Flat Bench vs Incline vs Decline vs Smith

What exercise is best? Which ones are safe? Do they all work?

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One of the biggest sources of confusion for beginning and advanced lifters alike is the sheer number of choices that an individual has when it comes to variations of the bench press.

Practically every commercial gym offers up individuals 9 different ways they can bench press: flat, incline, or decline, and with a barbell, dumbbells, or on the smith machine (the machine with the guided bar).

Many of these variations are good, some misunderstood, and a few are outright dangerous. In this guide to the bench press variations, you will discover the truth about the different benching movements, allowing you to pick the right exercise for the right situation. 

Barbells Versus Dumbbells Versus Smith Machine

Before we start discussing different angles, we will first go over the primary differences between the barbell and dumbbells for the bench press. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, so one is not necessarily better than the other.

Barbells: The primary advantage of using a barbell is that it is much easier to handle than a pair of dumbbells. The barbell lets you use significantly more weight - if you are going to full range of motion, performing a 200 pound barbell bench press is much easier than using 2-100 pound dumbbells. This extra weight leads to an increased training effect. Using a barbell at any angle is going to have the most carryover to a max out attempt on the flat barbell bench press.

The barbell allows for two dimensional movement - up and down as well as towards your feet or towards your head.

Dumbbells: While not as good for stimulating raw strength gains, dumbbells do have a few advantages. Dumbbells allow the wrist to turn while lifting, allowing for three-dimensional movement. This extra movement during benching is much gentler on the shoulder as you can move the dumbbell to the most comfortable path.

Many lifters who experience pain on the barbell bench press can often bench press with dumbbells pain-free. Dumbbells can also allow the lifter to take the weight down below the level of the sternum. This extra range of motion training is useful for bodybuilding.

Smith Machine: The Smith Machine is by far the most limiting exercise, as the bar can only move in one direction: up and down with respect to gravity. Since the bar is on a track, you cannot rotate the bar or move it towards your feet or head as you lift. This limited range of motion puts a significant amount of stress on the shoulder.

The benefit of using the Smith Machine is that you typically do not need a spotter and many lifters report being able to feel their chest contracting better during this exercise. Having a good mind-muscle connection can significantly improve results, especially in terms of pure muscle growth.

Flat Versus Incline Versus Decline

Just like barbells, dumbbells, and the smith machine all have their advantages and disadvantages, so does varying your incline.

Flat benching offers a middle of the road approach. It is moderately stressful on the shoulder and allows lifters to use a moderate amount of weight. It stresses the pectorals, shoulders, and triceps, with most of the emphasis on the pectoral muscles.

Decline benching is the most advantageous position. Lifters can use the most weight by far on a decline bench press. This exercise shifts more of the focus off the anterior delts (though they still contribute) and onto the pecs and triceps. Unfortunately, this position is disadvantaegous for the shoulder and places a lot of strain on this joint. Lifting very heavy weights on decline bench is not recommended due to high injury risk.

Incline benching is the least advantageous position in terms of raw weight production. It shifts some emphasis from the chest and triceps onto the anterior and even lateral deltoids. The shoulder performs the most work during this exercise compared with the other forms of bench. The higher the incline, the more the deltoids contribute to this movement. While less weight can be used on an incline, it seems to offer the lowest injury risk.

Winning Combinations of Angle and Implement

Now that you know the strengths and weaknesses of the angles at which you can bench press and the tools with which you can bench press, coming up with working pairings will make a lot more sense.

Flat Bench - For the flat bench, you can use both barbells and dumbbells. For your primary exercise (main exercise) of the day, you should use a barbell so you can use the most weight and get the largest training effect. Dumbbells are fine for the secondary exercise, particularly if you suffer from shoulder or pectoral pain. Flat smith machine bench press should be avoided due to injury risk.

Decline Bench - Since decline bench possesses the highest injury risk of all the forms of bench press, I would only recommend using dumbbells with a decline. Make sure you use a neutral grip at the bottom of the lift (palms facing in) to reduce stress. The stress that decline benching applies on the shoulder when using a barbell or the smith machine is just not worth the risk

Incline Bench - For the incline bench, all three tools are viable options. The barbell is useful as both a primary and secondary exercise, whereas dumbbells and even the smith machine work well as a secondary exercise. The Smith Machine is a great choice for the incline bench press but not for the flat or  decline bench due to the difference in bar path.

When you are performing a flat bench press, the bar should be about 2/3 of the way down your chest towards your hips when the bar is on the chest, and it should move up to shoulder level by the time you finish the lift. Movement in this plane is not permitted by the smith machine. However, when you are on an incline, the starting and finishing position of the barbell are about the same, so the fact that the smith machine does not move in that plane is no longer a limiting factor! 

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