What Part of the Chest Does the Incline Barbell Press Work?

Bench angle affects the muscles activated by the bench press.

Bench angle affects the muscles activated by the bench press.

While all forms of bench press work the pectorals and triceps to some degree, you can emphasize specific muscle groups by simply changing the angle of the bench. To avoid those dreaded training plateaus and to fully develop both heads of the pectoral muscles, you should rotate through the three possible types of bench angles, doing incline presses for six weeks, decline presses for six weeks and then using a level bench for six weeks. It is so very important that you use a spotter for these lifts, as you could seriously hurt yourself when you do them. If you do not have a spotter available, switch to dumbbells or a selectorized chest or bench press machine.

Incline Barbell Bench Press

The main muscles worked in the incline barbell press are the pectoral muscles of the chest, especially the clavicular, or upper, head. The anterior deltoid shoulder muscles and the triceps, which run along the backs of your arms, work as synergists. Your biceps act as stabilizers during this lift. The exercise is normally performed with the bench at a 30- to 45-degree angle. The greater the incline, the more the lift activates the shoulder muscles rather than chest muscles.

Flat Barbell Bench Press

If you use a flat rather than an incline bench for barbell presses, you will balance activation of the sternocostal, or lower head, with that of the clavicular, or upper head, of the pectoralis major muscle. A barbell press performed on a flat bench also uses the anterior deltoids less than one performed on an inclined bench.

Decline Barbell Bench Press

A decline barbell bench press, in which your head is lower than your pelvis, uses the sternocostal, or lower head, of the pectoral muscles. It also uses the triceps more than either a flat or incline press and also the shoulder muscles less. Shoulder and back muscles act only as stabilizers and synergists.

Grip Width

Grip width affects the muscles used in the barbell bench press. The narrower the grip, the more you use your triceps, and the wider the grip, the more you engage your shoulder and chest muscles. Avoid a grip so wide that your thumbs are more than an inch or two away from your shoulders as this may strain your rotator cuffs.

About the Author

Carol Poster began writing professionally in 1974. Her articles have appeared in "Outdoor Woman," "Paddler," "Ski Magazine," "Women's Sports & Fitness," "Dance News," "Show Business," "The Athenian," "PC Resource" and "Utah Holiday," among other publications. Poster holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Eastern Washington University, as well as a Ph.D. in English from the University of Missouri.

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