Incline vs decline vs flat bench press. Time for our Workout Of The Month. Each month we take a look at a different exercise and break it down by movement, how to do it, and discuss some of the positive versus negative impact that it can have to you and your level of fitness. Some workout’s of the month breakdown how to do a common exercise, others feature a specific exercise. This month we take a look at the great bench press debate – incline vs. decline vs. flat bench press. What type of bench press is really the best type of bench press?

What’s The Best Type Of Bench Press – Flat, Incline, Or Decline?

Ask any person and they’ll all probably give you a different answer- what’s the best type of bench press? Incline is better than decline, decline is better than inline, and decline is better than flat. The great bench press debate – all three serve their different purposes but which ones work out the chest the most?

Bench Press Basics:

Starting with the obvious – the bench press is used to work out the muscles of the chest (obviously). There are two primary muscles that make up the chest, the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. Other primary muscles that help out with the movement of the bench press include the triceps (back of the arm), and the anterior deltoid (front part of the shoulder).

Pectoralis Major:

pectoralis major

This image highlights the insertion points of the pectoralis major. As you can see there’s a portion that attaches to the clavicale and a portion that attaches to your sternum. Both parts play a key role depending on what type of bench press is being performed.

For the purpose of this post, we’re going to focus on the pectoralis major because it’s the primary muscle involved with the bench press movement. The pectoralis major has two major insertion points on your body – a clavicular part (a.k.a. the collar bone) and a sternalcostal part (the hard piece of bone in the center of your chest). The sternalcostal part of the pectoralis major is much bigger and can move much more weight than the part of the pectoralis that is near your clavicle. Each type of bench press has an effect on the different areas of the pectoralis major.

Incline Bench Press

best type of bench press

The bench press performed on an incline. This is actually one exercise I will never do. Below are a few reasons why.

The clavicular head of the pectoralis major is the smaller part of the chest muscles. Smaller muscles move less weight (hence why you can move more weight with the larger muscles of your legs than you can with your arms).

Oddly enjoy, because of the incline angle, the incline bench press is one of the best types of bench presses to work the clavicular head of the pectoral muscles (2). However, as the incline increases, more stress is placed on the anterior deltoid when compared to the flat bench press (2). Of the EMG studies performed while comparing different styles of bench press, the major portion of muscle activation came from the smaller part of the muscle.

The Bottom Line:

When compared to the decline and flat bench press, the incline bench press triggers most muscle fibers in the upper chest. The problem is because of the angle, weight is displaced onto the shoulders – which can’t tolerate heavier weight loads. This also adds stress to the shoulder and when people include other shoulder exercises this can lead to shoulder problems and inflammation in the joints over time.

The Decline Bench Press

best type of bench press

Opposite of the incline bench press, the decline activates less muscle fibers from the upper part of the chest. It does exactly the opposite, the strongest muscle fiber response is from the lower sternal pectoral muscles (1,3). Generally speaking, when comparing the decline bench press to the incline bench press, the decline overall activated more muscle fibers (1). Because a larger part of the pectoralis major is being activated, people are often more able to lift heavier weight loads during a decline bench press when compared to the incline bench press. As the bench angle declines, there is less significantly less activation of the anteior deltoid muscles (3). Work of the tricpes significantly more than the incline press but less than the flat bench press (3).

One Thing To Keep In Mind:

Because of the inability to move heavier weight loads and focused muscle activation of the lower part of the pectoralis muscles, the decline bench press is a movement that I rarely include in my workout regimen. Some people like this exercise because it decreases the workload on the shoulders.

Flat Bench Press

best type of bench press

The good old fashion flat bench press. There’s nothing quite like it and this press has stood the test of time. In comparison to the incline and decline presses, there is greater muscle engagement of the sternocostal head of the pectoralis muscle – generating the most muscle fiber activity from the pectoralis major (3,4).

Shoulders and Triceps:

When comparing should muscle activation between the incline there’s less recruitment of the anterior deltoid muscles (2). With the flat bench press, the triceps also do less work than the incline bench press as well (3). However, when compared to the decline bench, the flat bench press gets more work out of your deltoids and triceps (3).

The Bottom Line:

Because the flat bench press involves less activation of the smaller groups and the way the flat bench press engages the larger surface area of the pectoralis muscle, it enables people to lift much heavier weight and generate more force than any of the other types of bench press.

Does That Mean That The Decline and Incline Press Are Worthless?

Despite the fact that the flat bench press gets the most bang for your buck, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the incline and decline presses are completely worthless. For those concerned more about the physical image of weightlifting, the incline bench press is great for developing your upper chest muscles. Meanwhile, the decline bench press serves a great purpose for developing the lowest part of the pectoralis.

As for me, to avoid shoulder problems, I simply have no need to combine all three lifts (especially in the same workout). I use the flat bench press primarily to develop chest strength and to avoid overworking my triceps and anterior deltoids, I simply avoid the incline and decline press altogether. In my opinion, most people get too much work out of their deltoids to begin with.

Questions? Leave a comment. What’s your favorite type of bench press?

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1. Armstrong, T., Glass, S. “Electromyographical Activity Of The Pectoralis Muscle During Incline and Decline Bench Presses.” Journal Of Strength and Conditioning Research. 1997. Web. 15 June 2014.
2. Brandenburg, J., Pitney, W., Trebs, A. “An Electromyography Analysis Of Three Muscles Surrounding The Shoulder Joint During The Performance Of A Chest Press Exercise At Several Angles.” Journal Of Strength Conditioning Research. July 2010. Web. 15 June 2014.
3. Barnett, C., Kippers, V., Turner, P. “Effects Of The Variations Of The Bench Press Exercise On The EMG Activity Of Five Shoulder Muscles.” Journal Of Strength Conditioning And Research. 1995. Web. 15 June 2014.
4. 1. Delavier, F. “Strength Training Anatomy.” Paris: Human Kinetics. 2010. Print. Strength Training Anatomy 62-72.