Build Your Pecs, Save Your Shoulders
Elevate your chest workout. Here are the eight best incline dumbbell bench press variations for bigger pecs and a stronger upper body.
Ramping Up The Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
If you want to maximize chest growth without beating up your joints, the incline dumbbell bench press and its variations should be a staple in your training. Here are the seven best ways to do it.
1. The Low Incline One-Arm Press
The lower the incline bench press, the harder you’ll train the sternal head or the lower/middle fibers of your pecs. So for this, use a low incline around 15-degrees.
Why one arm? Because most lifters have injured a shoulder or have one arm that’s stronger than the other. Imbalances and instability will leave your shoulders sounding as crunchy as the first bite of a cockroach on a chunky peanut butter sandwich.
One-arm dumbbell presses give you the option to train each “press” individually, bringing up weak points in the shoulders, triceps, and pecs. Also, the unilateral load forces your core to stabilize your body to prevent you from corkscrewing off the bench. This trains your obliques.
Go heavier and place these earlier in your workout. Use classic rep schemes like 3x8, 4x6, and 5x5.
2. The Moderate Incline Press
As the degree of your bench incline increases, you’ll emphasize the clavicular head or the “upper chest.” While there are benefits to hitting multiple angles, the best angles appear between 30-45 degrees. Researchers even found that the best muscular recruitment of the lower and upper portions of the pecs occur with a 30-45 degree incline bench press. (1)
3. The High Incline Press
As your dumbbell bench press reaches 60-75 degrees of incline, most of the training stimulus is on the clavicular head (upper pecs) and your shoulders. This is good. Shoulder health is a limiting factor in pressing strength and chest development for many lifters.
If you struggle with shoulder presses, do more 60-75 degree presses to replace any overhead press variations you’ve been avoiding. This will develop your chest and shoulders at the same time.
4. The 1.5 Rep Method
Doing a rep and a half requires you to perform a full rep, then press halfway up, and back down for a half rep.
The extra half-rep forces you to slow down, achieving a greater stretch through your chest and shoulders while increasing the total time under tension. Many lifters shorten the range of motion, which limits their muscular development.
Use 70% of the weight you usually use for a regular bench press. Do 3 sets of 8-10 reps toward the end of your training.
5. The Alternating Press
Keep your arms locked out overhead. With the non-pressing arm, straightened overhead, perform a press with your right arm. Repeat with your left arm. This is one complete rep.
Keep your eyes focused on the dumbbell locked out over your chest to stabilize the weight. Push your feet through the floor to stabilize your trunk.
The alternating dumbbell press provides unilateral stress to increase motor unit recruitment for building strength and muscle while reinforcing stability in the shoulder. The single-arm nature creates anti-rotation tension to train your core.
Don’t be afraid to push the weight heavy on this one. Classic rep schemes like 3x8, 4x6, and 5x5 are all beneficial.
6. The Twisting Press
Most lifters struggle to build their chest because they constantly chase big weights. For the dumbbell twisting press, you won’t be able to go as heavy, but you’ll maximize the actual training effect.
Fully rotate your palms as you press the weight up, maximizing the contraction of your pecs. You can do the twisting press first in your training to improve the mind-muscle connection or as a finisher to exhaust any untapped muscle fibers.
Do one or two warm-up sets of eight reps, then perform 3 sets of 8-10 reps with 60 seconds of rest in between.
7. The 1-1-2 Press
Here’s a tougher-than-it-looks way to ramp up your chest training, boost time under tension, and improve motor unit recruitment.
This is a unilateral and bilateral exercise in one. Not only do you get the progressive overload to build strength, you also get unilateral stress to increase motor unit recruitment.
You build strength and muscle, reinforce stability in the shoulder, and create significant anti-rotation stress through the core to keep you on the bench. It’s a great exercise to weed out muscular imbalances between the left or right side.
- Begin with the dumbbells over your chest on a bench inclined anywhere from 15 to 45 degrees.
- Perform a one-arm press with each dumbbell while keeping the non-pressing dumbbell over your chest.
- Keep your eyes focused on the dumbbell locked overhead, otherwise you may lose control and reorganize your face.
- After each arm does a single-arm press, perform a regular incline press. This is one rep.
There’s a lot of time under tension. This exercise is best reserved for later in a workout with a weight at about 60% of what you’d typically do for a bench press. If you can press 100 pounds for 6 reps, use 60 pounds and do three sets of 6 with 90 seconds rest in between.
8. The 5-Second Pause Press
Most injuries (and plateaus on lifts) happen because of poor technique. One of the best ways to improve your technique is to improve your tightness on a lift with mid-rep pauses.
Instead of chasing a personal record every time you hit the gym, try 5-second pauses. If you’re weakest at the bottom of your press, your chest is the likely culprit. Adding a pause at the bottom-half would be best.
If you struggle near the top of your press, your triceps are the culprit. Pause halfway up to reinforce stability at your weakest point and you’ll be able to push past your plateau by improving joint stability and strength.
Do 3 sets of 5 with a 5-second pause at either the eccentric phase (lowering) or concentric (lifting) phase.
- Lauver JD et al. Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise. Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(3):309-16. PubMed.