Incline vs Flat Bench Press

Effect of Bench Angle on Exercise Mechanics & Muscles Worked

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: October 15, 2023

When it comes to training your chest, there are tons of exercise variations available, each with its own execution and movement path.

One such variation is the incline bench press, which differs from the flat bench press in terms of body mechanics and muscles worked. Understanding these differences can help you sculpt your ideal chest.

In this article, I will break down the incline bench press vs. flat bench press, so you can make the most out of these exercises.

Incline vs Flat Bench Press

Introduction to Bench Pressing

The bench press exercise is one of the most popular movements used in resistance training. The exercise involves lying on a bench and lifting a barbell or dumbbells from a starting position at the chest to a fully extended position above the chest. 

The bench press is a compound movement that mainly targets the chest but also works the shoulders and triceps. Additionally, different bench angles can be used to target specific areas of the chest muscles.

The most common angles are flat, incline, and decline. By incorporating various bench angles into your workout routine, you can effectively target all areas of your chest muscles and achieve a well-rounded, balanced physique.

Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press

Incline vs Flat Bench Comparison

When comparing the incline bench press to the flat bench press, several key distinctions must be considered.

The most obvious difference is the angle of the bench. However, it’s also essential to understand how the bench angle can impact your body position and the resulting range of motion during the exercise. 

In the upcoming sections, I will provide a detailed explanation of these differences. But before that, you can watch this short 1-minute video, which presents a summarized side-by-side comparison.

Incline vs Flat Bench Angle

The main difference between the incline press and the standard bench press is the angle of the bench. A flat bench is considered to have a 0-degree angle and is parallel to the floor.

On the other hand, an incline bench should have an angle of 15-45 degrees, depending on your equipment and personal preference.

Incline vs Flat Bench Angles

Incline vs Flat Bench Body Position

Keep in mind that the angle of the bench affects the positioning of your body, including the angle between your arms and your thoracic spine.

In the accompanying image, you can see that the incline bench creates a greater angle between my arms and upper torso when compared to the flat bench.

Incline vs Flat Bench Body Position

Incline vs Flat Bench Range of Motion

During the bench press exercise, the body position and bench angle play a significant role in determining the range of motion. If you lower the barbell all the way down to your chest, you will notice that the incline bench press requires a movement path that is approximately 50% longer than the flat bench press.

To illustrate, the image below demonstrates the starting and ending positions of the barbell for both the incline and flat bench presses. It clearly depicts the longer range of motion required for the incline bench press.

Incline vs Flat Bench Range of Motion

Incline vs Flat Bench Muscles Worked

In a study conducted in 2020, researchers assessed the muscle activation levels during different inclinations of the bench press exercise1. Their findings showed that when performing the flat bench press, all parts of the pectorals – the upper, mid, and lower – were activated fairly uniformly.

On the other hand, when performing the incline bench press, the upper pectorals were more isolated, with less contribution from the mid and lower chest muscles.

Incline presses also involve more anterior deltoid (the front of the shoulder). However, the triceps are equally involved regardless of the bench angle.

Incline vs Flat Bench Muscle Activation

Graph adapted from Rodriquez-Ridao et. al.

When to Use Incline vs Flat Bench

The traditional flat bench press is considered the best exercise for developing overall strength and chest muscles. This is because the horizontal position of the exercise distributes the load across the entire chest, with less help from the shoulders.

However, performing too much flat bench press can lead to an overdeveloped lower pectorals, resulting in a teardrop-shaped chest. This is often seen in powerlifters focusing solely on heavy flat bench presses.

Hence, it is essential to include incline variations in your chest workout routine to balance your chest. The incline bench press is excellent for building upper chest muscles and increasing strength in overhead pressing movements.

Therefore, including incline and flat bench press variations in your chest routine is recommended to achieve a balanced and well-developed chest.

Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press Upper vs Lower Chest

Using Incline & Flat Bench In Chest Workouts

To build chest muscle, it is essential to train your chest once or twice a week. And it is recommended that intermediate to advanced lifters perform 10-20 sets for chest per workout.

The majority of people start with a flat bench press followed by an incline variation. After that, they do chest flys or other light isolation exercises to complete their workout.

However, if you want to enhance your upper chest, it is advisable to perform incline bench press first, when your energy and focus are highest. Giving priority to your weak muscles before strong ones is called priority training.

Nevertheless, doing one or two incline bench variations per week will not be enough to balance out your chest. It is recommended to do one incline movement for every two flat movements. Or even one-to-one if your upper chest is significantly underdeveloped.

However, be cautious and avoid overdoing it with too much pressing. Incline, flat, and overhead presses all put stress on the shoulder joint, which can lead to overtraining. Therefore, it is crucial to allow at least 48 hours of recovery between pressing workouts.

WARNING: How I Tore My Pectoral Muscle

Incline vs Flat Bench Pectoral Injury

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.

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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.

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.

Push-Ups

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

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Incline vs Flat Bench FAQ

In this section, I will answer some of the most common questions people ask me about incline bench vs flat bench press.

Is flat bench better than incline?

The flat bench is considered the best exercise for overall chest development as it works the entire pectoral muscle with less assistance from the anterior deltoids. On the other hand, the incline bench is perfect for targeting the upper chest due to the angle and range of motion involved.

Is incline bench better for aesthetics?

Incline benching is essential for a well-rounded and visually appealing chest. Without it, you may develop a disproportionately small chest in the upper region, resulting in a teardrop-shaped appearance.

Is it okay to only do flat bench?

Exclusively performing a flat bench press without any incline variation is acceptable if you’re training specifically for a powerlifting competition or have an injury preventing you from incline benching. However, incorporating flat and incline presses into your workout routine would be beneficial for most people.

Why is my flat bench so much stronger than incline?

You typically cannot lift as much weight on incline bench because it focuses on the upper chest muscles, using fewer total muscle fibers to perform the exercise. Moreover, the range of motion is longer, which requires more effort for each repetition.

Incline 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.

Floor Press vs Bench Press Comparison

The floor press is a flat bench variation with unique differences and benefits compared to the traditional exercise. Check out this article to see when to use the floor press in your strength training routine.

Floor Press vs Bench Press Differences, Benefits, Use Cases

Floor Press vs Bench Press

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!

By |October 15, 2023|Workouts|0 Comments
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