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Key Takeaways

  1. The incline bench press trains your chest, shoulders, and triceps, and it’s one of the best exercises for developing your upper chest in particular.
  2. Proper incline bench press technique comes down to a few key points like lying on a bench set to a 30 to 45 degree incline with your shoulder blades pinched back and down, lowering the barbell past your chin to your upper chest, and pushing the weight off your chest straight up to the starting position.
  3. Keep reading to learn more about proper incline bench press form, how to program the incline bench press into your workouts, and more!

Just want a quick rundown of how to incline bench press with proper form? Here’s the TL;DR: 

  1. Lie on an adjustable bench angled at 30- to 45-degrees.
  2. Pinch your shoulder blades together, pull your shoulders down, and plant your feet firmly on the ground.
  3. Grab the bar so your hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. The bar should be resting in your palms rather than in your fingers. 
  4. Unrack the bar and hold it over your upper chest. 
  5. Lower the bar down in a straight line and touch it just below your collarbone. While lowering the bar, squeeze it hard, keep your butt in contact with the bench, and press your feet into the floor.
  6. Press the weight back up to the starting position.
  7. You’re now ready for the next rep (or to re-rack the bar if it’s the end of your set).

And here’s a video of what this looks like:

 

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Now, if you want the full eggs to apples explanation of how to incline bench press with perfect form, the six best incline bench press variations, and a free incline bench press workout, keep reading!

If you found this article because you’re unhappy with your chest, I understand.

You see, I used to be in the same boat. 

Here’s how I looked after my first year or so of weightlifting: 

Young Mike

Not too impressive.

I kept at it, though, and here’s where my chest was six years later: 

before-chest-workout-

Better, but nothing to write home about, either. 

I had gained size, but my pecs were bottom heavy and didn’t have the defined, “3D” look that makes them pop even when you’re wearing a t-shirt. 

Soon after I took that picture, I got serious about edumucating myself on proper strength training principles—the same ones you’ll learn in this article—and here’s where a couple of years of high-quality training (and dieting!) got me:

 

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And while I don’t stay this shredded year round, my chest still looks big and defined even when I’m fatter:

 

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And that’s without a pump, frando.

One of the biggest changes I made to my training was including more exercises for my upper chest, especially the incline bench press. 

So, if you want to take your pecs from pitiable to praiseworthy, you want to get good at the incline bench press. And that’s what you’re going to learn how to do in this article.

Specifically, you’ll learn: 

  • What the incline bench press is
  • What muscles it trains (it’s not just your chest!)
  • Why the incline bench press is so effective at building muscle
  • How to incline bench press with picture perfect form
  • The six best incline bench press variations

And to top it all off, I’m going to give you four incline bench press workouts that you can put to use right away.

 

What Is the Incline Bench Press?

incline bench press angle

The incline bench press (or incline barbell bench press) is a compound chest exercise that’s very similar to the flat barbell bench press. The main difference is it’s performed using an incline bench (hence the name) instead of a flat bench.

By changing the angle of the bench, you also change which muscle groups the exercise emphasizes. As a general rule, vertical pushing exercises like the military press primarily train your shoulders and arms, whereas horizontal pushing exercises like the flat bench press primarily train the chest and arms. 

Thus, the incline bench press is somewhere in between.

For this reason, it’s often included in bodybuilding, powerlifting, and strength training routines as an accessory lift on Push (as part of a Push Pull Legs), Chest, or Upper Body days.

It’s very effective for developing your upper body muscles and getting strong on the incline bench press can improve your flat barbell bench pressing, too.

Summary: The incline bench press involves pressing a weighted barbell over your chest while lying on an incline bench. 

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What Muscles Does the Incline Bench Press Train?

Most people think of the incline bench press as only a chest exercise, but it’s much more than that.

It also helps develop your triceps, shoulders, and even your biceps to a certain degree. 

Specifically, the incline bench press develops the . . .

  • Pectoralis major and minor
  • Triceps brachii (long, lateral, and medial heads)
  • Front (anterior) and middle (lateral) deltoids
  • Biceps brachii

It also helps train the lats, traps, and forearms to some degree, but these muscles play second fiddle to the pecs, triceps, and shoulders.

The main muscle of the chest is the pectoralis major, or “pec major.”

Here’s what it looks like:

anatomy-of-chest

The chest muscle’s main function is to bring the upper arm across the body (towards the sternum).

As you can see in the image above, the pectoralis major has multiple “heads,” or places where the tendons attach to the skeleton.

There’s a sternocostal head, which attaches the breastbone and rib cage to your upper arm, and a clavicular head, which attaches your collarbone to your upper arm.

Why is this important? How a muscle attaches to the skeleton influences how it responds to training.

For instance, certain exercises, like the flat and decline bench press, emphasize the larger sternocostal head of the pecs, while others, like the incline and reverse-grip bench press, emphasize the smaller clavicular head.

Notice that I said emphasize, not isolate, because all pressing exercises involve both heads of the pecs to some degree or another.

Research shows that the incline bench press is a fantastic exercise for emphasizing the “upper chest,” and therefore, should be a staple in your chest training. 

This helps you prevent muscle imbalances, make sure your upper chest doesn’t fall behind in development, and ensure you wind up with a proportionate pair of pecs.

Summary: The incline bench press trains your chest, triceps, and shoulders, but what sets it apart from other exercises is its ability to train the clavicular head of your pecs—also referred to as your “upper chest.” 

How Much Will Getting Strong on the Incline Bench Press Build My Chest?

You’ve probably heard that if you want a muscular chest, you need to bench press. And more specifically, you need to get really strong on the bench press.

And that’s more or less true.

According to research conducted by scientists at Shibaura Institute of Technology, there’s a positive correlation between pec size and bench press strength and bench throwing power. 

In other words, athletes with the most chest muscle were the strongest and most powerful.

While that’s neat, it doesn’t necessarily prove that bench pressing produces great chest gains. What if the people with the biggest pecs happened to be gifted bench pressers? What if they gained most of their muscle by doing other exercises? How do we know how much the bench press contributed?

To answer those questions, we can look at a study conducted by scientists at the University of Tokyo. 

In this case, the researchers had 7 young, untrained men follow a 3-day per week strength training program in which they did 3 sets of 10 reps with 75% of their bench press one-rep max (1RM) each workout for 24 weeks.

Every 3 weeks, the researchers retested their 1RMs and adjusted their weights so they got stronger over the course of the study, and they measured the participant’s pec, biceps, and triceps thickness once per week.

The result? 

At the end of the study, chest, tricep, and bicep growth was correlated with gains in bench press 1RM strength. In other words, the stronger people got on the bench press, the bigger their chest, triceps, and biceps grew. 

Here’s what the results looked like: 

incline bench press machine

Chest growth increased almost in lockstep with bench press strength, but triceps growth seemed to plateau after about eight weeks, which is one of the reasons I recommend training the triceps directly in addition to heavy pressing. 

All of the participants made slight gains in biceps size, too, but not enough for the changes to be statistically significant.

So, circling back to the original question: will getting strong on the incline bench press help you grow your chest?

Yes. 

As the bench press is clearly an effective chest builder, so is the incline bench press (as it accomplishes more or less the same thing except does a better job of training the upper chest).

To get the most out of your incline bench pressing, however, you need to use proper form. Keep reading to learn how!

Summary: Research shows that bench pressing (both incline and flat) is one of the single best exercises you can do to build your pecs and triceps.

How to Incline Bench Press with Proper Form

incline bench press muscles

There are three steps to proper incline bench press form:

  1. The setup, where you position your body and unrack the bar.
  2. The descent, where you lower the barbell to your upper chest in a controlled manner.
  3. The ascent, where you press the weight off your chest and back to the starting position, setting yourself up for the next rep.

Every aspect of incline bench press technique—whether it’s unracking the bar, lowering the weight, pressing the bar up, or anything else—can be filed under one of these three categories.

Let’s go through each of them in detail, starting with the setup. 

Step 1: The Setup

Proper incline bench press setup comes down to getting a few things right:

  1. Position your body
  2. Grip the bar
  3. Position your feet
  4. Arch your back
  5. Unrack the bar

Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.

1. Position your body

First, angle a bench to 30 to 45 degrees. 

Here’s what different angles look like: 

incline bench press vs flat

I prefer a 45-degree angle, but some people prefer slightly more or less than this. Play around with different angles within this range and see what you like most. Just make sure that once you settle on an angle you like, stick with that for several months before changing it again. 

Next, lie down on the bench and adjust so your eyes are under the bar.

While keeping your butt planted on the bench, raise your chest up toward the bar, pinch your shoulder blades together, and pull your shoulders down toward your waste. Your upper back and shoulders should feel tight, almost uncomfortably so. A good cue for this is to think of pulling your shoulder blades “into your back pockets.”

Here’s what this looks like: 

Some people also like to grip the bar or even the bench to help push their shoulder blades into the right position. Here’s what this looks like: 

You can play around with both approaches and see what works best for you.

2. Grip the bar

Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, about 22 to 28 inches, depending on your build.

If you go too narrow, you’ll shift the emphasis to the triceps as opposed to the pecs, and if you go too wide, you reduce the range of motion and effectiveness of the exercise and put more stress on your shoulders.

Hold the bar low in your hands, closer to your wrists than your knuckles, and squeeze it as hard as you can. Your wrists should be bent just enough to allow the bar to settle into the base of your palm, but not folded back at a 90-degree angle. This prevents wrist pain.

Here’s how this looks:

bench-press-wrists

A good way to check your grip width is to have a friend get behind you (looking at the top of your head) and check the position of your forearms at the bottom of the movement. You want your forearms to be as close to perpendicular to the ground as possible. That is, straight up-and-down vertical, like this:

bench-press-elbow-form

As you can see, the position on the far left is too wide, the middle is too narrow, and the far right is correct.

Don’t use a “thumbless” or “suicide” grip (as it’s aptly called) where your thumbs lie next to your index fingers as opposed to wrapped around the bar. The reason for this is obvious: when you’re going heavy, it’s surprisingly easy for the barbell to slip out of your hands and crash down on your chest, or worse, your throat or face.

3. Position your feet

Plant your feet flat on the ground.

Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, and play around with different positions until you find one that feels most stable. Some people prefer to have their feet pulled back toward the bench, and others prefer to have them directly underneath their knees.

As you push your feet apart, you should feel tension in your glutes, groin, and hip flexors.

It’s important to get this right, because your legs help stabilize your upper body and keep your shoulder blades glued to the bench, which allows you to use heavier weights.

As you become more experienced over time, you’ll learn to push your feet into the ground just as you begin to push the bar off of your chest, which is known as “leg drive” in powerlifting circles.

Remember to keep your legs as tight as possible during every rep. An easy way to do this is to push your knees out to the sides and push your heels into the ground as you push the bar off your chest. A common mistake is to let your knees shoot inward during your last few reps, which reduces tension in your upper body and makes it harder to finish your set.

4. Arch your back

You don’t want your back flat on the bench and you don’t want it so arched that your butt is floating above it.

Instead, you want to maintain the natural arch that occurs when you push your chest out, your butt into the bench, and your feet apart, like this:

incline bench press benefits

5. Unrack the bar

Unrack the bar by locking your elbows out to move the bar off the hooks.

While keeping your arms locked, move the bar horizontally until it’s directly over your shoulders.  Don’t try to bring the weight directly from the hooks to your chest, and don’t drop your chest and loosen your shoulder blades when unracking.

If you have to push the bar more than two or three inches higher than its starting position on the hooks, then you need to position the bar higher on the rack. If you have to pull your shoulders out of position to unrack the bar, then it’s too high and you need to position the bar lower on the rack.

Step 2: The Descent

The first thing you should know about the descent is how to tuck your elbows properly.

Many people make the mistake of flaring them out (away from the body), which can cause shoulder pain. This alone is probably why variations of the bench press have a bad reputation as a shoulder wrecker. A less common mistake is tucking your elbows too close to your torso, which robs you of stability and strength and can aggravate your elbows.

Instead, you want your elbows to remain at a 50- to 60-degree angle relative to your torso throughout the entire movement. This protects your shoulders from injury and is a stable, strong position to press from. Here’s a helpful visual:

proper-bench-press-form-elbows

As you can see, in the bottommost position, the arms are at about a 20-degree angle relative to the torso, which is too close. The middle position is the ideal one–about 60 degrees–and the topmost is 90 degrees, which is hard on your shoulders.

The exact angle you use will depend on your anatomy, but the point is this: don’t flare your arms out, and don’t keep them tucked in too close to your torso. 

Keeping your elbows tucked and in place, lower the bar to the upper part of your chest just below your collarbones. The bar should move down in a straight line to your chest, not toward your face or belly button.

Once the bar has touched your chest (touched, not bounced off of), you’re ready to ascend.

Step 3: The Ascent

Although it’s called the incline bench press, it’s better to think of the ascent as pushing rather than pressing.

That is, picture that you’re pushing your torso away from the bar and into the bench instead of pressing the bar away from your body. This will help you maintain proper form and control of the bar and keep tension in your upper back.

Keeping your shoulder blades down and pinched, your elbows tucked, your lower back slightly arched, your butt on the bench, and your feet on the floor, push against the bar to get it off your chest.

You can also use the “leg drive” I mentioned earlier by pressing your heels into the floor. This transfers force up through the hips and back, which helps maintain proper form and increases the amount of upward force you can generate.

The bar should move up in a straight line, passing your chin, and ending where it began: with the bar directly over your shoulders. 

Lock your elbows out at the top of the movement. Don’t keep them slightly bent as this needlessly reduces the range of motion.

You’re now ready for the next rep.

Once you’ve completed the final rep in your set, you’re ready to rack the bar. Don’t try to press the bar directly into the hooks because if you miss, it’s coming down on your face. Instead, finish your final rep with the bar directly over your shoulders and your elbows locked, and then slam the bar horizontally back into the rack.

That’s it!

The 6 Best Incline Bench Press Variations You Should Know

You just learned how to perform the standard incline barbell bench press.

If that were the only incline bench press you ever did, you’d minimally get a chest that’s head and shoulders above average.

That said, there are a few variations worth learning and trying depending on your anatomy, mobility, equipment options, preferences, and training and injury history.

By including variations in your programming, you can keep your training interesting, develop different portions of your muscles, and avoid repetitive stress injuries, especially when you need to a fair amount of volume to continue gaining muscle and strength.

These exercise variations work most of the same upper body muscles as the incline bench press, so they can be included in your workout routine in more or less the same way.

Let’s get to them.

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

The incline dumbbell bench press is similar to the incline barbell bench press, but involves using dumbbells instead of a barbell. 

Dumbbell variations are particularly useful because they can help prevent muscle imbalances by training each side of your chest independently. With a barbell, you can unintentionally let one side of your body “take over,” which over time, can lead to lopsided chest, shoulder, or arm muscles.

The incline dumbbell bench press is one of my favorite variations because it’s easy to learn, provides a lot of range of motion, and can be easier on the shoulders. Overall, it’s a nice change if you do a lot of barbell bench pressing.

Here’s how it looks:

Multi-Grip Incline Barbell Bench Press

The multi-grip incline barbell bench press is identical to the incline bench press except you use a multi-grip bar instead of a standard barbell.

A multi-grip bar (sometimes called a Swiss bar or football bar) allows for, you guessed it, various grip options. This offers a nice change of pace, and certain grips can be more comfortable for the wrists, elbows, and shoulders.

You can also use closer grips to help emphasize your triceps more.

Here’s what it looks like:

Smith Machine Incline Bench Press

The Smith machine incline bench press is very similar to the incline bench press with one key difference: the bar is attached to a machine and can only move in one plane (vertically).

I’m not a big fan of the Smith machine. It pales in comparison to free weights in effectiveness and the fixed bar path can feel awkward.

That said, if you’re in a bind and don’t have access to barbells or dumbbells, you can get the job done with the smith machine.

Here’s how to do it:

Incline Chest Press Machine

I rarely recommend machines over free weights for the same reasons I don’t like Smith Machine: they’re less effective than free weights for gaining muscle and strength, often ingrain poor technique, and can feel awkward to boot. 

That said, some machine exercises work well if you just want to squeeze in a few more sets after your free weight exercises, especially for stubborn muscle groups later in a workout.

For example, after you’re finished with incline barbell or dumbbell bench pressing, you can do a few sets of the incline chest press machine if you want more chest volume in the workout.

Many gyms will have a chest press machine, and if you’re lucky, they may have an incline chest press machine. The incline chest press machine is nearly identical to the normal chest press machine, except that it positions your body to mimic the motion of an incline bench press.

Here’s what one looks like:

incline bench press smith machine

Using an incline chest press machine is easy. You sit down on the bench, grab the handles, and push them away from your upper body just like an incline bench press.

Here’s what the exercise looks like: 

Feet-Elevated Push-Up

Feet-elevated push-ups are a great bodyweight exercise for working your chest, and emphasizing the upper chest in particular. 

As the name describes, feet-elevated push-ups are push-ups done with your feet propped up on a bench or platform. They’re also known as decline push-ups (because you’re facing downward).

Here’s what this looks like: 

Feet-Elevated-Push-Up

Basically, feet-elevated push-ups simulate the stimulus of the incline bench press without requiring equipment. They also give you a greater range of motion than regular push-ups.

Here’s how to do them: 

Landmine Press

The landmine press (also known as the angled barbell press) is a variation of the shoulder press. However, the angle isn’t perfectly vertical, so in some ways it’s actually more similar to the incline bench press and it works many of the same muscles.

A landmine device allows you to attach one end of a barbell to the floor with a hinge for moving the other end freely. 

Here’s what it looks like: 

how low to go on incline bench press

If you don’t have a landmine device, you can mimic it by jamming one end of a barbell into the corner of a room.

A landmine press can be done in a standing or kneeling position and you typically do them with one arm at a time. 

To do the landmine press, you start by holding the bar over your shoulder next to your ear. Next, you press the weight until your arm is fully extended, and then return the weight to the starting position.

Here’s how it looks:

4 Effective Incline Bench Press Workouts You Can Do Right Now

1-Day Per Week Incline Bench Press

2-Day Per Week Incline Bench Press

1-Day Per Week Incline Dumbbell2-Day Per Week Incline DumbbellAnd now a few details on how to do these workouts properly.

Warm up before each workout.

Before your first set of your first exercise of each workout, make sure you do a thorough warm-up.

A warm-up accomplishes several things: 

  1. It helps you troubleshoot your form and “groove in” proper technique (which is particularly important when you’re learning a new exercise). 
  2. It can significantly boost your performance, which can translate into more muscle and strength gain over time. 

In weightlifting, a warm-up consists of doing one or two light sets of an exercise, followed by one or two heavier sets until you’re using a weight that’s about 70% as heavy as the heaviest weight you’ll use that day for that particular exercise. 

Here’s how to warm up properly: 

Do several warm-up sets with the first exercises for each of the muscle groups you’re training in that day’s workout.

For example, in the one-day per week incline barbell bench press workout outlined in this article, your first exercise is the incline barbell bench press, which trains your chest, triceps, and shoulders. 

Thus, warming up for the incline bench press will also warm up all of the muscle groups trained by the other exercises in your workout. So, in this case, you can do a few warm-up sets for your incline barbell bench press and then just carry on with the rest of your workout without any additional warm-up sets.

If you were doing a workout that involved training different muscle groups, though, such as the squat or lat pulldown, then you’d want to do several warm-up sets for each of these exercises. 

Here’s the protocol you’re going to follow for the workouts in this article:

  1. Estimate roughly what weight you’re going to use for your three sets of deadlifts (this is your “hard set” weight).
  2. Do 10 reps with about 50 percent of your hard set weight, and rest for a minute.
  3. Do 10 reps with the same weight at a slightly faster pace, and rest for a minute.
  4. Do 4 reps with about 70 percent of your hard set weight, and rest for a minute.

Then, do all three of your hard sets for your incline barbell bench press, and then the hard sets for your flat barbell bench press.

If you want to learn more about the importance of a proper warm-up and how to warm up for different workouts, check out this article: 

The Best Way to Warm Up For Your Workouts

You shouldn’t go to absolute muscle failure every set.

Absolute muscle failure is the point where you can no longer keep the weight moving and have to end the set.

We should take most of our sets to a point close to technical failure (one or two reps shy of the point where our form breaks down), but we should rarely take sets to the point of absolute failure.

Personally, I never train to failure for more than two to three sets per workout, and never on the squat, deadlift, bench press, or military press, as it can be dangerous.

Instead, I reserve my failure sets for isolation exercises like cable flyes, triceps extensions, biceps curls and the like, and it’s usually a natural consequence of pushing for progressive overload as opposed to deliberate programming.

You can learn more about to take sets close (but not to) failure in this article: 

This Is the Best Guide to the RPE Scale on the Internet

Rest 3 to 4 minutes in between each set.

incline bench press alternative

This will give your muscles enough time to fully recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.

If you want to learn more about how long you should rest between sets, check out this article:

How Long Should You Rest Between Sets to Gain Muscle and Strength?

Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, you move up in weight.

For instance, if you incline barbell bench press 135 pounds for 6 reps on your first set, you add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.

If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 145 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can incline barbell bench press it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.

If you get 3 or fewer reps, though, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (140 pounds) and see how the next set goes. If you still get 3 reps or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase the weight on the bar.

This method is known as double progression, which you can learn about in this podcast:

How to Use Double Progression to Get More From Your Workouts

The Bottom Line on the Incline Bench Press

The incline bench press has been a go-to chest exercise for bodybuilders for decades, and for good reason. It’s one of the best chest exercises you can do, and it’s especially effective for developing your upper chest.

The incline bench press not only trains your pectorals (chest muscles), but your shoulders and triceps as well. 

To get the most out of the incline bench press, you need to learn proper form. Here’s what that looks like in a nutshell:

  1. Lie on an adjustable bench angled at 30- to 45-degrees.
  2. Pinch your shoulder blades together, pull your shoulders down, and plant your feet firmly on the ground.
  3. Grab the bar so your hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. The bar should be resting in your palms rather than in your fingers. 
  4. Unrack the bar and hold it over your upper chest. 
  5. Lower the bar down in a straight line and touch it just below your collarbone. While lowering the bar, squeeze it hard, keep your butt in contact with the bench, and press your feet into the floor.
  6. Press the weight back up to the starting position.
  7. You’re now ready for the next rep (or to re-rack the bar if it’s the end of your set).

Depending on your equipment availability, injury history, and preferences, you may want to try out one or more of these incline bench press variations, too:

  1. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
  2. Multi-Grip Barbell Bench Press
  3. Smith Machine Incline Bench Press
  4. Incline Chest Press Machine
  5. Feet-Elevated Push-Ups
  6. Landmine Press

I like to put the incline bench press as the first or second exercise in my push workouts along with a flat press exercise (barbell or dumbbell), and if I want to do even more incline pressing in the workout, I’ll include one of the aforementioned incline bench press variations.

Now go get incline bench pressing!

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What do you think of incline bench press? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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