Incline Bench Press vs. Decline: What's Best for Growth?
It's becoming increasingly rare to see decline benches in the gym. Sure, we get that. People sometimes assume the decline bench is non-essential or redundant. They believe that while the flat bench works the lower or sternal part of the pec muscles, the decline also works the same part, albeit at a different angle and to a lesser degree.
Besides, the decline bench is uncomfortable, what with all that blood flowing to the head. If decline benches do get used, it's usually for some sort of bastardized sit-up where people use entirely too much of their lower-back erectors.
That's too bad, because an all-but-forgotten study shows that the decline is, surprisingly, as good or maybe better than the incline bench for building the upper (clavicular) part of the pectoralis major, and is better overall for the sternal part of the chest than the incline.
The motivation of the researchers was simple: Do incline bench press and the decline bench press do what lifters think they do? The answer was a clear no.
To come to this conclusion, they recruited 15 seasoned lifters and wired them up while they did inclines and declines in the lab. The electrical activity reflected during exercise told the researchers everything they needed to know.
On the concentric, or lifting part of the movement, the incline bench press stimulated the upper part of the chest muscle a tiny bit more than the decline, but on the eccentric, or lowering part of the movement, the decline stimulated the upper part of the chest a tiny bit more than the incline.
In short, the effect on the upper pecs was pretty much a wash. However, when it came to activating the lower part of the chest muscle (the main body of the pec), the decline blew away the incline.
So, contrary to what most lifters assume, the angle of the bench press doesn't much affect the upper pectoral muscles, but the angle definitely affects the lower pec muscles.
Based on this study, the decline bench press is superior to the incline when it comes to working the whole pec.
Additionally, the decline is equal, or perhaps a tad superior (when you take into consideration the greater stimulation on the eccentric part of the movement) to building the upper part of the pec.
That doesn't mean you should ditch the incline press. It only means that you should pull the decline bench out of the gym dustbin and not only put it back into your routine, but give it just as much respect as the incline.
You may also want to experiment with a very slight decline, especially if you have banged-up shoulders.
- Glass SC et al. Electromyographical Activity of the Pectoralis Muscle During Incline and Decline Bench Presses. J Strength Cond Res. 1997 Aug;11(3):163-167.