Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press

Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press

There are seemingly endless exercise variations for training your chest. Not to mention all the different angles, machines, and ranges of motion.

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

For this reason, I’m breaking down the incline bench press vs. flat bench press. So you’ll know how to use these exercises to sculpt your ideal chest.

Incline Bench vs. Flat: What’s The Difference?

Before we get into the details, let’s ensure we’re all on the same page regarding the difference between an incline and a flat bench.

Bench Angle

The most apparent difference is that the bench is angled upward for an incline press. Of course, the incline will vary depending on your equipment and preferences, but it’s generally a 15-45 degree angle.

Now the critical thing here is that the incline of the bench changes the angle of your body with the downward force of the weight. So, 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.

Body Mechanics

To better understand how these 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 certain groups of 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

Muscle Activation

With this in mind, it’s easy to see how the clavicular head (CH) and upper sternal head (S1 and S2) pull your arms up and in during incline bench presses.

During flat bench presses, the middle sternal heads (S2-S5) pull your arms straight across. In comparison, decline bench presses and dips activate the lower sternal heads (S5-S6).

Muscle segments often work together in real life and are not neatly delineated. So the color spectrum in the figure below makes it easier to see the general areas of the chest worked by different pressing angles.

Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press Upper vs Lower Chest

Figure 3: Color spectrum showing 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 discuss how 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 anterior deltoid (the front of the shoulder). The steeper the incline, the more your shoulders get involved. In comparison, a shallower incline works more mid-chest.

I should also point out that your body position can affect the muscles worked. For example, some people 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 a flat bench, the mid and lower pec take most of the load with less help from the anterior deltoids and upper chest.

Remember, arching your back shifts the load down to the lower chest. And while a big arch maximizes the weight you can lift, it’s not ideal for isolating the pectoral muscle.

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

Therefore, thinking about your goals is crucial when setting up your flat bench form. For example, if strength is your goal, go with a big arch and a wide or narrow grip.

However, you should keep a flatter back to target the pectorals more. And place your hands at a width where your elbows form a 90-degree angle when the bar touches your chest.

For maximum hypertrophy, use less weight and focus on squeezing your chest to press the weight.

Related: Hypertrophy Training vs Strength Training

Hypertrophy vs Strength Training

Incline Bench Press vs. Flat: Which Is Better?

The traditional flat bench press reigns supreme when it comes to overall strength and chest development. One reason is 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 profile. This is often the case for powerlifters that focus on heavy flat benching. So it’s essential to include some incline variations to balance your chest.

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

For this reason, I recommend including an incline and flat bench press variation in your chest routine.

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Incline & Flat Bench Press Exercise Variations

Now that you know you should include both incline and flat bench presses let’s look at some exercises you can use to hit both angles.

Barbell Press

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

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

Dumbbell Press

The flat dumbbell 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, making 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.

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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 like 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.


Finally, you can fall back on the trusty push-up if you lack bench press equipment. A standard push-up is similar in the 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.

Related: Push Up vs. Press Up

How To Structure Your Chest Workouts

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 a flat bench and then do an incline variation. Then follow that with 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 bench presses first.

Working on a weakness before a strength 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 one incline movement for every two 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.

WARNING: How I Tore My Pectoral Muscle

Incline Bench Press vs. Flat Bench Press Takeaways

  • Incline bench press is performed at an angle of 15 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

The slight differences in angles between the incline bench press vs. flat bench press result in the 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 exercises should be used in conjunction with a well-rounded workout program that targets all the major muscle groups.

More Exercise Comparisons

I hope you found this article informative and helpful in structuring your chest workouts. If so, you’ll definitely want to check out these other exercise comparison articles.

Push Press vs Overhead Press

Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press

Close Grip Lat Pulldown vs Wide Grip

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift

Romanian Deadlift vs Conventional Deadlift

Hex Bar vs Barbell Deadlift

Leg Press vs Squat

Chest Dips vs Tricep Dips

Or I also have plenty of articles on other topics related to exercises, supplements, and nutrition.

Share with your community and get the conversation started!