best type of bench press

What Is The Best Type Of Bench Press

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.

Anteroir Deltoid, , Decline Bench Press, Flat Bench Press, Incline Bench Press, Pectoralis Major, Pectoralis Minor, Triceps

  • rob

    I like the incline precisely because it works the shoulders more, nothing like a pair of big shoulders. Though most people cheat on it due to range of motion problems, best to fix the range of motion problem before trying to get stronger.

    Been lifting since 1982 the two times I hurt a shoulder were on the flat bench though I still do it just more careful.

  • Thanks Rob for stopping by. I agree a lot of people have range of motion problems when it comes to shoulder flexibility. Oddly enough, first time I hurt my shoulder was surfing when a heavy wave ripped the board from my arms. Since then I’ve made should mobility a big part of my routine.

  • Brandon Lutz

    I disagree that on the decline press you can’t lift as much as on the flat bench. It’s more complicated than what you discuss in this article because there’s more muscles that are involved that the ones you mentioned, esp. on the decline. At a 45 degree angle on decline, the lats can engage in the movement, making it easier to lift a lot of weight. With flat bench press, you can’t activate the lats because of the horizontal plane of the movement and naturally puts tension mainly on the triceps, the chest being secondary. With decline, the lats assist the triceps in the movement, thus helping to exert more force on the bar, and allows the chest to kick in if it’s one of your weaker body parts. I personally can lift way heavier on a decline than a flat or incline. It puts great compression on all the muscles worked without straining the shoulders, and because the form is natural, it provides a better workout imo. Also, doing incline presses from a 30 degree angle as opposed to the usual 45 can activate the pec major quite efficiently if form is correct. You go closer to a 45 degree angle, and the anterior delts get worked too hard. As a beginner, Staying at 20-35 degrees hits your upper pecs and the middle of the chest which is great for crossing over to different angles as you get better at the movements.

  • Of course it’s more complicated than it seems – but I’m not going to write about every specific muscle involved – same as I wouldn’t do when talking about the two hundred plus muscles involved when performing a squat. This article was a discussion comparing EMG studies performed on different variations of the bench press and which press elicited a greater response from the pectoralis muscles and the major antagonists. Obviously (and as stated in my article) different degrees will work the pectoralis to…a different degree.

  • 1 Hour Athlete

    The “best” type of bench press will be completely dependent on your goals:

    For example, if developing your triceps is a key factor, you may wish to opt for a close grip bench press.

    Alternatively, if you’re weary that your upper chest is less developed you may wish to do a few sets of incline bench press.

    In reality you shouldn’t focus solely on what you consider to be the “best” type of bench press as doing a mixture will help contribute to a stronger upper body.

  • Absolutely right, any kind of diet or movement is specific to the client. The focus of the article was to be a comparative analysis breaking down the primary movements (incline, flat, and decline) and the amount of stimulation shown on pectoral muscles as shown on EMG studies. From there the best would be in the eye of the beholder. Which if you read the entirety of the post, I addressed by addressing positives of the incline and decline press.

  • Collin Monroe

    Hey man I really enjoyed your article.

    I have very overdeveloped front delts and I’ve been trying to bring up the back delts although it’s not even close to the front. Always been that way. I’m starting to think I should just do flat and nothing else, too. I don’t care about tricep involvement, because I train triceps twice a week (isolation movements) and do close grip on tricep day.

    I do flat and incline every chest workout. I noticed I have pain in my front delts every once in a while from incline.. Would doing decline and incline alone instead of flat and incline, be better? You’d get one extreme to the other, which should technically balance stuff out?

    What do you guys think?

  • April Boey

    There are very important key points to remember when performing the bench press to ensure healthy shoulders and longevity. One of this is to keep a tight grip on the bar at all times, a tighter grip equates to more tension in the lower arms, upper back and chest. Thanks for posting this. Very informative insights.

  • Yep! You’ve got to care for those shoulders.

  • Thanks! Sometimes you have to do what works best for your shoulders – even if that means regressing for a while to lighter weight and working on form/flexibility.

  • James Hesslegrave

    When you severely decline the bench, you start engaging your back muscles as well. And we all know how much our lats can pull and push. A lot. That’s why i believe Maryana Naumova is a fake. She flagrantly ignores IPF rules and arches her entire body so her feet are under her head. In doing so engages about 50% of her back muscles into the press. It’s a joke.

  • James Hesslegrave

    Agreed. And that’s why Maryana Naumova is a fake.


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