Bench Press Buyers Guide – Incline, Decline, or Flat

Gym equipment can be confusing. We see it all the time. A customer comes into the shop or starts browsing online, looking for something they believe is a relatively simple choice, like a bench press. Then they are confronted with several choices. This Bench Press Buyers Guide will help you understand the terminology and features.

Spoilt For Choice

For the inexperienced weight lifter, there are terms for variations of the bench press exercise – flat bench press, incline bench press, and decline bench press. Then there are different types of gym equipment on which you can perform these exercises. There are dedicated bench presses for each variation listed above.

Or there are benches that can adjust the angle of the bench. You can perform each variation on the same bench. To make it even more complicated there are machines where you can perform these exercises in leverage format in preference to using a barbell.

We really are spoilt by choice!

So here is some information to help you choose the right bench press.

ATX-OBM-650 Adjustable Bench with all the different adjustment angles

The Basics

If you had to ask around at your local gym about which option is best – incline, decline or flat bench presses, you’ll probably get different answers from everyone. Even the top fitness professionals in the industry disagree about which ones you should be using.

This can be confusing and frustrating. It won’t help you to make your decision about which one will be best for you. How are you supposed to make an informed decision about which option is best if everyone is giving you a different answer? How are you supposed to decide what works best if the professionals can’t even make up their own minds?

To make up your mind about this, you need to understand a bit more about how this gym equipment works and what it aims to achieve.

Bench Press Muscle Guide

The bench press has been designed to focus on the chest muscles. This muscle group includes the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. When you’re doing any sort of bench press exercise, you’ll not only be working out these muscles. You will also be working other muscles, including your anterior deltoids and your triceps. The main focus will always remain on your chest. 

What you need to decide is what part of the pectoral muscles you want to focus on. Then how each option – the incline, decline, or flat bench – can help you to do just that.

Big dude bench pressing on an ATX Combo Rack

If you are training with an Olympic Barbell, narrowing your grip will put more stress on your tricep muscles. If you are going to be using a wider grip, you will place more stress on your chest.

Incline Bench Press Explained

The incline bench press is angled anywhere between 15 and 50 degrees. It is known for its ability to target the harder-to-reach muscle groups. The optimal range is somewhere between 35 and 45 degrees. Anything higher and you will shift the load to your shoulders. Anything lower and you will activate more of your upper chest.

Why 15 to 50 degrees? The exact angle will differ from person to person, as each of us has different body levers.

Only you as the user will know which angle exactly is the most comfortable for you. More importantly what provides the most muscle fiber activation.

The incline benches are far more popular than your decline benches. That is because the decline benches are more tailored towards rehab as well as muscle shaping.

ATX-OBM-650 with the bench in an upright position

Shoulder Health

Studies have shown that the incline bench press is able to activate most muscle fibers within the upper chest. The is the major benefit. However, it should be noted that due to the majority of the weight being focused on the shoulders (because of the angle), it increases the stress and the strain on this part of the body. For those who feel that too much weight is being distributed onto the shoulders, one solution is to adjust the angle. Flatten the angle and this will lighten the load, but not entirely. There is always going to be a strain of some sort on the shoulders.

Those who struggle with shoulder problems will likely want to stay away from the incline bench press. Any potential benefit could be offset by the risk of a serious injury. It is believed that continual strain could lead to issues such as inflammation further down the road. This is something that athletes in particular will want to avoid. 

You can still train your upper chest even if you find it somewhat uncomfortable. You just need to find the right angle or play around with different equipment and grips. Preferably going and see a physio and find out the source of the discomfort.

You will not lose muscle mass by taking it easy during training. However if you get injured and can’t train then you will lose strength.

Exercise Alternatives

For example, you could be using dumbbells or an angled multi-grip bar instead of a straight barbell. With a neutral grip using dumbbells you will have more freedom to move and twist your hands. In a way where you would be taking the pressure off your shoulder joint while still working your upper chest.

Another great way to train and isolate your upper chest is by using a leverage bench press machine. They work slightly differently from your smith machines. The movement itself resembles an arc as opposed to the smith machine’s straight line.

ATX-LMP-650 Leverage Multi Press in the shoulder press position.
ATX-LMP-650 Leverage Bench Press

So the movement itself follows a more natural path as well as being a fixed movement. This means that you won’t deviate from the pressing path and overload your shoulders or strain your stabilizer muscles.

The Pros and Cons of the Decline Bench Press

The decline bench press is often declined at between 15 and 30 degrees. This is less of an angle than many of the equivalent incline benches. The aim of this exercise is to target the lower sections of the pectoral muscles and it is likely to give you more superficial results, which are appealing to some but not to others.

Fewer muscle fibers within the upper chest are activated when you’re using the decline bench press . This equipment focuses on the lower sterna pectoral muscles. What is more, because of the weight distribution (which isn’t focused on the shoulders), you’re actually able to lift heavier weights with a declining bench press. This is why it is popular with some weight lifters – lifting heavyweight is the aim of the game!

Another reason that this is a popular option is the fact that there is less strain on the shoulders. Many resistance trainers and athletes in general experience shoulder issues as this is a very mobile joint and therefore susceptible to injury. The decline bench press is seen as a way to press without further aggravating existing injuries.

ATX-OBM-650 in decline bench press position.

However, it is recommended that you address the existing injuries so you can perform all exercises without pain. 

The Pros and Cons of the Flat Bench Press 

The flat bench press is one of the most common sights in professional and home gyms alike. While this piece of equipment lacks flexibility, it does allow for increased muscle engagement, particularly the sternocostal head. The flat bench press has a major focus on the deltoids and triceps, which are huge benefits of this apparatus. 

When it comes to strength training, the flat bench wins out among its two competitors. As mentioned above it activates multiple muscle groups stimulating a strong signal to the body to build strength and muscle.

Its popularity has made it a great yardstick for measuring strength. Not just in powerlifting where it is one of the three exercises performed, but in all athletic pursuits. For example, bench pressing statistics are gathered on NFL athletes as it is an excellent indicator of their pushing strength. This is vital in such a physical game.

ATX-OBX-700 Flat Bench Press with barbell and plates

Another reason for the popularity of the flat bench press is that it is relatively cheap in terms of acquiring the equipment. What it lacks in flexibility, it makes up in price. So it tends to be a sound option if you’re looking for something simple without spending an arm and a leg. This bench isn’t just used for barbell exercises, but also for dumbbells making it a more inclusive piece of gym equipment.

The Introduction of the Adjustable Bench

Are you’re struggling to choose between an incline, decline or flat bench press? You should consider investing in an adjustable bench press. This is a particularly popular option for professionals and the more experienced. it allows them to squeeze every last benefit from all three of these options. If the incline bench develops your upper chest muscles, the decline will benefit the lower chest muscles – and all the while you can build on your strength using the flat bench. 

But the pros of the adjustable bench don’t stop there. The number of exercises you can do using this piece of equipment allows you to shake things up. This prevents boredom and prevents your workout routine from becoming stale. 

Many of the adjustable bench presses that are designed for the domestic and light commercial markets also feature docking stations into which you can place optional attachments. Leg lift attachments will allow you to perform leg extensions and lying leg curls. A preacher curl attachment will allow you to work biceps.

If you are setting up a home gym or studio, having a dedicated bench press can be quite a luxury in terms of taking up valuable floor space and budget. But if you can add some attachments to perform other exercises, it makes purchasing a bench press more cost-effective.

Competiton Bench Presses

Adjustable benches are one of the best tools you could have in your gym when in comes to versatility. You can train a wide range of muscle groups, from your chest to your shoulders and triceps.

But they are more tailored towards strength trainers and bodybuilders. They are designed in a way where you could get a better muscle stretch due to the narrower backrest pad or have an abundance of optional attachments to go along with it.

The adjustable and narrowing backrest pad does provide the user with both better muscle fiber activation and joint protection. Your rotator cuff muscles have more room to move around because they are more or less sitting outside of the backrest pad. Plus there is the versatility and ability to personalize the angles to suit you.

ATX-MBX-650 Adjustable Bench

The downside of this combination is that it does not provide the best support for really heavy bench pressing. That is one of the core reasons why the competition bench presses are so readily available.

Competition Bench Specifics

There are certain guidelines the manufacturer has to meet in order to advertise it as an IPF Approved competition bench press . BEWARE not every retailer is following those rules.

The backrest pad itself has to be 122 cm x 29-32 cm wide and not be higher than 45 cm. The height is measured from the ground to the top of the pad. The standardized specifications allow athletes all over the world to train on equipment with the same specifications.

You will get more precise J-Hook adjustments as the distance between the holes is only 2.5 cm.

The other feature which is usually found in the competition bench presses is the roller j-hooks. They allow you to position the barbell perfectly in the center without having to drag the bar across the bar holders. This not only makes your life significantly easier but also extends the longevity of both the bar and j-hooks.


The bench press, in all formats, is a perfectly safe exercise when done properly. However, if you are not using appropriate equipment, or try to lift a weight that is too heavy whilst training alone, it can be quite dangerous. It is important to factor this in when choosing the right bench press.

If you are going to be training alone, then look for a bench press with adjustable spotter arms. These are supports onto which you can rest the barbell if you find you can’t lift the weight. 

Just please do not forget to set the spotter arms to a correct height, they will provide very little help if they are sitting at the lowest position.

The Final Word

Now you understand the benefits of each of the bench press variations you can work out which variety, or combination will best suit your training goals. This will point you in the right direction of which type of bench press will give you the most value for money.

Whichever option you choose, bench pressing is an excellent exercise in delivering strength and muscle gains. It is one investment that will pay dividends in the years to come.