Everything You Need to Know About the Incline Dumbbell Press

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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The bench press is a foundational upper-body exercise used by bodybuilders, athletes, powerlifters, and fitness enthusiasts alike. It has several variations, like the incline dumbbell press.

But is the incline dumbbell press as cracked up as it seems? Is it worthwhile to incorporate it into your chest day?

A man doing incline dumbbell presses at the gym
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We cover everything you need to know about the incline dumbbell chest press, including how to perform it, the benefits, variations, and common mistakes to avoid. Read on for more information. 

What Is the Incline Dumbbell Press?

The Incline Dumbbell Press is a variation of the standard incline barbell bench press. It targets the upper chest muscles, shoulders, and triceps. 

Incline presses require an incline bench positioned at a 30-45 degrees angle

Unlike the traditional flat bench dumbbell press, the inclined position adjusts the muscle engagement to the upper pectoral muscles and front deltoid muscles. This provides more muscle growth in the upper chest with proper form. 

The incline dumbbell bench press is used to develop muscle mass in the chest, so it’s a great addition to a balanced chest workout routine. 

How to Perform

You’ll need an adjustable bench and a pair of dumbbells to execute the Dumbbell Incline Bench Press. Most gyms have exercise benches with flexible degree angles. 

If you have the option, adjust the incline bench settings between 30 and 45-degree incline

Bigger angles, closer to a 45-degree angle, will target the shoulders more. The correct bench angle will depend on your body type, so it’s worthwhile to experiment with the bench angle until you find a sweet spot. 

Before you begin, select lighter weights than you typically use for a flat dumbbell bench press. If you’re uncertain about the weight, start with lighter dumbbells and slowly progress until you feel a challenge but can complete the movement with the correct form. 

  1. Sit on an inclined seat and lean against the bench backrest. Grab a dumbbell in each palm, with the hands placed at the shoulders. Your elbows should have a slight bend, angled beneath the ribs. Keep the neck relaxed with your feet flat on the ground. 
  2. Now, tighten your core muscles by taking a deep inhale. Press the dumbbells directly over your chest, exhaling throughout the movement. Maintain straight wrists. At the height of the exercise, the dumbbells should barely touch, and the arms extended.
  3. Slowly bring the weight back to the top of your chest as you breathe in. As you bring the weight down, keep the elbows at a 45-degree angle to your core. The elbows should point toward the floor, not flare to the sides. 
  4. Once you reach the starting position, you’ve completed one repetition. Repeat the movement pattern for three sets of 8–12 reps with 30–60 seconds between each set.
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Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

Muscles Worked

The incline dumbbell chest press is an upper-body workout, primarily engaging the chest, front deltoids, and triceps. It’s worthwhile to include in your exercise program, as it provides development for well-balanced chest and shoulder musculature.

You’ll notice different muscle fiber activation depending on the angle of the bench incline. A larger angle will target the shoulders more, while a 30-degree position will engage the upper chest. 

Chest Muscles

The incline dumbbell press primarily builds chest strength. The exercise works the pectoral muscles, including the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, serratus anterior, and subclavius.

The movement targets the clavicular head of the pectoralis major, which doesn’t get much muscle activation from standard chest workouts like traditional bench presses or chest flys. 

Shoulders

Incline DB presses target the front (anterior) head of the deltoids, located in the front area of the shoulder. This makes the movement somewhat like a combination of a bench and an overhead shoulder press.

Steeper incline angles will engage the front deltoids more, which can be helpful for resolving strength imbalances. 

When performed consistently, incline presses can strengthen the shoulder joint, leading to more mobility, range of motion, and strength. 

Triceps

As mentioned earlier, incline bench exercises are used for upper-body training. Additional muscles, like the triceps, are used as stabilizers. The triceps are located on the backside of the arm, helping extend your arm at the elbow joint.

This exercise won’t create huge muscles in the arms but will provide you with a bit more muscle activation, which can help you in other lifts, like flat bench presses and overhead presses.

An athlete performing incline dumbbell press
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Incline Dumbbell Bench Press Benefits

Incline chest press exercises have several benefits. The incline position targets a portion of the chest that doesn’t get much activation from traditional lifts. It can also help with imbalances in strength and help you in daily activities. 

Works the Upper Chest

Flat bench press exercises engage the entire chest muscle but primarily target the middle and lower portions of the chest. Incorporating incline variations can increase muscular activation in the upper chest muscles.

This will give you a fuller, more developed chest, leading to a more athletic and balanced physique. 

Helps Muscle Imbalances

Besides targeting lagging upper chest muscles, the incline dumbbell press can be advantageous for addressing strength imbalances

Most lifters have one arm or side of their body that’s stronger than the other. The stronger side can take over during barbell movements, resulting in muscle imbalances. 

With dumbbells, each arm works independently, preventing the stronger side from doing all the work. This improves strength, stability, and muscle mass on both sides of the body. 

Develops Functional Strength

Pressing exercises carry over to functional movements, helping you develop more functional strength. Functional strength refers to muscles in daily activities, like pushing open doors, carrying groceries, or lifting items overhead.

The incline dumbbell press will improve your performance in these activities, providing you with an easier time in daily life.

The strength developments can also transfer to other lifts, like the standard barbell bench press or overhead press. This is particularly beneficial if you compete in powerlifting, strongman, or CrossFit competitions

A woman performing incline dumbbell presses
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Incline Dumbbell Chest Press Variations and Alternatives

There are several exercise variations you can incorporate into your routine to add variety or adjust muscle fiber activation.

Variations can keep your workout routines fresh, increase motivation, engage different muscles, and reduce the chance of injury.

What Makes a Good Variation?

Before you completely switch up your exercise routine, it’s essential to consider what makes a good incline variation. The correct alternatives will target the same muscle groups while matching your fitness goals and circumstances.

Variations should target similar muscle groups to the incline dumbbell press, including the following:

  • The upper chest 
  • The anterior (front) deltoid
  • The triceps

Depending on your fitness goals, you might want to focus on the upper chest to build fuller, more developed pecs. Alternatively, you might have lagging shoulders or want to improve shoulder joint stability.

However, there are other ways to add variation to your training regimen. The SAID (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) Principle states the body adapts to specific movements. This means your body will adjust to a particular exercise when performed over time but may not adapt to other environments. 

You can also adjust exercise factors like the following:

  • Repetition speed
  • Using heavier weights
  • Repetition number
  • Range of motion
  • Rest period duration 

For example, a lifter might incorporate tempo squats to increase time under tension, resulting in more muscle hypertrophy and development. 

Barbell Incline Press

The incline barbell variation provides similar results to the dumbbell variant. The barbell engages the same muscles, but doesn’t have a unilateral movement pattern. It will allow you to build the baseline strength needed for the exercise while improving shoulder stability without additional pressure

The movement is identical to the DB incline press, except you use a barbell placed in both hands a bit more than shoulder width distance. 

  1. Take the bar with weights off its support and bring it down slowly towards your chest.
  2. Gently touch the weight to your chest, then push it back up by straightening your arms. Remember not to fully straighten your arms to keep the tension on the pec muscles.
  3. Do this movement again the number of times you want before placing the bar back on its support.

Single Arm Incline Press

The Single Arm Variation is a unilateral exercise, helping develop balanced strength and muscle development in each arm. You must engage the core muscles for stability, which can improve your technique. 

  1. Only use one dumbbell for each set. Start by using your right side, then switch to your left arm. This exercise focuses on one side at a time, so your core muscles need to be active to prevent the inactive side from turning toward the side you’re working on.
  2. To execute the movement correctly, tighten your core muscles to prevent the left shoulder and hip from rotating towards the right side while performing the exercise.

Low to High Cable Chest Fly

The Low to High Cable Chest Fly or cable crossover isolates the upper pecs. The cable machine provides constant tension, allowing you to use less weight without losing potential muscle gains. 

  1. Attach a pair of handles to the lower part of a cable cross machine. Hold the handles firmly, take a step forward, and lean slightly in front.
  2. Keep your arms slightly bent and push the handles forward until they come together in front of your chest.
  3. Control the movement as you bring the handles back to the starting position.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

The incline dumbbell press looks easy—all you have to do is lean against a bench and press the weight above your chest, right?

Although it might look simple, there are common pitfalls that are all too easy to make. Using too much weight, using the wrong angle, and using the incorrect form can negatively impact your lift and increase the chance of injury. 

Here’s how to avoid these potential mistakes. 

Using Heavy Weights

It’s tempting to use the same weight you use for the dumbbell bench press or incline barbell variation. The difference is the dumbbell incline press uses smaller muscle groups than flat bench variations. 

It’s best to use lighter weights for the incline DB press, even if you’re accustomed to the incline barbell exercise. 

The movement requires each arm to raise the dumbbells independently, which uses more muscle fibers. It’s a more challenging action, requiring more control from the stabilizing muscles in the shoulders and triceps

Heavy weights can lead to incorrect form, increasing the chance of injury in the shoulder joint and elbows. Instead, opt for lighter weights and work your way up over time. 

Straining the Wrists

Another common mistake is placing too much strain on the wrists. It’s easy to forget about form, cocking the wrists backward toward the forearm. 

This places additional stress on the wrists, leading to a higher chance of injury. Instead, focus on maintaining straight wrists, facing toward the sky. 

Using the Wrong Angle

The angle of the weight bench dramatically impacts which muscles are activated. Flat bench press exercises without any angle engage the middle portion of your chest. An upright angle of 90 degrees will target the shoulders. 

To activate the upper chest muscle, you will need to choose the right angle. 

It’s typically recommended to position the bench 30–45 degrees. Larger angles will target the shoulders more, while positions closer to 30 degrees activate the upper chests more.

A strong man performing incline dumbbell presses
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Dropping the Weights too Quickly

It’s not practical to quickly lower the weights and bounce them off the top of your pecs. If you notice this, it’s a sign that you’re using more weight than optimal.

When you rush through the exercise, you lose focus on the intended muscles you want to work. Other muscles and momentum come into play to help you finish the workout. 

It may not seem all that important, but it reduces the effectiveness of your training and makes it more difficult to achieve the desired improvements.

Instead of lifting too much weight, decrease the weight you’re lifting until you can perform the exercise without any technique complaints. This will ensure better form and maximize the benefits of your workout.

Too Much Back-Arching 

When you complete a set and feel fatigued, or if you’re attempting to press heavier weights than you should, you might start straining and excessively arching to lift the dumbbells

This can put you at risk of straining your back muscles, and it won’t yield the desired results.

In this situation, you end up engaging muscles other than the ones the exercise is intended for. It’s crucial to maintain an organic arch in the back while performing the incline press and avoid eliminating this natural curve. 

When you forcefully press your back into the bench, the shoulders will roll forward. Instead, focus on maintaining the natural arch without adjusting it. If you’re straining at the end of your reps, it’s helpful to have a friend spot you while you lift. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What Does Incline Dumbbell Press Work?

The incline dumbbell press primarily engages the upper chest muscles alongside the front deltoids in the shoulders and triceps. Larger incline angles, closer to 45 degrees, engage the shoulders more. Smaller inclines, closer to 30 degrees, activate the chest more.

Is the Incline Bench 30 or 45 Degrees?

It’s recommended to set the incline bench to 30 degrees to target the upper chest. Larger angles closer to 45 degrees will target the shoulders more, making the movement more like an overhead press. It’s best to experiment with the bench position to see what works for your body and fitness goals.

Is the Incline Press Better Than Flat?

Both bench press exercises can build muscle mass in the chest. The flat bench press is better for overall muscle gains, as it engages the middle and lower portions of the chest. The incline press can help with muscle imbalances, target the upper chest, and help you develop a fuller chest.

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About

Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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