Training Talk: Which Bench Variation Builds Your Chest Best?

Training Talk: Which Bench Variation Builds Your Chest Best?
Is barbell bench press a safe exercise? Is incline, decline, or flat benching better than the other? Find out in this month's edition of training talk!

“Training Talk” is back with a whole new topic and a new opportunity for you, the M&S community, to share your insights and wisdom to help inform and inspire the masses about another topic that is sure to spark conversation in gyms everywhere.

This particular discussion will be even more intriguing to you if you happen to be reading this on a Monday which we all know to be International Chest Day.

By now you’ve likely figured out what our topic is going to be?

The Barbell Bench Press.

While many exercises spark conversations among athletes of the iron, there is likely no more controversial of a lift in the game than the barbell bench press. The first question that comes to mind when someone knows you lift is “how much do you bench?”

In powerlifting, it’s one of the big three and the only upper body specific movement. In bodybuilding, it’s either the greatest chest movement ever or the one-way ticket to certain doom in the form of injury. While there are many different directions to go here, we’re going to cover the barbell version of the bench press for right now.

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To Bench or Not to Bench?

Pressing movements are staples in chest routines.

No one is disputing that fact. It’s how you press that sparks the conversation.

Barbell movements have their advantages and disadvantages so the argument can be made either way.

Related: 10 Training Tips to Maximize Your Chest Workouts

Advantages of benching

1. Both arms and both sides of the chest are working together to move one object, the bar. Because of that, you can perform the lift with a heavier weight than you would if you were to use that same weight in total with dumbbells.

2. There is no question about the weight you’re moving. The weight isn’t on a track or fixed path so whatever you’re holding when you un-rack it is only going to be pressed by your strength. There is a sense of certainty when it comes to benching which is why this is the movement that’s questioned so much when measuring strength.

3. Since it’s a free weight movement, it has to be stabilized so the barbell bench is going to work your muscles in a way that machines simply can’t. That’s why beginners are so encouraged to add it to their new programs.

Disadvantages of benching

1. Your shoulders are in a compromising position. They are pinned onto the bench so they can’t rotate and assist. Because of this, many trainers avoid the bench because of the risk of injury to the shoulder area.

2. If you don’t follow proper form when benching, it could lead to a pec tear or other significant injury. No one grows when sitting at the house injured so some folks will play it safe and opt for another pressing movement.

3. If you get stuck and can’t press the weight, then you’re pinned on the bench. So aside from the embarrassment, this is yet another risk for injury. Because of this, dumbbells are considered the better choice.

What it might come down to is whatever your goals are. If you’re wanting to add serious strength and size, then the barbell version could very well be for you because of the advantages listed above. If the risk isn’t worth the reward for you, then you’re going to pass on the bar and find another pressing movement.

Sample Chest Routine with Barbell Bench Press
Exercise Sets Reps
1. Flat Barbell Bench Press 5 5
2. Incline Barbell Bench Press 3 8
3. Flat Dumbbell Fly 3 10
4. Machine Decline Press 3 12
Sample Chest Routine without Barbell Bench Press
Exercise Sets Reps
1. Low Angle Incline Dumbbell Press 3 8
2. Seated Chest Press Machine 3 8
3. Cable Crossover 3 10
4. Pushups 3 failure

All About Angles

So for the sake of moving the conversation along, you decide you need barbell movements in your plan. Now you need to decide what version of the barbell bench press is best for your particular goals.

Do you stick with the flat bench? Do you go incline? How about decline?

Let’s dive into the ups and downs of all three versions.

Flat Barbell Bench Press

If it was good enough for Arnold, then it should be good enough for you, right? Back in the Golden Era of bodybuilding, the flat bench was the foundational movement for chest. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Whether it was because it’s that good of a movement or that knowledge wasn’t as prominent as it is today can be debated but if you time traveled back to the 1970’s and asked about chest, flat barbell bench would be the answer.

If you compete in powerlifting, then you’re pretty much stuck for the obvious reason. The flat barbell press is one of the big three. It’s also a test of endurance in pro football combines. Athletes are required to bench 225 pounds for the most reps possible as a way to determine strength and stamina.

For other athletes, the flat bench is looked down upon because of the difficulty to isolate the pecs and for the injury reasons we covered earlier. There is also the temptation to put weight over form to see how strong you are.

So the bench can become an ego lift which would take away from the overall goal of improving chest development and overall fitness. Fortunately, you have two other choices if you decide flat benching isn’t for you.

Allmax athlete Steve Kuclo performing Incline Bench Press

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Incline bench is more popular among bodybuilders because of the emphasis that is placed on the upper pecs. Developing your upper chest can give you that “shelf” like look that is showcased in the iconic side chest pose of Arnold from back in his prime.

A well-known statement in bodybuilding circles is there has never been a bodybuilder penalized for an over-developed upper chest. Because of this, most chest routines of bodybuilding champions include the incline version of the barbell bench.

The down sides to it are twofold. First, since the angle is higher you won’t be able to bench press as much weight as you could if you were on a flat bench. Some athletes prefer to be able to use that extra load so they save incline for later in the workout after they go heavy on flat.

Related: Old School Gains - Build Muscle Like an Iron-Game Legend

Second, the shoulders are more involved and this takes emphasis on the pecs. Most incline benches are angled between 30 and 45 degrees which may concern some lifters. Instead, they take an adjustable bench and place it in a squat rack so they can perform inclines at a lower angle. This can help maximize upper pec development while minimizing delt recruitment.

The problem here is that this all depends on if they can get a bench and if the squat rack is available. There is also more time committed to setting your station up. If after all of that is considered you decide incline barbell isn’t for you either, then you have one more choice.

Decline Barbell Bench Press

The decline isn’t anywhere near as popular as its two predecessors. I’ve been to gyms where the decline bench actually had dust on it. I would argue that you should give it more consideration.

A study published in the The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research1 back in 1997 concluded that the decline bench did more for lower chest activation than the incline while upper pec activation was similar.  Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates is a big advocate of the decline press for this reason.

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The obvious downside to this movement is the risk. If you don’t have a spotter and the weight is too heavy, you’re at serious risk for injury because of the position you’re in. The bar could come down on your chest or even your neck.

The range of motion is also shorter so some athletes feel they get nothing out of it due to the limited path of travel. For this reason and others, dips are the favored exercise for the lower pecs.

Join the Conversation

Now it’s impossible for us to cover all angles (see what I did there?) and topics regarding the barbell bench. Besides, that’s what you’re here for.

It’s now up to you to chime in with your thoughts and tips for barbell bench movements. The questions we would like for you to answer for us are below:

  1. Do you prefer barbell presses for chest or something else?
  2. If you do use the barbell, do you go flat, incline, decline, or all of the above?

Of course you can share any other thoughts you may have about this topic. We want to hear from you so don’t be shy.

Your comments can help someone else and as always, your participation is appreciated by all of us at M&S.