Since before the Golden Era of bodybuilding, the bench press has been a staple exercise for building muscle mass. While considered a more basic exercise, the benefits to your chest and shoulder development are undeniable.
Legends like Reg Park, Bill Pearl and Serge Nubret were able to put up impressive pounds doing the bench press back in the day. Reg Park, 3 Time Mr. Universe, was in fact the first bodybuilder to bench press 500 pounds. They used both the incline and flat bench to gain super strength that helped then compete with some of the best on stage.
Currently, the Guinness Book of World Records has US bodybuilder Blaine Sumner as the record holder for heaviest bench press. He lifted 401.5 kg (just over 885 pounds) in a single bench press at the 2016 Arnold Sports Festival.
An impressive feat for anyone in bodybuilding and it goes to show that practice and hard work brings results.
Are you looking to make gains in your bench press (even if you aren’t trying to become the next Sumner)? Not sure if you should be using the incline vs flat bench?
Today we’re going to take a look at the incline vs flat bench. How they both:
- Work the chest and shoulder muscles
- The benefits to each
- Why one might work better than the other for certain goals
- Tips on how to effectively use these tools for our workout routine
Chest Muscles Explained
Let’s first take a look at the muscles that make up the chest wall and how they work. Then, we’ll get into the use of the incline vs flat bench and which is better.
The chest is made up of several muscles that work together to allow you to lift weights in different ways. Each muscle is activated and used to move the weight back and forth. As you move, the muscles tear slightly under the pressure of the weight.
Rest and recovery allow your body to repair the damage to your muscles by creating thicker muscle fibers and increasing the size of the overall muscle. The result is what you see on the outside over time in the form of muscle gains.
These are the muscles that make up the chest wall:
- Pectoralis major – the largest muscle in the chest. It is located under the breasts and is thick and fan like in its shape. Its job is to move, extend and maneuver your humerus (the long upper arm bone).
- Pectoralis minor – located under the pectoralis major, the pectoralis minor is thin and triangle shaped and is attached to the ribcage. It is the stabilizer of the scapula or the large shoulder bone.
- Pectoral fascia – the thin layer of tissue that surrounds your chest muscles and extends to the back. Your entire body has a thin layer of fascia that helps to connect all the pieces together.
- Subclavius muscle – this muscle forms the armpit and is used to move the shoulder up and down.
- Serratus anterior – located at the top of the rib cage on either side of the chest, this muscle is what brings your shoulder forward.
Other Muscles Used
When performing a bench press, regardless of position, you will use other muscles besides your chest muscles. Those muscles include:
- Deltoids – these muscles control movement in the shoulder joint. The anterior (front) deltoid), posterior (back) deltoid, and the lateral (side) deltoid all comprise the shoulder muscle. The anterior muscle is used when performing a bench press or incline press exercise.
- Triceps brachii – the muscle located in the back of the arm connecting the elbow and shoulder. Works at the beginning and the end of the bench press and incline press to lock the elbow.
When completing a bench press exercise, all these muscles are used in conjunction to create a successful rep. The anterior deltoid functional use is sometimes forgotten when discussing the bench press and muscles used. This study shows that the anterior deltoid shares an equal load with the pectoralis major when completing a barbell bench press.
How the Different Muscles are Used
Does one bench work better than the other for certain muscles?
If you are looking to work certain muscles, the incline vs flat bench might be a better option. Let’s take a look at what muscles are used for each type of bench.
The flat bench press is arguably the most common exercise done in a gym setting. Most gym goers have had to answer this question more than once: How much do you bench?
For some reason, Mondays have even been dubbed Bench Press Day. And its included in the “Big 3” of exercises, along with the squat and deadlift. It must be an important exercise if most everybody is including it in their workout routine, right?
Is it really better than the incline bench to grow your chest muscles?
Let’s find out.
For one, the flat bench press is versatile. You can do it using a barbell, dumbbells, weight machine or cable machine. You can change out your weight as needed to vary your workout and increase your muscle mass. And just by changing up your grip stance, you can activate the muscles in different ways.
The main muscles you will use when performing a standard flat bench press exercise are:
- Triceps brachii
- Pectoralis major
- Anterior deltoids
- Traps (secondary)
- Back (secondary)
Now, let’s take a look at the incline bench press.
It doesn’t get as much recognition as the flat bench press, but does that mean it’s not as good?
The incline bench press can be done with barbells and dumbbells as well as a weight machine. You can also change your grip on the incline bench to activate your muscles differently.
And, the main muscles used in the flat bench are the same ones used in the incline bench.
You shouldn’t be. The difference in the bench is not so much the muscles used, but the way those muscles are used.
When comparing the incline vs flat bench for aesthetics, the incline bench press is going to be better. It gives you an overall more balanced and sculpted look – if that’s what you’re going for.
In the chest wall, the lower pec is naturally thicker than the upper pec. That means that the upper pec needs to be worked more than the lower. This gives a more pleasing look to the chest muscles.
The flat bench works more of the entire chest muscle. The incline bench press will work more of the upper muscle.
Why is this important?
Picture this. You’re in the gym, and nearby a powerlifter or bodybuilder is working out without a shirt on. You notice even though he is ripped, it almost looks like he has man boobs.
Ever wondered why that is and how to avoid it?
Most of the time, this is caused by focusing too much on the lower pec using the flat bench press. The result is that the thinner upper pec is not worked as much as the lower pec. This causes the upper pec to not gain as much muscle mass as the lower pec.
What you then see visually is a more pronounced lower pec and an undefined upper pec.
Looking to get more defined chest muscles that look balanced? Then you will want to do more incline bench presses.
When comparing incline vs flat bench for weight, which do you think allows you to throw up more pounds?
If you think the incline bench, then you’d be wrong.
You actually are able to put up more weight when you are doing flat bench press workouts rather than using the incline bench.
Of course, with that increase in weights comes a greater chance of injury. Most shoulder injuries and torn pecs come from using the flat bench. People tend to overwork the muscles or put too much weight up without proper warm-up, causing injury.
Planning to do the flat bench press so you can increase your weight gains? Make sure you check out our tips at the end of this article to keep yourself safe and avoid injury.
Looking at the incline vs flat bench for strength, the flat bench will do a better job of providing overall chest strength.
If you are focused on bodybuilding and trying to decide in the incline vs flat bench is better, you’ll want to consider both.
The incline bench press benefits your workouts by offering a fuller range of motion while exercising over the flat bench. The superior range of motion provides better muscle gains and helps you reach your bodybuilding goals.
Varying your training is important when bodybuilding, and using both the incline and flat bench furthers your goals. This study shows similar chest and shoulder activation for competition style bench press and incline bench press. The incline presented better activation for biceps over triceps.
Incline Bench Angles
When using the incline bench press, you usually have two options. The gym will either have a stationary incline or a bench where you can adjust the angle.
Typically, you have the option to change the incline from a 0 degree angle up to 45 degrees. You can choose an interval of 15, 30 or 45 degrees. The difference you’ll notice when changing the incline ratio is a change in muscle activation.
Curious about what angle the incline bench should be for the best muscle activation?
Fourteen resistance trained men in their early 20’s were studied to determine the optimal angle to bench press. Each completed a total of six reps at 0, 30, 45, and -15 degree angles. They all were tested by surface electromyography (sEMG) to determine muscle activation at different phases.
Do you want to know what they determined is the optimal range for the greatest muscle activation? The results of the study showed an incline bench angle of 30 degrees or 45 degrees. For lower pec activation, 30 degrees is superior.
To go a step further, another study followed fifteen healthy men. They performed one rep of chest press exercise at 0, 28, 44, and 56 degrees to compare muscle activation. The test was performed on the pectoralis major at the sternocostal head as well as the clavicular head. They also tested the anterior deltoid and used the same type of sEMG to test muscle activation.
Here are the best incline angles for each muscle:
- Sternocostal head (lower pec) – 0 degrees
- Clavicular head (upper pec) – 44 degrees
- Anterior deltoid – 28 degrees
Results like these show that your incline angle matters when looking for muscle activation in specific areas of the chest. While the incline bench provides a greater availability of muscle activation, the flat bench is still necessary for a well rounded chest.
Which Should I Do First?
You might have noticed that some workout programs have you do incline before bench press.
Have you ever wondered what the reasoning is, or if it’s just a preference?
If you use both the incline and flat bench in your workout routine, you might be curious if using the incline or flat bench first is better.
Usually, any exercises that require the use of a bench will start with the flat bench press first. This is because you will be stronger on the flat bench press than the incline press. Also, the flat bench press is still the more popular exercise of the two movements.
Most programs require you to go beyond the point of failure if you are looking to increase your muscle mass. In order to do this, you’ll start out with the heaviest load you can until you max out. Once you’ve reached that point, you’ll switch to a lighter load and continue until you no longer can.
With this type of workout in mind, then using the incline bench first makes sense. You can load up with heavier weights in the beginning. Then, switch to the lighter weights on the flat bench press.
Proper Bench Press Tips
As promised, here are some tips to keep you safe and prevent injury. These tips can be used no matter what type of bench press you plan to do.
Get the Angle Right Every Time
Not sure how to determine the angle on the bench? There’s an app for that!
Download one to your phone so you can check the angle every time. It makes it easier when you want to change up the angle of the incline bench from one exercise to the next.
Get a Spotter
A spotter can help you with your form to make sure you are performing each exercise perfectly.
They can also:
- Check your stance
- Help with weight changes
- Help with incline angle changes
Use the Rack
If you don’t have a spotter, consider using the rack machine instead. You can set the safety bars above your torso, which will catch the bar if you were to drop it.
It avoids serious potential injury, and can help you with your form as well.
Get the Right Grip
Like the angle of the bench, you can change your grip for different muscle activation and to challenge yourself.
A close grip will work your triceps more whereas a wider grip will focus more on your chest muscles. A good rule to follow is the upper and lower arms should be at a perpendicular angle (90 degrees) when the upper arms are parallel to the floor. Position your grip on the bar so you can achieve this 90 degree angle.
Just make sure that whatever grip stance you are using, your hands are evenly spaced apart.
No Need to Dominate
Most people have a dominant side, or a side they favor more than the other.
When lifting a barbell, you want to be sure that you aren’t favoring one side over the other. You want to lift the bar with the weight distributed evenly for maximum benefits. It will also help you avoid overuse injury to your dominant side.
If you have trouble not favoring one side, try using dumbbells instead of the barbell. You can lift one arm at a time and work them both our equally.
Have a Stretching Routine
Stretching prior to working out is important no matter the type of workout you plan to do.
Proper stretching for your chest and shoulders helps to activate your muscles and prepare them for the workout. It also helps avoid injury to your shoulder and reduces the risk of torn pecs.
Stay in Control of the Bar at All Times
Make sure you are keeping yourself in control of the bar at all times. This is especially important when doing the incline bench press.
- Bounce the bar off your chest – it’s okay to touch your chest, but you don’t want it to bounce off your chest. If you have to do this, it means you are lifting too heavy of a weight and could cause you injury.
- Lower the bar to your stomach – this tip is more for doing the incline press. You want to keep the bar at the chest level. If not, then the bar will want to go further forward. If that happens, you risk losing your grip on the bar and dropping it.
- Increase the weight too fast – once you feel you’ve mastered a specific weight, you’re excited to move up. But don’t move up too fast. If you do, then you will likely deal with the other two tips above. If you feel ready, go just one weight size up and try it out for a rep or two to make sure it’s not too much.
Keep Your Feet on the Floor
While performing your bench presses, make sure that your feet stay flat on the floor at all times. Your feet will help stabilize you while performing the exercises and it will also give you more strength by providing a better base with the feet flat on the floor.
If you feel your feet rising, then you likely have too much weight and need to lower it back down. Alternatively, you can try benching with your feet flat on the bench instead of the floor. This works well for people with shorter legs who can’t comfortably lay on the bench and have their feet flat.
When it comes to incline vs flat bench press, the incline provides a superior range of motion over the flat press.
The flat press offers an overall chest activation while the incline bench focuses on the shoulders and upper chest.
The flat bench allows you to put up more weight for increased muscle mass than the incline bench.
If you are looking to just be able to put up more weight, then the flat bench will do that for you. Looking for a greater range of motion or a more well rounded, defined chest? Focus on the incline bench primarily.
Want the best of both worlds? Include both the incline bench and the flat bench press in your chest workouts. The incline press will focus on the upper chest muscles to help balance out your chest development and the flat bench press will add overall mass and strength to your upper body and to the chest muscles.
Do you have a preference for the incline bench or flat bench? If you like the incline bench, what angle do you think works best for your workout goals? Let us know in the comments.