The Incline Dumbbell Bench Press Will Unlock Your Muscle-Building Potential

Give yourself a well-rounded chest and fight off muscular imbalances with the incline dumbbell bench press.

The incline dumbbell bench press is prescribed in many training programs without a full appreciation of its versatility or value. Often glossed over as just an upper pec exercise, the incline dumbbell bench press is far from a one-trick pony; it can improve stability, pec and deltoid development, and functional symmetry (to name a few benefits).

Even if you’ve performed many incline barbell bench presses, this dumbbell version will help you tap into a newfound strength and an array of skills. It takes a lot more stability to move implements unilaterally than to move a barbell. So even though you’ll be lifting less weight, you’ll arguably be building even more upper body stability and muscular potential.

A person performs an incline dumbbell bench press.
Credit: Vladimir Sukhachev / Shutterstock

This article will teach you how to perform the incline dumbbell bench press step-by-step. It’ll also discuss the benefits of this lift and how to program the incline dumbbell bench press. You’ll learn about variations and alternatives to this exercise and get some of your most hotly-anticipated questions answered.

How to Perform the Incline Dumbbell Bench Press Step by Step

The incline dumbbell bench press is a straightforward modification of the standard dumbbell bench press. Inclining an adjustable bench is the only notable difference in setup. With that, here is the step-by-step.

Step 1 — Set Your Incline

A person sets up to perform an incline dumbbell bench press.
Credit: Svitlana Hulko / Shutterstock

The first step is to decide the appropriate incline on the bench you’re going to use. A good rule of thumb is to set it at about 45 degrees (halfway between a flat bench and fully upright). Forty-five degrees is a solid incline for most folks, though you can set it a notch higher or lower. Adjust the bench any lower or higher than that, however, and you risk the movement becoming too flat or engaging too much of your shoulders. 

Coaching Tip: Generally, the higher the incline, the greater the bias towards your delts. A flatter incline position keeps more tension directed towards your pecs.

Step 2 — Sit and Stabilize the Weights

A person sits on an adjustable bench and prepares to lift heavy dumbbells.
Credit: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

Take a seat with the bench pad slightly inclined. This will help keep your pelvis pressed against the backrest. Safely bring the dumbbells to approximately shoulder height by individually driving them up with assistance from your legs. (Even better: use a spotter.) Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down as hard as possible to establish upper back tightness. Use your legs to keep your back driving against the backrest — this is the starting position.

Coaching Tip: Just like during the standard bench press, driving your feet into the floor will create more full-body tension for stronger presses and more stability.

Step 3 Drive the Dumbbells Up

A person locks out their incline dumbbell bench press.
Credit: EDV Edwards / Shutterstock

Squeeze the dumbbells as hard as possible in each hand. Maintain a tight back. Your legs should wedge your body against the bench itself. Press the dumbbells evenly up and away from your body.

Coaching Tip: While you do want to press the bells all the way up, avoid locking your elbows out too aggressively, as you may risk hurting and overextending the joint. 

Step 4 — Lower the Dumbbells With Control

A person completes an incline dumbbell bench press rep.
Credit: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

Control the descent between each repetition. Retain a tight grip on each dumbbell with your shoulders depressed. Keep driving your body against the backrest. Repeat for repetitions.

Coaching Tip: Avoid dropping your arms lower than the original starting position. A deeper-than-necessary range of motion may irritate your shoulders or produce an unnecessary arch.

Benefits of the Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

The incline dumbbell bench press is a powerful tool for developing a balanced physique. It also helps your shoulders become more stable. They’ll also help you address unilateral imbalances that may sneakily develop during machine or barbell exercises.

More Specific Muscle Growth

Any version of the dumbbell bench press will help you gain muscle as long as you’re lifting heavy enough weight for the appropriate number of reps. But the incline dumbbell bench press can help you engage specific areas of the chest for more targeted growth.

The pectoralis major is a fan-shaped muscle that has attachments that make it possible to target the upper, middle, and lower pecs. By choosing certain levels of incline, you can place greater emphasis where more growth is needed.

One lifter spots another during an incline dumbbell bench press.
Credit: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

Specifically, the incline press can make it easier to train either the middle and upper pecs — or even the anterior deltoids — depending on the dergree incline you choose. These options make the incline dumbbell bench press extremely versatile for physique development.

Improved Stability

You can develop shoulder stability by training with the arm in varying degrees of incline or even fully overhead. Gravity will continuously draw everything straight down. As the incline moves from a flat bench press to an incline, your arms become more perpendicular to the line of gravity. This shift in angle increases the challenge to your rotator cuffs. Approaching this type of exercise after thoroughly warming up — and performing it with excellent form — can boost your shoulder stability in a big way.

Unilateral Balance

With all exercise, you often develop strength or stability differences between dominant and non-dominant sides. These differences are easily masked by the stabilizing effects of a machine or barbell. Your imbalances jump out at you once you start lifting unilaterally with dumbbells or kettlebells. Using dumbbells force your limbs to act individually. This will help address any difference in limb strength or coordination and simultaneously build them back up evenly.

Who Should Do the Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

The incline dumbbell bench press offers a diverse range of benefits. Although it has specific benefits for strength athletes and bodybuilders, the exercise can also be extremely effective as an introductory pressing variation for newer lifters as well.

Bodybuilders

A bodybuilder’s main goal is to leave no nook or cranny of muscle undeveloped. The incline dumbbell bench press seems like an obvious choice here as it’s a powerful tool in targeting stubborn regions of the mid-to-upper pecs or delts.

Choosing shoulder stability exercises is helpful, as well. You can risk undercutting your long-term development by depending only on externally stabilized machines. Spending time with these more challenging positions can help you avoid shoulder dysfunction and the muscular underdevelopment that can come with it.

Strength Athletes

Strength athletes are constantly trying to figure out a way to put more pounds on their lifts. Spending too much time strictly using a barbell can quickly lead to a plateau. Using dumbbells on an incline provides a new stimulus that can carry over to strengthening your barbell bench press. This lift can help you clean up pressing mechanics. The lightened loads will also allow you to add training volume while recovering between heavy bench sessions

New Lifters

This lift forces lifters of all levels to prioritize form over load. Training on an incline, especially with dumbbells, requires you to reduce the weight you can lift. This way, you can train longer and more effectively.

From the beginning, new lifters can make tremendous progress with unilateral stability and coordination. From there, using a flat bench or barbell will open up a brand new world of strength or physique development.

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press Sets and Reps

In most contexts, the incline dumbbell bench press is a hypertrophy exercise. That said, there are some subtle recommendations that can be made for newer, intermediate, and advanced trainees.

Recommendations for Newer Trainees

To take advantage of your limited experience as a new trainee, you’ll want to use the incline dumbbell bench press with moderate weights. Make sure you can keep the weights under control with excellent form. Choose an incline angle that is nice and neutral, starting at roughly 45 degrees. Train with moderate to higher repetitionsthree sets of between 10 and 15 reps per set — to really challenge the endurance of your stabilizers before increasing your load.

Recommendations for Intermediate Trainees

Intermediate trainees can use the incline dumbbell bench press as a main or secondary exercise on a pressing day. With increased experience comes increased loading potential — so here’s when you can aim for hypertrophy. Train for three to four sets of six to 12 repetitions using weight that can cause (safe) near muscular failure.

Recommendations for Advanced Trainees

If you have a few years of continuous training under your belt, you can kick it up a notch. Adjust the incline to target the mid or upper pec as desired. Your weights can be heavier, too. The six to 12 rep range still works — just be sure to either use a spotter or a load that you can keep under control.

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press Variations

The incline dumbbell bench press is a solid exercise choice for almost everybody. There are also closely related variations you can plug into many programs. These variations can add some additional training options when you want to add variety to your program or to develop more strength.

Incline Barbell Bench Press

The incline barbell bench press provides a ton of coordination and stability challenges. This variation doesn’t have a unilateral component, but working with a barbell allows you to move more weight. That means you can make even bigger strength gains.

Incline Cable Chest Press

The incline cable chest press will require a dual cable stack to set up. Line an adjustable bench up with a dual cable stack machine to get started. You can take advantage of the various starting heights to challenge different muscle groups as desired.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRj1-U8GlxA

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press Alternatives

Sometimes an adjustable bench just isn’t in the cards. But with a barbell and a bit of creativity, there are some ways to pursue similar training benefits as the incline dumbbell bench press.

Single-arm Landmine Press

A single-arm landmine press challenges shoulder stability and can help target your pecs and anterior delts. The landmine provides a slightly fixed range of motion. Still, it’s unstable enough to adequately challenge your rotator cuffs. This exercise can be performed standing or in a half-kneeling position to modify the challenge.

Bilateral Landmine Press

The bilateral landmine press has similar benefits as the single-arm variation. But this version has the added stability provided by using both arms. As a result, you can lift more weight. This position can make it difficult to fully lock out a pectoral or deltoid contraction. Still, the increased load should provide more than enough stimulation.

FAQs

Even if you’re eager to get started with the incline dumbbell bench press, you may have some lingering questions. Read on to address the things you’re most burning to know.

Is the incline dumbbell bench press safe to perform?

As long as you’re doing it right and are cleared for this kind of movement, then yes. Like any exercise, the incline dumbbell bench press does have some inherent risk. But in itself, it isn’t necessarily riskier than other dumbbell moves. Dumbbells are often quite safe to train very close to muscular failure given that they can be easily spotted or dropped.

How often should I train the incline dumbbell bench press?

This is entirely up to your personal training priorities. The incline dumbbell bench press can hit the pecs, delts, and even triceps pretty hard. Given this, it can be placed on any upper body or pressing day. Especially if you go with a challenging but somewhat lighter load, it can be useful to add volume to your pressing program.

How should I progress the incline dumbbell bench press?

You can progress the incline dumbbell bench press by increasing reps, sets, or weights. You can also decrease your rest periods or perform drop sets. Whichever method of progressive overload you choose, make sure you’re only gradually changing one variable at a time.

Wrap-Up

The incline dumbbell bench press can serve many lifters well. You can customize this exercise to seriously boost your muscle growth, stability, strength, and unilateral coordination. Whether it’s the main lift of the day or an accessory exercise, the incline dumbbell bench press is definitely worth adding to your repertoire.

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Featured Image: Vladimir Sukhachev/Shutterstock