Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press: Differences Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
May 12, 2022

The incline bench press and the flat bench press are two variations of the standard free weight compound chest press exercise that make use of somewhat different angles of resistance and muscle group activation pattern throughout their training stimulus.

Many exercisers continue to debate on whether one exercise is more suitable for training than the other, with arguments being made for and against each variation.

However, in truth, whether the incline or flat bench press is a better exercise will in fact depend on the exerciser, their training goals, and their own relative biomechanics - making the answer to which exercise is superior an entirely situational one.

What is the Incline Bench Press?

The incline bench press, much like the flat bench press, is a free weight compound resistance exercise with an open kinetic chain that may be performed with any number of different weight training implements such as dumbbells, barbells or even kettlebells to a certain extent.

incline barbell bench press

Generally, the incline bench press is performed with the exerciser lying on a bench that is raised at an incline, with their torso being elevated above parallel level to their hips, therefore shifting the angle of resistance during the exercise and also subsequently shifting its muscular activation pattern.

This alteration in the angle of resistance involved in the incline bench press will also cause the exerciser to move significantly less amounts of weight per repetition than they would normally be capable of with the flat bench press - with the majority of individuals being anywhere between a fifth or a fourth weaker.

As a direct consequence of the incline that the exerciser finds their torso in, the relative range of motion required to complete a repetition of the incline bench press will also be somewhat longer - though generally not enough to account for any significant changes in training stimulus.

What is the Flat Bench Press?

The flat bench press, much like the incline bench press, is also a free weight compound resistance exercise with an open kinetic chain and a wide number of applicable exercise equipment through which it may be performed with.

barbell bench press

It is generally performed with the exerciser lying flat on their back on a bench or similarly elevated surface, with the only curvature in their body being from the retraction of their scapula and extension of the spinal column.

Due to the fact that the flat bench press places more emphasis on certain portions of the activated muscle groups normally involved in most chest press variations; the exerciser will find that they can not only lift significantly more weight per repetition, but also perform more repetitions before reaching the point of fatigue.

This, however, comes at a cost - as the practically vertical angle of the flat bench press will also place significantly more stress on the ball and socket joint that forms the shoulders - even if the exerciser retain perfect form.

And though the incline bench press and the flat bench press train much the same muscle groups with a similar form of training stimulus, the load distribution and muscular activation pattern involved are quite distinct between the two, also resulting in distinct training results.

Do the Incline and Flat Bench Press Have the Same Training Results?

The incline and flat bench press are simply two variations of the same exercise - and as such, one would think that they would result in the same pattern of muscular hypertrophy and strength growth, regardless of the different angle of resistance.

However, this is not quite true, as the relatively minor change in the angle of resistance between the incline and flat bench press will shift the loading distribution and mechanics of the exercise, placing more emphasis on certain parts of the shoulder and chest muscles.

Though it may seem negligible in only a single session, this change in muscular activation will result in different parts of the muscle groups being developed more significantly than the rest of said muscle groups, resulting in altered appearances and strength outputs.

The Pectoralis Minor and Pectoralis Major

The pectoralis or chest muscle group is divided primarily into two halves, with the outer and far larger portion being dubbed the pectoralis major, while the smaller inner half is referred to as the pectoralis minor.

The pectoralis major is what the majority of individuals seek to develop, as it makes up the majority of the pectoralis muscle group and as such is the most visually noticeable, as well as the portion most responsible for outputting power during exercise.

However, the pectoralis minor is also vital for building an aesthetically appealing chest, as well as the fact that it is also responsible for some measure of strength output when the pectoralis muscle group is recruited during a movement.

As such, training the pectoralis minor is a factor higher level athletes and bodybuilders should not ignore - bringing us to the incline bench press, of which induces somewhat less training stimulus to the pectoralis minor than the flat bench press, or even other variants such as the decline bench press.

For exercisers wishing to focus on training their pectoralis major by placing a greater level of resistance on that particular portion of the muscle group, they may instead perform the incline bench press over the flat bench press, with the latter distributing the load more evenly among the pectoralis minor and major instead.

The Heads of the Pectoralis Major

Though the majority of exercisers have no need for such specificity, certain higher level athletes and bodybuilders may wish to focus on one head of the pectoralis major over the other, thereby training with a specificity that is incredibly efficient if performed properly.

The pectoralis major portion of the pectoralis muscle group is separated into two heads, the clavicular head which attaches to the medial clavicle and possesses a distal point of attachment (or insertion) at the armpit, and the sternocostal head which inserts at the bicipital groove beneath the armpit, but originates at the sternum.

Though these two heads are respectively referred to as the upper and lower pectoralis major, with each being activated in tandem as a single muscle group - though receiving different levels of induced training stimulus depending on the exercise.

In the case of the incline bench press, it is the clavicular or upper head of the pectoralis major that receives a more significant level of training stimulus, causing the clavicular head to develop in a greater intensity.

This is not the case with the flat bench press, of which activates both heads of the pectoralis major in an approximately equal level, resulting in an even and balanced development of the entire pectoralis major muscle group.

The Anterior Deltoid Head - and the Deltoids Themselves

The shoulder muscles or deltoids are activated in both the incline and flat variations of the bench press, though, much like the pectoralis muscle group, the specifics of such activation are somewhat different between the two.

This is primarily in concerns to one particular portion of the three-headed deltoid group, with the front facing or anterior deltoid head being activated in a far more intense capacity during the incline bench press - mainly due to the angle of resistance involved in the exercise.

In fact, the deltoid muscle group in its entirety is activated to a far more significant capacity during the incline bench press, as it transitions from a secondary mover muscle group and occasional stabilizer muscle group to a primary mover during the incline bench press.

As such, for exercisers whose training program involves a significant amount of deltoid muscle group activation (either during a subsequent workout session or in the very same workout session), they may prefer to utilize the flat bench press so as to avoid premature shoulder muscle group fatigue.

When is the Incline Superior Over the Flat Bench Press?

Though the previous sections of the article outlined certain training criteria that make the incline bench press distinct from the flat bench press, they do not necessarily suggest that it is a superior exercise over the flat bench press.

dumbbell incline bench press

This is not entirely true, however, as certain situations or training goals equate to the incline bench press being the clearly more favorable choice when compared to the flat bench press.

The largest and most commonly encountered of these is the case of the exerciser wishing to place a greater level of training emphasis on their upper pecs and anterior deltoids, either for the purposes of creating better muscular definition in such areas or to improve their force output in regards to the pressing motion.

Another situation wherein the incline bench press may be a better choice than the flat bench press is in regards to individuals at risk or with a history of shoulder joint related injuries, as the flat bench press may place a moderate amount of stress on these particular connective tissues due to the angle of resistance and mechanics involved in the movement - both of which are different in the incline bench press.

When is the Flat Superior Over the Incline Bench Press?

Though the incline bench press may be superior to the flat bench press within the context of certain situations, the flat bench press also possesses its own set of characteristics that make the incline bench press a poorer choice in the right circumstances.

Individuals wishing to train their pectorals, deltoids and triceps in an equally distributed manner will find that the flat bench press is nearly unparalleled in terms of equal load distribution and time under tension, resulting in an even and balanced appearance and development of strength.

Powerlifters and other competitive strength athletes in particular may wish to focus more on the flat bench press instead of the incline bench press, as its shorter range of motion and angle of resistance will equate to the exerciser being able to move larger amounts of weight - thereby conditioning them to such levels of resistance.

Which Exercise Builds More Strength?

Whether the incline bench press or flat bench press produces superior muscular strength growth will depend on what one specifically means by strength - as, if we were to look entirely at raw numbers, the flat bench press allows the exerciser to move the largest amount of weight in a single repetition.

However, the incline bench press may be the superior choice for functional strength athletes or individuals wishing to improve their pushing strength in a manner not directly pertaining to the pressing motion, as the greater emphasis placed on the anterior deltoid head and pectoralis major’s clavicular head will strengthen the exerciser in other movements such as the military press or chin-up.

In terms of solely pectoralis muscle group strength development, the flat bench press will produce the best results; training the entirety of the pectoral muscle group in an equal manner that will, over time, produce a muscle group capable of stronger force output on its own.

For individuals primarily seeking improvements in the strength and appearance of their chest muscles, the flat bench press is the superior choice - with other muscle groups taking a back seat in such an exercise.

Which Exercise is Considered Safer to Perform?

Though it is still somewhat contested between experts, the incline bench press is generally seen as safer than the flat bench press in terms of risk of injury - especially when considering injuries relating to the rotator cuff or shoulder joint.

This is due to the angle of resistance involved in the incline bench press, wherein the flat bench press will create a bar path that may place undue stress on the shoulder joint.

It is entirely up to personal comfortability, however, as different biomechanics and bodily proportions may make the flat bench press just as comfortable as the incline bench press for certain individuals.

Conclusion

The incline bench press and flat bench press are equally useful in a summative context - with certain training programs even combining the two so as to produce a more specific training effect that may be otherwise unachievable if using only one exercise or the other.

Regardless of whether the exerciser chooses to perform the incline bench press, the flat bench press or even both; it is vitally important to learn the proper form cues of the movement and to utilize proper safety procedures such as warm-ups and stretching so as to maximize any gains made and reduce the risk of injury.

References

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2. Rodríguez-Ridao D, Antequera-Vique JA, Martín-Fuentes I, Muyor JM. Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Oct 8;17(19):7339. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17197339. PMID: 33049982; PMCID: PMC7579505.

3. Saeterbakken AH, Mo DA, Scott S, Andersen V. The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance. J Hum Kinet. 2017 Jun 22;57:61-71. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2017-0047. PMID: 28713459; PMCID: PMC5504579.

4. Coratella G, Tornatore G, Longo S, Esposito F, Cè E. Specific prime movers' excitation during free-weight bench press variations and chest press machine in competitive bodybuilders. Eur J Sport Sci. 2020 Jun;20(5):571-579. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2019.1655101. Epub 2019 Aug 20. PMID: 31397215.

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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