Incline Bench Press: The Definitive Guide

Incline bench press guide

If you’re like most guys, you started training because you want all the classic characteristics of an aesthetic body: a big chest, big arms, and a ripped 6-pack. 

Well you’ve come to the right article! We’re going to look through everything related to the incline bench press: whether it’s better than the horizontal bench press, what exactly it can do for your chest, and how to incorporate it into your training programs. 

Here’s what we’ll cover in this post:

Table of contents

What is the incline bench press?
Which is better: horizontal vs. incline bench press
How to incline bench press with proper form
Incline bench press variations you should know
Free chest workout program
The bottom line

The incline bench press is one of the best exercises you can do to build a bigger chest and stronger triceps (which gets you closer to a few of your aesthetic body goals)

The incline bench can literally help you fill up t-shirts—if you do it right, of course. 

But which type of bench should you do? 

You have three choices:

  •  Horizontal bench press
  • Incline bench press
  • Decline bench press

 In this article, we’re going to look specifically at the incline bench and we’ll compare it to the horizontal bench press:

Arnold doing the incline bench press

Arnie loved it for a reason, and look at his chest:

Arnold's well developed chest muscles

You’ve probably heard about the benefits of the incline bench and how it can help you build bigger upper pecs. 

By the end of this article, you’ll know the exact benefits of the incline bench, its variations, how it compares to the horizontal bench, and how to incorporate it into your training program. 

 Ready? Let’s dive in…

What is the incline bench press?

The incline bench press is kinda similar to the horizontal barbell bench press, but with a slight difference: it’s on an incline bench… Duh.  

Here’s a video that shows Arnold using the incline bench:

 As you can see, he’s using a very wide grip, which is one of the variations of the incline bench (we’ll talk more about this later in the article).  

And here’s a video of the flat bench press: 

To understand the incline bench, let’s talk about chest anatomy for a second. Anatomy of chest muscles

The pectoralis major (your chest muscles) attaches to your skeleton at two different points: the clavicular head and the sternocostal head 

Or, in gym-speak, the upper chest and the lower chest.  

Although all the chest exercises work the chest as a whole, some of them emphasize one head more than the other.  

The incline bench emphasizes the clavicular and it helps develop the upper chest.  

And the flat and declined bench emphasize the sternal head. 

Why should you care? Check out this photo of Julian Hierro, the Lose Fat Build Muscle personal fitness coach, before he started specifically focusing on training his upper chest:

Upper chest before incline bench press

 

“As you can see in this picture, I had decent chest development, but take a closer look and you can see that the upper part of my chest is underdeveloped while the bottom part has a lot more volume” – Julian

 

 

 

Honestly? It could become much more developed and aesthetic, and it’s very common to see guys with a big lower chest and small upper chest. 

I like to call them “droopy chests.”   

The good news is that “droopy chests” can easily be fixed (I’ll tell you how in a bit).  

Now check this out:

Upper chest after incline bench press

 

 

“Can you spot the difference?  

My chest looks a lot fuller in this pic and it’s mainly because I focused on developing the upper part of it ” – Julian  

 

A well-developed upper chest will give you the big filled-out pecs that you’re looking for, and one of the easiest ways to develop the upper chest is with the incline bench.  

Doing lots of incline presses is the best way to make sure your upper chest grows, and it’s also very effective to develop your chest as a whole.  

And this is not just me making this up. There are plenty of studies that measure muscular activity during the incline and they found that during the incline bench, the clavicular head was much more active than the sternal head. 

 The same studies also found that the sternal head was more active during the flat bench and decline bench. 

 So what does this mean?

 If you want a big and full chest, including the incline bench press in your training routine is a must.  

 Now, let’s look into which version of the bench press is better.

Which is better: the horizontal or incline bench press?

Well, one thing is for sure. When it comes to training – nothing is set in stone. That’s why deciding which one is better comes down to your own personal goals.  

If you’re close to a powerlifting competition and your goal is to maximize your one rep max in the horizontal bench press, then doing horizontal bench presses will be a better idea than doing incline bench presses.  

On the other hand, if your goal is to maximize upper chest development, then doing incline bench presses is most likely a better option.  

So before deciding which one is better, you must be clear about what you want to accomplish.  

Creating an amazing physique and getting as strong as possible go hand in hand. 

That’s one of the principles I emphasize over and over again. If you want to build a muscular body, your main focus should be to get strong. 

 What’s more, the incline bench can help you achieve both because the more developed your muscles are, the stronger you can get. 

 And if you focus on growing your chest, then strength will follow. The incline bench will allow you to develop an area of your chest that you can’t develop with regular bench presses, so that means you’ll be able to build bigger chest muscles if you include the incline bench in your training. 

Incline bench press technique

 And bigger chest muscles are equal to more strength, and more strength is equal to a badass body. 

Now, let’s talk about the horizontal bench press: 

The horizontal bench press is a staple of any strength-training program, and it literally is one of the ways to measure your strength (that’s why it’s included in powerlifting meets). 

Flat bench technique

You can also lift more weight than with the incline bench due to the angle of pressing. 

 Along with the incline bench, if you want superior chest development, then you should also include the horizontal barbell bench press.

So which one is best? 

Both the incline bench press and the horizontal bench press are important tools in your workout program. 

 Deciding if one is superior over the other depends largely on what you want to accomplish.

 They’re both great exercises, and regardless of your goal, you should include both in your training program in some way.  

How to incline bench with proper form

Now that we’ve had a look at some of the theory behind the incline bench, let’s get to the action. 

You might have seen people at the gym simply lie down on the bench with a flat back and start lifting with no real set up.  This is really common as form is massively overlooked by most people when it comes to the bench press in all of its variants.

 As with all lifts, strict form and proper posture are important in avoiding injury and maximizing the efficiency of the movement.  More efficiency means more gains, so make sure you implement the following steps before even unracking the bar.

 We’re going to look at the set up first, then move on to lowering and raising the bar.

The set up

1 – Position your body 

Lie down on the bench and make sure to position your eyes directly under the bar.

Then, pull your shoulder blades together and down.  A great way to make that mind-muscle connection is to imagine pushing your shoulder blades down into your back pockets, so if your upper back is nice and tight, that’s a good sign.

 If you’ve never positioned your upper back like this before, you might easily slip back into a less than ideal posture, so try being conscious of this during the whole exercise.

This video will help you get a better visual of that:

2 – Grip the bar 

The first thing to consider when gripping the bar is how far apart your hands are positioned.  

For a standard grip, make sure your hands are slightly wider than shoulder width apart.  

Further down in this post I go into more detail about variations in grip width and how this affects the muscles targeted.  

The next thing to take note of is wrists and fingers. 

The bar should rest low in your hand, closer to your wrist than your fingers, and don’t forget to squeeze as hard as possible throughout the exercise 

Here’s a visual of the ideal bar position in your hand:

Hand position on bar for incline bench

 

Now let’s look at wrist position, because incorrect wrist angle could lead to an injury, especially when lifting heavy!

 Wrists should be at a very VERY slight angle backwards, just enough for the bar to comfortably rest in your hand.  Moving your wrist too far back is going to be really uncomfortable on heavy lifts and brining your wrist forward will make it harder to keep a solid grip on the bar. 

Here’s a picture that’ll help you with correct wrist position: 

Best wrist position for incline bench

 There’s a lot of different information about gripping the bar flying around the internet (and probably your local gym), but one thing to keep clear of is the infamous and aptly named suicide grip.  That’s the gripping position where you place your thumb over the bar next to your index finger.  

What’s the problem with the suicide grip?  

When lifting heavy, suicide grip makes it much harder to control the bar and if the bar slips at all, it could end up falling on your neck or chest causing serious harm.  

Suicide grip:  Not even once.  

3 – Position your feet

This is important: Your feet should be firmly planted on the ground throughout the lift.  

This is so simple and is key to proper incline bench form but is usually overlooked.  Everyone has different sized feet, longer or shorter legs, and varying mobility in their ankles and knees, so it will take some adjusting to find a position that’s comfortable and gives you maximum stability.  

A popular option is planting your feet flat on the ground directly underneath your knees.  Here’s what that looks like:

Best leg and foot position for incline bench

 Some people prefer to move their feet back towards the bar a few inches to help with maintaining rigid posture, but I’d recommend a standard feet position to start off. 

Seasoned lifters sometimes move their feet right back, pushing up on their tip-toes to really keep a lot of tension throughout their body, this is mainly seen in flat bench presses and makes balancing a little more complicated so maybe leave that until you’re a pro at all other aspects of the set up.   

As far as how wide your feet should be, a good rule of thumb is to not go too wide or too narrow to the point of compromising stability.  About shoulder width works for most people but play around with this until it feels right for you.  

Stability is key

When you’re lifting the bar, keep your legs as rigid as possible with minimal movement.  

An easy mistake to make is moving your knees inwards as you drive the bar upwards, but this releases tension in your torso and will make it more difficult to finish those last couple of reps.  

Why is foot position so important?  

Well, your feet anchor the whole body in place and stop your back from sliding around on the bench.

Aim to keep your feet and legs as still as this guy:

Incline bench press foot position

If your feet are not placed firmly on the ground at all times, with legs kept tight for maximum support, then you’ll find it pretty hard to progress onto heavier weights over time as you won’t be efficiently targeting the chest. 

4 – Arch your back

This is an important one. 

As I mentioned earlier, simply laying down on the bench with a flat back is not the right way to go.  But you don’t want to get into any strange contortionist positions with your back bent out of shape either. 

You should aim to push your chest upwards, keep your butt on the bench, and lightly arch your back so that it’s a couple of inches off the bench.  

Here’s what your back position with a slight arch should look like:

Ideal back arch for incline bench press

 Again, very experienced lifters might use an exaggerated arch position, but this is something to avoid when you’re first getting to know how your body responds to proper incline bench form.  

4 – Brace and unrack the bar

 You’re nearly ready to get lifting, but this step is just as important as the others. 

With your hands firmly in position and your whole body braced from your upper back to your feet, push the bar upwards until your elbows are locked out. The bar should be positioned over your upper chest (just below the collar bone is a good place to aim), but not too high up or you’ll end up hitting your chin on the way down. 

Unracking can be tricky, especially if you’re going heavy, but it’s really important that you don’t relax your back or move your legs around or your stability will go straight out the window.  

One more thing to consider here is the height of the bar on the rack.  

Make sure it’s at the right height for you, because having it too low or too high could throw your whole posture off before you even get started. 

 If you need to raise your shoulders to get the bar off the rack, lower it.  If you need to raise the bar more than a couple of inches from its starting position, then take it up one notch on the rack.

Lowering and raising the bar

This isn’t just as simple as bringing it down and pushing it back up.

We’re going to look at the fine details to make sure you avoid injury and maximize gains.  Maintaining good form is fundamental here.

Lowering the bar

Before you lower the bar, you should pay attention to the angle of your elbows.

The bench gets a bad reputation because so many people flare their elbows out and end up with long-lasting shoulder injuries.  Some also get elbow problems by sticking their elbows too close to their body which can also cause strain over time.

For the standard incline bench press, your elbows should be between 50-60 degrees from your body.

This drawing from @pheasyque on Instagram is great at showing the best elbow position:

Elbow angle for incline bench press

This is for the standard grip incline bench press.  Further down I explain other variants where different elbow angles can be used.

Now, let’s actually lower the bar.

Keeping your elbows in position for the whole movement, lower the bar to the mid-to-lower chest.  Aim for just above the nipples.

The bar should come down in a straight line, so don’t go swinging it over your head or down over your stomach area.

Come down slowly and with complete control, touch the bar on your chest, and get ready to come back up again.

Under no circumstances should you be bouncing the bar off your chest.  I repeat:  No bouncing the bar off your chest at the bottom of the movement.  It’s bad form and you’ll be using momentum to get the bar moving, instead of actually using your chest muscles.  You might even crack a few ribs if your lifting heavy and come down too fast.

Now let’s move on to raising the bar.

Raising the bar

Pushing the bar back up requires a lot of concentration.  You need to maintain good posture and remember to do all this:

  • Keep shoulder blades together and down
  • Keep elbows tucked at the right angle
  • Keep your lower back slightly arched
  • Keep your butt firmly on the bench
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor

If that wasn’t enough, we’re going to add one more thing: actually pushing the bar up.

To make an amazing mind-muscle connection, imagine pushing your body away from the bar and into the bench.  This will help you focus on only moving your arms.

Push the bar up in a very slight diagonal path back towards your shoulders and end the movement right where you started: Above your shoulders and the very top of your chest.

Here’s another good visual from @pheasyque to show the bar path:

Bench press bar path

At the top of the movement you should lock your elbows out in full extension.  Don’t keep your elbows bent at all.

Congratulations, you did your first rep!  Now repeat that process to finish your set.

After the last rep you’ll want to rerack the bar.  Do this by completely locking your elbows out again, and then move the bar back directly into the rack.

Incline bench press variations you should know

The incline bench press can work different muscles depending on the variant you use, and while a standard medium width grip is pretty common, you should learn about the benefits of other variants and how to implement them if you ever change your workout objectives. 

      1 – Narrow grip 

  •  Technique – Grip the bar just inside shoulder width and keep your elbows tucked in close to your body at ~50 degrees to your body on the way down.  The bar should still come down to touch your mid chest area.

Here’s a video to help you see the ideal technique for this variation: 

  • Key muscles workedThe narrow grip incline bench variation targets the triceps really well while still hitting the upper chest.  If you grip the bar too narrowly this will basically become a triceps exercise only, so don’t move your hands too close together.  You will probably have to reduce the weight your lifting for this variant.

      2 – Medium grip

  •  Technique – Grip the bar just outside shoulder width for this variant, and your elbows should be at about a 50 degree angle to your body.  Again, the bar will touch your mid chest at the bottom of the movement.

Check out this video to better visualize the technique for this one: 

  •    Key muscles worked – This is the standard variation, so it’s optimized for targeting the upper chest mainly, and works the triceps and shoulders to a moderate degree.

       3 – Wide grip

  •  Technique – Grip the bar really wide here, so that your hands are far outside your shoulders.  Keep your elbows at about a 75 degree angle from your body, and the bar will come down to touch your mid chest again.  Do not flare your elbows too much here, because you’ll risk putting too much strain on your shoulder and will probably get a nasty injury after a couple of weeks.  

This video shows grip width and elbow angle nicely: 

  •   Key muscles worked – This variation is great for placing even more emphasis on the upper chest, and triceps and shoulders are targeted much less than the other two narrower grip variants.

Grow your chest (and your bench) with this workout

Follow this and you’ll see huge progress. 

Before we get to the complete workout, let’s talk about isolation and compound exercises.  

Isolation exercises are an amazing way to really exhaust the muscle, especially after going hard on a compound movement.  

But there’s an even better way to put isolation and compound movements together: In an isolation sandwich! 

By starting off your workout with a heavy compound exercise, you make it the limiting factor in a follow up isolation movement.  This allows you to exhaust the chest by specifically targeting it. You then finish off with another compound movement to get some serious growth stimulation going in the muscle. 

 Right, let’s apply the isolation sandwich in the following exercise program.

DISCLAIMER: perform this program at your own risk, and it’s always a good idea to consult a doctor before starting any training regimen. 

All good?  Ok, let’s get into it. 

First off, it’s important that you follow this program exactly as it’s designed and switching exercises or mixing it in with different programs.  Stick with it for 5 weeks and if you don’t see any progress, get in touch with Julian Hierro by email and he’ll be happy to give you a free consultation call to see how to best tweak things to get you the results you want.  

Ready?  Time to get planning. 

You’ll have set exercises to do every day, but first we need to see what your 1 rep max (1RM) is for each movement.  If you’re not sure, use this calculator to estimate it.

One rep max table Once you input your 1RM for every exercise, your weekly working weights will automatically be calculated in the spreadsheet.  

  • Exercise Tab: This is the exercise you’ll be performing.
  • Weight: This is the weight you’ll be using (in lbs.).
  • Sets: This is the number of sets you’ll do per exercise.
  • RIR: Reps in reserve: this is the number of reps you’ll leave in the tank in each set (if you did 12 reps, that means you could’ve done 16).
  • Reps achieved: Here you’ll track the reps you achieve per set.

The program slowly adds more weight to each exercise every week.  This is calculated for you, so as I said earlier, follow the program as it is and don’t be tempted to add any more weight than is shown on the spreadsheet.  Exercise program

Feel like extending the program? No problem.

You can repeat the whole program up to 3 or 4 times to get the most out of it, just be sure to alternate between the different exercise options.

 

The bottom line about the incline bench press

Let’s be clear here – you can’t neglect the incline bench press

 Without properly implementing the incline bench press into your fitness routine, you will find it harder to add size and strength to your chest.  A developed upper chest is fundamental for that aesthetic look that you’re striving for, so you need to add this exercise to your workouts and follow the above program to add pounds and inches to your chest.

One last thing – consistency is king.

Keep a killer chest workout as part of your program and stick to it.  You won’t see growth overnight, but over weeks and months your chest will fill out and your PR will keep on getting heavier. 

Consistency builds long-lasting gains and the fundamental strength that’s gonna help you in the long term.

Whatever point you’re at on your fitness journey, a great looking body is something that you can achieve

Let’s get to work!

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