The decline and flat bench press are both classic exercises for building upper body strength and size, but how do they differ? And which one should you be doing? In this decline bench press vs flat bench press article, we’re going to cover exactly that.
Decline bench Press vs flat
The main difference between decline bench press and flat bench press is that the decline bench press places more emphasis on your lower chest, whilst the flat bench places a more balanced emphasis on the chest as a whole.
Check out this link for more information on overhead press vs incline bench press.
Joints worked and ranges of motion
To start us off, it’s important to note that the decline and flat bench press still have very similar joints used, as well as very similar ranges of motion.
|Joint||Decline Bench Press ROM||Flat Bench Press ROM|
This means that any differences we can expect to see are likely to be minor rather than major.
Muscles worked during a decline bench press
The decline bench press works your chest (pectoralis major and minor) shoulders (anterior deltoids) and triceps. Specifically, the decline bench press places slightly more emphasis on the lower portions of your pectorals.
With that said, studies have shown that whilst there is a difference, it is a very small one. In fact, in the study above the EMG activation difference was around 1 to 5%.
Muscles worked during a flat bench press
The flat bench press works your chest (pectoralis major and minor) shoulders (anterior deltoids) and triceps. It provides a fairly balanced distribution of work across the chest.
Your pectorals are your prime movers, supported and assisted by your anterior deltoids and triceps.
Practically, I’m assuming that we’re using a medium grip width for the purposes of this article, as narrow and wider grip widths slightly change relative muscle emphasis. For example, narrower grips recruit somewhat more triceps and wider grips recruit somewhat more chest.
Biomechanical & physiological differences to consider
Both the flat bench press and decline bench press fall into the category of general training, and so have limited direct sport-specific transfer (unless you compete in powerlifting or strength sports). Instead, they’re used to build a base of size and strength on which future sport-specific performance can be built.
So, for sports where upper body strength and size are required, either bench press variation will accomplish those goals.
Considerations for strength
Studies suggest that strength levels are relatively similar between the two lifts, with flat bench having a very small percentage advantage.
However, this is an area where practical considerations have to come into play. If you’re training for a big bench press, there’s good odds that you’re a powerlifter, which means that your competition bench press will be on a flat bench. Since specificity is a key training principle, practising flat bench regularly may be a better choice.
Considerations for hypertrophy
Both the decline bench press and the flat bench press are great options for hypertrophy, and both exercises will add size to your chest, shoulders and triceps.
Practically, since there’s no competitive lift in bodybuilding or physique sports, you can use whichever lift you prefer, potentially even changing them each training block to provide some slight training variation.
Considerations for power
Both the decline bench press and the flat bench press can be used to contribute towards power development. They can do so in two ways:
- Both exercises can be used to build a base of strength
- Both exercises can be performed at lighter loads with an explosive, aggressive concentric phase to increase the rate of force development.
I would also highly recommend combining these lifts with some med ball throws to hit each part of the force-velocity spectrum.
What are the benefits of decline bench press?
The main benefits of the decline bench press are that it places slightly more emphasis on the lower chest, and provides a slight amount of training variation.
Is decline bench better than flat?
Decline bench press is slightly better than flat bench press when it comes to targeting your lower chest, but this is only by a very small margin. Overall, both exercises are great choices for strength and size training.
Why is a decline bench easier than a flat bench?
Some people find the decline bench press easier because the angle reduces stress on their shoulders and back. Practically, the declined angle also somewhat replicates the ‘arch’ that a powerlifter would use in competition, which reduces the effective range of motion slightly.
Is the decline bench easier on your shoulders?
Yes, the decline bench is easier on your shoulders as the decline position places them under less stress. Your anterior deltoids will still have to do some work, but the amount of work they do will be slightly less in comparison to the flat bench.
Summary: Should You Use the Decline Vs Flat Bench?
Here’s a quick TLDR summary of what we’ve discussed today:
For strength: Both, but flat bench more often for specificity
For size: Both are good, change each block for variation, and with more frequent decline bench press if you need more lower chest development.
For power: Either, combined with lighter, explosive reps
That’s it for today
Hopefully, this article has helped give you some clarity in your own training, coaching or programming. Feel free to check out some of our other recommended articles.
- Lauver et al (2015) – Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise.
- Saeterbakken et al (2017) – The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance.
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Alex is the Owner and Head Coach of Character Strength & Conditioning, and specialises in strength & power development for athletes.
He currently works as a Tutor & Educator for British Weightlifting, and has previously delivered S&C support to gymnastics and swimming talent pathways.