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September 06, 2020 10 min read

“Neglecting the chest," is a phrase that has probably never crossed your mind.

Is it even possible? 

For most of us, it’s the opposite that’s usually true. One more rep, one more set, is squeezed into an already packed chest day. Even though we know how overtraining can hurt us in the end. So, if we want big chest muscles, then it’s usually best to train smarter rather than pushing our bodies into dangerous territory.

Which is when people usually cite the flat bench, decline, and incline as the bench trifecta of getting a bodybuilder-like chest. And if you don’t already know the differences, they’re easy to memorize.

Incline targets the upper chest; decline targets the lower. Easy. You want a full, good looking chest? Do all three variations. Right?

Well yes, and no. 

If you’ve regularly been going to the gym, think back to how often you see people decline bench pressing. Not too often, right? At least when compared to the flat and the incline press.

Just like not all exercises are created equal, neither are all bench press variants. And it gets even more complicated when you consider that some call for a complete dismissal of the decline press, while others argue against the inclines’ lofty popularity.

“Why?” is the question we’ve tried to answer below.

Introducing the Barbell Bench Press

What can we say about the bench press that hasn’t been said before? 

If anyone finds out you lift, the first thing they’ll probably ask you is how much you can bench—that tells you everything you need to know about this juggernaut of a lift. It’s the benchmark of bodybuilding and strength training, with few upper body movements coming anywhere close to it.

And, rightfully so, it’s spawned a number of variants that all aim (and claim) to do different things. But before we get into that, let’s give ourselves a good baseline for what the flat bench press actually does. 

As a compound exercise, the bench press activates almost every muscle group in your body along with a host of joints and bones—if properly performed. 

One of the more essential bones is the scapula, or the shoulder blades. These are a pair of flat, triangular bones that sit at the back of your rib cage; and they should always be tucked back during the bench press. This will allow the chest to always be higher than the shoulders. They provide an attaching point for several of the muscles used during the movement, including the shoulder girdle, delts, rhomboids, rotator cuff muscles, biceps, traps, and one of the heads of your triceps. 

Triceps are necessary for elbow extension, and the anterior deltoids, rotator cuffs, and lats all play important roles in pressing the bar above your head. Your glutes and abdomen engage for stability, along with a host of other stabilizers.

But while all these muscles provide much-needed power throughout the exercise, we all know what the muscle of the hour really is: the pectoralis major muscle. 

And it’s the pecs that are the name of the game; the focal point of the flat bench v. incline bench v. decline bench debate.

The Incline & Decline 

The pectoralis major is the largest muscle in the upper body, being the major muscle of the pectoral muscle group. This is the one that’s closest to the skin and the muscle that most guys focus on when training on chest day. 

There are two heads that make up the pec; the clavicular and the sternocostal heads. Otherwise known as the upper and lower pec, respectively. 

The flat bench press is terrific when it comes to muscle activation of both the upper and lower pecs, along with the several other muscle groups that we mentioned up above. The incline and decline bench press targets the pecs differently, but it’s important to remember that they each engage every part of the pec—just do different degrees. 

So, the incline bench press will target upper pec, and the decline is meant to target the lower pec. Generally speaking, the upper pec gives your chest the jacked, rounded look; while the lower pec is meant to balance that out with some development on the bottom. 

Let’s look into both of these with some more detail.

A man doing an incline bench press in a gym.

The Incline Bench Press

Using the flat bench press as a benchmark, the incline bench press gets its name from the raised angle of the bench (your head higher than your torso)—anywhere from 15 to even 60 degrees. 

Along with more heavily targeting the upper pecs, the incline bench press also engages more of the anterior deltoids than the other two lifts. While muscle engagement between flat bench and incline bench barely differs when comparing the upper pecs, the difference mostly lies in the lesser-activated lower pecs and the more greatly activated shoulders.

In fact, the higher the degree of the incline, the more of your shoulders will be used—and at a certain point, it’ll probably make more sense to do some traditional shoulder exercises instead (such as the shoulder press). 

Furthermore, the incline bench press is generally easier to do for beginners. And if you’re already accustomed to benching, you probably won’t be able to lift as much on the incline as you would with a flat or declined bench.

In regard to potential hazards to keep an eye out for, the incline bench’s angle puts your shoulders and rotator cuffs in a worse-off position than on a flat bench. A notable amount of stress is placed in these two areas, and you should probably approach the incline with a bit of wariness if it’s your first time.

How to Incline Bench 

In terms of equipment, all you really need is an incline bench that’s set at the desired angle. An adjustable bench will work just as well, or even a regular bench with some plates stacked underneath one of the ends.

1. Lie down on the bench with your feet planted firmly on the floor, the bar set up directly above your face. Tighten your glutes and your core.

2. With a grip that’s just slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, grab onto the bar as tight as you can.

3. Press up to unrack the bar and bring it directly over your shoulders with your arms straight out. This will be the start position.

4. Inhaling deeply, you want to slowly lower the back to the top of your chest. Keep your elbows at about a 45-degree angle to the rest of your body.

5. At the bottom of the movement, pause as you tab the barbell on your chest. Then drive up explosively through your feet.

6. Return the bar to the start position and repeat for the desired amount of reps.

Always make sure to either have a safety rack or a spotter in case the weight proves to be too heavy.

An important aspect to remember with the incline bench press is that it can take some practice to “get right.” You should be feeling most of the tension in your upper chest for maximum gains, and that won’t necessarily just happen naturally. If you don’t want to be leaving gains on the table, put your mind into the muscle, and feel the fibers contracting and extending throughout the motion. That’s how you’ll get the best gains. 

Incline Bench Alternatives

If you want to spice things up a little, feel free to do the incline bench with dumbbells instead of a barbell.

Making this a unilateral movement will engage your stabilizers to a greater degree. While you won’t be able to lift as much weight, your shoulders will benefit since they won’t be forced to go through the more awkward angle of the incline bench. The lack of a barbell will also let you go through a wider range of motion since your chest won’t be there to stop the bar. And lastly, the fact that this is a unilateral movement means that each side will be trained separately—meaning that your stronger side won’t be able to make up for the weaknesses of the other.

Another terrific alternative is the landmine press. This is a unique unilateral movement that allows for people with a limited range of motion in their shoulders to also train their scapular region. Furthermore, it can also build motor control in the tricep, and it’s a very functional movement.

And if you’re more of a bodyweight guy, then the exercise can also be substituted in with incline push-ups; especially useful if you don’t have an incline bench at your disposal or a gym.

With these push-ups, just place your feet on an elevated surface so your head is lower than your torso. With a higher proportion of your weight being pushed up each rep, you’ll definitely be feeling the burn.

The Decline Bench Press

And so, we come to the decline bench press. The black sheep of the bench press family. But before we get into that, let’s look more closely at what the decline bench press is supposed to be. 

The decline bench press is, as the name suggests when the bench has been lowered anywhere from 15 to 30-degrees so the head is lower than the torso. Its schtick is that at this angle, the lower pec is the focus of the bench. 

In terms of the mechanics of the movement, the primary benefit is that it’s much less hazardous for your shoulders than the other two bench presses. Since you’re pushing at a “down” angle, your shoulders don’t have to rotate as much, and hence, there’s less stress placed on them.

What this usually results in is a significantly improved ability to lift more. In a study done on incline versus decline bench presses, it was shown that the 1 rep max of the decline for participants was 1.25 times their body weight. This was compared to an incline 1 rep max of 1.07 times the participants’ body weight.

And, quite surprisingly, that same study found that the decline bench press is also generally better at activating the pec as a whole than the incline bench press. Something you wouldn’t expect from a lift that’s so often scoffed at.

The issue usually lies in the fact that the lower pecs are normally already developed much more than the upper pecs. This could be an important distinction a bodybuilder might make when they’re trying to sculpt their chest, but for a gym-goer that has a well-rounded training routine—this is most likely a non-issue.

Other than that, there’s a much-decreased range of motion with the decline bench press due to the mechanics of the lift. But since the lift itself is easier, it is a good way to add some extra volume onto your chest days after the shoulders and upper pecs have been gassed out.

A strong man.

How to Decline Bench

An important note before diving into things is that while the decline bench press is often considered safer for your shoulders, it has its own special hazards to keep in mind.

If you fail to complete a rep with an incline or flat bench press, you’ll have to do the roll of shame—at worst. Hopefully, you have a spotter or some safety pins, but rolling the weight off is usually the way you’ll have to go. Not so with the decline bench.

Your chin and neck form a great indent for the bar to fall into, so if you’re not careful the roll of shame can quickly turn into the choke of shame. That’s why it’s essential to be stabilized and make sure that your feet are secured.

1. After having secured your feet, lie down under the barbell with your eyes underneath the bar. Brace your glutes and your core muscles.

2. Hold onto the bar with arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart—gripping the bar very tightly.

3. Unrack the bar by straightening out your arms and move it over your shoulders. Lock your elbows afterward.

4. After taking in a deep breath, carefully and slowly lower the bar until it touches your mid-chest area, slightly below the nipples.

5. Once the bar has touched this area, pause for a moment, and then push it back up into the starting position, locking your elbows.

6. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.

Similarly, as with the incline bench press, you should be trying to cultivate that mind-muscle link and squeezing the bottom of your pecs. This might prove difficult for a beginner, but with the proper development and practice, it will get you much better results than you otherwise would’ve.

Decline Bench Press Alternatives

Along with doing the decline variant with dumbbells instead of a barbell (like with the incline), lower cable flies are also a great way to go in terms of alternatives. Not only will the constant tension add more time under tension for your lower pecs, but if done with a lower weight for higher reps it can be used as a fantastic way to tone the pecs and give them a strong undercut.

And while we had the decline push-ups as an alternative to the incline bench press, we also have incline push-ups for the decline bench press. To perform these, all you have to do is place your upper body on a higher surface and continue the push-up as you normally would.

The Verdict

The incline bench press really hammers in the sought after upper pecs and front delts; often being used as an accessory to the more popular flat bench press. Although it poses a greater risk for the shoulders, it can be easier to get into for beginners.

On the other hand, is the decline bench press. It has a decreased range of motion and focuses on the part of the pec that is often already overdeveloped via the bench press—but that does make it a good way for adding extra volume on chest day.

While it is more dangerous in that the angle of the bar to your neck isn’t ideal, it is better for your shoulders in the long run than both the flat bench press and the incline bench press. However, this benefit is easily circumvented by the flat bench if you choose to adopt the powerlifting arch—as is often recommended. This arch puts your body in a declined position relative to the bar, mitigating shoulder antagonization.

The decline bench press is useful for bodybuilding, or adding that little extra something to the bottom of your chest, but ultimately you’ll probably be better off focusing on the incline. If you really want to hammer home the lower chest, there’s one decline bench alternative we didn’t mention: the dip. 

Not only safer but also a favorite when it comes to training the front upper body, along with the triceps. It will, most likely, garner more gains more efficiently than the decline bench press. 

But whatever exercise you choose to incorporate into your chest workout routine, or not, the most important aspect is knowing how your muscles and fibers connect and act together. A slight change in grip, stance, or angle, can have varying effects. Do you want to get absolutely shredded? Get to know your body.