The bench press is still considered the best and most common exercise for the chest. If done properly, it’s a very effective tool for building upper body strength and muscle. However, there are different bench press variations that you can be doing. For example, you can work your body from multiple angles by utilizing the incline positions on the bench. But which bench press is more effective? Which is better for chest building? Continue reading our incline vs flat bench comparison to find out the answers.
Incline vs Flat Bench: Which Muscles Are Targeted?
One of the most common exercises in the gym is the flat bench press. As an alternative, you can place the back of the bench at an incline with a 15-60 degree angle. Similarly, you can also do the bench press exercise in a decline position, with the bench placed at a -15 to -45 degree angle.
A lot of people mistakenly think that the incline and flat positions target different sets of muscles. On the contrary, both exercises target all the same muscles in your chest, shoulders and arms. They target deltoids, triceps and pecs. The difference between an incline and flat bench press is in the amount of activation that those muscles get.
As you change the angle of the bench, some muscles in your body get less activation, while others get more. This means that while you’ll be working all the same muscles, some will still be stronger than the others. So, if you switch from a flat to an incline bench press, you’ll notice that you can’t lift the exact same weight.
Let’s take a closer look at the position of the bench and the muscles it activates.
Upper Chest Muscles
One study done by the University of Queensland in Australia researched the muscle activation of benching in different positions. They included in their study four different angles: flat, incline, decline and vertical.
What they found is that the highest activation was happening in the flat and incline positions. On top of that, they found that the upper pecs were the most activated in the incline position. The flat position came second and the lower you went from there, the less activated those upper pecs were.
So if you want to develop a solid upper chest, your best bet is the incline bench press. To get the best results, the optimal bench angle is between 30 to 45 degrees. Less than that and it becomes too much like a flat bench. More than that and what you end up doing looks more like a military press and you end up taking away the pressure from the chest to shoulders.
Also, keep in mind that you’ll probably be benching less with the incline than with a flat bench. Don’t be disappointed by that. It’s normal.
The least effective exercises for the upper pecs are the decline and the vertical press. In the latter position, you are just doing an overhead press and working your shoulders, not the chest.
Mid And Lower Chest Muscles
The flat position is the best for building mid and lower chest muscles. However, keep in mind that pecs are naturally thinner at the top than at the bottom. That’s why the upper pecs require more work. If you’re only working on lower pecs, it can create the “man boobs” look.
However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do flat presses at all. They do also target both the lower and upper pecs but to a different degree. So just combine them with incline bench presses, which will help to create a more even chest from top to bottom. Or if you feel that building the upper pecs is more important, you can concentrate more on the incline bench.
The anterior deltoids are the most active during a 30-45 degree incline press. So the incline is a great way to put some mass on your shoulders. However, keep in mind that anything over a 50-degree incline will resemble more a shoulder press exercise and will take away tension from your upper chest.
The flat bench press is a more effective way to build arm muscles. It has the highest level of tricep activation. If you want to activate them even more, use a narrow grip.
The incline position is best for when you want to focus on upper chest and anterior deltoids. The flat position is almost as good as the incline at activating the upper chest but also activates well the mid and lower chest. On top of that, it also has more tricep activation.
As you can see, both bench positions have their benefits and choosing one bench angle or the other is more about your training goals.
So if you want a full, squared chest look, you want to work more on the upper chest and less on the lower. A lot of people opt for mostly focusing on the incline bench and then sometimes mixing in the flat bench presses.
If you do decide to do the incline bench press, how to determine what is the best angle?
The optimal angle is between 15 to 30 degrees. Keep in mind that by setting the angle too high you run the risk of targeting the wrong muscles and injuring yourself. You can experiment with different inclines to find what feels right for you.
However, be sure to also include the flat bench press in your program. It targets all the same muscle but to a different degree. Combining the incline and flat bench presses will help you create a fully proportionate upper body.
In all, all bench angles are great tools for building chest size and strength. Just in various settings, you’ll get different effects, which you should keep in mind when pursuing your training goals.