Deciding Between the Flat, Decline, and Incline Bench Press for Your Goals

How do you choose between the flat, incline, and decline bench press for your workouts? A few of the ways an athlete typically chooses between each bench variation revolves around their sport, body composition, and strength goals. Each bench variation can be useful for everyone in the right context, regardless of their strength sport.

This article will dive into what some of the barbell bench press research is saying about using different angles to facilitate different outcomes. In this article, we’ll assess which bench variation is best for body composition goals and pressing strength. Keep in mind, most of this will come down to the reps, sets, and intensities used, but it’s still interesting to look at the research and compare it to what’s commonly used in the gym.

Bench Press Variations and EMG Ratings

The barbell bench press is possibly one of the best known exercises among the average gym-goer. It’s often the gym bro’s favorite exercise, and notoriously known as Monday’s  lift. There’s been a fair amount of research performed on analyzing the EMG ratings (method of recording electrical activity in skeletal muscle) that this exercise produces.

One study from 2015 compared how different angles in the bench press impacted the muscle activity in the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, and triceps brachii in 14 healthy resistance trained males. They compared bench angles of 0 degrees, 30, 45, and -15. In addition, they looked at activation during the concentric (pressing phase) and eccentric (lowering phase) phases.

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For the sake of brevity, we’ll discuss which muscle groups were cumulatively more active through 0-25, 26-50, 51-75, 76-100 degrees of motion, and which displayed increased activation during various points. If you want specific activation details, then I strongly suggest checking out the study.

Upper Pectoralis Major

The authors found that the upper pectoralis major was most active during the concentric portion of the movement, and at 0-50 percent of the movement with a 30 and 45 degree incline press. During the eccentric, upper pec was consistently most active during the flat bench.

Image courtesy “Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise”, Lauver, J. D., Cayot, T. E., & Scheuermann, B.W. 

The takeaway suggestion: The upper pec major tends to be most active during incline bench press concentrically. Additionally, the flat bench was good at consistently activating the upper pec during the eccentric phase. This all being said, if your goal is upper pec major activation, then the flat and incline bench both show promise to facilitate growth.

Lower Pectoralis Major

Similar to the upper pectoralis major, the lower portion of the muscle was most active during the concentric portion of the movement. Additionally, bench angles of -15 degrees and flat saw the most consistent activation across all the percentages of the press.

Image courtesy “Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise”, Lauver, J. D., Cayot, T. E., & Scheuermann, B.W. 

The takeaway suggestion: To no surprise, the decline and flat bench were both better at activating the lower pec major muscle. This could suggest that the decline and flat bench are both superior for targeting the lower pec major when it comes to muscle activation.

Anterior Deltoid

Like the upper and lower pec major, the anterior deltoid showed more activation during the concentric portion of the movement. Slightly similar to the upper pec major, the anterior deltoid was consistently more active during the 30 and 45 degree incline press, and most in the 45 degree incline for all degrees of motion.

Image courtesy “Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise”, Lauver, J. D., Cayot, T. E., & Scheuermann, B.W. 

The takeaway suggestion: For those looking to strengthen and improve the anterior deltoid, then the incline bench was suggested to be the best way to activate this muscle group. This should come to no surprise, as incline pressing is the most similar to a shoulder press.

Lateral Tricep Brachii

Staying consistent with the above muscles, the triceps brachii was also most active in the concentric portion of the various bench presses. The triceps at 30 and 45 degree incline bench were more active than the -15 decline bench. Additionally, they were more active in this bench style across all of the percentages in motion during the concentric when compared to the horizontal bench. There were no differences between the triceps for the eccentric portion.

Bench Angle and Competitive Athletes

In June 2017, a study was published that looked at competitive strength athletes utilizing different bench angles and grips, and analyzed differences in muscle activation and performance. The authors included 12 bench press athletes at the National and International levels, four of which competed in full powerlifting meets (all three lifts).

Their goal was to analyze EMG ratings of the pec major, triceps brachii, biceps brachii, anterior deltoid, posterior deltoid, and latissimus dorsi during a 6-RM bench press at various settings. They looked at how EMG ratings differed from a flat competition-wide grip bench to a bench press with narrow and medium grip, along with a 25 degree incline and decline.

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This study included a few takeaways that may come as no surprise to some athletes/coaches, but are worth mentioning. Check them out below.

  • There were no significant differences in EMG activity between the medium and wide grips, but there was less biceps brachii involvement in the narrow gripped presses.
  • In the incline press, the triceps brachii saw less activation, while the biceps brachii activation increased.
  • The latissimus dorsi was slightly more active during the decline bench compared to the incline press.

Other than the above three points, the changes were minimal, or non-significant for the bench and grip variations. If you’re interested in checking out the full analysis and slight differences, then I’d recommend checking out and giving the study a read!

Best Bench Press Angle for Chest Size

If your goal is to increase the size of your chest, then a mixture of all the bench presses will benefit you best. There should be a focus placed on both strength and hypertrophy to facilitate the greatest amount of muscular growth. In addition, it’s beneficial to be following a consistent well-rounded program with some form of progressive overload.

Yet, if you’re lacking in certain areas, then we can use the above research to make a few educated suggestions. For example, the lower pec major was seen to be most active during the decline bench press, while the upper pec major was most active in the incline press. Similarly, the anterior deltoid was most active in the incline presses, which makes sense when you compare how close this movement is to a standard shoulder press.

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In terms of equal activation of the major pressing muscles and their antagonists (lats/posterior deltoid), then the flat bench with a medium and wide grip was consistently the best for activating these muscles.

Best Bench Angle for Pressing Strength and Sport

The flat bench will be your best bet for improving bench press strength as a whole for two reasons. First, it’s the most specific to the goal at-hand, which is improving the bench. This is where sport specificity kicks in, and is one of the main reasons a powerlifter practices the flat bench most often. Practice and reps of the same movement will be the best for producing results in that movement.

Second, the body can handle more weight in the flat bench and has relatively equal muscle activation. In the second study, authors noted that 6-RM bench press strength decreased roughly 25% in an athlete’s incline press, and around 18% in the decline. If you’re able to handle more weight, then there will be a higher stimulus for your goal of strength in the press. Plus, this angle makes it slightly easier to add in tools like accommodated resistance.

But don’t count out the incline and decline just yet. These movements can be useful when working through sticking points. For example, if you’re having issues finishing the lockout, then an incline press may be useful to strengthen the muscles like the anterior deltoids, along with the use of a wide grip for issues off the chest.

In Closing

This article probably won’t come as a huge surprise to weathered strength athletes and coaches, but it’s important to review the literature in relation to what’s commonly used in the gym. For example, increasing lower pec size with a decline bench, and keeping in mind how various grips can play a role on our pressing strength.

There are multiple factors that should be taken into context when programming for chest size and strength. All three bench angles can be useful tools for pursuing your goals, and  have all been suggested to be effective in various settings.

Feature image screenshot from @eddie_hall_strong Instagram page. 

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