The bench press is one of the most commonly performed exercises in the gym. It's the foundational upper body pushing exercise, and is great for building both strength and muscle in the chest, shoulders and triceps.
The incline bench press is a popular variation of the bench press, that works all the same muscles, but has the lifter in more upright position, resulting in an emphasis on the upper portion or the clavicular head of the chest.
And while almost any angle of the bench will work the upper chest, many people get it wrong when they want to emphasize the upper chest.
You see, the angle of the bench has an impact on where you'll be placing the emphasis. And if you get it wrong, you'll take away from your target muscles, and allow other muscles to take over.
In this post, we'll go over how to perform the incline bench press, what the ideal angle of the bench should be depending on your target muscles, then we'll look into how you can incorporate the incline bench press into your training and finish off with a sample 'push' day workout that makes use of the incline bench press.
Sample 'push' day workout
How to Perform the Incline Bench Press
Like we mentioned above, the incline bench press is a great movement to target the chest, shoulders and triceps, with a slight emphasis on the upper portion of the chest and the front delts. It can be done with either a barbell, dumbbells or a machine, and be effectively used to build both strength and muscle in the upper body.
To perform the incline bench press:
Set your bench angle to 30-50 degrees
Start with a light load of either an empty barbell, a light pair of dumbbells or a light stack on a machine
Try to have a spotter with you
Sit on the bench with a slight arch in your back
Start with the weight down at your collarbone level, with arms bent and wrists stacked on top of your elbows
Press the weight up by driving your hands and elbows up, directly in a straight line
Squeeze the chest hard at the top and lock out the elbows
Lower the weight back down with control and repeat.
Check out the video below by Buff Dudes to see a demonstration of this exercise!
Ideal Bench Angle For the Incline Bench Press
When it comes to the incline bench press, you can alter the angle that your bench sits at to target different muscle groups more. Generally, a higher, more upright position will target the shoulders more, and the flatter the bench is, the more you'll emphasize the upper chest.
According to this study conducted by David Rodríguez-Ridao, "An inclination of 30° produces greater activation of the upper portion of the pectoralis major", and that "Inclinations greater than 45° produce significantly higher activation of the anterior deltoid and decrease the muscular performance of the pectoralis major."
And there also seems to be an increase in upper pec activation as the angles continue to rise, upwards of 45 degrees. However, this does come at the cost of much higher front delt activation, which can limit the amount of weight we're pressing.
So even though the muscle activation of the upper pecs are higher, this does not necessarily mean that it's a better exercise for the clavicular head.
Unless you have very overdeveloped shoulders, an incline of 45 degrees and above is going to severely limit the mechanical tensions that we can place onto our upper chest.
We'd rather get the tension placed on the upper chest instead of the delts, even if that means slightly less activation of them. The higher the angle of the incline, the closer the exercise comes to resembling a shoulder or overhead press, which primarily works the front and side deltoids.
We'd also recommend an incline of 45 degrees and above for targeted work of the deltoids. Taking a bench angle of 45 degrees will result in high activation of both the front delts and upper chest. Then, as you continue to increase the bench angle, the front delt's activation will become more and more pronounced.
For a shoulder-focused press, we'd recommend a bench angle of around 80 degrees. This will allow you to work the shoulders the best, with some activation of the upper chest.
And the reason that we recommend an 80 degree shoulder press over a straight 90 degree bench angle is due to the fact that many people experience shoulder pain and injuries when shoulder pressing from a completely upright position.
Plus, it's also not your strongest position to press the weight over your head. You'll notice that when you do a standing military press, your body naturally arches the back to put yourself in a better position to press overhead.
And this can be aided by setting the bench to an incline of 80 degrees instead of a straight 90 degrees.
By training at an incline of 80 degrees, not only do you keep your shoulders safer and allow yourself to train for longer, you're also maximizing your output potential and mechanical tension placed on the muscles.
So to recap:
Take a bench angle of 30 degrees if you're mainly targeting the upper chest
Take a bench angle of 45 degrees if you want high activation of both the upper chest and the delts
Take a bench angle of 80 degrees if you're mainly targeting the delts
Anything in between will vary the emphasis appropriately as you increase or decrease the incline angle
Incorporating the Incline Bench Press Into Your Training
When you come to incorporate the incline bench press into your program, you should generally look to perform it in the heavier rep ranges of 5-10, as one of your primary lifts in your workout. This means, done towards the beginning of your session, so that you have the most energy and focus for it.
Most of the time, it'll be done with 3-4 sets of 5-12 reps, depending on whether you want to focus more on building strength or building muscle.
If you run a workout split like Push, Pull, Legs or Upper/Lower, look to perform it twice a week for the best results and application to your flat barbell and overhead press.
You should look to do the incline bench press with either dumbbells or a barbell depending on what you used for your flat bench pressing.
For example, if you did the flat barbell bench press at the start of your workout, you should look to perform the incline bench press with dumbbells after that.
Likewise, if you want to use dumbbells on your flat bench press on a given day, do your incline bench press first, loading more heavily with a barbell.
However if you're solely focused on building muscle, and aren't too worried about building any raw or functional strength, then doing the incline bench press on a machine or smith machine would be the better option.
This is due to the lesser need for stabilization during the movement, resulting in less overall engagement throughout the body, but a better opportunity for you to place the load onto the target muscles (upper chest and shoulders in this case).
The lower stabilization demands allows for more hypertrophy in the target muscles, making machines the best option if you're solely looking to stimulate hypertrophy in the upper chest, front delts and triceps.
Sample 'Push' Workout
We'll finish off with a sample 'push' workout, focusing on building both strength and muscle, making use of the incline bench press.
5-10 Minute Warmup
Flat Barbell Bench Press - 4 x 4-6
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press - 3 x 8-10
Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press - 4 x 12
Cable Crossovers - 2 x 12-15
Single Arm Cable Pushdowns - 3 x 10-12
Cable Lean-Away Lateral Raises - 3 x 10-15
This workout could be done in conjunction with 'pull' and leg workouts, to make up a complete Push, Pull, Legs program that's effective at building both strength and muscle at the same time.
If you would like to see some more effective, pre-designed workouts, you can do so by checking out our training programs, including some free ones as well!
In conclusion, the incline bench press is a great movement that you can do to build strength in the chest, shoulders and triceps, that can be modified and altered to shift the emphasis accordingly, depending on your goals.
The ideal angle of the incline bench falls between 30 and 60 degrees, with the higher end emphasizing the deltoids a little more, and the lower end focusing a little more on the upper chest or the clavicular head of the pecs.
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