Incline vs. flat
Whether you’re swimming, pushing a grocery cart, or throwing a ball, having strong chest muscles is essential for everyday activities.
It’s extremely important to train your chest muscles just as you would any other muscle group. One of the most common and effective exercises for working your chest muscles is the chest press. But which chest press is the most effective: the incline or the flat bench chest press?
There’s really no right or wrong answer. It’s more a matter of preference, what your personal goals are, and what you’re trying to achieve. To maximize your results, do both types of chest presses, since they both work almost all the same muscles but hit the muscle in slightly different ways.
Let’s look at each of these options.
The table below shows that both incline bench presses and flat bench chest presses work an array of chest muscles.
|Muscle||Incline chest press||Flat bench chest press|
The pectoralis major muscle is comprised of a clavicular and a sternocostal head (upper and lower pec).
The purpose of the incline press is to focus more of the work on the upper pecs. The main benefit in performing incline presses is to develop the upper portion of the pectoral muscles.
When the bench is set at an incline (15 to 30 degrees), you activate your shoulders more since it’s comparable to a shoulder press. Also, because of the angle of the bench, this exercise puts less stress on your rotator cuff, which is a common area for injury when using the flat bench.
However, there are some cons to performing an incline chest press. Because the incline chest press puts more stress on your upper pec, it develops this muscle group more, while the flat bench tends to build mass over the entire pec.
You’re also actively using your deltoids (shoulders) at this angle, so you don’t want to work on your deltoids the next day. You never want to overtrain your muscles, which can happen if you train the same muscle group two days in a row. Overusing any muscle can lead to injuries.
Incline chest press, step by step
- Lie back on an incline bench. Make sure the bench is adjusted to between 15 and 30 degrees on an incline. Anything higher than 30 degrees mainly works the anterior deltoids (shoulders). Your grip should be where your elbows make a 90-degree angle.
- Using a shoulder-width grip, wrap your fingers around the bar with your palms facing away from you. Lift the bar up from the rack and hold it straight over you with your arms locked.
- As you breathe in, come down slowly until the bar is an inch away from your chest. You want the bar to be in line with your upper chest the whole time. Your arms should be at a 45-degree angle and tucked into your sides.
- Hold this position for one count at the bottom of this movement and, with one big exhale, push the bar back up to your starting position. Lock your arms, hold, and come down slowly.
- Do 12 repetitions and then place the bar back on the rack.
- Complete a total of five sets, adding weight after each set.
As mentioned, the pectoralis major is comprised of the upper and lower pec. When flat benching, both heads are stressed evenly, which makes this exercise best for overall pec development.
The flat bench press is a much more natural fluid movement, compared to your everyday activities. However, just like the incline chest press, there are some cons.
Dorian Yates, a professional bodybuilder, said: “I don’t even include flat benching in my pec routine because I think it stresses the front deltoids far too much to be an effective exercise for building the chest. Also, the angle of the flat bench press puts the pec tendons in a vulnerable position. Most shoulder injuries and overuse injuries can be stemmed from flat benching. Many torn pecs in bodybuilding have been the result of heavy flat bench presses.”
As a personal trainer, I see shoulder injuries among men as the most common injuries. Common mistakes are:
- not having anyone to spot them properly
- not having help to rerack the bar
- uneven grip
- having a more dominant side lifting most of the weight, meaning they were probably at a tilt
As with any kind of press, you really need to warm up your chest and shoulders properly by using resistance bands and by stretching. With flat benching, you need to make sure you have full shoulder mobility and scapular stability to reduce the potential for injury.
If you find discomfort at all during the flat bench exercise, you should really consider the incline bench exercise or use dumbbells instead.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of preference and what your goals are. The flat bench press does a better job of developing your pecs.
Many trainers agree that the incline press is safer on your pecs, shoulders, and rotator cuffs. With so many exercises to strengthen your chest, the chest press with either bench will be effective.
Here are some pointers to make sure you’re performing each exercise properly.
Flat bench chest press, step by step
- Lie down on the flat bench so that your neck and head are supported. Your knees should be at a 90-degree angle with your feet flat on the floor. If your back comes off the bench, you might consider putting your feet on the bench instead of the floor. Position yourself underneath the bar so that the bar is in line with your chest. Place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders, with your elbows flexed at a 90-degree angle. Grasp the bar, palms facing away from you, with your fingers wrapped around it.
- Exhale, squeeze your core, and push the barbell off the rack and up toward the ceiling using your pectoral muscles. Straighten your arms out in the contracted position, and squeeze your chest.
- Inhale and bring the barbell down slowly to your chest, again about an inch away. It should take you twice as long to bring the barbell down as it does to push it up.
- Explode back up to your starting position using your pectoral muscles. Do 12 repetitions and then add more weight for your next set.
- Perform five sets.
If you’re using dumbbells, it’s important that you don’t drop the dumbbells down to your side when you’re done using them. This is dangerous to your rotator cuff and to people around you.
If you don’t have a spotter to take the weights away, rest the dumbbells on your chest and do a crunch to lift yourself up to a seated position. Then lower the dumbbells to your thighs and then down to the floor.
If you’re new at this exercise, please use a spotter. If no spotter is available, then be cautious with the amount of weight you use.
This workout was created by Kat Miller, CPT. She’s been featured in the Daily Post, is a freelance fitness writer, and owns Fitness with Kat. She currently trains at Manhattan’s elite Upper East Side Brownings Fitness Studio, is a personal trainer at New York Health and Racquet Club in midtown Manhattan, and teaches boot camp.