The barbell bench press is generally considered to be THE best chest press exercise and a good indicator of strength and muscle mass development. Many gym buffs and serious weight lifters believe that the flat bench press works the entire chest area better than any other chest exercise, while the incline bench press specifically targets the upper chest.
In reality, both exercises do the same job of successfully training the upper chest muscles, regardless of the difference in angles and movement.
How can this be? As trainers and strength coaches, we must remember what we learned in Kinesiology class regarding the muscle aggregation concept: The human body recruits all muscles necessary to overcome the task or the overload imposed on it. Current research in the Strength/Conditioning Research Journal proved that the flat bench press and the incline bench press stimulate the clavicular heads of the pectorals major (middle-upper chest, area). There was no apparent advantage of one exercise over the other concerning training the chest muscles.
The study, “Effects of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise on the E.M.G. Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles” was designed to define any changes in how the chest muscles were activated by being worked at various angles—flat bench press, incline bench press (40-degree angle), and decline bench press positions. The flat bench press and the incline bench press affected the upper chest the same, while the flat bench press worked the low pecs more than the decline bench press.
Based upon this information, let’s design a chest-training program. We will start by applying the training principle of “specialization.” If you have broad shoulders with limited chest development (less pec development in lower chest) try using the incline bench press instead of the flat bench press and set the bench at a 30- to 35-degree angle (the standard incline bench press angle is 45 degrees.) The smaller angle offers a greater advantage and allows the lifter to target his chest muscles more effectively therefore reducing shoulder strains – a common complaint among people those who don’t realize they’re doing the wrong exercise for their type of chest.
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The study showed that the 45-degree angle works the shoulder muscles more than the upper chest, which would defeat the purpose of chest training and may cause shoulder problems. It is for this very reason I use the incline bench press exercise for my athletes and clients. The 30-35 degree angle bench setting is a must! I have been using this technique for years and it works!
Those with a medium shoulder width and natural lower chest development build, should continue using the flat bench press, and develop a sets & reps protocol that will maximize the benefits of the exercise. This is a key strategy. By using an extensive program for the bench press (4-6 sets), you negate the need to do any incline bench press or decline bench press work.
Men typically like to work out on the bench press and then move on to the incline bench press etc., but this may cause a decrease in muscle stimulation and over time, slow down the rate of stimulus and recovery. Eventually, the body will just simply stop responding and plateau.
You don’t need to do a conglomeration of chest exercises; rather you must identify the appropriate ones that work for your body type. I recommend two chest exercises: either the flat or incline bench press, and a chest flys variation. You can have an extremely effective workout without utilizing the decline press or a combination of chest press exercises.
Good luck with your training!