A slight adjustment to the angle of the bench has several surprising benefits in a dumbbell press. It’s better for your safety and helps the development of your chest and shoulder muscles. It might not be the exercise that will single-handedly give you busted pecs and boulder shoulders, but in an arm and chest day routine together with presses and curls, the incline dumbbell bench press is extremely useful. Read on to find out more about this exercise, what muscles it targets, how you can execute flawless reps, and the best way to program it into your workout routine.
Let’s get right to business. We’ll dissect this exercise a bit more after we’ve laid out how to do it. Follow these steps to get into the starting position for an incline dumbbell press:
That sounds like a ton of preparation for a simple press exercise, but all these form requirements serve a vital purpose not only in building mass in your chest but also in preventing potentially serious injuries in the rotator cuff and shoulder joint. Once you’re in that starting position, follow these steps to execute 1 repetition of the incline dumbbell press:
Sounds easy enough to execute, right? Like any good bodybuilding exercise, you’ll need impeccable form for the incline chest press to build muscle properly. Let’s talk about which muscles and muscle groups the exercise is intended to work and then we’ll look at some common mistakes and form errors that can prevent that muscle growth from happening.
The largest muscle on the front of your body, the pectoralis major stretches from the clavicle, sternum, and external oblique to the humerus bone, crossing over the ribs on its way. Two heads of the muscle perform different functions: the smaller clavicular head of the pectoralis raises the humerus (upper arm bone) in front of the body while the larger sternocostal head brings it back to its natural position. When both parts of this pectoral muscle work together, they bring the humerus back toward the body’s midline and rotate it toward the midline at the shoulder joint. All of the functions we just mentioned are performed when the pectoralis major is flexed.
Anyone who’s put considerable time into building arm mass knows about the triceps muscle. It has an antagonistic relationship with the biceps on the top of the upper arm. Its name comes from the structure of the triceps, which has three heads. The large head of the triceps holds the upper arm bone in place at the shoulder joint while all three of them principally extend a pronated or supinated arm at the elbow, which is what happens when you straighten out your arm.
Broadly speaking, the deltoid muscle’s function is to stabilize the humerus bone in the shoulder joint. But the incline dumbbell press specifically causes activation in the anterior deltoid, which is on the front of the shoulder. The anterior deltoid helps extend the shoulder joint and rotate the humerus internally, which are very similar motions to those performed by the pectoralis major muscle. As we mentioned earlier, the higher the incline of the bench, the more your shoulders come into play. If you have it below about a 45-degree angle, the anterior deltoid will act mainly as a stabilizer and your pecs will see more activation during the exercise. Pair that with the formulas in our ULTIMATE MASS STACK to encourage your body to build bigger pecs.
Now that we know which three muscles the incline dumbbell press targets, how can we best put those muscles to work during the exercise? It’s best explained by discussing the form errors that can ruin the muscle activation the press normally causes. Beyond the angle of the bench itself, lifters need to pay attention to the position of their arms when they’re doing the incline dumbbell press. If you let your upper arm open up or lift the dumbbells with your upper arms perpendicular to the torso, then the principle function of the pectoralis major isn’t going to happen.
One good piece of advice is to pretend an invisible tether is pulling your biceps together as you bring the weight closer to your chest. That’s the section when your pecs are going to be pulling the arm in toward the midline. Another important form consideration is the shoulder. As with just about any other press exercise that’s done on a bench, it’s possible to let your elbows sink lower than your torso during this incline dumbbell press, which will overextend the shoulder especially if your elbows are out away from the body.
Leave the elbows at about 45 degrees from the body and bend them at a 90-degree angle at the bottom of the move. Don’t let them drop much lower than the torso. That should be easier if you have your chest puffed out the way our step-by-step indicated. Pull your shoulder blades together to get the chest to rise and think about lifting with your chest. Try to pretend you’re showing off the front of your t-shirt a bit like you would be if you were deadlifting. Unlike the deadlift, though, you want to avoid lockout at any point in this exercise.
The elbows are the main culprits for locking out in the incline dumbbell press but you can also be stiff in the shoulder. Typically that leads to the elbows getting out of position for more of the movement. Lastly, pay attention to where your feet are. While this is definitely an upper-body exercise, you will be driving the press with your feet. As with most of the form tips in this guide, advice to stack your feet directly beneath your knees is going to come most in handy when you advance to heavier weight levels. But it’s always best to master avoiding such form errors early on when you’re using less weight.
The attraction of the incline in this exercise isn’t that it will revolutionize your chest workout by itself. It’s mostly the ability to hone in on the upper chest and run through the full range of motion that the pectoralis major can produce. Angling an adjustable bench to a certain degree puts your chest muscles to work without the shoulder or arms taking over. The fringe benefit here is that it also exercises the stabilizing function of the triceps brachii and anterior deltoid. Incline dumbbell presses are safer than flat bench presses are because the shoulder overextension problem is slightly less pronounced.
Another factor of the safety appeal of incline dumbbell presses is that you can dump dumbbells more easily than you can barbells. In a situation where your shoulders fail or your chest muscles are completely worn out, the shoulder will fail completely and that weight you’re hoisting overhead will need to go somewhere. If you don’t want that somewhere to be your sternum or skull, it’s nice to be able to simply drop the dumbbells on the ground. Of course, we’d recommend avoiding that possibility unless you’re working out from a home gym and aren’t risking getting kicked out.
Many lifters and bodybuilders like to use the incline dumbbell press to focus on strength imbalances. When you’re lifting with a barbell, your dominant arm can very sneakily take over and leave the other side with less activation and less muscle growth over time. With dumbbells, you can tell when one arm is reaching exhaustion more quickly than the other and you can correct with different weight amounts or even run through extra reps on one side if need be. That unilateral aspect also makes stabilizing muscles in the arms and shoulders work harder so you wind up with a more uniform strength training session across the body.
Not to mention you can always program a barbell bench press later in your daily or weekly routine if that’s your preferred method for an upper-body workout. One final benefit of the incline dumbbell press that most lifters don’t even think about is the part of the pectoral muscle that it builds. Research shows that the incline dumbbell press causes growth in the intercostal space of the pectoralis major specifically. That part of the muscle runs between the ribs and it’s hard at work constantly because it helps lift the ribs when we breathe. So if breathing better or more cardio is part of your fitness goals, the incline dumbbell press is a great way to facilitate that. It might not be a cardio workout in itself, but it will prime your body for better breathing all around.
Some people love this exercise while others use it once a week or less. It is a great chest workout and works nicely in a superset with similar press exercises that use an incline bench. There are plenty of dumbbell exercises you can pair with this one to get your chest ripped. For example, you might want to organize your chest day routine like this:
Run through 2 or 3 sets of these four exercises for an effective and fairly speedy workout. Throw in our ADABOLIC formula for some extra pump to prime your muscles for extra growth and this routine is sure to grow those pecs. You can also use the incline bench press alongside full-body exercises like squats, chin-ups, or rows. If you’re targeting that chest, though, you can just stick to presses and flyes on the incline bench and finish with push-ups to move the chest muscles toward full exhaustion for increased hypertrophy and muscle growth.
If you combine your chest and arm days, this is a nice exercise to move away from the chest and into the arms. Since your triceps are already working to stabilize the arm, you can move onto tricep dips or extensions afterward and they’ll be ready to rock. Shoulder exercises are another good follow-up to the incline dumbbell press. Lateral raises and the overhead press come immediately to mind to target the parts of the deltoid that aren’t in play during the incline dumbbell press.
You’re fully in the know about one of the best pec exercises now. Program it according to our suggestions and remember all the important form notes and you’ll be knocking out flawless incline dumbbell presses and growing those pecs in no time. This great exercise is perfect for those transitioning from bodyweight workouts to weighted ones and it’s just as effective at higher weights for well-practiced bodybuilders, so you’ll get lots of use out of it for a long time to come.