Flat Bench Press vs. Incline/Decline for Building a Sculpted Chest

by P S | Reviewed by Advisory Board

Flat bench press: Man in the gym lifting a barbell

How many times have you gone head-to-head with a fellow gym-goer to see who can move the most weight on the bench press? No exercise has been the determination of superior strength like the barbell bench press, specifically the flat bench press

The flat bench press is a powerful compound exercise for activating your entire pectoral region, triceps, shoulders, back, and core. While it may look easy, it’s actually one of the most difficult exercises to do properly. In this guide, we’ll break down the proper benching technique so you'll reap the benefits of this exercise

Flat bench presses aren’t the only strength-training exercise that builds the chest muscle. There are also incline and decline bench presses. Switching up the angle of benching and adding some secondary chest exercises to your regimen will create a well-rounded strength-training workout.

By the end of this article, you'll know how to leverage all of your benching options in the pursuit of a stronger, bigger chest.

The 3 Pillars of Bench Presses

The barbell bench press is the standard weightlifting exercise upon which many proud pectorals have been crafted. When you simplify bodybuilding into the “Big 3 Powerlifting Exercises” for building strength and stimulating hypertrophy, the flat bench press is one of them, right beside squats and deadlifts.

The pillars of chest growth include three barbell bench press variations: the flat bench press, the incline bench press, and the decline bench press. Each of these exercises promotes chest growth in various ways. Knowing which areas these bench presses specifically target will be your key to developing the sculpted chest you want.

1. Flat Barbell Bench Press for a Full Chest Focus

Flat bench press: Illustration of two men lifting a barbell

The flat barbell bench press is a powerful tool for activating your entire pectoral region. It's a superior chest exercise for building mass and strength.

While the flat bench press is a great exercise for building your chest, it is also one of the most challenging to do properly. If your upper arms get tired but your chest doesn't, you're not performing this barbell press properly. Your chest muscles should be fully activated, and your arms shouldn't be doing a bulk of the movement. 

The flat barbell bench press also utilizes the anterior deltoids and triceps. When performed correctly, the lats, lower back, and glutes are also firmly tensed.

How to Perform a Flat Bench Press

Your arms should be parallel to the barbell and your hands wider than shoulder-width apart. Lock your shoulders back and squeeze your shoulder blades together. 

While performing a rep, squeeze your chest together. The bar should touch just below your nipples. Focus less on the weight going up and more on the curving motion from pectoral to elbow. Keep your entire body controlled and stable throughout the movement.

Use a lighter weight if you're new to this exercise, as you will need to keep your overbearing shoulders and triceps at bay.

When performing the flat bench press, bodybuilders tend to lift with the bar slightly closer to their neck than a powerlifter to stimulate more muscle growth, whereas a powerlifter lifts to move more weight via form. Doing this under heavy weight is a risk to your shoulders and elbows, especially the rotator cuff muscles.

Secondary Upper-Chest Exercises

  • The flat dumbbell chest press has several advantages over a flat barbell bench press: greater range of motion, more muscle symmetry, and better stabilizer activation
  • The cable chest fly is an isolation chest exercise by default, but it's still valuable. Like the dumbbell chest press, cable chest flys are good for adding more training volume  and stimulating outer chest muscle growth.
  • While standard push-ups are not popular in the gym, there is no denying their effectiveness. If you struggle to add variety to your chest routine or your gym lacks weight training equipment, do push-ups after benching for more muscle activation.

    2. Incline Barbell Bench Press for an Upper-Chest Focus

    Flat bench press: Illustration of two men in incline position lifting a barbell

    The incline bench press is performed like the flat bench press but on an angle. For beginners, the incline barbell bench press is an easier exercise form-wise, especially with a wider grip.

    The incline bench press activates as much of the upper-chest muscle as the flat bench press [1]. The outer pectoralis major also gets a great workout along with the front deltoids. The incline bench press engages the shoulders, triceps, and core stabilizing muscles as well.

    The only difference is the incline barbell bench press activates less of the middle and lower chest, which allows you to feel your upper chest more while performing the exercise.

    The incline barbell bench press is best used to increase hypertrophy in the upper pectoralis major (the part that connects to your collarbone). However, you will need to focus to isolate the upper pecs. In other words, don’t count on assisting muscles to help carry the load.

    How to Perform an Incline Bench Press

    Set your adjustable bench to either a 15-degree or 30-degree angle. Your arms should be parallel to the barbell and your hands roughly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lock your shoulders back and squeeze your shoulder blades together. 

    When performing your rep, focus on squeezing your upper chest together. Instead of touching the bar below your nipples like the flat bench press, touch it between your collarbone and nipples. Keep your body controlled and stable the entire time.

    Like the flat bench press, the incline bench press places strain on your shoulders and elbows. Heavy weights exacerbate this, so it's best not to do incline bench presses if you have nagging joint pain in the shoulders or elbows.

    Secondary Upper Chest Exercises

    • The incline dumbbell chest press is a favorite due to the extra range of motion dumbbells allow. The option to drop the weights at each side gives you the ability to work until absolute failure without a spotter. You can't do this with an incline barbell bench press.
    • For extra upper-chest activation, rotate your palms for a reverse grip incline chest press. This stimulates the upper-inner chest near your collarbones. Reverse grip exercises for the upper chest can be performed with either a barbell or dumbbells, but dumbbells tend to be more forgiving.

    If you don't want to utilize a reverse grip (or simply want to destroy your upper chest), the upwards cable chest fly is a suitable exercise for the clavicular-connecting pectoral tissue. Be mindful of your form and don’t use excessive weights. Too much weight will recruit supporting muscles to take over the lift.

    3. Decline Barbell Bench Press for a Lower-Chest Focus

    Flat bench press: Illustration of two men in decline position lifting a barbell

    The decline bench press is by far the least utilized press in the gym, but it has several benefits.

    The standard flat bench press is the overall winner for maximum chest hypertrophy stimulation and strength building, but the decline bench press is effective at activating your lower pecs and pectoralis major while placing less strain on your shoulders.

    In addition to the pectoralis major and minor, the decline bench press also works the triceps, serratus anterior, and lats to a lesser degree. Luckily, very little emphasis is put on the shoulders when performed alongside a spotter.

    The decline barbell bench press offers the same basic benefits as the flat bench press with additional emphasis on the lower pecs. While there is still triceps activation, shoulder stress is reduced greatly with proper form. The decline barbell bench press is a great way to add variation and extra volume to a standard chest routine without compromising the shoulders.

    How to Perform a Decline Bench Press

    Set your adjustable bench to either a 15-degree or 30-degree angle. Secure your legs and stabilize your body. Your arms should be parallel to the barbell, and your hands should be roughly wider than shoulder-width apart.

    When performing your rep, squeeze your lower chest together. As you bring the barbell down, it should touch at the lower end of your sternum, below your nipples. Keep your entire body controlled and stable the entire time.

    For the decline barbell bench press, proper form is important. Start with light weights and transition to heavier weights when you feel comfortable.

    Secondary Exercises for Lower Chest

    • A decline dumbbell chest press is more difficult to get into position compared to the barbell variation. However, the added range of motion makes for some great pumps.
    • Lower cable flys can be used to stimulate growth, but they’re usually performed at a light weight with extreme lower chest isolation to tone and give the pecs a strong undercut.
    • Dips performed leaning slightly forward are effective for targeting the lower chest and getting a good triceps workout at once. Dips are a great way to complete chest day.
    • The effectiveness of pushups can't be denied, especially when performed on an incline. To perform an incline pushup, place your hands on a bench seat instead of the ground. Make it more challenging by starting at a steeper incline.

    What Are the Extra Benefits of Dumbbell Bench Presses?

    Man in the gym lifting dumbbells

    For every barbell bench press variation, we've included a dumbbell press. The benefits of utilizing dumbbell chest presses in your strength routine include:

    • You get more range of motion with dumbbells, because there is extra mobility at both the top and the bottom of each press. That leads to greater, more complete muscle activation in your upper body.
    • Training with dumbbells requires greater stability, which is accomplished by the recruitment of accessory muscles. As these accessory muscles grow, you become stronger, more stable, and less injury-prone.

    You’ll gain muscle more evenly. During barbell exercises, it is possible for your dominant side to train harder than your less-dominant side. Free weights, on the other hand, do not share the load between both arms. As a result, muscles will grow more symmetrically.

    A Final Word on Flat Bench Presses and Other Chest Exercises

    When it comes to working your chest, you have options: flat bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press, and variations for each.. When performed correctly, these chest exercises activate all of your pectoral muscles to varying degrees. The flat bench press is generally the best of the bunch, especially for beginner bodybuilders.

    However, we believe the best way to grow chest muscle mass and strength is to base your entire chest workout around all three main barbell chest presses. From there, you can diversify your workout with a collection of accessory lifts that also activate the entire chest.

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