A variation of the standard chest press wherein the exerciser angles their torso upward so as to engage the clavicular head of the pectoral muscles to a greater extent, the incline dumbbell press is among one of the most common secondary compound chest exercises used by exercisers and athletes alike.
However, despite its relatively low impact and high margin of safety, certain issues may arise that will require the incline dumbbell press to be substituted with an alternative exercise appropriate for the circumstances.
Luckily, quite a few possible alternative exercises exist for the incline dumbbell press - each with unique characteristics that make them suitable for use despite whatever reason the incline dumbbell press was originally substituted for, such as injuries or the need for an altered angle of resistance.
Though the incline dumbbell press is considerably safer and easier than other chest press variations, several issues may still arise concerning the stress it places on the rotator cuff and other structures of the shoulders.
This directly relates to the rather strict form requirements of the exercise, as rotating the wrists or elbows beyond a certain degree of movement will place the exerciser in a highly disadvantageous position that can cause them to fail the repetition entirely.
Even if the exerciser has mastered proper incline dumbbell press form, there is still the issue of stability throughout the exercise, with its bilateral muscle group activation only going so far in terms of maintaining a stable dumbbell path as the two sides of the body are forced to work independently of one another.
Finally, there is the simple case of the exerciser not having access to an incline bench or appropriately weighted set of dumbbells - an issue that may easily be remedied either by substituting said equipment, or by choosing an alternative exercise that does not require the same equipment in order to be performed.
In order for an exercise to be considered a possible alternative to the incline dumbbell press, it must share several characteristics with said incline dumbbell press so as to retain the original purpose of the exercise within the training routine - as well as to aid in achieving the exerciser’s goals.
These characteristics are primarily that of unilateral training stimulus, as well as in regards to the complexity and intensity of the alternative exercise - all of which, when changed within the training session, will result in altered training results, thus defeating the purpose of substituting the incline dumbbell press in the first place.
In addition to the sort of training stimulus provided by the alternative exercise, the muscles worked by said alternative exercise must also be similar to that of the incline dumbbell press.
These are namely the pectoral muscles that make up the chest and are responsible for the majority of the incline dumbbell press’s movement, though other muscle groups such as the posterior deltoid head, serratus, and triceps brachii muscle groups are also activated by the incline dumbbell press.
While the incline dumbbell press is generally considered to be a chest muscle building exercise, factoring other muscle groups into what alternative exercise to use can also prove quite useful, and retain the original training stimulus of the incline dumbbell press within the workout session.
The incline dumbbell press usually takes on the role of a secondary compound exercise meant to maximize pectoral muscle group stimulation and reinforcement of several biomechanics related to pressing overhead.
Knowing this, one can determine that any potential alternative exercise should also be programmed in a similar manner; with the intensity, level of resistance, compound muscle activation and volume all following suit accordingly.
As the incline dumbbell press is usually performed for several sets with each set being made up of anywhere between six and twelve repetitions each, an alternative exercise of similar resistance and intensity will generally be programmed with the same numbers in mind.
If the reason for the substitution of the incline dumbbell press is a simple lack of proper equipment, using a substitute piece of equipment should allow the exerciser to continue their workout routine without the need to choose an alternative exercise instead.
The usage of dumbbells in the incline press provide several benefits such as greater stabilizer muscle recruitment and mind-muscle focus.
However, in the event that the exerciser does not have access to dumbbells or if their set of dumbbells are not heavy enough for their particular strength level, the usage of a loaded barbell or even a pair of resistance bands can easily replace the dumbbells in this situation.
One must keep in mind that changing the resistance equipment in the incline dumbbell press will not only change how it is performed but also the sort of training stimulus it provides - albeit only to a certain extent, as all variations of the incline press develop the chest muscles.
If the exerciser does not have access to a bench capable of being adjusted to an incline, they may instead use an exercise ball, prop themselves upwards on a flat bench or lie in the opposite direction atop a decline bench in order to achieve the correct torso angle for the incline dumbbell press.
While this is not necessarily as stable or precise as the usage of an incline bench, it can nonetheless act as a temporary substitute in the event that all the incline benches in the gym are occupied or the exerciser has yet to order one for their home gym.
For general purpose substitution such as the development of mass and strength in the pectoral muscles, the incline dumbbell fly is the ideal alternative exercise.
This is due to a number of similarities shared between the two exercises that make the incline dumbbell fly just as capable as the press in achieving general training goals - though this suitability is somewhat tampered if the exerciser’s reason for substituting the incline dumbbell press is also a shared characteristic with its fly counterpart.
The largest difference between the incline dumbbell fly and press are in the angle of resistance, wherein the incline press creates a more vertical plane of force while the fly is a horizontal one; thereby reducing the involvement of the posterior head of the deltoid muscles in the incline dumbbell fly, instead activating the biceps and pectoral muscles to a greater extent.
When programming the incline dumbbell fly as an incline dumbbell press alternative, the form of the exercise will greatly reduce the total load the exerciser will be capable of moving; thus reducing resistance in the exercise and allowing for greater amounts of volume to be used per set.
In the event that an injury or need for altered stimulus makes the incline dumbbell fly an unsuitable alternative for its chest press counterpart, the usage of similar free weight chest exercises is also one possible avenue that the exerciser may take.
As few exercises place as great an emphasis on the clavicular head of the pectoralis major muscle, the list of suitably similar free weight exercises is rather small; with the landmine chest press and the dumbbell chest fly being the two most accessible ones available.
This particular free weight alternative to the incline dumbbell press requires the usage of a barbell, a set of weight plates and a landmine attachment; making it more equipment-intensive than the relatively simpler incline dumbbell press.
Nevertheless, the landmine chest press is one possible substitute to the incline dumbbell press that places a similar level of activation intensity on the pectoralis major’s clavicular head while also co-activating other muscle groups normally involved in the incline dumbbell press.
As an added benefit to such a substitution, the angle of resistance created by the landmine chest press is nearly identical to that of the incline dumbbell press - thereby aiding in not only a similar muscular activation pattern, but also development of biomechanics used during the incline dumbbell press.
As such, despite the greater equipment demand of the landmine chest press, it is nonetheless an excellent alternative to the incline dumbbell press.
In terms of programming, the resistance of the incline dumbbell press and the landmine chest press cannot be translated, and the exerciser is better served finding out their working weight through experience instead - though volume may be substituted in a direct one to one ratio, so long as the level of intensity is the same.
For exercisers seeking an alternative to the incline dumbbell press with a superior level of specificity in regards to pectoralis major clavicular head activation, few exercises are as suitable as the standing dumbbell chest fly.
A rather uncommon exercise, this particular alternative also activates the biceps brachii and anterior head of the deltoid muscle group, requiring further restructuring of the original workout program if used.
Apart from this relatively minor caveat, the standing dumbbell chest fly is otherwise an excellent substitute in terms of muscle activation specificity and mobility development - though it is rather ineffective in terms of maximal loading potential and carry-over to major compound lifts such as the bench press.
As such, the standing dumbbell chest fly is instead meant to be used as an accessory exercise combined with another chest-targeting compound movement so as to fully substitute the training stimulus and original purpose of the incline dumbbell press.
In terms of programming, the standing dumbbell chest fly is best used with a relatively lower amount of weight in multiple sets of eight to sixteen repetitions, as is the usual case with most accessory exercises.
For exercisers who wish to retain a similar movement pattern but find that the incline dumbbell press is unsafe or too unstable for their comfort, they may instead use the incline cable fly.
One major benefit of choosing this machine-based exercise over its free weight counterpart is the constant time under tension provided by the cable machine, wherein the exerciser is forced to keep their muscles engaged throughout the exercise.
This is in combination with the highly adjustable angle of resistance made possible by the adjustable elevation of the pulley wheel - allowing exercisers with poor mobility, range of motion and a need for greater specificity to take greater advantage of the exercise.
In order to appropriately program a substitution of the incline dumbbell press with the incline cable fly, the exerciser will find that a greater amount of relative weight is usable due to the self-stabilizing nature of the cable machine, allowing a higher level of resistance to be used while retaining the same volume of sets and repetitions.
In the event that the exerciser is away from their usual training gym or otherwise is prevented from placing excessive resistance on their upper body, they may use the decline push-up as one possible alternative exercise.
This is generally inadvisable as a long term substitution, as increasing the total resistance and intensity cannot be reliably increased over time, removing the capacity for progressive overload within the context of this exercise.
When used as a incline dumbbell press substitute, the decline push-up will activate all muscle groups normally trained by the former exercise - albeit with a far lower level of specificity and relative intensity, allowing the exerciser to retain their development though also foregoing a large number of benefits normally provided by the incline dumbbell press.
Depending on the exerciser’s training level and bodyweight, the translation of programming between the decline push-up and the incline dumbbell press can be as much as two or three multiples of the number of repetitions per set, thereby requiring that the exerciser first attempt an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) set so as to assess their own maximal volume capabilities.
Once they have determined this maximal volume per set, the exerciser can perform anywhere between seventy to ninety percent of this volume so as to achieve a similar level of intensity to the incline dumbbell press, though the training stimulus will nevertheless be quite different.
The ideal alternative to the incline dumbbell press must be selected by the exerciser in accordance with their needs and goals, as there is no “one size fits all” substitute due to the differences in biology, training programs and training environment between individuals.
Regardless of what alternative exercise one chooses to perform, they must always follow proper programming and form - no amount of substitution can prevent overtraining and injury if the proper precautions are not adhered to.
1. Chaves SFN, Rocha-JÚnior VA, EncarnaÇÃo IGA, Martins-Costa HC, Freitas EDS, Coelho DB, Franco FSC, Loenneke JP, Bottaro M, Ferreira-JÚnior JB. Effects of Horizontal and Incline Bench Press on Neuromuscular Adaptations in Untrained Young Men. Int J Exerc Sci. 2020 Aug 1;13(6):859-872. PMID: 32922646; PMCID: PMC7449336.
2 Sandler, D. (2010). “Fundamental Weight Training”. Published by Human Kinetics. ISBN 0736082808, 9780736082808 Retrieved from Google Books on (7/13/22) https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=6KOhC-hTDvwC