Incline Bench Press Vs Flat – Introduction
Between the incline bench press vs flat bench press, what’s best for your chest?
The bench press is THE classic chest exercise.
Bodybuilders do it to build bigger pecs, while powerlifters use it to develop and test their upper body strength.
Monday is National Bench Press Day in gyms all around the world and, when more than a couple of lifters get together, invariably, the conversation soon turns to how much they can bench press.
While the overhead press is arguably the more functional pressing exercise and a better, more honest test of pressing strength, you won’t find many exercisers who don’t do some type of bench press.
There are several bench press variations to choose from, including:
- flat barbell bench pressing,
- incline bench press,
- decline bench press,
- dumbbell bench press,
- machine bench press, etc., and each one can help you reach your training goals.
This article contrasts and compares the two main bench press variations – flat bench vs incline press – so you can decide which one is best for you.
Incline Bench Press vs Flat Contrasts
Flat Bench Press 101
The standard bench press is probably the most popular chest exercise, although push-ups come a close second.
The bench press is a relatively new strength training exercise and only really became popular during the late 1940s.
Before that, if you wanted to work your chest, your choices were limited to dips, floor presses, and the humble push-up.
The bench press is a compound exercise involving several muscles and joints working together.
The major muscle groups trained by the bench press are:
Known as the pecs for short and basically your chest muscles.
There are three sets of pectoral muscles:
- clavicular or upper pec fibers,
- costal or lower pec fibers,
- and sternal or middle pectoral fibers.
Flat bench presses hit all three pectoral muscles relatively equally.
The shoulder muscles.
There are three deltoids:
- anterior for front deltoids,
- medial/middle, and
The anterior deltoids are most active during bench presses.
Located on the back of your upper arms, the triceps are your main elbow extenders.
The bench press works your entire chest and is ideal for heavy weights for low reps.
As such, it can be used to build strength as well as muscle size, hence its popularity with all types of exercisers, including powerlifters, athletes, and bodybuilders.
Like any exercise, there are pros and cons to the flat bench press:
Easy to learn
The bench press is a relatively straightforward exercise.
Beginners can do it using an empty bar and increase the load over several weeks and months.
While some balance and coordination are required to bench press correctly, most lifters should be able to pick it up quite quickly.
Also, the bench press is easier to perform for many overweight beginners who do not yet have the ability to do bodyweight exercises like pushups.
The bench press can be modified for all training goals.
Whether you train for fitness, hypertrophy, strength, or endurance, the bench press can help.
Good for building strength
Most people can flat bench press more weight than they can incline bench press.
That means that the flat bench press is the best option for increasing muscle strength.
A compound exercise
The bench press trains all of your upper body pushing muscles simultaneously.
As such, it makes good use of your training time.
Risk of injury
Getting trapped under a heavy barbell can cause serious injury.
Bench presses are best done with a spotter or in a power rack with the safety bars set just above your chest.
Not the best chest building exercise
If you’ve got short arms and a barrel chest, you may find that the bench press is not an effective exercise for hypertrophy.
The range of motion will be relatively small, and your deltoids and triceps will end up doing more work than your pecs.
Some lifters may find dumbbell bench presses more productive.
Incline Bench Press 101
Incline bench presses are done on either an adjustable or fixed incline bench.
Angles vary, but between 30 to a 45-degree angle is generally best.
The incline bench press works the same muscles as the flat bench press, i.e.,
- Pectoralis major
- Triceps brachii
However, the incline bench press emphasizes your clavicular/upper pecs and anterior deltoids.
That’s not to say the rest of the pecs are not working during incline bench presses, but the upper pecs are more active.
For this reason, bodybuilders often do incline bench presses to work their pecs from a different angle.
Going much steeper than a 45-degree tends to put more stress on the deltoids and less on the upper pecs.
Very steep incline bench presses are more of an overhead press exercise than a bench press variation.
The pros and cons of the incline bench press vs flat bench press are:
Better for hypertrophy
Incline bench presses target the upper pecs and involve a wider range of motion.
This means that, for some exercisers, they’re better for bodybuilding.
A compound exercise
Like flat benching, the incline bench press uses multiple muscles.
As such, they make good use of your training time.
Your progress will soon stall if you limit your chest workouts to flat bench presses.
Adding incline bench presses to your upper body workouts could help prevent plateaus and ensure that your workouts continue to be productive.
You’re going to need an incline bench to do incline bench presses.
That’s no problem if you train in a well-equipped commercial gym, but if you work out at home, you’ll either need an adjustable bench or a flat AND an incline bench.
Depending on space and your budget, you may need to choose between these two exercises.
The angle of your arms and a broader range of motion means that incline bench presses can cause shoulder joint pain for some exercisers.
The steeper the angle, the less shoulder-friendly this exercise becomes.
That said, a slight incline can actually help alleviate shoulder problems for some lifters.
Risk of injury
Just like flat bench presses, getting trapped under a heavy weight during inclines could cause serious injury.
Ideally, they should also be done with a spotter or in a power rack.
Not ideal for building strength
You won’t be able to incline bench press as much as you can flat bench press.
As such, incline bench presses are not so useful for developing pure strength.
However, they can be used as a complementary or an assistance exercise for flat bench presses.
Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press – Comparison
Now you know a little more about incline and flat bench presses, let’s judge these two exercises by a few different criteria:
Strength is your ability to generate maximal force.
It’s usually expressed as your one-repetition maximum, or 1RM for short.
While both exercises can make you stronger, most people can flat bench press more than they can incline chest press.
Subsequently, the flat bench press is usually better for building strength.
It’s also worth noting that the flat bench press is part of powerlifting, while incline bench presses are not one of the competitive lifts.
Winner: Flat bench press!
Hypertrophy (muscle growth)
Bodybuilders use flat and incline bench presses to build bigger muscles.
They’re both effective hypertrophy exercises.
That said, incline bench presses may be slightly more effective because they involve a larger range of motion and also target the upper pecs, which are not as involved in flat bench presses.
Winner: Incline bench presses (but only barely)!
Ease of learning
In terms of performance, the flat and incline bench presses are very similar.
The movements are all but identical, and the only real difference is the angle of the arms.
However, the flat bench press is potentially more straightforward because the weight should be more stable and easier to control.
Winner: Flat bench press!
Because of the risk of getting pinned under your barbell if you cannot complete a rep, both exercises are potentially dangerous and are best done in a power rack or with a spotter.
If you have to train on your own, make sure you stop your set several reps before failure or, better still, use dumbbells so you can lower them to the floor if you cannot lock out your arms.
Winner: It’s a draw!
Both types of bench presses can lead to shoulder injuries.
However, a steep incline is more likely to cause shoulder problems than a low incline or flat bench press.
In fact, some lifters find a 10-degree angle more comfortable than completely flat bench presses.
If either type of bench press hurt your shoulders, try using a pair of dumbbells as they tend to be more joint-friendly than benching with a barbell.
Winner: It’s a draw!
The incline bench press is a variation of the flat bench press.
Most lifters tend to do flat bench presses as their primary chest exercise and do incline presses as an accessory or secondary exercise.
That said, there are variations of both exercises that you can use to keep your chest workout productive and interesting, including:
- Dumbbell flat and incline bench presses
- Band/chains – to increase the resistance at lockout
- Paused bench press – pause with the bar on your chest for 2-3 seconds between reps
- Slow eccentric – lower the bar in 3-5 seconds and then lift explosively
- Constant tension – no pause at the bottom and don’t fully lock out at the top
- Wide grip to increase pec activation
- Narrow grip to increase triceps activation
Winner: It’s a draw!
How To Bench Press for Chest Growth
Incline Bench Press Vs Flat – Wrapping Up
If you want to build a bigger, more muscular chest, the incline bench press is probably your best bet.
However, remember that it emphasizes your upper chest, and you should still include flat and decline chest exercises in your workouts to develop your pecs from different angles.
But, if you want to build strength, the flat bench press is the better option.
You’ll be able to lift more weight, and the flat bench press is also an accepted measure of strength, as well as being part of powerlifting.
If you can’t choose between these two exercises, maybe because you want to build muscle strength AND size, why not do them both?
You could do flat benches one day and then incline bench presses a few days later.
Or, do a 6-week training cycle of one exercise and then switch to the other for your next training phase.
You could even do both exercises in the same workout.
Experiment with the order to determine what works best for you.
Choosing between similar exercises like incline and flat bench presses is often hard.
That’s why a lot of lifters do both, so they can enjoy all the benefits on offer.
But, if that’s not a practical option for you, always pick the one that best matches your training goals.
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