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 builders you can do, and it’s especially effective for developing your upper chest. What’s more, it trains your shoulders and triceps, too.
To get the most out of this exercise, though, you need to use proper technique.
Proper incline bench press form involves pulling your shoulder blades back and down, grabbing the bar with your hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart, lowering the barbell to your upper chest, and pressing the bar back up to the starting position.
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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.”
The main muscle of the chest is the pectoralis major, or “pec major,” which looks like this:
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.
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.
First, you need an incline bench—ideally an adjustable one.
Some gyms have a dedicated incline bench press station, but if yours doesn’t, you can position an adjustable bench in a squat rack. When racked, you want the bar to be positioned directly over your face and about two to three inches lower than it would be when holding it with your elbows locked.
First, angle a bench to 30 to 45 degrees. Then adjust the seat height so your eyes are under the bar when you lie down, like this:
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. A good cue for this is to think of pulling your shoulder blades “into your back pockets.”
Here’s what this looks like:
Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, about 22 to 28 inches, depending on your build, like this:
Hold the bar low in your hands, closer to your wrists than your knuckles, and squeeze it as hard as you can.
Here’s how this looks:
A good way to check your grip width is to have a friend get in front of you and check the position of your forearms at the bottom of the movement. You want your forearms to be straight up-and-down vertical, like this:
Plant your feet on the ground about shoulder-width apart, and play around with different positions until you find one that feels most stable.
Arch your back while keeping your shoulders and butt in contact with the bench, like this:
Then, unrack the bar by locking your elbows out to move the bar off the hooks.
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First, tuck your elbows properly.
You want your elbows to remain at a 50- to 75-degree angle relative to your torso throughout the entire movement. Here’s a helpful visual:
As you can see in the left image, the upper arms are at about a 90-degree angle relative to the torso, which is hard on the shoulders. In the middle image, the upper arms are at about a 20-degree angle, which is hard on the elbows and shoulders and reduces how much weight you can press. The right image shows the ideal position, with the upper arms about 60-degrees relative to the torso.
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 in place, lower the bar to the upper part of your chest just below your collarbones, like this:
Once the bar has touched your chest (touched, not bounced off of), you’re ready to ascend.
Keeping your shoulder blades down and pinched and your elbows tucked, push the bar straight up and off your chest.
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, like this:
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.
Muscle failure is the point where you can no longer keep the weight moving or maintain proper form and have to end the set.
We should take most of our sets close (but not all the way) to muscle failure. Research shows taking sets to failure isn’t any more beneficial for gaining muscle or strength than taking sets one to two reps shy of failure, and it can increase the risk of injury or burnout.
You can learn more about why and how to control your workout intensity in this article:
For instance, let’s say your workout calls for 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps.
If you incline bench press 135 pounds for 6 reps on your first set, you then 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 press it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.
This method is known as double progression, which you can learn about in this podcast:
This gives 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:
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The incline dumbbell bench press is similar to the incline barbell bench press, but involves using dumbbells instead of a barbell.
It’s easy to learn, provides a lot of range of motion, can be easier on the shoulders, and is a nice change if you do a lot of barbell bench pressing. To do it, adjust a bench to about a 45-degree angle, hold a dumbbell in each hand, and otherwise follow the same steps you would when doing the incline barbell bench press.
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 upper chest volume in the workout.
To do it, adjust the seat height so the handles are just below shoulder height. Load the machine with weight, sit on the bench, grab the handles, pull your shoulders down and back, and push the handles straight up.
The reverse-grip bench press isn’t really a variation of the incline bench press, but it also emphasizes the clavicular head of the pecs, making it a good alternative exercise to train the same muscles.
It works the same way as the flat barbell bench press, except you grip the bar with your palms facing toward you instead of away from you.
Grip the bar so that it crosses your palm diagonally, from the base of your index finger to the opposite edge of your wrist. You’ll also probably find it more comfortable to position your hands about 2 to 3 inches wider when doing the reverse-grip barbell bench press than you would during the regular barbell 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 because it’s not as effective as free weights and the fixed bar path can feel awkward.
That said, if you don’t have access to barbells or dumbbells, a Smith machine can work. To do it, just position an incline bench inside of a Smith machine, and otherwise follow the same steps you would when doing the incline barbell bench press.
+ Scientific References
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Pope, Z. K., Benik, F. M., Hester, G. M., Sellers, J., Nooner, J. L., Schnaiter, J. A., Bond-Williams, K. E., Carter, A. S., Ross, C. L., Just, B. L., Henselmans, M., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Longer interset rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(7), 1805–1812. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001272
- Lacerda, L. T., Marra-Lopes, R. O., Diniz, R. C. R., Lima, F. V., Rodrigues, S. A., Martins-Costa, H. C., Bemben, M. G., & Chagas, M. H. (2020). Is Performing Repetitions to Failure Less Important Than Volume for Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 34(5), 1237–1248. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003438
- 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 March 9, 2021, from https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/abstract/1995/11000/effects_of_variations_of_the_bench_press_exercise.3.aspx
- Trebs, A. A., Brandenburg, J. P., & Pitney, W. A. (2010). An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(7), 1925–1930. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181ddfae7
- 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