle of your upper arms around 45 degrees to your torso.

Watch the Full Tutorial

JW Player placeholder image

Can You Do the Incline Bench Press on a Smith Machine?

Yes. A July 2020 study published in the ​Journal of Strength and Conditioning ​found that training bench press and incline bench with a Smith machine created similar strength and size gains as with free weights.

What Angle Should the Incline Bench Be?

If you're doing a barbell incline bench press, the bench may be fixed in place at an angle between 30 and 45 degrees. But if you're using an adjustable bench, you'll get to pick your own angle. So if you want to target the clavicular head of your pecs (your "upper chest") you'll want to mimic that range.

Advertisement

In an October 2020 study in the ​International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health​, researchers found that during an incline barbell bench press, the upper chest area had the most activation at 30 degrees.

If you're using a Smith machine, you may want to be closer to 45 degrees. A July 2010 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared bench press angles using a Smith machine and found little difference in activation of the upper chest between a flat bench and one set to 28 degrees. But when the bench was raised to 44 degrees, activation of the upper chest increased significantly.

No matter which type of bench or machine you're using, the incline bench press angle shouldn't be greater than 45 degrees if you want to train your upper chest. That's because the activation of the pecs drops off significantly at these angles and the anterior deltoids (front of the shoulders) end up doing a lot more of the work.

Incline Bench Press vs. Military Bench Press

While the incline press is done with the bench at an angle, a military press is a standing or seated overhead press — also known as a shoulder press. The angle of your back in this exercise is straight up and down, instead of angled as on an incline press, and the weight is pressed straight up overhead.

Because of this change in angle — and since you're pressing directly overhead — the military press becomes a shoulder-dominant move. The upper chest still gets some work but is demoted to a secondary mover, not the main muscle group.

Another big difference between the military press and incline bench press is that your middle and lower traps (rope-like muscles that run from your neck to the middle of your back) and medial deltoid (tops of your shoulders) activate far more in the military press, according to the 2013 ​Journal of Sports Medicine​ study​.

Incline Press vs. Flat Bench Press

Per the 2020 ​International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health​ study​, ​the upper chest contracts harder during an incline bench press versus a flat bench press. However, the difference is pretty small.

The key to increasing the activation of your pecs may be to focus on the lowering portion of the movement. The 2013 ​Journal of Sports Medicine​ study showed there isn't much difference between the upper chest activation in flat and incline presses on the pushing portion of the movement.

But the incline challenges the upper chest portion more during the lowering portion, also called the eccentric part of the lift. Focus on controlling the weight as you lower it to really hit the upper chest.

4 Incline Bench Press Benefits and Muscles Worked

1. Targets the Chest Muscles

The main muscle of your chest, the pectoralis major, has two major groups of fibers, or heads: the sternocostal head (lower chest) is the major contracting muscle in a normal, flat bench press.

And the clavicular head of the pectoralis major (upper chest) attaches at the collarbone, or clavicle. One of its main functions is to lift your upper arm. As the National Institutes of Health explains, the upper chest would be used to raise a glass for a toast. This is the part of the chest that gets the most benefit from an incline press.

2. Is a Compound Movement

Compound movements like the incline bench press train multiple muscles and joints at the same time, unlike single-joint movements (like a dumbbell curl), which train just one joint and muscle. Building your workouts around compound exercises saves time, because you're working more muscles at once.

It may also make your workout more effective, as lifting heavier weights — which compound moves let you do — increases short-term testosterone production, helping your muscles grow. Plus, the more large muscles you engage simultaneously, the higher your heart rate gets. It's a simple way to up the cardiovascular intensity of your strength-training workout.

3. Can Be Gentler on the Shoulders

"For some reason, my shoulder has never liked the flat bench," Head says. And he's not alone: A July 2018 review in the ​British Medical Journal Open Sport and Exercise Medicine​ found that the bench press is the most common activity leading to pectoralis major ruptures and is associated with other injuries, including an overuse injury called "bench presser's shoulder" that impacts the rotator cuff.

If your shoulders feel cranky on flat bench presses or overhead presses, the incline bench press can provide a happy medium. It does more work for the anterior deltoid than flat bench pressing, so it provides some shoulder work without the shoulder discomfort you're feeling on the flat bench or while doing an overhead press.

4. Is Easy to Modify

If your gym doesn't have an incline bench or if using a barbell causes shoulder discomfort, try the incline press with a pair of dumbbells or on a Smith machine. If you don't like the way dumbbells feel on your shoulders while incline pressing with an overhand grip, try a neutral grip (hands facing each other).

And if you want an added challenge, do an isometric, alternating dumbbell incline press where you hold both dumbbells overhead, lower the right one, press it back up, then lower the left one.

Dumbbell Incline Bench Press vs. Barbell Incline Bench Press

A mix of dumbbell and barbell training can help you lift more weight and build a bigger, stronger chest. But which is better for the incline press? It depends on your body and goals.

Want to lift heavier weight? Choose barbell.​ The bar creates a more stable load, which means you don't need as many small, stabilizing muscles to help you perform the lift, and more weight gets put on the bigger, stronger muscles.

In a March 2011 study in the ​Journal of Sports Science​, dumbbell lifters had to use loads that were 17 percent lower than they did with barbell loads. Translation: You can probably use more weight if you opt for a barbell incline bench press.

Want to strengthen your weak side? Use dumbbells.​ When you do an exercise with a barbell, your stronger side can end up doing more of the work to get the bar up. With dumbbells, you don't have that opportunity.

If your left arm is weaker, you'll have more trouble fully pressing the dumbbell. That means you're strengthening that weaker arm, though: By pressing the full weight with each arm, you're helping the weaker side catch up and match the strength of your dominant arm.

Don't like how your shoulders or wrists feel with barbells? Use dumbbells.​ In addition to shoulder discomfort, barbell pressing can make some people's wrists hurt. If you're focusing more on not feeling discomfort in your wrists than the pressing in your chest, consider switching to dumbbells. It might also help to twist the dumbbells slightly in so that your wrists form parts of an A.

Want maximum pec activation? Use dumbbells.​ According to several studies, including this July 2017 one from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, pressing with dumbbells activates the pectoral muscles more than pressing with a barbell. Bonus: Pressing with dumbbells also works the biceps more.

4 Incline Bench Press Form Tips

1. Pull Your Shoulder Blades Back and Down

Before you start to lower the bar, set your shoulder blades so that your pecs are doing the work, not your shoulders. To do this, imagine you're wearing a pair of jeans. Bring the points of your shoulder blades together and imagine you're tucking them into your back pockets. This will help keep your shoulder blades tucked back and down.

2. Think: Forearms Perpendicular to the Floor

When you get to the bottom of the press, your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor, Head says. "If they're not, and they're [angled toward your body], your grip is too close. If they're [angled away from your body,] your grip is too wide."

3. Keep Your Fist in Line With Your Forearm

Don't let the bar force your wrist back so that the heel of your hand is facing the ceiling. "That's not a strong position," Head says. "It puts stress on the ligaments and tendons [in the wrist]."

Instead, keep your hand in line with your forearm in the same way it would be if you were going to throw a punch. This puts the weight of the barbell or dumbbell on your entire forearm, instead of just your wrist.

4. Bring Your Elbows Down to a 45-Degree Angle

When you bring the weight down toward your chest, don't flare your elbows out so that your torso forms a T: This puts lots of stress on your shoulder.

"From a bird's eye view, we want to be at a 45- to 60-degree angle," Head says. Imagine that instead of your arms forming a T with your torso, your upper arms and your torso are forming an up arrow.

3 Incline Bench Press Variations

1. Dumbbell Incline Bench Press

Benching with dumbbells increases your range of motion and lets you train each arm equally with the same weight.

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Activity Dumbbell Workout
  1. Lie on your back on an incline bench with your spine in a neutral position and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Hold dumbbells at arm’s length in front of your chest with an overhand grip (palms facing out), hands shoulder-width apart.
  3. Set your shoulders back and down and brace your core.
  4. Bend your elbows to lower the dumbbells until they reach the sides of your chest, around your nipple line, controlling the weight as you lower it.
  5. Press the weights back to the starting position. Keep your shoulders back and down so you feel the press in your chest, not the fronts of your shoulders.

2. Neutral Grip Dumbbell Incline Bench Press

If you're feeling twinges of discomfort in your wrists or shoulders with an overhand grip, try pressing with a neutral grip.

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Activity Dumbbell Workout
  1. Lie on your back on an incline bench with your spine in a neutral position and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Hold dumbbells at arm’s length in front of your chest with your palms facing each other, hands shoulder-width apart.
  3. Set your shoulders back and down and brace your core.
  4. Bend your elbows to lower the dumbbells until they reach the sides of your chest, around your nipple line, controlling the weight as you lower it.
  5. Press the weights back to the starting position. Keep your shoulders back and down so you feel the press in your chest, not the fronts of your shoulders.

3. Alternating Dumbbell Incline Bench Press

In this variation, you'll hold both dumbbells overhead, then lower one while keeping the other up. This challenges your core — which has to engage to keep your balance — and your muscular endurance, or the ability to keep a muscle working for an extended period of time.

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Activity Dumbbell Workout
  1. Lie on your back on an incline bench with your spine in a neutral position and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Hold dumbbells at arm’s length in front of your chest with an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart.
  3. Set your shoulders back and down and brace your core.
  4. Keeping the left dumbbell in place, bend your right elbow to lower just the right dumbbell to the side of your chest, controlling the weight as you lower it.
  5. Press the right dumbbell back back up. Keep your shoulders back and down so you feel the press in your chest, not the front of your shoulder.
  6. Now lower the left dumbbell, keeping the right dumbbell raised.
  7. Press it back up.
  8. Continue alternating in this way for all reps.

Advertisement

references