The Incline Dumbbell Press 101 | How to Build a Bigger Upper Chest!

By
Mike Kenler
October 13, 2020

The Incline Dumbbell Press

Also known as the incline dumbbell bench press, the incline dumbbell press builds size and strength in your chest, specifically targeting the upper chest. Armed with an incline bench and a pair of dumbbells, this exercise can bolster your entire upper body fitness routine.

The incline dumbbell press is an essential exercise for people of all fitness levels.

Muscles Worked by the Incline Dumbbell Press

Primary Muscle Groups:

The incline dumbbell press primarily targets the pectoralis major, which is the largest muscle in our chest. Our pec muscles are made up of two heads: the clavicular head, which comprises the upper chest, and the sternal head, which makes up the mid to lower chest.

While both heads are engaged during the lift, the incline of the bench places more tension on the clavicular head of the pectoralis major. For that reason, the incline dumbbell press is one of the best exercises for exercising our upper chest. 

Our deltoids also play a major role in executing the incline dumbbell press but they should remain as a secondary mover. The deltoids are comprised of three heads: the anterior (front), lateral (side) and posterior (rear) heads. During the incline dumbbell press, the most tension is directed to the anterior deltoids.

Secondary Muscle Groups:

The incline dumbbell press secondarily engages your triceps, upper back, and abs. As you press the weight upwards, your triceps contract to extend your arms upwards. In addition, your abs and upper back activate to stabilize the body during the exercise motion. 

Incline Dumbbell Press Benefits

1. Strength and Size Gains

The incline dumbbell press is one of the best exercises to strengthen and grow the pectoralis major, your upper chest. Regular performance of this exercise will consistently activate these muscle fibers and increase hypertrophy of the chest and shoulders.

With a stronger chest and shoulders, you can push heavier objects, perform better in athletics, improve your posture, and boost your overall confidence. Not only that, but with a stronger upper body, you will improve in other exercises as well!

2. Emphasis On the Upper Chest

When training their chest, many lifters tend to favor flat bench exercises. While these exercises are important, you can run the risk of over-training the lower, sternal head of the pec and under training the upper, clavicular head.

It is important to be mindful when we build muscle in order to maintain balance in the body. Exercises such as the incline dumbbell press can help to emphasize the upper chest and build size and strength more evenly in your pec muscles.

3. Safety for the Shoulders

The incline dumbbell press may be superior to incline barbell exercises because dumbbells require greater stabilization. Using dumbbells to train your chest helps to recruit more muscle fibers in your shoulders to stabilize each dumbbell throughout the motion.

As a result, this will strengthen your rotator cuffs and increase your mind-muscle connection.

Dumbbells also offer a freer range of motion compared to a barbell. When performed correctly, the incline dumbbell press allows you to safely develop your upper chest without unnatural shoulder strain.

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How to do the Incline Dumbbell Press

Equipment:

For the incline dumbbell press, you will need a pair of dumbbells and an incline bench.

Setup:

1. Pick the dumbbells up off the ground with your palms facing toward each other.

2. Assume a sitting position on an incline bench at a 30-45 degree angle and place the weights on your thighs.

3. Use your legs to kick the dumbbells up and lie back on the incline. The dumbbells should be positioned close to your chest. Breathe in. 

Action:

1. Retract your shoulders to create a slight arch in your spine and breathe out as you press the dumbbells upwards. Be sure to keep a slight bend in your elbows at the top.

2. Next, slowly bring down the dumbbells all the way down into your chest.

3. Maintain tightness in your chest and repeat this motion.

Recommendation:

To start, choose a relatively light weight. Aim to complete 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps at a lighter weight. Once you master the form, try experimenting with lower rep ranges and heavier weight to further challenge your muscles. 

Incline Dumbbell Press Mistakes

1. Flaring Out the Elbows

After lying back on the bench, many lifters tend to flare out their elbows to the side. When your elbows drift away from the body, you place a huge strain on the tendons in your chest and shoulders.

To avoid risking major injury at the gym, try to feel like you are keeping your elbows slightly tucked inwards during the incline dumbbell press. This keeps your shoulders in a natural position so that you can keep making gains in the safest way possible. 

2. Rounding the Shoulders

During the dumbbell incline press, you want to avoid rounding your shoulders and keeping your back flat against the bench. When you round the shoulders, your deltoids take over the lifting motion.

To correct this mistake, bring shoulder blades back and down to create a slight arch in your back. This will help you maximize the contraction of your pecs.

3. Rushing the Motion

Far too often, I see weightlifters drop the dumbbells down to their chest in a split second. Then, they thrust upwards to complete the dumbbell incline press. The goal of lifting weights is not to simply move weight from one position to another. You want to move weight in a way that safely challenges your body the most.

Instead of rushing the motion of the dumbbell incline press, slowly bring the weight down to your chest and push upwards at a steady, controlled pace. Not only is this safer, but you will achieve better results too!

Incline Dumbbell Press Variations

1. Incline Alternating Dumbbell Press

With both weights by your chest, press one dumbbell upwards, then the other. Next, bring each dumbbell down one at a time. The alternating dumbbell press allows you to isolate muscles in both sides of your body.

2. Incline Barbell Press

This incline alternative is another great exercise that significantly engages the upper chest. While seated on a 30 degree incline bench, tighten your abs and push the bar upwards in a controlled fashion. Slowly lower it back down all the way into your chest and repeat!

3. Upward Chest Press

Set up a pulley system at the lowest setting. Grab the handles with an overhand grip and bring them to your chest. Brace your abs and press upwards in a controlled fashion. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat!

Incline Dumbbell Press Alternatives

If you enjoyed the incline dumbbell press, check out these other upper chest focused exercises to improve your upper body training!

1. Incline Dumbbell Fly 

While seated on a 30 degree incline bench, lift your arms above you with your palms facing together and a slight bend in your elbows. Next, lower the weight in a controlled fashion to each side and stop when the weights are roughly in line with your shoulders.

Now, use your chest and shoulders to drive the dumbbells back to the starting position in a consistent pathway. Maintain tightness in your chest and repeat!

2. Standing Upward Fly

Assume a standing position and grab a pair of dumbbells with your palms facing forward. Contract your pecs to bring the dumbbells together until they reach chest height. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat!

3. Reverse Grip Push-Up

While the reverse grip push up may take a little while to get used to, this pushup variation places more tension on the upper chest. It is a great option to work out your upper body at home!

If you enjoyed these chest exercises, check out this intense 5-minute dumbbell chest workout:

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Mike Kenler
Director of Writing | Certified in Plant Based Nutrition at T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies

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