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The incline bench press should be one of the cornerstones of your chest workouts, especially since bodybuilders and serious gym enthusiasts alike favor it. It offers unique benefits and challenges, making it essential to any good training program.
In this guide, we'll break down the unique benefits and explore the muscles that are engaged, the technique, and the best adjustable bench angles for superior results.
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While it doesn't seem like changing the incline angle would change the impact of the lift, it can affect muscle recruitment and overall effectiveness of the exercise. It can especially impact if you're trying to change the emphasis on different muscles.
Below, I broke down the most commonly used incline angles and their unique benefits.
At a 15º incline, the muscle emphasis shifts slightly from the middle chest to the upper chest. This angle is often preferred by beginners or those looking to focus on developing their chest muscles, without the added shoulder strain that comes at higher angles.
It should be noted that even though anterior delt (front of your shoulder) involvement isn't significant at 15º, once you start increasing the angle of the bench, they start taking more of the load.
A 30º incline is often considered the middle ground between targeting the upper chest and the shoulders. This angle provides a relatively balanced recruitment of both muscle groups, making it almost perfect for overall chest development.
Many intermediate lifters find this angle just right for increasing strength and mass in the upper chest region. A study published in 2020 found this to be the best angle to hit the upper chest.¹
At a 45º incline, the focus continues to shift toward more front delt recruitment. While this angle is just as effective for the upper chest as 30º, the added shoulder involvement makes this the second best angle for solely focusing on building that upper shelf. This is still probably the most common angle you'll be people use for incline at your local gym.
Those who do shoulders on the same day as chest may prefer this angle due to the added blood flow to the front delts.
A 60º incline would be considered a very high incline. This steep angle puts even more focus on the front delts rather than the upper chest. At this point, you're almost doing an overhead press.
Once you get past the 45º mark, the activation on the chest actually starts to lessen and focus more on the front delts instead. To find what works best for you, I'd recommend trying out the 15º, 30º, and 45º angles to see what works best for the muscles you're trying to work. Keep the 60º angle on shoulder days.
Regardless of the incline bench angle that you choose, ensuring you use proper form is important to maximize the benefits and reduce your chances of injury. Here's a step-by-step guide that I use when training my clients on how to perform the incline bench press correctly:
The incline bench press is one of my favorite compound exercises. It engages multiple muscle groups simultaneously, making it an efficient and effective choice for upper-body strength and muscle development.
Let's break down the primary muscles worked during the incline bench press, regardless of angle, and their respective roles:
The incline bench press intensely targets the chest's upper portion, specifically the pectoralis major's clavicular head. This muscle group is responsible for shoulder flexion, which means raising the arms forward, and horizontal adduction, which helps the arms move across the body.
The incline bench press targets the clavicular head, which can lead to a fuller and more defined appearance of the upper chest region.
In addition to working the chest muscles, the incline bench press heavily involves the anterior deltoids or front shoulders. These muscles assist in shoulder flexion, working with the upper chest to raise the arms during most pressing motions.
The anterior deltoids also play a role in stabilizing the shoulder joint throughout the exercise, helping to keep things smooth and under control during the weight movement.
While the incline bench press focuses on the chest and shoulders, the triceps also play an important role throughout the movement. During the movement, the triceps assist in extending the elbow joint during the pressing phase of the exercise.
This extension helps complete the movement and allows for full arm extension, engaging the triceps to aid in the pressing motion of the incline bench press.
The flat and incline bench presses are often considered the fundamental exercises for building a strong and well-developed chest. However, due to the angle of the bench, they target different areas of the chest. So which one is better for developing muscles and getting stronger?
Let's break down the key distinctions between these two exercises:
The flat bench press is a classic exercise often considered the king of chest movements. It primarily targets the overall chest muscles, especially the pectoralis major. When you incorporate the flat bench press into your workout program, the angle of the bench is horizontal to the ground, allowing for a more even distribution of force across the chest.
Compared to an incline bench press, this exercise puts more strain on the sternal head of the pectoralis major, the central part of the chest. One of the biggest advantages of the flat bench press compared to the incline variation is the biomechanically advantageous position, which allows for heavier lifting and a slightly shorter range of motion.
The inclined bench press focuses more on the upper chest muscles, especially the clavicular head of the pectoralis major. The bench is set at an incline, usually between 15º and 60º, which changes the angle of the pressing motion.
This change of positioning places greater focus on the upper portion of the chest, hitting muscle fibers that may not be as targeted with flat bench presses.
The inclined bench press engages the front deltoids far more than the flat bench press. The increased shoulder involvement adds more difficulty to the exercise, which can lead to solid improvements in overall shoulder strength and stability.
Including flat and incline bench presses into your workout routine is the best way to guarantee balanced chest development and maximize muscle growth. By alternating between these two variations, you can target multiple areas of the chest and stimulate the muscles to grow from multiple angles.
So, instead of focusing on one movement or the other, this approach is better for overall chest symmetry and helps reduce the risk of muscular imbalances. If you really want to keep your body guessing, do incline dumbbell press the same day as barbell flat bench, or dumbbell flat bench the same day as barbell incline press.
One of the most common questions I get as a personal trainer about incline bench press is the best way to incorporate it into their workout program. Here are the tips I'd give to my clients and you as the best ways to integrate an incline bench press into a workout routine:
Before adding the incline bench press to your program, I highly recommend considering your current training split and how it will fit your overall goals. Whether you follow a full-body, upper/lower split, push/pull/legs split, or another training split, make sure that adding incline bench press improves your existing exercises and training schedule.
Incline presses are most often used by bodybuilders and powerlifters; however, almost every lifter can benefit from them.
Another key aspect of incorporating incline bench presses is deciding how often you want to perform them. Depending on your training split and how quickly you can recover, aim to include incline bench press exercises (or a variation) 1-3 times per week.
I'd recommend doing them once weekly because that allows for enough recovery. Eventually, you'll be able to increase the frequency as you progress.
Focus on lower rep ranges (e.g., 4-6 reps) with heavier weights for strength and power development. For hypertrophy (muscle growth), I'd recommend shooting for a more moderate rep range (e.g., 8-12 reps) with moderate to heavy weights.
Consider incorporating different rep ranges throughout your training cycle to promote muscle adaptation and see the best results.
To keep things fresh and exciting and prevent plateaus, experiment with different variations of the incline bench press. This could simply mean using dumbbells instead of a barbell, adjusting the incline angle (e.g., 15, 30, 45 degrees), or incorporating pause reps or tempo variations.
Some of my favorite incline press variations include incline dumbbell press, flat barbell bench press, neutral grip incline barbell bench press, and barbell floor presses.
Like most things, it depends on your goals and personal preferences. However, each angle offers its own unique benefits and challenges.
15 Degrees: This angle places less stress on the shoulders, making it more suitable for beginners or those with shoulder issues that they have to work around. The downside to this angle is that the upper chest isn't as targeted as it could be.
30 Degrees: This is the middle ground between targeting the upper chest and shoulders, giving a pretty balanced recruitment of both muscle groups. Many in the fitness industry find this angle to be close to optimal for overall chest development.
45 Degrees: A 45º angle stimulates the upper pecs as much as 30º, but also incorporates more anterior deltoid. Advanced lifters often add this angle to their programming to promote greater blood flow to the entire area.
60 Degrees: This position is almost a straight shoulder press and isn't practical when trying to focus on your upper chest.
This is a tough question because it depends on individual strength, muscle imbalances, and familiarity with the exercise. An incline bench press usually involves more shoulder involvement and a longer range of motion.
It focuses more on the upper chest muscles, which may make it more challenging for some individuals. However, others may find the flat bench press more challenging due to the heavier weights typically used and the biomechanical advantages of the flat bench position.
None of the angles I talked about above are inherently safer when compared to the others. What matters is making sure that you lift with proper form and don't try to rush into weights you aren't ready for.
To avoid injury, focus on gradual weight progression, good form throughout the movement, and proper rest breaks between sets.
The incline bench press offers a versatile movement to strengthen your chest, shoulders, and triceps, with the flexibility to adjust the focus based on the angle you use. This means you can tailor this exercise to almost any fitness goal.
Aim for an incline angle between 15 and 60 degrees for the best results. Higher angles emphasize the deltoids more, while lower angles target the upper chest or clavicular head of the pecs.
If you enjoyed this article, check out this piece breaking down how to flat bench and the best variations.
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