The decline bench press is similar to the flat bench press, except it involves lying on a decline bench that puts your butt higher than your head.
To do the decline bench press, you’ll need a specialized decline bench that puts the back pad at about a 30-degree angle.
There’s no question that the decline bench press is an effective chest exercise. That said, it’s also controversial.
Some people say that it’s much better than the flat bench press for building your lower chest muscles, which gives your chest a fuller, denser, more attractive look. Others claim that it’s no better than the flat bench press for building your chest, and is more likely to cause injuries.
The truth is that the decline bench press is a perfectly fine chest exercise, but it’s not as “good” or “bad” as many people make it out to be. It’s simply another viable alternative to the flat bench press with its own set of pros and cons.
In this article, you’ll learn how to decline bench press with proper form, the muscles worked during the decline bench press, the decline bench press benefits and drawbacks, and more.
Table of Contents
Like the flat barbell bench press, the main muscles worked by the decline bench press are the chest, triceps, and shoulders. Research shows that the decline bench press targets the lower chest and triceps just as well as the flat bench press.
That said, it’s also not worse than the flat bench press and offers a fun way to mix up your workouts if you’re bored with flat and incline bench pressing.
If you’re dealing with shoulder pain or want to focus on building your chest and are less concerned with building your shoulders, the decline bench press is a good option. If you want to build your chest and shoulders, the flat and incline bench press are better options.
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During the flat bench press, you lie on a flat bench, plant your feet on the floor, and press the weight straight up and away from your chest.
The decline bench press works the same way, except the bench is angled so that your hips are higher than your head, your feet are wedged under pads attached to the bench, and your head is pointing toward the ground.
As you now know, the decline bench press isn’t better than the flat bench press for building your lower chest, so why do people do it?
One reason is that many people are able to use more weight on the decline bench press than flat bench press, probably because it involves a shorter range of motion. While this makes the exercise easier, it also usually makes it less effective for building muscle, which is strike one against the decline bench press.
Strike two against the decline bench press is that it doesn’t train your shoulders as effectively as the flat bench press. If you aren’t concerned with improving your shoulder development or you’re already doing plenty of other shoulder exercises, then this isn’t a big deal, but it does mean you’re getting a little bit less muscle-building bang for your buck with the decline bench press.
Strike three against the decline bench press is that because your head is positioned below the rest of your body, this can sometimes cause lightheadedness. Granted, you’re only in this position for a moment, so it’s not an issue for most people, but it can happen. And getting dizzy while holding a heavy barbell over your gullet can be . . . unhealthy.
All of this is why I don’t normally recommend people decline bench press—it simply doesn’t offer any major benefits that you can’t get from the flat bench press. That said, if you’re bored with flat bench pressing or are already flat bench pressing and want to use the decline bench press as an accessory exercise in your workouts, that’s fine, too.
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about what exercises to include in your training program to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)
The best way to do the decline bench press is with a dedicated decline bench press station.
These usually feature leg lockdowns (pads you hook your feet underneath) and are specifically designed for decline bench pressing, and a decline bench press angle of 15 to 30 degrees.
If your gym doesn’t have a decline bench press station, you can make do with an adjustable bench that can be set to a decline of 30 degrees. Then, set the barbell on pins about two to three inches lower than it would be if you were holding it while lying on the bench with your elbows locked.
First, lie down on the bench, secure your feet under the pads (if available) and adjust your body so your eyes are under the bar.
Then, keeping your butt planted on the bench, raise your chest up and tuck your shoulder blades down and squeeze them together. Your upper back should look like this:
Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, about 22 to 28 inches, depending on your build.
Arch your lower back slightly, and unrack the bar by straightening your arms to push the bar off the hooks.
While keeping your elbows locked, move the bar horizontally until it’s directly over your shoulders.
Keeping your elbows tucked and in place, lower the bar to the lower part of your chest, over your nipples. The bar should move in a straight line down, not toward your face or belly button.
Once the bar has touched your chest (touched, not bounced off of), you’re ready to ascend.
Keeping your shoulder blades down and pinched, your elbows tucked, your lower back slightly arched, and your butt on the bench, push against the bar to get it off your chest.
The bar should move up with a straight, but slightly diagonal path, moving toward your shoulders, ending where you began during the descent: with the bar directly over your shoulders, where it’s most naturally balanced.
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Control the weight as you descend and touch the bar to your chest, but don’t bounce it off of your sternum. Allowing the weight to fall quickly and bouncing it off of your body not only makes the exercise easier and less effective, it also increases your risk of injury. If you can’t lift a weight without bouncing it off your chest, then you need to reduce the weight.
Tip: Imagine there’s an egg resting on your sternum, and think about lowering the bar until it touches the egg without breaking it before pressing the bar upward.
You can learn more about why and how to control your rep tempo in this article:
While the bar will move slightly diagonally (from your lower chest to directly over your shoulders), the path should be more or less straight (not jerking horizontally in front of your chest). This will increase efficiency of the movement, allowing you to lift more weight.
Think about pushing your feet into the ground, “screwing” them into the floor, and flexing your glutes (while keeping your butt on the bench).
Many people are so focused on their upper body during pressing that they allow their lower body to relax and shift position. These cutes—screwing your feet into the floor and flexing your glutes, create tension in your lower body, which stabilizes your torso and helps you press more weight.
+ Scientific References
- Saeterbakken, A. H., Mo, D. A., Scott, S., & Andersen, V. (2017). The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance. Journal of Human Kinetics, 57(1), 61–71. https://doi.org/10.1515/hukin-2017-0047
- Barnett, C., Kippers, V., & Turner, P. (n.d.). Effects of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise on the EMG... : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Retrieved April 4, 2021, from https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/1995/11000/Effects_of_Variations_of_the_Bench_Press_Exercise.3.aspx
- Lauver, J. D., Cayot, T. E., & Scheuermann, B. W. (2016). Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(3), 309–316. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2015.1022605