Monday 9 February 2015

A Case for the Incline Press

Ever had a conversation about lifting with someone who doesn’t lift? If so, they will often they will ask the question, “Whada ya bench?” Ever since the 70’s the bench press has been the most popular lift in the gym. While it is a good upper body strength exercise for some people, is the not the best option for others. No, I’m not trying to convince everyone not to bench. However, the bench press’ less popular cousin exercise the incline press offers some great benefits that may make it a better lift for you. Here is my case for using the incline press.

More useful pushing strength
Think about contact and collision sports. What position are you in if you are pushing your opponent? Chances are very good that your position is much closer to an incline close grip press than a regular wide-grip bench press. While the goal of performance-based training should not be to try to exactly mimic the sport (see my post on Sports Specific Training for more details) you do want to consider building useful pushing strength.

Less shoulder strain
For many lifters, the bench press can be a shoulder wrecker. However, the incline press can be more shoulder friendly. For starters, bar path of the incline press is more straight up and down. This moves the bar closer to the shoulder joint. This shorter distance to the shoulder joint can reduce the stress on the joint itself. Also, the incline press does not require the shoulder to travel as far into hyperextension. Notice the difference in these photos between the flat and incline press. Yes, you could move the bar path of a flat bench closer to the shoulder, but this flares the elbows and causes even more hyperextension of the shoulder joint at the bottom which both increase shoulder stress.

Bench press: note the greater distance from the bar to the shoulder
and that the elbow is further below the bench than the incline press

Incline press: note the decreased distance from the bar to the shoulder 
and that the elbow is not as far below the bench 

Works great with a closer grip
Back in 1995, research by Barnett et. al found that found that the best way to target the clavicular head of the pectoralis major (i.e. the upper pecs) was with a narrow grip. This narrower grip (less than or equal to 1.5x biacromial width – that is basically about shoulder width) reduces shoulder injury risk. For years I struggled to even feel my upper chest working – especially with my long arms. A close-grip incline press has been the best way to attack the upper chest and keep my shoulders happy.

A happy medium between vertical & horizontal pressing

Normally, you have vertical pressing (e.g. standing shoulder press) and horizontal pressings (e.g. bench press). With incline, you get a bit of both. This can be helpful for folks who cannot go straight overhead due to past injuries or shoulder problems. The incline press can also be a great alternative to vertical pressing for overhead athletes (e.g. volleyball/baseball) who may want to avoid the overhead position in training because they are there so much because of their sport. Also, during in-season training or when training time is limited, the incline press offers a time-efficient way to gain pushing strength that helps both vertical and horizontal pressing.

Beach-ready chest
If you have more aesthetic –based goals, you may not care much about the other points. However, here is one for you to consider. Think about the guys you know who train. Since pecs are an important muscle (especially in today’s male physique fashions) most guys spend a significant part of their training on their pecs. However, despite this emphasis, how many guys do you see who have an impressive upper chest? While great mid and lower pecs are rather common in the gym world, few possess impressive upper pec development. If you want to improve your chest aesthetics, give the incline press your top priority in your chest training (no pun intended).

Less ego influence
Few lifts are more commonly butchered than the bench press. Go to any non-powerlifting gym and you will find almost every guy benching too much. Coming only half way down, butt off the bench and a “spotter” lifting a large chunk of the weight is the norm. With the incline press, you can still have problems. For example, many people lift the hips up so high that they basically do a flat bench press. However, no one cares as much about how much you can incline press. This can help make it easier to put the ego aside and focus on doing the movement correctly and getting stronger.

Easier to do and coach well
Few things present a more difficult coaching challenge or frustrating training experience than trying to re-learn a movement done incorrectly for a long time. Also, the arc used for the flat bench presents a more technical challenge than the more straight up and down bar path of the incline press

Easier Access
Because the bench press is far more popular, you will have a harder time getting on the bench press. If you train at a busy gym, the incline press may be a helpful way to avoid the line-ups and save time.

Safer in emergency
Don’t think for a second that I’m encouraging you not to bench without a spotter. However, in a hypothetical situation, if I was to bench press without a spotter and fail to complete a rep, I would rather be on the incline press. In this case, the bar would roll down my chest and onto my hips. If this was to happen on a flat bench, there is a greater chance of having the bar roll up and onto my throat.

In Conclusion
If you like the bench press and it well, I'm not telling you to stop, However, the incline press allows you to effectively target an underdeveloped part of the chest (aesthetics – more on this in a minute), build real-life pushing strength (performance), reduce shoulder stress (joint health). In Canada, a statement such as that is usually followed up with, “pretty cool – eh?!”

Barnett, et al. Effects of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise on the EMG Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 1995; 9(4).
Green CM & Comfort, P.  The Affect of Grip Width on Bench Press Performance and Risk of Injury. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 2007; 29(5).

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