Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
The granddaddy of all exercises, let alone the chest builder that displays upper body strength and swells ego-laden heads all around the world is the unparalleled barbell bench press. Of course if done properly and said ego was left home to wither away in self-pity, the uncrowned king of the weightlifting world is a very effective tool for adding upper body strength and muscle.
Little compares to the ability to properly lift an impressive amount of weight off your chest with a loaded barbell. Others can sub in for this beast of a movement using such exercises as dumbbell press and machine press, but they don’t measure up to the sheer brutality of the barbell variation.
But what about the close relative of the flat bench, the incline bench barbell press? Sure, we all know the obvious difference of placing more stress to the upper pec region, but how does it compare as an overall chest builder? What are the real differences when taking mechanics, angle of stress and efficiency into consideration?
Flat bench barbell press
As mentioned earlier, the flat bench version of the barbell press doesn’t need a formal introduction due to its popularity. We all know it's the very first exercise performed on Mondays around the world. Despite its fame, few actually execute this exercise properly.
Lie down on the bench with an arch in your lower back, with your glutes and upper back in contact with the bench. Keeping your entire body tight, lower the bar with your elbows at roughly a 45 degree angle from your torso. When the bar touches (not bounces) your lower chest area drive the bar back up to the start position with a slight bend in your elbows.
Be sure to drive through your feet but not so much that your butt comes off the bench. Also, during the lift, shift your shoulders down to the floor and toward your waist to place the focus on your pecs and to protect your shoulders.
Pros: Because it is one of the elite upper body multi-joint movements, the flat bench press can pack on mass and strength. Utilizing the majority of muscle tissue from the pecs, shoulders and triceps, this exercise is not only effective but efficient as well. Few upper body moves exist where so much weight can be used for so many muscle groups. The flat bench press develops muscle, strength and power.
Cons: Of course, when done improperly and letting the ego sneak into your program, the flat bench press can be a devil in disguise. Too much weight, loose form and a contortionist back can spell certain injury. The key is to not treat the bench press like some sort of max day every day. Look at the flat bench press like any other exercise to help build muscle safely and effectively. Performing the exercise properly is paramount when considering your longevity with resistance training.
Incline bench barbell press
Always reserved for upper pec work, the incline bench barbell press is a far more difficult and challenging move for most. Despite the difference in angle the incline version still has its need for proper form and technique. Often relegated as a secondary exercise, the incline press can do the job of packing on upper chest mass quickly.
Lie on an incline bench similarly to the flat bench version with your upper back and glutes contacting the bench and a slight arch in your lower back. Squeeze your shoulders back toward the floor and your rib cage expanded up toward the ceiling.
Lower the bar down to your upper pec area just below your neck and your elbows at a slight angle to your torso. Touch (not bounce) the bar to your upper chest and press the bar back up to the starting position without locking your elbows.
Pros: As I mentioned, the incline bench barbell press can pack on some serious mass to the upper pecs. When performed properly the incline press places a tremendous stretch on the upper pec region requiring a bit less weight lifted than the flat bench version. Although this exercise falls into the upper chest builder category, it will still stress the entire pec region to some extent. And since the upper chest area is often neglected on many physiques, a comprehensive chest program that includes the incline press will effectively shore-up any weaknesses.
Cons: As with every exercise (especially ones for the chest) ego must be something left at the gym door. Too much weight used can not only be detrimental to your gains but also sets you up for potential injury and subsequently burnout.
Another all too often mistake during the incline press is the use of a short range of motion. When the bar is stopped several inches or even half way down you neglect the all too important stretch of the muscle tissue. More stretch equals more contraction and in the end that spells more mass and strength. Use less weight, a full range of motion and see better gains.
As these are two exercise are very similar in execution they have a few significant differences in effect. Common sense would tell you that the flat version stresses the middle and lower portions of the pecs and the incline would stress the upper area. Well, the truth is that they do stress their respective areas of the chest; however, they still both stress the entire area to some degree. When done properly and the shoulders are set as described both will do their jobs in packing on the mass to the entire chest.
The incline bench barbell press does seem to stretch the chest more requiring a longer range of motion. This is usually why less weight is needed and bad form is sometimes used when ego creeps in. In many cases the incline barbell press is rarely used with any regularity by most gym-goers with the flat bench version always included in most programs. Weak upper pecs and a larger, stronger middle and lower chest seem to be the norm in most gyms.
Be sure to use both versions in your program even starting with the incline press first in your routine. Starting your next chest program with a focus on upper pec work will slowly but surely shore-up your weakness and balance out your chest for a fully proportioned upper body.