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The Perfect Chest Manifesto: Which Bench Press is Best

by Trevor Hiltbrand | Reviewed by Advisory Board

The Perfect Chest Manifesto: Which Bench Press is Best

The barbell bench press is without a doubt the most renowned strength building exercise known to man. With one simple piece of equipment, the culmination of a man’s success in the gym can be weighed.

Just think, how many times have you gone head to head with a comrade lifter to see who can move the most weight on the bench press?

While competition is the true spirit of all endeavors both inside and outside of the gym, no other exercise has been the determination of superior strength like the barbell bench press.

But, is it the only exercise method worthwhile for building chest muscle?

Here we are going to cover the most effective chest exercises.

These exercises include the three major barbell presses (flat, incline, decline), as well as all the secondary chest exercises out there including the dumbbell press (flat, incline, decline), machines, cable exercises and calisthenics. Everything chest-related.

Ultimately, we’re going to determine which exercise hails as the king of chest hypertrophy. And how you can best leverage all of your options in the pursuit of the perfect strong and sculpted chest.

The 3 Pillars of Chest Growth - Barbell Presses

Flat Barbell Bench Press

#1 Flat Barbell Bench Press (full chest focus)

The barbell bench press is the standard bench press upon which many proud pectorals have been crafted. When you simplify bodybuilding into the big-3 exercises for building massive strength, the flat barbell bench press is one of them, right beside squats and deadlifts.

The Big 3 are the three powerlifting compound exercises for building strength and stimulating hypertrophy. In combination, these three exercises stimulate the majority of your body’s musculature system. These are the three exercises which every bodybuilding program should be based around.

There are several methods for carrying out the flat barbell bench press. Each style boasts slightly different benefits that we will explore.

Flat Barbell Bench Press: The flat barbell bench press is a powerful tool for activating the entire pectoral region.

While this exercise is a powerful tool for building your chest, it is also one of the most challenging exercises to do properly (aka fully activate your chest). The most common indication that you are performing the chest press wrong is: “If you find that while performing the bench press your arms are tiring out before your chest is.” Or, you don’t even feel your chest being worn out; take a look at this.

To properly perform the bench press:

  • Your arms should be parallel to the barbell
  • Your shoulders should be locked back, with your shoulder blades tightly together
  • Your hands should be roughly wider than shoulder width apart on the barbell
  • While you perform your rep, focus on squeezing your chest together
  • When the bar touches your chest, it should be 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

These guidelines are some of the best for ‘finding your chest’ when you do flat barbell bench press. It’s important that you use a lighter than normal weight while you learn your chest, as you will need to keep your overbearing shoulders and triceps at bay.

Value of the Flat Barbell Bench Press

As you expected, the flat barbell chest press is the superior chest exercise for building both mass and strength. Think of the flat barbell bench press as the cornerstone of your chest development, whereas the Big-3 is the cornerstone of the entire body. For growth and strength, this exercise is the primary lift that will never lose its use.

Injury Management: While performing the flat barbell bench press, a bodybuilder tends to lift with the bar slightly closer to their head than a powerlifter (nipple line versus slightly lower), to stimulate more muscle growth (whereas as a powerlifter lifts to move more weight via form). Doing so, under heavy weight is a risk to your shoulders and elbows, especially if you are not training all the muscle groups that make up your shoulders.

Other Muscles Worked: The flat barbell bench press also utilizes the deltoids and triceps heavily. When performed correctly to lift heavier weight, the lats, lower back and glutes are firmly tensed as well. This exercise is meant to be extremely controlled throughout your whole body to reduce the risk of injury.

Secondary Exercises - Full Chest Focus
The following secondary exercises work along the same lines as the flat barbell bench press and are used to increase total volume and isolation work.
Flat Dumbbell Bench Press: The dumbbell variation of the flat barbell chest press is the close second place workout for mass and strength gains for the full and center focused chest.
In fact, there are quite a few trainers out there who would argue that the dumbbell chest press is more valuable and effective than the flat barbell bench press. In some aspects, they are certainly right.
However, to effectively achieve the large volume of lifting required to both build strength and muscle we and many others prefer integrating both barbell and dumbbell exercises into our programs.
The main advantages that the flat dumbbell bench press holds over the flat barbell bench press are greater range of motion, muscle symmetry, and greater stabilizer activation. We cover the value of these at the bottom of this article.
Cable Chest Fly: The cable chest fly is certainly a secondary to tertiary chest exercise by default. However, it still has value in this supportive role when you look at the big picture. Like the dumbbell chest press, cable chest flys are a great way to add more volume to your lift, as well as stimulate some outer chest growth.
Chest Fly Machine (pec deck): The chest fly machine is one of the most utilized machines in the gym, from both guys that just finished chest day, and the random machine hopper alike.
Overall, the chest fly machine has massive value for a great stretch and extra muscle fiber activation when utilized towards the end of your lift after all the heavy lifting has come to a cease.
Standard Push Up: While pushups are not popular in the gym, there is no denying the effectiveness of this simple elementary exercise. If you struggle to add variety to your chest routine or your gym is simply lacking. Add in some push-ups after your benching has come to an end for extra muscle stimulation.
Incline Barbell Bench Press

#2 Incline Barbell Bench Press (upper chest focus)

Incline Barbell Bench Press is performed like the flat barbell bench press, just with an angle. For beginners, incline bench press is an easier adoption form-wise as long as your grip is wide enough.

There is a common misconception that incline bench press is more effective at building the upper chest than flat bench press.

The flat barbell bench press activates just as much upper chest muscle than the incline barbell bench press. The only difference is, 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.

Despite this, the Incline barbell bench press still has tremendous importance in your exercise routine.

The incline barbell bench press allows you to isolate the top of your chest for extra reps to either grow a larger upper chest without affecting the mid and lower, or, to train the upper chest past lower chest fatigue.

However, the idea that all of the strain of a standard chest press is focused upon the upper chest while in the incline position isn’t telling the whole story. Rather, when lifting in the incline position, a great deal of weight is being managed by your shoulders and not your chest. That bit of weight that is managed by the chest, is mostly done so at the top clavicular head (upper chest).

To Properly Perform the Incline Barbell Bench Press:

  • Your arms should be parallel to the barbell
  • Your shoulders should be locked back, with your shoulder blades tightly together
  • Your hands should be roughly wider than shoulder width apart on the barbell
  • While you perform your rep, focus on squeezing your upper chest together
  • Instead of touching the bar below your nipples like flat bench, touch between your collarbone and nipples for incline
  • Keep your entire body controlled and stable

Value of the Incline Barbell Bench Press

The incline barbell bench press is best used to increase hypertrophy in the upper pectoral major (the part that connects to your collar bone). Though, this will take practice and focus on isolating it to its full potential. The outer pectoralis major also gets a great workout in synchrony with the front deltoids.

Injury Management: Like the flat barbell bench press, the incline version puts a strain on the shoulders and elbows. Heavy weights exacerbate this, and it isn’t recommended to proceed to shoulder exercises after chest day with incline bench presses if your shoulders are sensitive or have imbalanced deltoids.

Other Muscles Worked: The incline barbell bench press also engages the shoulders to a large degree. Aside from this, triceps, and core stabilizing muscles support the motion.

Secondary Exercises - Upper Chest Focus
The following secondary exercises work along the same lines as the flat barbell bench press and are often used for additional volume and isolation work.
Incline Dumbbell Chest Press: The incline dumbbell chest press is a fan favorite which often replaces the incline barbell bench press entirely for many peoples training programs.
This is due to the extra range of motion that free weights allow for, as well as the ability to work until failure given the option to drop the weights at each side. Something which the incline barbell bench press certainly does not offer.
Overall, this is a highly valuable exercise like all the other dumbbell variations of barbell exercises.
Reverse Grip Barbell or Dumbbell Incline Chest Press: For extra upper chest activation, one can rotate their palms for a reverse grip motion. This has a way of really stimulating the upper inner chest near your collarbones.
Reverse grip exercises for upper chest can be performed with either a barbell or dumbbells. Dumbbells tend to be more forgiving.
Upwards Cable Chest Fly: For those that do not wish to utilize reverse grip, or simply want to destroy their upper chest- the upwards cable chest fly is a simple motion for clavicular-connecting pectoral tissue. Be wary of your form and weights while performing this motion. Too much weight will recruit too many supporting muscles which will take over the lift.
Decline Barbell Bench Press

#3 Decline Barbell Bench Press (lower chest focus)

Decline bench press is by far the least utilized press in the gym, but it has some noteworthy benefits.

While the standard flat bench press is the overall winner for maximum chest hypertrophy stimulation and strength gains, the decline bench press is very effective at activating the lower pectoral muscles (and pectoralis major) while placing less strain on your shoulders than both the flat and incline bench press.

To properly perform the decline barbell bench press:

  • Secure your legs and stabilize your body
  • Your arms should be parallel to the barbell
  • Your hands should be roughly wider than shoulder width apart on the barbell
  • While you perform your rep, focus on squeezing your lower chest together
  • As you bring the weight down, it should touch near your xiphoid process below your nipples
  • Keep your entire body controlled and stable

Value of the decline barbell bench press

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

Injury Management: For the decline barbell bench press, proper form is very important. It’s important to begin learning the decline bench press with light weights to feel out the motion. Once you are comfortable, larger weights can be accomplished similarly to the flat barbell bench press with great chest isolation.

Other Muscles Worked: In addition to the pectoralis major and minor, the decline bench press unavoidably works the triceps, serratus anterior, and lats to a small degree. Luckily, very little emphasis is put on the shoulders when performed right alongside a spotter to help with racking.

Secondary Exercises - Lower Chest Focus
The following secondary exercises work along the same lines as the decline barbell bench press and are often used for additional volume and isolation work.
Decline Dumbbell Bench Press: Decline dumbbell chest press is much more difficult to get into position with in comparison to the barbell version. However, the added range of motion can make for some great pumps.
Lower Cable Flies: Lower cable flies are one of the most popular and effective lower chest workouts in accessory to the decline chest press. While this exercise can be used to stimulate growth, its most commonly performed at a light weight with extreme lower chest isolation as a method for toning and giving the pec a strong undercut.
Dips: Dips performed while leaning slightly forward are another effective method for targeting the lower chest while getting a good triceps workout at the same time. Adding dips to the end of your workout routine is a great way to complete chest day.
Incline Pushups: Pushups are always an unconventional workout for grown men, but their effectiveness cannot be denied, no matter how much their unpleasantness force us to rationalize that they are. To perform an incline pushup, place your hands on a bench seat instead of on the ground.
Different Bench Press Grips

Wide Grip - Close Grip - Reverse Grip: Why that grip though?

Use the bench press enough, and you will quickly notice many different grip variations being used. As a rule of thumb, here are the typical reasons.

Wide grip: targets the outer chest and provides a greater stretch. Though, an also over-emphasize shoulders.

Close grip: Targets the inner chest but mostly shifts accessory muscle usage from the shoulders to the triceps.

Reverse grip: Targets the upper chest aka the smaller part of the pectoralis major that connects to your collar bone.

Why do some guys bench press with their Legs Up?

People bench press with their legs off of the ground for one of three reasons:

  1. They have lower back pain
  2. They think they are challenging their chest more
  3. They don’t know what they are doing

Reason 1 may be acceptable for some people while using light weights. But, as a rule of thumb, your feet should always be firmly planted on the ground for stabilities sake. Otherwise, you lose both safety and power that can end up resulting in injury.

What exactly are the extra benefits of Dumbbell exercises?

For every barbell bench press variation, there is a dumbbell press to match it as you noticed in each secondary exercise set. What exactly is the overall difference and benefits of utilizing dumbbell chest presses in your strength and mass routine?

Range of Motion: The most obvious benefit to dumbbells is the added range of motion. While using dumbbells, there is extra mobility at both the top and the bottom of each press, leading to greater, more complete muscle activation.

Stability: Training with dumbbell requires greater stability, which is accomplished by the recruitment of accessory muscles. As these accessory muscles grow, you become stronger and overall more stable and less injury prone.

Muscle Symmetry: 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. Due to this, the body grows more symmetrically since you will notice any imbalances in ability during your lift.

Closing Thoughts on our Chest Exploration

When it comes to training chest, you have endless options. In our opinion, the best way to grow serious chest mass and strength is to base your entire chest workout around the 3 main barbell chest presses.

From there, you can diversify your workout with a collection of accessory lifts that activate the entire chest.

Depending on the day, it’s totally acceptable to lead your workouts with dumbbell presses for variation. Likewise, it isn’t exactly sensible to do flat barbell press, incline press, and decline press in the same day, every day. So, as you put together your workout routine, realize which exercises bring forth the biggest bang for your buck, and then organize them in a way that will allow you to stimulate those muscles appropriately while not overloading your shoulders day in and day out.

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Trevor Hiltbrand
Trevor Hiltbrand


Trevor Hiltbrand is one of the owners/co-founders of Transparent Labs and head of content creation. He got his start with supplement research back in 2013 when he began researching cognitive enhancement. With the help of the Transparent Labs Expert Panel and Advisory Board, we aim to bring our evidence based nutrition and exercise research to the world.

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