5 Differences Between Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press

The incline bench press and the flat bench press are both great exercises for building your chest and shoulder muscles. While they train the same major muscle groups, there are still some differences.

In this article, I break down five of the biggest differences between the incline bench press compared to the classic flat bench press.

1. More Upper Pec Activation & Growth

The incline bench press will work your upper chest slightly more than the flat bench press, and it seems that an incline of about 30° is enough to elicit this effect.1 2

Pec muscle activation in incline bench

As the bench is inclined, the activation of the middle and lower pec decreases, while the upper pec has to bear the brunt of the work along with the front deltoid.

This is because when the bench is at an incline, your upper pec muscle fibers will be directly below the line of force. In the flat bench press, the line of force passes through the center of your chest muscles, and this is why the flat bench press is such a great general chest builder.

Incline bench press vs flat bench press line of force

But do these differences translate into more upper pec growth from the incline bench press?

It seems so.

A study comparing upper, middle, and lower chest muscle growth after 8 weeks of training either the flat bench press, incline bench press, or a combination of both (with 50% of set volume from each) found that the group training only incline bench presses experienced significantly more upper pec growth than the other groups.3

Chest muscles
Pectoralis major, with its broad fan-shape of muscle fibers. The clavicular head (the muscle fibers that originate from your clavicles) is what we usually call the upper pec, and the sternal head (the muscle fibers that originate from your sternum) is what we usually call the middle and lower pec.

2. More Anterior Deltoid Activation

Your anterior deltoids (aka front delts) are activated to a greater extent in the incline bench press.

Here is the diagram from earlier again, but this time with anterior deltoid muscle activity added.

Muscle activation in incline bench

However, your front deltoids are active in pretty much any pressing exercise done in front of your body, and the degree of incline doesn’t seem to do a great deal of difference. Even the classic flat bench press works your front delts well.

3. Your Strength Differs

Most people are 20 to 30% stronger in the flat bench press compared to the incline bench press.

A study on elite bench press athletes found that they were 21.5% stronger in the flat bench press compared to bench pressing at a 25° incline. Their mean 6RM (the maximum load that they could lift for six reps) was 132.7 ± 17.1 kg in the flat bench press and 109.2 ± 11.1 kg in the incline bench press.4

Another study on physically active young men with at least a year of resistance training experience found that their 1RM in flat bench press was 28.6% higher than their 1RM in the 30° incline bench press. This study tested the participants’ strength in 15°-steps from 0° to 60° and found the following relationship between 1RM bench press strength and the degree of inclination.¹

1RM Incline Bench Press Ratio at Different Degrees

Why are most people stronger in the flat bench press than the incline bench press?

Probably due to a more efficient pressing angle in which more of your chest muscle fibers can help. Another factor might be the slightly shorter range of motion of the flat bench press.

4. Greater Range of Motion

Most people lift with a slightly longer range of motion in the incline bench press compared to the flat bench press. You can simply lower the bar further before it stops against your body.

Although it didn’t reach a statistically significant difference, the previously mentioned study on elite bench pressers saw a longer range of motion (measured as vertical displacement of the barbell) in the 25° incline bench press compared to the flat bench press.

Vertical Barbell Displacement in Flat Bench Press vs. Incline Bench Press

A longer range of motion is generally associated with greater muscle growth and strength gains. Especially training at long muscle lengths (when the muscle is stretched) seems important for muscle growth, and that is exactly the range of motion that is added in the incline bench press: you can lower the bar a bit further and stretch your upper pecs and front deltoids a bit more under load in the bottom position.5

5. Easy on the Shoulder Joint

Many people feel that the incline press places less stress on their shoulder joint compared with the standard bench press. They get shoulder pain from flat benching but seem to tolerate incline benching well.

Incline bench press training with barbell

If this is you, switching some of your flat bench press volume for incline presses might keep your shoulder joints a little happier. Experiment with different inclinations, grip widths, and bar paths to find what feels best for your body.


That was five differences between the incline and flat bench presses!

We’ll wrap up with some frequently asked questions that might not have fully been covered above.

Frequently Asked Questions

Click on a question if you want to jump directly to it.

What Angle on the Bench Is Best for Incline Bench Pressing?

A 30° inclination is enough for significantly higher upper pec activation compared to the middle and lower pec. Any higher inclination (45 or 60°) and the upper pec activation decreases, and the exercise becomes more of a shoulder exercise than a chest exercise.

On many adjustable training benches, a 30° inclination means that you should use the first or second setting above horizontal. Use your eyes and make the best guess you can. One method could be to first find 45° inclination (halfway between horizontal and vertical), and then choose something slightly less (two-thirds) than that.

The most important thing is probably that you feel your upper pecs working, regardless of whether that happens at 15° or 30°.

Does Incline Bench Press Improve Flat Bench Press?

The incline bench press trains the same muscle groups you use in the flat bench press: your chest, shoulders, and triceps. If these muscles get bigger and stronger, you will likely get stronger in any exercise that uses them.

However, in the flat bench press, you are likely using a greater portion of your chest muscles, especially towards the lower chest. If you only train the incline bench press, these lower chest muscle fibers won’t get trained as much, and thus not get strengthened.

If your goal is to get stronger in the flat bench press, you should adhere to the principle of specificity and do at least some training in the flat bench press. When that is covered, it is probably a great idea to do some extra work for your chest, shoulders, and triceps, and the incline bench press can be a great tool for that.

Should I Touch the Chest in the Incline Bench Press?

Maybe. It depends on your individual body structure. If your arms, especially forearms, are long relative to your body, touching your chest in the incline bench press might become difficult or even impossible.

Lower the bar as long as you possibly can while still maintaining an otherwise proper form and don’t experience any discomfort. The goal is to work your muscles through a long range of motion, and if you lower the bar until your chest and shoulder muscles are fully stretched, that is long enough. For a lot of people, this will be when the barbell touches the chest, but not for everyone.

If you find the incline bench press uncomfortable, a great alternative is the incline dumbbell press. It works the same muscle groups, but some people find it more comfortable and that they can train through a longer range of motion than with a barbell.

How Much More Should I Flat Bench Press vs Incline Bench Press?

Most people are 20 to 30% stronger in the flat bench press compared to the incline bench press. This is probably due to a more efficient pressing angle in the flat bench press, in which you can better use your strong chest muscles.

There is no “should” or “must” here, however. Your body, with its strengths and weaknesses, is unique, and just because lifters seem to be 20–30% stronger in the flat bench press on average, it doesn’t mean that the same necessarily applies to you. How much weight you can lift in each exercise will depend, among other things, on your individual body structure, making you more or less proficient at one or the other.

If you train both the flat and the incline bench press equally hard and consistently, you will with time develop the strength ratio that is “correct” for you.

Which Bench Press Is Best for Chest?

If you are only going to do one bench press exercise for your chest muscles, the flat barbell bench press is probably the better choice. It works both your upper, middle, and lower pecs in a long range of motion, and is proven effective for building a big chest.

If you want to add a second chest exercise, an incline press can be a great addition for targeting your upper pecs a little bit more. You can read more about this and find suggestions for a complete chest workout in our guide How to Train Your Chest Muscles.


And that’s all for today, folks!

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References

  1. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Oct 8;17(19):7339. Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise.
  2. Comparative Study Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(3):309-16. Epub 2015 Mar 23.
    Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise.
  3. Int J Exerc Sci. 2020 Aug 1;13(6):859-872. Effects of Horizontal and Incline Bench Press on Neuromuscular Adaptations in Untrained Young Men.
  4. J Hum Kinet. 2017 Jun; 57: 61–71. The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance.
  5. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2021 Jun 25. Effects of range of motion on resistance training adaptations: A systematic review and meta-analysis.