As every bodybuilder knows, if you want to develop the best possible physique, you need to train your muscles with a variety of exercises and hit them from different angles. One of the best ways to do this is with a split routine, where each workout is dedicated to one or two muscle groups.
So, for example, you might do vertical and horizontal pulls for your back or knee and hip dominant movements for your legs.
When it comes to chest training, most lifters do decline, flat, and incline movements to work the lower, middle, and upper fibers of their chests. This develops pecs that are wide, deep, and well separated.
One of the most popular upper chest exercises is the incline bench press. However, it’s not always the best choice. For starters, most fixed incline benches are too steep and hit your anterior deltoids more than your pecs. Studies suggest that the ideal angle for working the upper chest is 20-30 degrees, whereas most fixed incline benches are set to 45-60 (1).
The good news is that there are plenty of upper chest exercises that you can do instead that are as effective as, if not better than, incline barbell bench presses.
In this article, we reveal the ten best incline bench press alternatives you can use to sculpt the perfect upper chest.
- What Muscles do Incline Bench Presses Work?
- The 10 Most Effective Incline Bench Press Alternatives
- How to Build Your Upper Chest
- Incline Bench Press Alternatives – Wrapping Up
What Muscles do Incline Bench Presses Work?
The incline bench press is a compound or multi-joint exercise. This means it involves two or more joints and several muscles working together. However, the incline bench press is mainly thought of as a chest exercise.
The primary muscles trained during incline bench presses are:
Pectoralis major, known as the pecs for short, is your most prominent chest muscle. It’s a large, fan-shaped muscle with three main regions or heads:
- Lower/abdominal head
- Middle/sternal head
- Upper/clavicular head
All three heads work together to control your upper arm and are responsible for flexion, adduction, and medial rotation of your humerus. However, by adjusting the angle of your arm, it is possible to emphasize one head over the others.
Decline bench presses and dips hit the lower pecs, while flat bench presses and chest flies target the middle. Incline bench presses are effective for working the upper chest.
However, it’s important to remember the other heads are always working. It’s just that you can put a little more tension on one at a time by modifying the position of your arms and pressing at a specific angle.
The deltoids are your shoulder muscles. Like the pecs, there are three deltoid heads: anterior (front), medial (side), and posterior (rear). All three heads are involved in incline bench presses, but the anterior head is the most active. The medial and posterior heads mostly work as stabilizers during incline bench presses.
Known as the triceps for short, this muscle is located on the back of your upper arm and is responsible for elbow extension. Incline bench presses are an effective way to work your triceps, albeit indirectly. The triceps are classed as synergists during incline bench presses, which means they are helper muscles rather than the target of the exercise.
The 10 Most Effective Incline Bench Press Alternatives
While the incline barbell bench press is an excellent exercise, it’s not suitable or practical for everyone. For example, you may find that it bothers your shoulders, or you may not have a barbell or suitable bench to do it. It could just be that you don’t enjoy this particular chest exercise or are bored it.
Whatever the reason is, there are plenty of excellent exercises you can do in its place. These are ten of the best incline bench press alternatives!
1. Incline dumbbell bench press
Bench pressing with barbells is a leading cause of shoulder pain. Using a barbell outs your hands in a fixed position, which can direct strain onto your shoulders via your elbows. Dumbbells mean you can rotate your hands naturally, eliminating that unwanted joint stress.
In addition, dumbbells allow you to use a larger range of motion and get a deeper stretch in your upper pecs at the bottom of each rep. This could lead to a better hypertrophic response, i.e., more growth.
How to do it:
- Set the backrest on your bench to 20-30 degrees. With a dumbbell in each hand, sit and then lie on the bench. Press and hold the dumbbells over your chest, thumbs pointing inward. Pull your shoulders down and back, brace your abs, and plant your feet firmly on the floor.
- Bend your arms and lower the weights out and down to your shoulders. Get a good stretch in your chest, but don’t hyperextend your shoulders.
- Drive the weights back up and together over your chest.
- Lower the weights and repeat.
Pro tip: Try doing this exercise with a neutral or palms-in grip for an even more shoulder-friendly upper chest workout. Increase core activation by using one arm at a time.
2. Close grip incline dumbbell bench press
Because of a poor mind-muscle connection, some people cannot feel their pecs working during incline bench presses. This variation increases upper and inner pec activation for a more effective workout that will reconnect your mind with your chest. It’s almost impossible not to feel your pecs working during close grip incline dumbbell bench presses!
How to do it:
- Set the backrest on your bench to 20-30 degrees. With a dumbbell in each hand, sit and then lie on the bench. Press and hold the dumbbells over your chest. Rotate your wrists, so your palms are facing inward. Press the dumbbells together.
- Maintaining the inward pressure, bend your arms and lower the dumbbells to your chest.
- Drive them back up to full arm extension and repeat. Maintain the inward pressure throughout.
Pro tip: This exercise works best with hex dumbbells, so use ‘em if you’ve got ‘em. Otherwise, you can achieve a similar effect by pressing two weight plates together between your palms, which is called an incline Svend press.
3. Incline cable chest press
There is a disadvantage with some freeweight exercises; tension all but vanishes from your muscles when your limbs are in certain positions but increases in others. This is called a strength curve. Cable exercises tend to have a more constant strength curve, so your muscles are under tension for longer. This may be useful for hypertrophy.
How to do it:
- Place an adjustable bench in the middle of a cable crossover machine. Set the backrest to 20-30 degrees. Attach D-shaped handles to the pulleys.
- With a handle in each hand, sit on the bench and lean against the backrest. Bend your arms and pull your hands into your shoulders. Your hands can be neutral or facing forward as preferred.
- Press your arms upward and inward, squeezing your chest as you do so.
- Lower your hands to your shoulders and repeat.
Pro tip: No bench? No problem! You can also do standing incline cable chest presses. However, this variation is slightly less pec-centric and works your abs a little more.
4. Gironda neck press
The Gironda neck press, also known as the guillotine press, is a little unusual. While it works your upper chest, it does so without an incline bench. This exercise is named after Vince “The Iron Guru” Gironda, Hollywood bodybuilding trainer to the stars during the 1970s and 1980s.
But, be warned, this exercise is harder than it looks, so resist the temptation to go too heavy too soon.
How to do it:
- With a barbell resting on the uprights, lie on the bench with your eyes directly under the bar. Plant your feet firmly on the floor so your shins are vertical. Reach up and grab the bar with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
- Lift your chest up toward the bar, arch your lower back slightly, and pull your shoulders down and back. Drive your feet into the floor and brace your core. This will provide you with a stable platform from which to lift the weight.
- Unrack the bar and hold it over your shoulders.
- Bend your elbows and lower the bar down to the front of your neck. Descend until the bar is about one inch above your throat. Your elbows should be flared outward and roughly level with your shoulders.
- Press the weight back up and repeat.
Pro tip: Needless to say, this exercise can cause serious injury if you cannot complete a rep. It’s called the guillotine press for a reason! So, while a missed rep probably won’t take your head off, it could cause serious injury. For that reason, you should ALWAYS do this exercise with a spotter nearby.
5. Low-to-high cable fly
Low-to-high cable flies train your upper pecs in a unique way. With no bench to worry about, you can use a wide range of motion, and your shoulders can move freely, making this a very joint-friendly exercise.
However, this is not a good exercise for low reps and heavy weights. Instead, use moderate to light weights and do medium to high reps. Chase the pump!
How to do it:
- Attach a D-shaped handle to the bottom pulleys of a cable crossover machine. Stand between the cables with a handle in each hand. Your elbows should be slightly bent, and your hands about waist height.
- Bring your arms forward and up so they come together just above chest height.
- Lower your arms, get a good stretch in your chest, and repeat.
Pro tip: Turn your palms upward at the end of each rep to really fire up your upper pecs.
6. Incline dumbbell fly
Where incline bench presses are a compound exercise, incline dumbbell flies are an isolation exercise. That doesn’t mean they only work your pecs. Instead, isolation exercises involve movement at a single joint. However, with less triceps involvement, it’s safe to say your upper chest will get a good workout from incline dumbbell flies.
How to do it:
- Set the backrest on your bench to 20-30 degrees. With a dumbbell in each hand, sit and then lie on the bench. Press and hold the dumbbells over your chest, palms pointing inward. Pull your shoulders down and back, brace your abs, and plant your feet firmly on the floor.
- With a slight bend in your elbows, open your arms and lower the dumbbells down and out to the side. Get a good stretch in your chest.
- Squeeze your arms back together and repeat.
Pro tip: Pump up the intensity by doing incline dumbbell flies immediately followed by incline dumbbell chest presses with the same weights. A couple of these supersets will leave your pecs feeling pumped and primed for growth.
7. Landmine kneeling chest press
If you want to build functional muscle size and strength, the landmine is hard to beat. Most landmine exercises work your core along with the target muscles, and the strength curve is very natural and mirrors how heavy objects move out in the real world.
The landmine kneeling chest press is a cross between incline dumbbell presses, squeeze presses, and low-to-high cable flies. You’ll also feel it in your abs.
How to do it:
- Kneel at the end of the landmine bar, so your thighs are vertical. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Hold the bar in two hands and raise it to chest height. Your palms shoulder be turned upward, with your elbows close to your sides.
- Pressing your hands together, extend your arms and push the weight up and overhead.
- Lower it back to your chest and repeat.
Pro-tip: No landmine? No problem! Get a similar effect by wedging the end of an Olympic barbell into a corner. You can also do this exercise standing, but the weight tends to feel lighter, so you’ll need to add more plates to the bar.
8. Decline push-up
Decline push-ups closely mimic incline bench presses. However, instead of pressing a barbell up at an angle, you alter the angle of your body in relation to the floor. This is a good option for home exercisers and also makes a great finisher after lifting weights.
How to do it:
- Stand with your back to a knee-high bench. Squat down and put your hands on the floor, roughly shoulder-width apart and fingers pointing forward.
- Place your feet on the bench, straighten your legs, and brace your core.
- Bend your arms and lower your chest to the floor. Do not let your hips sag downward.
- Push yourself back up and repeat.
9. Incline chest press machine
Gyms often have incline chest press machines for training your upper pecs. The advantage of machines over freeweights is that you can push to failure without worrying about dropping a heavy weight on your chest. Also, because your movement is guided by the machine, you don’t have to waste energy balancing the load and can focus 100% on driving your pecs to the limit.
How to do it:
- Adjust the machine, so the handles are roughly level with your armpits when sitting on it.
- Select your weight, sit on the machine, and grip the handles. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders back and down.
- Push your arms forward and up, as guided by the machine. Pause at the top of each rep and fully contract your pecs.
- Bend your elbows and lower the weight, but do not allow it to touch down. Instead, keep the tension on your pecs by stopping a few inches short.
- Repeat for the required number of reps.
Pro tip: Pump up the intensity of your chest workout by doing some drop sets. Rep out to failure, reduce the load by 10-15 percent, and then rep out again. Lower the weight a couple more times until your muscles are fully exhausted.
10. Pike push-ups
Pike push-ups are similar to doing steep incline bench presses. As such, they work your upper pecs but also throw a lot of stress on your anterior deltoids and triceps. However, compared to decline push-ups, this exercise is harder and may be better for building upper body pushing strength.
How to do it:
- Adopt the push-up position with your hands about shoulder-width apart and fingers pointing forward.
- Lift your hips and adopt the pike position so your body resembles an inverted V. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders down and back. Your head should be between your arms.
- Bend your arms and lower your head down toward the floor.
- Push yourself back up and repeat.
Pro tip: Increase your range of motion and make this exercise more demanding by using push-up handles or placing your hands on yoga blocks, bumper plates, or bricks.
How to Build Your Upper Chest
While you could just add a couple of these exercises to your next chest workout and hope for the best, you’ll get better results if you follow a more structured approach. Use these tips to build your upper chest fast!
Train your upper chest twice a week if you want it to grow faster. Hitting it twice a week will produce more hypertrophy than a single weekly workout. Dividing your upper chest training volume across two workouts means you’ll be able to push yourself harder while maximizing muscle protein synthesis.
Sets and reps
Most people need to do 10-20 sets per muscle group to build muscle. Beginners will get good results from 10-14 sets, while more advanced lifters need 15-20. While you could do all these sets in a single workout, it’s usually best to spread them across more workouts, as explained above.
As your upper chest is your priority, at least half of your pec workout should hit your upper chest. The remaining sets can be divided between your mid and lower chest.
- Incline dumbbell press – 4 sets
- Low-to-high cable crossover – 3 sets
- Bench press – 3 sets
- Dips – 2 sets
Your rep range should reflect your training goal. The commonly accepted rep ranges are:
- Strength – 1-5 reps
- Hypertrophy – 6-12 reps
- Endurance – 13-20+ reps
However, while low reps with heavy weights are the best method for building strength, current research suggests that you can build muscle with anywhere from 6 to 30 reps providing you take your sets to failure or close to it (2).
Rest between sets
There is a balance between resting too little and too long between sets. If your rests are too short, the quality of your workout will decrease, and you won’t be able to lift heavy enough weights or do enough reps to trigger hypertrophy. But, if you rest too long, you’ll recover too much, and your workouts will become long and inefficient.
So, for most people, rest periods of 90 seconds to three minutes are about right. Take longer rests between sets of compound exercises with heavy weights and shorter rests between lighter weights and isolation exercises.
Armed with this information, you should be able to construct the perfect upper chest workout. But, to save you the bother, we’ve got four tried and tested upper pec workouts for you to try right here!
Other Alternative Exercises:
Incline Bench Press Alternatives – Wrapping Up
If you want a stronger, more muscular upper chest, you need to prioritize it. That means, for a while at least, spending less time doing flat bench presses and more on incline bench presses and the ten alternatives in this article.
Start every chest workout with a couple of upper pec exercises, and only do a small amount of work for your middle and lower chest.
After a few months of upper chest specialization training, you’ll develop picture-perfect upper pecs you can be proud of.
1– PubMed: Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7579505/
2– PubMed: Effects of different intensities of resistance training with equated volume load on muscle strength and hypertrophy https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29564973/