What’s the Difference Between the Incline, Decline and Flat Bench Press?

Most gym goers can ditch the incline and decline bench presses - and just stick with the flat bench press - for a complete chest workout.

If you’ve ever thrown a few free weights around at the gym, you’ve probably at least seen the tried and true bench press and its friends, the incline and decline press. The three machines are very closely related – so, what’s the difference?

When you perform a bench press, you are activating a full range of muscles. Obviously, your chest muscles are being engaged primarily. And the common belief is that the incline bench press focus on your upper pecs, the decline focuses on lower pecs and that the flat bench does a bit of each. As it turns out, this isn’t really true.

15 years ago, a study using a fancy electromyograph (EMG) set out to determine just which muscles the various bench presses actually engaged – and to what degree.

When it comes to lower pecs, the study determined that the flat bench is better than either the incline or decline bench.

When it comes to upper pecs, the study found that the incline bench is just slightly more effective than the flat or decline bench. The study also tested grips, and found that a narrower grip (just beyond shoulder width) combined with an incline bench press is the best for those upper pecs.

As I mentioned, the bench press does more than just train your chest muscles – it also works your triceps, deltoids and lat muscles. The best tricep combination was a flat bench and narrow grip. The best deltoid combination was an incline bench with a wide grip. And the best lat combination was a wide grip on the decline bench – though the degree to which the lats are engaged is fairly minimal. The bench press, after all, is a chest exercise. There are plenty of other, more powerful ways to engaged these other muscle groups.

So, as it turns out, there really aren’t any huge pectoral advantages to the incline or decline machines. The bottom line: The flat bench press is the ideal chest-training machine for most gym goers.

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Comments

  1. Interesting, I kinda didn’t expect the decline press to be useful.. I mean, I never did it myself and those who I’ve seen doing it on a regular basis don’t seem to have made much use out of it.

    • Yeah, I’ve been using the decline bench for a while… it still adds some variety to my workout – but it definitely feels easier than the flat bench. Now I know why!

      • I disagree, I prefer decline flys and decline bench for the pectoral isolation. I feel the burn better in decline than flat or incline. Everyone is different though.

        • I disagree. Muscular activation and locomotion is similar in every human being, unless you suffer from an unfortunate deformity/or handicap

  2. This is eye opening. Thanks for posting it Davey.

    I don’t know that I’ll vary my workout a whole lot in spite of it, I like variety in my workout, but it’s definitely nice to know and I will stop spreading the myth.

  3. The decline is the easiest, incline the hardest. This is because of the shape of the pecs- fanshape muscle. In decline more of the muscle fibers are available, in incline the least.

    This is why you see benchers cheating by arching their back up off the bench (bad form). What they are really doing, though unconsciously, is turning a flat bench into a decline and recruiting more of the pec muscle fibers.

    • since when is recruiting more muscle fibers (esp. of the muscle you’re working) bad?!!! lmfao … oh, and by the way, an arch in the back IS the form used by powerlifters and oly athletes… way to go…

      • Arching for your back IS bad technique. We’re talking about variations in bench presses to work out specific areas of the chest. I believe charley’s point is that if one is going to arch their back on a flat bench, they’re better off doing a decline press and save their backs the trouble.

        And using olympic powerlifters as your example is not valid. The objective of that powerlifting is just that: lifting.. and moving weight. But if we’re talking about effective ways to exercise/expand muscles, then your form has just about everything to do with it.

        • Arching is correct technique, which becomes more important as the weight you handle gets heavier. People that bang on about arching usually have crappy benches. Where the distinction needs to be made is extreme arching you see some people do on youtube- a tight back however, forms an arch, it’s what happens when you contract the back to stabilise the body, just like in a squat. Again, most folks also bang on about arching in the squat- it’s totally essential- you don’t go straight down and up because it puts knees over toes and doesn’t use glutes&hams properly. Sure arching reduces rom and makes a move more decline, but all you need do is then make incline a little more angled. Normal arching isn’t about cheating, it’s essential for heavy weights, it’s all about strong foundations, it’s almost all technique when you get stronger, and the biggest thing you learn about strength is that keeping the body tight makes lifts stronger. It’s why a belt makes heavy squats lighter or squeezing a bar hard on a bench makes the bar seem lighter.

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  6. curren phillips says:

    which one can help me loose some chest fat plzzzz anyone

  7. Curren,

    Cardio, cardio, cardio. Oh and don’t forget to eat right. Chest workouts don’t burn enough to make the change like jogging will.

    Good luck!!

    • cardio cardio cardio? no.
      low weight high reps? no.
      more muscle mass = more fat burned all day every day, even at rest.
      if you want to burn fat, build muscle and eat right

  8. Spot on. you cant really train a part of a muscle. you either use it or you dont. I find incline press adds very little over a bench press for chest. Better off just doing military press for shoulders and bench for chest.

    • Except that the chest is made up of two muscles… The incline is vital to your chest workout. This is the most ridiculous article I have ever read…

      • “When it comes to upper pecs, the study found that the incline bench is just slightly more effective than the flat or decline bench.”
        You did not read the whole article. At least it has a scientific backing to it. Forget the bro-science, incline is better for upper pecs, but not “vital” as you claim.

  9. excellent post, I think everyone needs to follow a good training and try max effort

  10. Nice post Davey.
    I agree that bench press on a flat bench is the ideal exercise to train the pectorals (and the lats, as you mentioned). But the thing is, while incline and decline bench press may or may not have very significant benefits for the lats,I doubt that the flat will have any benefit *significantly* higher than incline and decline.The thing is, just like different parts of the pectorals are used, so are different parts of the lats.

  11. In a budget and so far trying to get an incline bench is out of the picture. I can do flat db flys anywhere. thanks for all the advise.

  12. which one is the best for increasing chest size

  13. Hello to all, how is everything, I think every one
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  15. Incline, Decline and Flat Bench, what’s the right order ?

  16. wow this is so wrong it’s not even funny

  17. The person in the article’s photo has terrible posture, which makes a mockery of his “sexy” pose. Your behind belongs BEHIND you (look up Esther Gokhale for help). There is nothing “cool” about his appearance.

    Just as well, “Davey” looks effeminate on the website’s main photo, and the programs advertisement photo looks terribly creepy. Pull up your pants, degenerate man!

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