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Learn to Do The Incline Barbell Bench Press For A More Complete Chest

The bench press is a chest day staple for a reason. It’s a compound move that recruits muscle fibers in your chest, triceps, shoulders, and even your back. Switching up your pressing angle can enhance these benefits by shifting tension to your upper chest fibers and involving more effort from your shoulders.

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Even though the flat bench version is a powerlifter’s upper body bread and butter, the incline bench press is an undoubtedly useful training tool. Strongwoman and strongman athletes often appreciate the incline as a way to sneak in even more shoulder work to help with log presses and other overhead events. Bodybuilders work incline bench presses into their programs to build a complete chest. So no matter what kind of lifter you are, you can likely benefit from this bench press variation in your program.

How to Do the Incline Barbell Bench Press

This step-by-step form and technique guide is for the incline bench press using a barbell. Most of the steps would be similar if you were to use dumbbells or a specialty bar. However, some slight technique adjustments may occur, mainly with how you grip a specific implement. 

Step 1 — Set Your Base

Set up an incline workout bench — on its own or in a power rack — to about 30 or 45 degrees. Load the bar. Lie back on the bench. Set your hips and upper back on the bench. Root your feet into the floor.

A person sets up to perform an incline barbell bench press.

Coach’s Tip: Actively press your knees out. This will activate your lower body — namely, your glutes and quads — which will allow you to drive the weight off of your chest.

Step 2 — Find Your Grip

Where your hands sit on the bar comfortably is different for each person. But generally speaking, your hands may be slightly wider than shoulder-width. If you’re unsure, your forearms should be perpendicular to the ground at the bottom of the bench press. Too wide or too narrow of a grip width will result in your forearms angling outwards or inwards.

A person sets up to perform an incline barbenll bench press.
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Coach’s Tip: Find the smooth ring on the barbell that sits in the knurling. Use that as a guide to measuring your grip. Some place their pinky over the ring. Others use their ring finger. When you find a comfortable grip, check to see where your fingers are aligned with the ring so you can replicate it next time.

Step 3 — Pull the Bar Down with Control

Unrack the barbell. Stabilize it above your upper chest and shoulders. To do so, forcefully retract your shoulder blades and squeeze the barbell to better activate your grip.

A person performs an incline barbell bench press.
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Pull the barbell to your chest. Actively use your back muscles to keep your chest and shoulders from rounding forward. As you lower the bar, actively stretch your pectoral muscles. Make sure to keep your shoulders on the bench.

Coach’s Tip: Do not let the bar drop to your chest. Pull the bar towards your chest. Think of your lats as a spring that you’re loading up for more pushing force.

Step 4 — Push the Bar Up

While pulling your elbows inward toward your body, press the bar upward. Extend your elbows. Be sure not to lose control or stability in this phase. Generally speaking, your elbows should not flare out. Keep your shoulders on the bench.

A person performs an incline press in the Smith machine.
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Coach’s Tip: Another way to keep your lower body engaged is to keep your feet rooted to the ground and twist them outwards (without actually moving them).

Benefits of the Incline Barbell Bench Press

The incline barbell bench press is a slight variation of the traditional bench press. It offers many of the same benefits — more muscle and strength — as well as targeted muscle growth of the upper chest. You’ll find more detail below.

Add More Upper Body Muscle

You can train the incline bench press with relatively heavy loads and high volume. This makes it a very effective multi-joint, compound lift for maximizing muscle growth. You can use the sets, reps, and weights guidelines below to individualize strength and hypertrophy programs to best suit your needs.

Isolate the Upper Chest More

Any kind of bench press targets the pectoral muscles, regardless of whether you’re lying flat, on a decline, or on an incline. However, the incline bench press can isolate the upper pec fibers to a greater extent due to your body’s angle. This makes it a great move for developing weaker ranges and potentially neglected aspects of the chest.

Increase Upper Body Pressing Strength and Athletic Performance

Athletes can use the incline bench press to diversify their pressing strength and performance. By switching up the angles of pressing variations, athletes can often target sticking points, address muscle weaknesses, and stimulate new muscle growth.

Muscles Worked by the Incline Barbell Bench Press

The incline bench press mainly focuses on the chest, but it’s not an isolation exercise. The muscles that are used during the incline bench press are the larger muscle groups of the upper body. Increasing size and strength of these muscles can have great carryover to other pressing movements.

Pectorals (Chest)

The chest muscles are worked during all bench pressing movements. However, the incline press does place higher demands on the upper chest muscles due to the press’s increased angle in the press.

Front (Anterior) Deltoids

In the bench press, the front deltoids are active. In the incline press, however, the front delts are involved to an even greater extent. As you assume a more vertical pressing plane, you’ll target your upper chest and anterior deltoids. The more vertical your press angle is, the more you involve your shoulders.

Triceps

Your triceps work to extend your elbow in the top part of the bench press. These muscles work similarly during the incline bench press. In that way, this move can diversify triceps pressing strength, which ultimately will help your presses all around.

Who Should Do the Incline Barbell Bench Press

Because the incline press can increase overall pressing strength, many different lifters can benefit from including this bench variation into their training.

Strongman Athletes and Powerlifters

Building overall upper body mass and strength occurs through arduous training, exercise variations, and addressing all your lifting weaknesses. You can use the incline press to bridge the gap between the flat bench press and the overhead press. This can help you train all pressing movements throughout the most common angles seen in sports.

The incline bench press can also target the upper pectorals, triceps, and shoulders in a slightly different way to stimulate new muscle hypertrophy and strength gains. These gains are vital for strength athletes who need to develop overall strength and upper body stability.

Olympic Weightlifters 

Olympic weightlifters need to have chests, triceps, and shoulders that can produce high amounts of force to accelerate loads overhead. You also need to stabilize overhead loads, and even produce force during front rack positions and gymnastic movements. The incline bench press strengthens many of the muscles you need to accomplish those tasks.

CrossFit Athletes

CrossFit athletes will benefit from a stronger chest, specifically when performing burpees, gymnastic movements like dips, ring-related moves, and handstand push-ups. The incline bench can also strengthen your shoulders without adding more direct, heavy shoulder work.

Regular Gymgoers

Most gymgoers are all too familiar with the bench press. However, you may not include the incline press into your regular training. Because of the angle, you’ll need to lift less weight than you do on a flat bench — this may leave some lifters not wanting to check their ego. But ultimately, incorporating the incline bench press can help you add more weight to the bar by offering training diversity, hitting different areas of the chest, and placing less stress and strain on your shoulders when done properly.

Incline Barbell Bench Press Sets and Reps

If you are looking to incorporate the incline bench press into your training program, you can build serious chest strength and size. You can train this lift with heavy loads and lower reps to build strength and muscle, and with more moderate loads for higher reps to build muscle. 

To Build Muscle Mass

If your main goal is hypertrophy, you’ll want to train moderately heavy in the six to 15 rep range. Approach failure with each set.

Do three to five sets of five to 15 reps with moderate to heavy weight. You can also perform two to four sets of 10 to 15 reps with a moderate load until failure. Rest for 45 to 90 seconds between sets.

To Increase Strength

The incline bench press can be done in a similar format as most strength lifts — using heavy loads in low to moderate rep ranges for maximum strength gains. You’ll want to take longer rests when taking this approach.

Do three sets of five sets of three to five reps with a heavy weight. Rest three to five minutes between sets. 

Incline Barbell Bench Press Variations

In the event you want to add some variety to your incline bench press training, you can incorporate dumbbells, unilateral pressing options, or simply change the speed at which you train with the barbell.

Below are three effective variations you can use to break up the boredom and provide a new stimulus for the same incline bench press benefits. 

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

The dumbbell incline bench press is very similar to the barbell incline bench press. However, it does have key benefits to maximize muscle growth and further individualize your program.

For some lifters, using a barbell can force your shoulder into compromised positions. This can limit the amount of weight you can load and diminish your ability to train. By using dumbbells, you can manipulate the weight angle. Your wrists, elbows, and shoulder joints can therefore avoid more issues of pain or shoulder flare-ups.

Additionally, since the dumbbell incline press is a unilateral exercise, it addresses movement asymmetry and muscle imbalances that may be negatively impacting shoulder health, chest development, and/or pressing performance.

Single-Arm Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

Like the double dumbbell incline bench press, the single dumbbell variation increases your need to support and stabilize the load unilaterally. When you’re using a single dumbbell, you must control and resist spinal rotations and other rotational forces on your body.

This anti-rotation emphasis increases your core’s engagement in the movement. Some lifters also find that they can truly focus on contracting the muscle as hard as possible when training single-hand pressing.

Tempo Incline Bench Press

Tempo repetitions can increase time under tension, enhance motor recruitment, and force you to slow down to load the muscles better and spare your joints. Tempo reps are also extremely helpful for the incline bench press in particular, because lifters often drop the weight too quickly and bounce it off their chest. This can result in injury to your shoulder, or at the very least, unnecessary discomfort.

By training yourself to maintain a strict tempo, you increase your ability to control the movement, load your muscle, and maximize muscle growth without using heavy loads or risky form.

Incline Barbell Bench Press Alternatives

The incline bench press is a great exercise — however, sometimes you may not have access to an adjustable bench. The alternatives below offer you many of the same muscle group training benefits, and can be great work-arounds when everyone heads for the benches on Mondays.

Flat Bench Press

The flat bench press is perhaps the most popular movement for the upper body and chest in most gyms.

This exercise effectively targets the chest, triceps, and shoulders — but primarily the chest. Most powerlifting and strength programs will include the flat bench press in some capacity.

Seated Shoulder Press

While this exercise targets your shoulders, you can customize the angle to increase the upper chest and triceps development. Increase the angle (sit the bench up straighter) to shift the emphasis to your shoulders and away from your upper pecs.

This exercise can be performed with a barbell or dumbbells, and is a great way to diversify pressing strength overall.

Incline Close Grip Dumbbell Bench Press

The incline close-grip dumbbell bench press slightly changes the incline press into a chest and triceps-dependent movement.

You’ll press a pair of dumbbells together with your wrists in a neutral position (facing one another). This way, you can keep your elbows closer to the body, limiting the shoulders’ involvement. You can do this to increase upper pectoral and triceps hypertrophy and all-around pressing strength.

FAQs

You’re ready to get pumping with the incline barbell bench press, but you’ve still got some questions. So, here are some more answers to common questions we get about the incline bench press.

Final Word

The incline bench press can help you build a bigger, broader chest, stronger pressing, and help diversify your upper body pressing training. You’ll train this move similar to how you train heavier bench press options. But this exercise also allows you to train in a slightly higher rep range to really drive muscle growth. Like the flat bench press, the incline bench press is a great addition to any upper body training program.

Featured Image: ARENA Creative / Shutterstock

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