Let’s get the science out of the way; the pectoralis major is comprised of a clavicular and a sternocostal head, or better known as the upper and lower pec respectively. When flat benching, both heads are stressed evenly. The anterior deltoids also come into play, and the triceps are used during lock out.
Incline benching puts more stress on the upper pec and anterior deltoids, and the triceps are also used for lock out.
Knowing this, the question becomes: which press is better for building chest muscle?
Incline Bench Press
Incline bench is an alternative exercise to the flat bench that places the back of the bench at a 15 to 60 degree angle. The general consensus seems to be that an incline of 15-30 degrees will put optimal stress on the upper pec while keeping the recruitment of the front delts to a minimum.
Most incline benches that cannot be adjusted usually have a 45 degree angle. If you have an adjustable bench, the higher the back is angled, the more the front delts will be involved.
Any bench you use that is higher than a 45 degree angle works mostly anterior deltoids. Because of this, I do not consider this movement an incline bench press.
Since the incline bench puts more stress on the upper pec, it will help to fill in an area of the chest that seems to be lagging for many lifters. The amount of stress placed upon the upper pec will vary depending on the degree of the incline bench and the grip width that you use on the bar.
IFBB Pro Jay Cutler mentions “I personally feel upper pec development is very important for a bodybuilder. So I concentrate more on the incline bench than I do on the flat bench.”
Bodybuilder Mike Francois agrees that incline benching is great for hitting the upper pecs and “a grip that is just a little bit wider than shoulder’s width really hits my upper pecs best.”
Incline bench helps put your shoulders in a safer position for pressing. The inclined position will help reduce strains and keep your rotator cuffs healthy when proper form is used.
Dumbbell incline benching is a great way to add in extra upper pec work after you’ve already pre-exhausted your pecs and triceps.
Incline benching is a great exercise to build muscle, but there are also some negatives associated with the lift.
Incline benching recruits the same muscles used in other pressing movements. If you do not have a balanced routine, you will further facilitate muscular imbalances that can create shoulder problems later on down the road.
The incline bench press is temperamental and if you do not correctly perform the exercise, you may not work the muscles you think you are working. Worse than this, you could get injured. For instance, if your butt comes off of the incline bench, you are essentially doing a flat bench press.
If you’ve never tried the incline bench, you will notice that there is a limited “groove” that you have in order to press optimally. Be sure to get used to the movement and learn what works best for you before you load the bar up and risk injury.
Flat Bench Press
The flat bench press is arguably the most popular exercise in the gym. When someone finds out you lift weights, inevitably the first thing that comes out of most people’s mouths are “how much do you bench?”
Because we have a National Bench Day, there must be something to the flat bench press. It is great for building your chest up, right?
There are plenty of articles and videos that teach you how to get the most out of the flat barbell bench press. With so much information available about this exercise, it's obvious that the bench press is a worthwhile exercise, right?
IFBB Pro Eddie Robinson says “I feel the flat bench press, with a wide grip is best for overall pec development…”
The flat bench is one of the “big 3 exercises” that I feel need to be incorporated into a training program in order to be the most effective and build a balanced and muscular physique.
Flat benching requires minimal equipment and is a natural movement. This means that with a little practice, you can start adding weight to the bar and building some muscle.
By simply changing grip width, you can put pressure on different areas of your chest which can be used dynamically in a training routine. Using dumbbells on flat bench will give you the benefits of a barbell bench press while giving you the ability to move your arms in a more natural fashion.
The flat bench press puts your shoulders in a position that could possibly cause injury. Be sure to learn proper form to minimize the chances that you may get hurt.
Earlier I mentioned that there are a lot of articles and how to videos that demonstrate how to bench. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of very bad information out there; not everything you read is correct.
Dorian Yates states “I don’t even include flat benching in my pec routine because I think it stresses the front deltoids far too much to be an effective exercise for building the chest. Also, the angle of the flat bench press puts the pec tendons in a vulnerable position. Most shoulder injuries and overuse injuries can be stemmed from flat benching. Many torn pecs in bodybuilding have been the result of heavy flat bench presses.”
It is not uncommon to hear about someone who has developed shoulder issues from flat benching. It seems that bench press injuries can happen to the best of us. Make sure to do your best to perform this exercise correctly.
Chest Routine Suggestions
If you’ve never incorporated an incline bench press into your routine, I have a few tips to add in some incline work to your routine.
If you flat bench but always seem to have hurt shoulders afterwards:
Test the waters with incline barbell benching. The incline is going to help put your shoulders in a better, stronger and more protected position.
Start light and do the same volume you normally do on flat bench, whether it is 3 sets of 8 reps, 5 sets of 5 reps, or 10 sets of 10 reps. Skip flat benching for a while to see how your shoulders react to the incline, and if shoulder pain subsides.
If you find the pain subsides but you are missing flat bench, try doing a dumbbell flat bench press. Dumbbell bench pressing will let your arms move in a more natural pattern and you will still hit the lower and upper pec evenly without the pain.
If you like flat barbell bench pressing and want to add in some incline spice:
Test the waters and see if you prefer barbell or dumbbell incline bench pressing.
Adding in dumbbell incline bench pressing after your barbell flat benching will give your upper pecs a great workout.
Since you’ve fatigued your upper and lower pec while barbell benching, there is no need to do a huge volume of incline benching to get the added benefit.
If you prefer barbell incline benching, that is okay. Doing exercises effectively and safely is the name of the game, so if you feel more comfortable with a barbell in your hands, run with it.
If you want to switch up your chest routine all together:
If you like everything about your current routine but would like to switch up your chest routine, I have a suggestion for you.
- 3 sets of 8: Decline Barbell Bench
- 3 sets of 8: Incline Dumbbell Bench
- 3 sets of 12: Incline Dumbbell Flyes
- 3 sets of 12: Pec Dec
Switching your current chest routine for this will give your muscles a wakeup call and help you develop the chest you’ve always wanted.
So is incline bench better than flat bench for muscle building? Flat bench places an even amount of stress on the lower and upper pec while also putting your shoulders in a vulnerable position. Incline bench puts more stress on the upper pec and front delts and has a steeper learning curve when it comes to proper form.
When deciding which exercise to use to build chest mass, weigh the pros and cons. Take a look in the mirror and see where you need development. There are IFBB Pros that tell you if you have a laggy upper chest, you should incorporate incline benching. There are also many people who build a great chest using only flat bench.
Remember that both dumbbells and barbells add different dynamics to your training; ones you might not have thought about. Barbells are tried and true muscle builders. They allow you to really stack on the weight, work stabilizer muscles and use the bar to help balance and keep your press even.
Dumbbells on the other hand are a completely different monster. You have to use even more stabilizer muscle strength to keep the dumbbells positioned correctly while pressing. The more stabilizer muscles being used generally means the more muscle that can be built. Greater stabilizer muscle inclusion also means there is a greater chance for injury, especially if you try to do more than you are ready for.
Your chest programming should be determined by how fast your body recovers and builds muscle. It's important to choose your exercises wisely. The amount of incline bench, grip width variety, or barbell and dumbbell variations can make a difference in your training and results.