Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press

When you’re training chest at the gym, there are seemingly endless exercise variations to choose from. Including different angles, machines, and ranges of motion.

One such exercise variation is the incline bench press compared to flat bench press. You probably know the basic difference, but you might not know the exact body mechanics that affect which muscles get used.

That’s why I’m breaking down incline bench press vs flat bench press. So you’ll know how to use these exercises to sculpt your ideal chest.

Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press

Incline Bench vs Flat: What’s The Difference?

Before we get into the details, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to the difference between incline bench and flat bench.

The obvious difference is that the bench itself is propped up at an angle for an incline press. The incline will vary depending on your equipment and preferences, but it’s generally a 30-45 degree angle.

Now the key thing here is that the incline of the bench changes the angle of your body in relation to the downward force of the weight. As illustrated below, the angle directs more of the load onto the upper chest.

On the other hand, the standard bench press puts more of the load onto the middle and lower chest.

Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press Difference

Figure 1: How body position during pressing movement changes chest muscle loading.

To better understand how different angles work different parts of the chest, it helps to look at the anatomy of the pectoral muscle.

In the illustration below, you can see that the inner part of the pectoral attaches to two different bones; the sternum and the clavicle. These are called the sternal and clavicular heads.

The other end connects to the lateral humerus (the outer part of the upper arm). When the different pectoral muscle segments contract, they pull the upper arm across the body at different angles.

Pectoral Muscle Anatomy

Figure 2: Pectoralis major anatomy. The clavicular head is one segment (CH). While the sternal head can be further segmented along various fascia boundaries (S1-S6). Adapted from Lee et al.1

With this in mind, it’s easy to see how the clavicular head (CH) and upper sternal head (S1 and S2) pull your arm up and in during incline bench presses. While the lower sternal head (S3-S6) pulls your arm straight across during flat bench presses.

In real life, the anatomy diagram looks more like the shaded areas in the image below. Where the blue area is worked by flat bench. And the yellow area is worked by incline bench.

Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press Upper vs Lower Chest

Figure 3: Modeling a stylish new “manzier” to support all those chest gains. Jk, color coding to show parts of the chest worked by incline bench press vs flat bench press.

Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press Muscles Worked

To bring it full circle, let’s talk about how exercise form and technique affect the muscles worked during incline bench press vs flat bench press. As well as the supporting muscles involved with each press variation.

Incline Bench Press Muscles Worked

Along with the upper chest, incline presses involve more of the anterior deltoid (the front of the shoulder). The steeper the incline, the more your shoulders get involved. While a shallower incline works more mid-chest.

I should also point out that your body position can affect the muscles worked. Some people have a tendency to arch their back or lift their butt off the bench while performing an incline press.

The reason is simple – arching your back flattens the angle and brings more of your mid-chest muscles into the movement. You’ll be able to lift more, but it defeats the purpose of the incline bench!

Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press Muscles Worked

Figure 4: Primary muscles worked during incline bench vs flat bench.

Flat Bench Press Muscles Worked

On flat bench, the mid and lower pec take most of the load with less help from the anterior deltoids and upper chest.

Again, arching your back shifts the load down. In this case from mid-chest to lower chest. A big back arch maximizes the amount of weight you can lift, but it’s not ideal for isolating the pectoral muscle.

Of course, any pressing exercise also works the tricep muscles. The triceps are mostly involved with the lockout at the top of the movement. But a narrow grip will also involve the triceps more.

Therefore, it’s important to think about your goals when setting up your flat bench form. For maximizing overall chest growth, I recommend a flatter back. And place your hands at a width where your elbows form a 90-degree angle when the bar touches your chest.

Incline Bench Press vs Flat: Which Is Better?

When it comes to overall strength and chest development, the traditional flat bench press reigns supreme. The horizontal position puts more of the load directly on the biggest part of the chest with less help from the shoulders.

However, too much flat bench can overdevelop your lower chest giving it a teardrop shape. This is often the case for beginner to intermediate lifters who gravitate to flat bench. So it’s important to include some incline variations.

The incline bench press is great for building the upper chest and increasing your strength on other pressing movements. It’s also useful for creating a balanced and proportioned chest from top to bottom.

For this reason, I recommend including both incline bench and flat bench in your chest day routine.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Fitness Coach Jeremy Fox (@jeremyfoxfitness)

Incline & Flat Bench Press Exercise Variations

Now that you know you should be including both incline bench press and flat bench press, let’s look at some of the exercises you can use to hit both angles.

Barbell Press

The barbell press is by far the most popular version of flat and incline bench press. It generally uses a 45 lb Olympic bar with weight plates on either side. But there are lighter bars for beginners or certain home gyms.

The bench itself often has built-in hooks to “rack” the barbell at various heights. You can also use an adjustable bench inside of a power rack if you don’t have access to a suitable bench press or incline press.

Dumbbell Press

The flat dumbbell press or incline dumbbell press is similar to the barbell press except you hold a dumbbell in each hand. This forces each arm to work independently and makes the exercise a little more challenging.

Another benefit of dumbells is an increased range of motion. You can go deeper because there is no barbell to hit your chest. And your arms move in a more natural arc as they come together at the top of the movement.

Machine Press

A machine press uses cables, pulleys, and a weight stack to simulate the bench press movement. Instead of free weights, you push against handles on a lever arm which moves the weight stack.

One advantage of machines is that there’s less momentum involved. And they are generally safer than free weights.

Smith Machine Press

A smith machine is basically a barbell on guide rails. The rails limit the movement of the bar to a vertical or near-vertical path. The benefit is that you don’t have to stabilize the bar. But the movement isn’t as natural as free weights.

Below is a demonstration of the incline Smith machine press.

Plate Loaded Press

The plate-loaded press is sort of a combination of a machine press and free weights. You press against handles and lever arms like a machine, but each lever arm is loaded with weight plates.

Generally, you get the advantage of independent arm movement with the safety of a machine.

Figure 5: Example of an adjustable plate-loaded bench press.

Push-Ups

Finally, if you’re lacking any kind of equipment, you can fall back on the trusty push-up. A standard push-up is similar in range of motion to a flat bench press. Or you can elevate your feet on a box to change the angle and hit your upper chest.

How To Structure Your Chest Workouts

In order to build chest muscle, you should include multiple variations of the exercises above one or two times per week. I recommend performing 25 to 35 sets per workout.

Most people start with flat bench then do incline bench followed by chest flys or other light isolation type movements to complete the workout. But if you’re trying to grow your upper chest, I recommend doing incline first.

Working on a weakness first is called priority training. Since the first exercise is when your energy and focus are highest, it’s the best time to train lagging muscle groups or movements.

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However, doing one or two incline bench variations per week isn’t going to do much to balance out your chest. I recommend doing 1 incline movement for every 2 flat movements. Or even 1 to 1 if your upper chest is really lagging.

Just be careful not to overdo it with too much pressing. Incline, flat, and overhead presses all stress the shoulder joint which can lead to overtraining. So be sure to allow at least 48 hours of recovery between pressing workouts.

Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press Takeaways

  • Incline bench press is performed at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees
  • The angle puts more of the load on the upper chest and shoulders
  • Flat bench is performed horizontally, close to 0 degrees
  • Laying flat puts more of the load on the middle and lower chest
  • Both variations are necessary to build chest size and proportion

Conclusion

The slight differences in angles between incline bench press vs flat bench press result in activation of different parts of the pectoral muscle. When used properly, a combination of incline and flat bench press helps you sculpt the ultimate chest.

Both of these exercises should be used in conjunction with a well-rounded workout program that targets all the major muscle groups. For more information on exercises and workouts, check out some of my related articles below.

How to Build Chest Muscle

A big chest doesn’t have to be the stuff of mythology and fantasy.  Unless you’ve been dealt a very unlucky hand genetically, you can build a big chest too!  Chances are you simply haven’t structured your training for maximum growth.  In this article you will learn how to build chest muscle with a killer chest workout designed for optimal growth.

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