With the incline bench press you mainly train three muscle groups: the chest, the front shoulder heads (anterior deltoids) and the triceps. The incline ensures that you stimulate the clavicular part of the chest muscles slightly more than with the flat bench press. That is the upper part of the chest just below the collarbones. Nevertheless, you train the entire pectoral muscle – you cannot ‘isolate’ a part of the muscle.
With our tips we assume that you do bodybuilding training and therefore train primarily for muscle growth and not for maximum strength.
Keep in mind that the upper chest (probably your primary target with this exercise) is definitely not activated that much more than with a flat bench press. See, for example, this EMG study. It is mainly that your lower chest is less activated, so that you train relatively more from the top.
That makes incline bench presses a useful exercise for when you need to smooth out a big difference in development between the top and bottom of your chest. In principle, however, flat belt stretches should suffice to develop your entire chest.
1. DON’T GO TOO STEEP
The greater the lean angle of the handrail, the more anterior delts (front shoulder heads) you involve in the exercise, to the detriment of the chest. That’s probably not what you want: the front of your shoulders is already fully trained with the shoulder press and regular bench press.
So don’t go too steep: if you adjust the handrail at an angle greater than 30-45 degrees, the anterior delts will get the upper hand. From that point on, they not only take over work from the bottom, but also from the top of the chest.
According to several studies (1, 2, 3), the top of the chest is best activated in the range of 15 to 45 degrees. Advice: take 30 degrees as a starting point and lower the backrest a little if that feels more comfortable for you. If the weight bench is not adjustable, it is probably set at 30 degrees.
With a separate training bench you can adjust the incline yourself. You will have to do the exercise with dumbbells (see also point 8) or in a power rack.
2. DON’T LIFT TOO HEAVY
The perfect implementation of the incline bench press does not exist, because it differs from person to person. The mobility of the shoulders in particular plays an important role in this. The incline makes the exercise less comfortable and stable to perform than the flat bench press. Save the large weight plates for the flat version and perform the oblique version a bit lighter, with more repetitions, for example 8-12.
Don’t worry about your gains: for muscle growth it’s not so much the absolute intensity (the weight on the disc) that counts, but the relative intensity (the extent to which you train a set until muscle failure). Train the incline bench press, like other compound exercises, to near muscle failure, but never completely. In order to avoid disproportionate fatigue and also to prevent injury, this type of exercise leaves you roughly two reps away from muscle failure (2 Reps In Reserve, RIR).
3. USE YOUR SHOULDER BLADES
The more your shoulders are forward during the exercise, the more the anterior delts do the work. They almost literally crawl in front of the pectoral muscle, leaving it largely untouched. For that reason alone, it’s important that you squeeze and pull your shoulder blades down, and maintain this position throughout the exercise. In addition, this position makes you much more stable and stronger, and it reduces the risk of shoulder pain due to the bench press.
Your lower back will have a slight curve in this position, probably smaller than with the flat bench press. Your upper back and buttocks remain firmly on the bench at all times, your feet are firmly on the floor, slightly back if desired.
Many bench pressers squeeze their shoulder blades together neatly, but get out of position as soon as they lift the bar. This especially happens if the bar is positioned quite high, something you can’t adjust in every gym. If your shoulders come forward as you lift, realign your body while holding the bar above you, before lowering it.
4. USE A MEDIUM-WIDE GRIP
The optimal grip for bench press does not exist, since it also depends on the length of your arms. If you have long arms, you will usually grip the bar a little wider. But in general, a medium-wide grip is best, meaning slightly wider than shoulder-width. When you lower the bar (see also point 6) your elbows point outwards at an angle of about 45 degrees to your torso.
An even wider grip activates the chest more, but puts your shoulders in an unfavorable position. If you want to perform the exercise in this way, with your elbows pointing out more, limit the range of motion by lowering the bar slightly above the chest surface rather than touching the chest.
A narrower grip puts more emphasis on your triceps, which puts less strain on your chest, especially in the extended position at the bottom of the movement. The close-grip bench is therefore recommended when you want to train your triceps and not so much your chest.
5. MOVE THE BAR IN A CURVE
Many bench pressers move the bar in a vertical line. That’s wrong. The route the barbell has to take from the top to the bottom position is actually a curve.
When you have lifted the bar, bring it directly to the starting position, which is directly above your shoulders. Then lower the bar to your chest, so slightly obliquely downwards. With the flat bench press, the bar approaches or touches the middle of your chest, with the incline bench press the top, just above your nipples. Your forearms are then perpendicular to the floor (see image). Then press the bar back along the same curve to the starting position, so directly above your shoulders.
Moving the barbell vertically goes against your body’s natural movement pattern and is bad for your shoulders. But don’t lower the bar too obliquely (too low on your chest), because that puts unnecessary pressure on both your biceps and shoulders.
6. DON’T GO TOO DEEP
Yes, a full range of motion is usually the most effective for muscle growth, but it should not be at the expense of the safety of the exercise.
Some people experience an uncomfortable feeling when they lower the bar that far, especially in the shoulders. If that is also the case with you, feel free to stop the movement a little above your chest. Safety above range of motion, especially when it comes to the vulnerable shoulder joint!
7. CRUSH THE BAR
The toughest part of the exercise is when you push the bar back up, also known as the concentric phase. You can further increase the tension on your chest by trying to bring your hands together while pressing. Like you want to crush the bar. This is basically the same principle as that of the dumbbell squeeze press.
8. USE DUMBBELLS
You probably do the bench press mainly to get a bigger chest. Keep in mind, however, that the barbell bench press is not a pure chest exercise. The front shoulder heads play an important role and if you’re not careful, they even take the lead.
If you want to limit the role of the shoulders, it is best to perform the incline press with dumbbells. Because you can bring your hands together with dumbbells, one of the most important functions of the chest muscles, you get a peak contraction that is not achieved when training with a barbell. With the barbell bench press, after roughly a third of the movement, mainly the shoulders and triceps come into action, while the chest is actually only trained isometrically.
The dumbbell chest press is therefore seen by many as the basic exercise for the chest, while the barbell bench press is more of a strength exercise for the entire upper body (nothing wrong with that, by the way).
Other possible alternatives to the barbell incline bench press are the landmine chest press and – somewhat less conventionally – the reverse grip barbell bench press.
Also perform the dumbbell chest press with relatively light weights, for example for 10-15 reps and 2 RIR. Heavy weights are difficult to coordinate and you can’t lift them out (or you have to have this at your disposal).