Ask the Professional: Incline Bench Press Vs. Reverse Grip Bench Press

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by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

Many of you likely utilize the incline bench press when training your chest in order to get your upper chest more activated. The question is should this really be your go to exercise for upper chest training? Over the past 5-10 years science has been pointing to another movement that is far more effective and efficient in targeting your upper chest: The Reverse Grip Bench Press. For quite some time the incline bench press has been the linchpin for building that “shelf” on your upper chest but you may have been missing out on greater benefits when trying to build up that upper chest.

Looking at the incline bench press, upper chest activation is not all that much greater than a regular flat bench press. In fact studies have shown that upper chest activation is only 5% greater in the incline bench press than the flat bench press. Instead, what happens during the incline chest press is that the anterior deltoid receives the majority of the additional muscle activation at approximately 85% more than the flat bench press. But how could this be when big time bodybuilders like Arnold sculpted a huge upper chest by using the incline press? The extraordinary amount of training volume guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger put into their workout when launching and maintaining their bodybuilding careers are likely the main reason for such great adaptations. But for individuals that are not professional bodybuilders who either don't have the time to devote to weightlifting or don't have the genetic capacity, you should aim to add variety to your workouts and include different variations to work the same muscle groups. 

Enter the reverse grip bench press.  This chest exercise doesn't exactly receive the recognition it deserves. Chances are at your gym you will see at least a dozen people doing an incline press and maybe one person doing the reverse grip bench press. With the lack of publicity this exercise gets it makes sense that it isn’t performed as often as an exercise like the incline press. But studies have revealed upper chest activation is about 30% greater than the traditional flat bench press. Comparatively, we already discussed that this number is only 5% for the incline press; an entire 25% difference! 

There are a handful of significant differences between these movements that contribute to the additional upper chest activation. One obvious difference is that for the reverse grip bench press, you do not have to adjust your flat bench as opposed to moving the bench up for the incline press. Then there is the grip. Your grip for the incline bench press is not really any different from the traditional flat bench press. However, the reverse grip bench press calls for exactly that: a reverse grip. You will utilize an underhand grip with your knuckles pointed away from you rather than towards you with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Due to the different grip and range of motion of the bar or dumbbells, the reverse grip bench press will also place significantly less stress on the shoulders and be a safer movement in most cases.

Now you may be asking yourself, “Why haven’t I been doing this??” Although this is a good question and you should absolutely include the reverse grip bench press in your training when you are looking to build your upper chest, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should abandon the incline press entirely. The incline press still has a place in your training. There is still some additional upper chest activation when performing the incline press and the additional anterior deltoid activation should not be ignored either. There is no reason that you shouldn’t be incorporating both of these exercises into your training!

Next time you are training your chest keep in mind that there is more than just the incline bench press for building the upper chest. By incorporating the reverse grip bench press you can greatly increase the muscle mass in your upper chest. In most cases this may also lead to an increase in the amount of weight that you can lift. Don’t be afraid to try something new and help your chest grow with the reverse grip bench press!

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