The bench press is one of the fundamental exercises that almost any well-rounded strength training program will include.
Whether you do total-body workouts, push versus pull workouts, or body parts splits where you have a chest day or triceps workout, you will likely be performing sets of bench press.
However, how you do the bench press may vary.
Many beginners in the gym want to know which is better: flat vs incline bench press?
This article will discuss the differences between the incline vs flat bench press, including the benefits of both, how to perform each exercise, and the muscles worked in the flat vs incline bench press.
More specifically, we will cover the following:
- How to Perform the Flat Bench Press and Incline Bench Press
- Which Is Better, the Flat vs Incline Bench Press?
- Primary Differences Between the Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press
Let’s dive in!
Which Is Better, the Flat vs Incline Bench Press?
Although from an execution standpoint, the incline bench press and flat bench press are fairly similar except for the positioning of the bench and your resultant body angle, there are actually nuanced differences in the technique and certainly some differences in the muscle fibers targeted.
Ultimately, for this reason, there are benefits to adjusting the angle of the bench. In other words, there isn’t necessarily a definitive “winner” in a flat vs incline bench press matchup. Rather, almost everyone can benefit from including both versions of the exercise in their strength training routine.
Both the flat bench press and incline bench press have the potential to help strengthen similar muscle groups, burn calories, improve your muscle definition, and build muscle mass in the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
Another similarity and shared benefit of both the flat bench and incline bench press is the fact that you can vary your grip and hand position to target different muscle fibers and muscle groups more than others.
With either exercise, if you use a narrow grip, such that your hands are closer than shoulder-width apart, you will shift more of the workload onto your triceps instead of your pecs.
A wide-grip bench press will recruit more of the outer portion of the chest, along with the serratus anterior muscle.
How to Perform the Flat Bench Press and Incline Bench Press
Here are the steps to perform the standard bench press on a flat bench:
- Place a flat bench inside the squat rack or power rack.
- Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lift the bar to unrack it and then raise it up as high as possible, being mindful not to bend your wrists as you lift.
- Slowly lower the bar back towards your chest, keeping your elbows tucked into your sides as they drop below your torso.
- Once the bar reaches chest level, press it back up for the next rep.
- After all of your reps, carefully re-rack the bar.
Here are the steps for the incline bench press exercise:
- Place a bench inside the power cage or squat rack and set it at a 45-degree angle.
- Lie back on the bench and grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the bar to unrack it and then raise it up as high as possible, being mindful not to bend your wrists as you lift.
- Slowly lower the bar back down towards your chest, keeping your elbows tucked into your sides rather than flared out, and your forearms should be vertical.
- Once the bar reaches chest level, press it back up for the next rep.
Primary Differences Between the Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press
Here are some of the primary differences between the incline vs flat bench press exercises:
Activation of the Pecs
The primary difference between the flat vs incline bench press in terms of muscles worked is in the activation of the chest muscles.
The bench press exercise primarily targets the pecs (pec major and pec minor) in the chest, along with the triceps, serratus anterior, and shoulders.
The bilateral pectoralis major is a fan-shaped muscle that has two heads or attachment points per side of your chest.
The clavicular head attaches along the clavicle, and the sternal head attaches to the sternum, which is the breast bone.
When you are trying to do upper chest workouts, you want to primarily isolate the clavicular head, while the lower portion of the pecs primarily stems from the sternal head.
With the flat bench press, you target the pecs in a well-rounded way, making this a great middle chest exercise that works your upper and lower chest to some degree. With the incline bench press variation, more of the emphasis is placed on the upper chest or upper portion of the pecs.
Note that you can also include the decline bench press in your bench press workout to target the pecs’ lower portion (sternal head).
Potential Load Lifted
In general, most weightlifters can lift heavier weights with the flat bench press vs the incline bench press.
This is primarily due to the fact that it is more difficult to press upward from a position of shoulder flexion, and there is less overall pec activation with the incline bench vs flat bench press exercise.
Rather, the incline press relies a bit more on the accessory muscles for the lift, including the deltoids and triceps, rather than concentrating the workload on the naturally larger and stronger pecs.
Also, if you like to execute a spinal arch with your bench press, which typically enables a higher load to be lifted, you will want to do the flat bench vs incline bench press.
The incline bench position is not very conducive to this technique, which further contributes to the lower possible loads lifted with the incline press vs flat bench press.
For these reasons, if you want to maximize the loads you can lift for strength and hypertrophy games, you will likely be better suited to focus primarily on the flat bench press vs the incline bench press.
With that said, if you are looking to improve your overall physique and muscle definition in the different portions of your chest muscles, you should include both versions of the exercise in your chest workouts.
In general, if you have shoulder instability, limited shoulder mobility (particularly with internal rotation), or chronic shoulder pain, it is typically better to do the flat vs incline bench press.
The incline bench position tends to place more torque on the shoulder joint, which can, in turn, aggravate shoulder discomfort and will require better stability in the shoulders.
The reason that there is a higher shoulder torque with the incline bench vs flat bench press is that the incline angle requires greater internal rotation and flexion at the shoulder.
Moreover, the pressing angle and load with the incline bench press exercise are more heavily weighted towards the shoulders, whereas with the flat bench press, the shoulder angle is more neutral, and the load is balanced.
Ultimately, there are benefits to performing the bench press on a flat bench and benefits to using the incline bench position. Furthermore, even within the general category of “incline bench press,“ you can vary the angle of the bench.
Most weightlifters typically use a 30 or 45° angle to the bench.
However, even within this 15° range, you will activate slightly different portions of your muscles, so it could be helpful to sometimes perform the exercise with a 30° incline bench press angle and a 45° angle during other workouts.
The other important way that you can vary the flat bench press or incline bench press exercise is to change the type of resistance.
Technically, when most people use the term “bench press,“ in a workout program, it refers to a barbell bench press.
With dumbbells, resistance bands, or other types of free weights, the exercise is typically called a “chest press.“
However, verbiage aside, the chest press and bench press exercises are similar enough to consider them essentially one in the same, yet different enough that you will derive benefit from varying your workouts by including different types of weights on different occasions.
Using dumbbells requires each arm to work independently, which can help identify and correct potential muscle imbalances. You can even perform a unilateral chest press to challenge the anti-rotation function of your core muscles.
The barbell allows you to lift more weight because both arms are working together, and there is more inherent stability. This can lead to bigger gains in mass and strength.
For more ideas about how to strengthen your chest, check out our guide with a complete chest workout here.