Overhead Press vs Incline Bench – Which is Best For You?

The overhead press and incline bench press are both effective exercises for targeting the shoulders, but they work on slightly different shoulder muscles due to the variation in bench position.

In this article we’ll cover the differences between each exercise, the benefits of training each exercise for sport and common questions about both exercises.

Overhead press vs incline bench

The main difference between the overhead press (also known as the shoulder press) and incline bench press is the angle of the body created by the incline setting of the bench.

The overhead press is completed vertically or almost vertically whereas the incline bench press is performed at a 45˚ angle (though other angles between 15 and 75 degrees may also be used). This variation in body position creates a slightly different movement pattern in which different muscles are engaged. 

There are differing degrees of shoulder flexion (moving the arms up out in front of the body or above the head) that must be produced in each movement. Overhead press involves vertical shoulder flexion (arms above the head) whereas incline press is a mix of horizontal flexion (arms out in front) and vertical flexion (arms above the head).

Joints worked and ranges of motion (ROM)

To understand the difference, firstly we must understand what joints and muscles are being used.

Joints worked and ranges of motion for overhead press vs incline bench press

Muscles worked during a overhead press

  • Deltoids – The anterior deltoid produces most of the movement as this muscle can abduct and flex the shoulder (move it away and up). The posterior deltoid makes the shoulder retract (stay back) during the movement
  • Traps – Produces elevation of the scapula (upward movement) so that the arms may move overhead
  • Triceps – These produce extension of the forearm (straightening the arm at the elbow)
Labelled diagram of muscles worked during the overhead press
Labelled diagram of muscles worked during the overhead press

Muscles worked during an incline bench press

  • Pecs – The pec major has two heads that produce shoulder adduction and flexion (in and away from the body) which both work during the incline press
  • Deltoids – Because the incline press is halfway between bench and overhead press, the anterior deltoid works to produce some vertical flexion
  • Triceps These produce extension of the forearm
Labelled diagram of muscles worked during the incline bench press
Labelled diagram of muscles worked during the incline bench press

Biomechanical & physiological differences to consider

Sport specific transfer

There aren’t many sports that these exercises directly transfer to in terms of performance, however, in weightlifting, the snatch or the split jerk can benefit from increased strength and power through the shoulder which may be developed by these exercises.

In terms of injury prevention, these exercises can be very important. In throwing sports such as baseball or cricket the development of the muscles worked by both exercises – particularly the shoulder muscles – can help to stabilise the shoulder and improve its tolerance to high velocity movement. Both exercises may therefore be useful to include in a programme because of the different muscles worked.

Long-term athletic development

Movements such as the incline bench and overhead press are push movements. Pushing is a fundamental movement pattern. Fundamental movement patterns according to long-term athletic development theory must be mastered before being able to complete more technically demanding exercises such as Olympic weightlifting, which can be used to develop lower limb strength and power.

Considerations for strength

The overhead press and incline bench press can be completed using 3-5 sets with 1-6 reps at above 80% of 1 rep max to develop strength in athletes, progressing from week to week to create adaptation. To build strength, it’s recommended that this is performed using a barbell rather than dumbbells so that it is more stable to load.

Considerations for hypertrophy

Completing 3-6 sets of 6-12 reps at around 60-80% of 1RM is effective for improving muscle growth. Training to failure or eccentrically focused repetitions (where the downward phase of the movement is completed slower) are also effective for hypertrophy, but make sure to have a spotter when going close to failure. 

Stimulating muscle hypertrophy via these exercises can help stability of the shoulder because greater size of the shoulder muscles can increase muscle tension, helping to stabilise the humerus during sporting movements. The shoulder press is particularly important in achieving this for swimmers or any throwing athlete, as it works more muscles that control the action of muscles in the swim stroke or throwing, helping to stabilise the shoulder.

Considerations for power

Completing 3-5 sets of 1-5 repetitions at around 65-85% of 1RM with the intent of moving as quickly as possible will stimulate the development power in these exercises. Because the incline bench activates the traps, anterior deltoid and pecs, this may make it the more efficient exercise for developing power for throwing sports as all these muscles are activated highly when throwing. However, within a training programme, a combination of exercises that recruit the shoulder muscles will be even more effective for improving throwing power. 

Other training considerations

These exercises can become risky when going close to failure so make sure a spotter is available when going for maximal intensity sets.

The overhead press may also be done from a standing position and progressed to a push press and can provide the foundations for split jerks.

Frequently asked questions

In the following section, we cover some of the most frequently asked questions around overhead press and incline bench

Can incline bench replace overhead press?

Incline bench press can be used to supplement overhead press to improve stability of the shoulder for many athletes such as weightlifters, throwing athletes or swimming because the development of the muscles used in both exercise can prevent excessive movement of the humerus within the shoulder joint during snatching, throwing or swimming strokes for example. This limits the risk of impingement during these exercises. 

In an athlete with a deltoid injury, incline press may be a suitable exercise at a later stage in their recovery when it is suitable to start loading the deltoid but not to the extent that a shoulder press may load it.

Do I need to overhead press if I bench?

Shoulder press enables greater activation of some of the more minor muscles used within the bench press and therefore enables greater adaptation in these muscles. If one of these muscles is weak and is limiting bench press performance, then shoulder press can supplement the development of those muscles. For an athlete in a sport such as swimming where the shoulder is heavily involved within all strokes, overhead press should be done alongside bench press.

Does incline bench help overhead press?

The muscles used in both exercises are similar, however since incline bench press uses the pecs more, doing incline bench may help improve overhead press in an athlete whose pecs are a limiting factor in their shoulder press.

Summary

The overhead press and incline bench press are two shoulder exercises, however the overhead press is more deltoid and traps focused whereas the incline bench targets the pecs more. Both exercises can be good for developing physical qualities of the shoulder but for the athletes such as those where the shoulder is heavily involved such as swimming or cricket, both exercises may be used to contribute to the stability and overall health of the shoulder during their sport.

Further reading & sources

Luczak, Bosak & Riemann (2013) – Shoulder Muscle Activation of Novice and Resistance Trained Women during Variations of Dumbbell Press Exercises.

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Ollie Robinson, Sport Science Insider Profile
Ollie Robinson, BSc
+ posts

Ollie is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at University of Leeds and an MSc Strength and Conditioning student at Leeds Beckett University.

Ollie has a diverse range of experiences within university sport, where he has provided strength and conditioning support for swimming, cricket and rowing teams at University of Leeds, as well as basketball and wrestling teams for an NCAA Division 1 university whilst on a 6-week placement in 2023.

Not only this, as part of Ollies BSc Sport and Exercise Science degree at University of Leeds, in 2021, Ollie immersed himself in a year-long placement at Colchest United, enhancing his knowledge and practical skills.