Decline Bench Press Alternatives: The Variations Explained

Published by Debbie Luna
Last Updated: October 18, 2021

The decline bench press is a variation of the more commonly seen bench press exercise, often performed with the intention of activating more of the lower pectoralis head, referred to as the sternal head or the pectoralis major.

However, many members of the population may find the particular downward angle at which the decline bench press is performed to be uncomfortable and dizzying, leading them to seek out viable alternative exercises that can act as a replacement for the decline bench press in their exercise routine.

Fortunately, there are many alternate exercises to the decline bench press. Whether your goal is to achieve the same compound type multi-muscle group activation or to individually isolate each muscle recruited by the decline bench press movement, there are a multitude of options to choose from with varying degrees of equipment requirements and difficulty.

What Muscles Does the Decline Bench Press Target?

Much like the regular flat bench press, the decline bench press primarily recruits the push-type muscles; namely the pectoralis muscle group and triceps brachii, the first of which is otherwise referred to as the chest muscles, and the latter being located on the side and rear of the upper arm, forming a horseshoe shape.

decline bench press

Secondary stabilizer muscles such as the deltoid heads as well as the many smaller muscles located in the forearms are also recruited if the decline bench press is performed as a free weight exercise instead of being machine assisted.

Keep in mind that because of the nature of the mechanical stress placed on the shoulders and clavicles while performing the decline bench press, it is best to avoid this exercise entirely if you have a rotator cuff injury or similar connective tissue injury.

How is the Decline Bench Press Performed?

The decline bench press involves either using a bench specifically built in the decline position or adjusting a bench so it is at a decline angle, raising the legs higher than the hips and shoulders in order to force more pectoral muscle fiber recruitment.

With a loaded barbell, the exerciser will place their hands approximately shoulder width apart along the bar and tuck their scapula in to reduce the chance of shoulder injury. Raising the barbell until their arms are almost entirely extended but not locked in place, the exerciser will then lower the bar to their chest, placing it wherever is most comfortable.

With the bar resting for a moment in any area between their sternum and clavicle, the exerciser will push their hands forward, raising the bar back into its original unracked position. This completes a single repetition of decline bench press.

Decline Bench Press Alternatives That Focus on the Lower Pectoral Head

Being one of the most prominent muscles on the torso as well as the primary source of movement in the decline bench press, the pectoralis major muscle or lower chest muscle is primarily responsible for the movement and rotation of the arms, in particular the humerus bone situated at the top of the limb.

Fortunately, the pectoralis major muscle is utilized in a variety of exercises that either recruit it as part of a compound exercise movement or instead isolate it entirely.

Cable Machine Crossover

The cable machine crossover, fittingly, requires a cable machine to perform properly. In particular, the cable machine crossover requires a cable machine with two cable attachment points at opposing ends, as well as cable attachments suitable for a one-handed grip, such as small handles or ropes.

First, it is best to set the resistance of each individual pulley or cable to a relatively low level, especially if the exerciser has never performed a cable machine crossover. While it is difficult to injure oneself while performing this exercise, it is still best to begin at a lower weight so as to acclimate the exerciser to the movement.

To begin, the exerciser will stand in the center of the cable machine with both hands extended to either side, gripping the cable attachment handles in each hand. Bracing their core and planting their feet for balance, the exerciser will then draw their wrists towards the front, allowing the arms to bend as is natural to their physiology.

cable cross over

To complete the repetition, the exerciser will “crossover” their wrists or at the least bring them close together, squeezing both sides of their pectoral muscle group as they do this, before slowly allowing the resistance in the cables to pull their arms back to the starting position.

Keep in mind that it is best to keep your elbows perpendicular to your body and to never allow them to be pulled behind your shoulders, as this may result in dislocations and tears or sprains in the pectoralis minor.

Parallel Bar Dips

A calisthenics exercise utilizing your own body weight for resistance, the parallel bar dip requires, like its name, two parallel bars or similar surfaces that allow the exerciser to suspend themselves between their own hands.

This exercise places significant stress on the rotator cuff and clavicle bones, and as such is unsuitable for persons who have previously experienced injury and damage to these areas.

An open kinetic chain movement, the parallel bar dip is started by suspending oneself between the two bars, with their feet hanging behind them and their shoulders firmly retracted towards each other from behind.

parallel bar dips

Pushing downwards with their hands, the exerciser will raise their torso as high as they can comfortably manage, all the while leaning slightly forward by extending their feet behind them in order to provide compensatory balance. 

Once reaching the top of this movement, the exerciser will begin to enter the eccentric phase of the exercise by slowly lowering their torso once more, bending their arms at the elbow and widening their shoulders slightly so as to activate the lower pectoral head as much as possible.

Once the elbow has been bent into a neutral position and the chest is no longer being engaged at the bottom of the movement, the exerciser has completed a single repetition of parallel bar dips.

Incline Pushups

Practically the calisthenic version of the decline bench press, the incline pushup may be performed by anyone with enough upper body strength to perform an ordinary pushup. The only equipment required to do an incline pushup is an elevated surface such as a table, bench or chair.

In order to perform an incline pushup, the exerciser will simply lower their hands to the elevated surface, extending their legs behind them while maintaining a straight back so as to form an upward-facing plane with their body.

The exerciser will then lower their torso towards the elevated surface at a controlled pace, squeezing their pectoralis muscles by pressing their hands firmly against the surface, creating tension throughout their upper torso.

incline push up

Once the exerciser’s chest has come within several inches of the surface, the concentric portion of the exercise has been completed, and the eccentric phase may begin by the exerciser raising themselves up once more into the flat plane position.

The incline pushup is the ideal replacement for the decline bench press in the event that you are unable to go to a gymnasium or otherwise cannot perform a decline bench press.

Triceps Focused Decline Bench Press Alternatives

The second most activated muscle group by the decline bench press, the triceps brachii are a trio of muscles attached to the rear and side of the humerus bone, of which are primarily responsible for the “pushing” movement during the eccentric portion of the decline bench press exercise.

Being utilized in nearly every arm exercise, the triceps have a plethora of exercises that may act as replacements for the muscle activation that would otherwise be lost by choosing to replace the decline bench press in your workout routine.

Cable Triceps Pushdowns

The cable tricep pushdown is an exercise only capable of being performed with a cable pulley machine, as the constant tension placed on the triceps in the pushdown position is only possible with the assistance of a machine.

Keep in mind that while performing the cable tricep pushdown, the focus must be on your triceps primarily, and as such any swinging of your torso or moving of other parts of your upper body apart from your arms will reduce the effective muscular hypertrophy that this exercise may induce.

Attach a double headed rope handle to the overhead cable attachment point of the machine. Gripping the ends in both hands, the exerciser will then bend their arms at the elbow, bringing their hands towards their legs without bending their torso or knees in any way.

cable tricep pushdown

Bring the rope ends as close to your lower body as possible, essentially locking out your elbow and straightening your arms. If you are unable to do this without utilizing your shoulders or bending forward at the waist, lower the resistance of the machine.

The first portion of the exercise now complete, allow the tension in the pulley cable to draw your hands back to their raised position, all the while squeezing your triceps in order to maximize muscle fiber recruitment.

Dumbbell Triceps Extensions

The dumbbell tricep extension is a unilateral exercise that places significant stress on the shoulder tendons if they are not used to the motion. As such, it is best to perform a rigorous upper-body stretching routine prior to attempting this exercise.

In order to perform this exercise, the exerciser will require a light weight dumbbell and a suitable area to sit so as to maximize focus on their tricep activation.

Seating themselves on a bench or other comfortable surface, the exerciser will raise the dumbbell overhead in one hand, as if military pressing it. They will adjust their shoulders in such a way that the arm is perfectly balanced atop it.

Bending the arm at the elbow, the exerciser will then bring the dumbbell downwards behind their head, keeping the shoulder – and by extension their spine- as straight and stable as possible. If needed, one may grip the exercising arm with their free hand to aid in stabilization.

The exerciser will lower the dumbbell as far behind themselves as is comfortable, before reversing the motion by once more extending their arm completely, returning the dumbbell to its original overhead position. This completes a single repetition of the exercise.

Can Decline Bench Press be Replaced by Flat Bench Press?

In the event that you still desire to keep a bench press exercise in your workout routine but do not have access to the correct equipment to perform the decline bench press, it is still entirely possible to activate much the same muscle groups by performing the more common flat bench press.

However, keep in mind that it is likely your coach or physical therapist has specified the decline bench press in order to better activate the lower portion of your pectoralis major muscle.

bench press muscles
Flat Bench

While the flat bench press does still activate this portion of the chest to an acceptable degree, it is not the primary target of the exercise, and as such is not as effective as the decline bench press variant at growing that particular portion of the muscle.

If possible, it is an excellent idea to perform the flat bench press in tandem with other, lower impact pectoral-targeting exercises that can make up for the reduced level of tension placed on the lower pectoralis muscle.

References

1. Hutchison, Dan. "Using variable resistance for the bench press". Perform-X.com.

2. Unknown Author. (January 2021) “The Best Tricep Exercises and Workouts for Building Bigger Arms” Men’s Health Magazine

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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