When someone asks me what my favorite chest exercise is, the answer is always the same: Incline dumbbell press.
There are many reasons why it is my most loved, one of them being that you use dumbbells which is undoubtedly safer than potentially getting crushed under the bar while doing a bench press.
Another major green tick for me is that there’s less chance of injury as the stress on the shoulders – specifically the rotator cuffs – is much less than the bench press.
Finally, the contraction and pump you achieve are sublime compared to other chest exercises – in my opinion – provided you use proper form.
The incline dumbbell press works the “push” muscles: Chest, shoulders, and triceps.
You may be familiar with witnessing a large percentage of gym trainers focusing on the flat bench press (particularly newbies) as it is considered the “go-to” exercise to build a strong, muscular chest.
However, this exercise differs – though it isn’t any less superior – because it works the “upper pecs,” otherwise known as the upper pectorals, and the deltoids, meaning you gain muscle in the upper chest, which gives that full, round, balloon-like look to the pecs.
Like any exercise done without using the appropriate form, injury can occur when doing the incline dumbbell press; however, it is by no means an expert-level movement. It is ideal for the novice trainer, plus.
I favor using this exercise as part of a “push” style workout, where you train the chest, shoulders, and triceps in one training session, then let them recover until you hit them again.
For example, you may do the following in one workout:
- Two chest exercises
- Three shoulder exercises
- Two tricep exercises
Then the following week, you may prioritize shoulders, giving them three exercises and chest only two movements, then repeat.
This saves you from doing a traditional four or 5-day workout split, perfect for those with time constraints and poor recovery.
This article will outline everything about the incline dumbbell press, including how to execute it correctly, the benefits, variations of the exercise, and common mistakes.
Incline Dumbbell Press Benefits
Unlike exercises such as the bench press, dumbbell fly, and standard chest machine press, the incline dumbbell press precisely hits the upper pecs, or more specifically, the pectoralis major, and the front of your shoulder, otherwise known as the anterior deltoid.
It is a fantastic “pushing” exercise as it utilizes all the muscles required to push: the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
These muscles are highly beneficial when you need to use your functional strength, like moving a heavy household object and pushing open a heavy door, for example.
However, it is common in most people that one arm is stronger than the other, otherwise known as an imbalance.
Alarmingly, imbalances can eventually be enough of an issue to cause injury as the joints – usually in the shoulder area, like the rotator cuffs – absorb a more significant load than they can functionally handle due to the weakness in one arm deriving from the imbalance.
The good news is, using dumbbells to perform an incline press can help correct strength imbalances, providing form is proper.
Unlike the traditional flat bench press – a more linear movement – dumbbells allow you to be more “free.”
Each arm acts independently, which is a major plus.
Whenever there is a strength imbalance in one arm, the stronger arm tends to overcompensate for the weaker one, which adds more stress and strain on the joints, eventually leading to injury in some cases.
If you include the incline dumbbell press as part of your regular workout regime, you will develop a muscular, full chest and see an improvement in your shoulder joint stability and strength.
How To Do the Incline Dumbbell Press
- Adjustable bench set between 30-45 degrees or incline bench
- Two dumbbells
If the bench press or incline press have been your preferred exercise of choice for the chest, then it is worth noting that you will likely not be able to lift the same amount of weight as those when performing the incline dumbbell press. Therefore, my advice is to start with a lighter weight than you think you can lift and increase as necessary. The last thing you want is an injury from being too “gung ho.”
- Set the bench up appropriately for you and lean back into it, holding a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height, ensuring elbows are bent coming over your ribs. Your back should be firm but not tight, and you should relax your neck against the bench. Do not lift your feet or knees to the bench – keep them flat on the floor.
- As you engage your core, press both dumbbells over your head, ensuring your wrists remain straight and firm and exhale when doing so. When you reach the top of the movement, the dumbbells should be only a few inches apart from one another.
- To come out of the movement, slowly lower the dumbbells down to your chest and exhale when doing so. Elbows should end up at around a 45-degree angle to your torso, with them pointing in the direction of the floor.
Do one to three sets of 8-15 repetitions and assess from there.
Incline Dumbbell Press Common Mistakes
There are a few common mistakes with this exercise that I see all too often in the gym, despite it looking like a relatively simple movement to execute.
Let’s get into them.
Over-arching of the Back
There is nothing wrong with having an ever-so-slight arch in the back while pressing, but it shouldn’t be a forced arch.
Think about it. Due to the positioning of the arms (over your head), it is natural for the back to create a slight arch, and you shouldn’t go against the body’s biomechanics.
That said, there is a big difference between a slight arch and an intentional one where you’re forcing your back into the bench to assist you with the press.
Not only is this poor form, but it also puts the shoulders in a compromising position as they tend to roll forward when this happens, which adds stress to the joints and increases the risk of injury.
If you find yourself over-arching, it’ll likely be one of two reasons why:
- You’re attempting to lift too much weight than you can safely handle
- You’ve reached a point in the workout where the body is tired
The issue here is that you start to rely on muscles that aren’t directly involved to overcompensate to accomplish each repetition.
However, this is where injuries and imbalances start, which you don’t want.
There are two ways around this issue safely:
- Use a lighter weight to complete all sets and reps.
- Ask a friend/someone in the gym to spot you as you lift the dumbbells.
Using Too Much Weight
The incline dumbbell press is entirely different from the flat barbell bench press and should never be compared, especially regarding the amount of weight you’re lifting.
They are worlds apart.
There’s no exception when it comes to the incline barbell press either.
You may think it’s practically the same lift as they both recruit the upper part of the chest, and one uses a barbell and the other dumbbells, but you couldn’t be more wrong.
You will need to lower the weight a touch using dumbbells because each arm has to lift the weight on its own, requiring more stabilization and strength, which depends on the shoulder muscles to work harder.
Bouncing the Dumbbells off Your Chest
You have probably seen this in the gym several times.
I’ll say this: bouncing to help lift the weight off your chest is practically cheating, and you’re only kidding yourself as zero stimulation is coming directly from the chest when you do this.
If this is the case, it means you’re using other muscle groups to complete the lift for you, which again means a fast road to muscle imbalances and injury.
And you wonder why your chest isn’t growing?
In short, if you’re bouncing, I’d hedge a bet you’re trying to lift too much.
Incline Dumbbell Press Modification
Modifying the incline dumbbell press is a great way to increase the exercise’s difficulty or mix things up to keep you interested.
If dumbbells aren’t your thing or your shoulders are giving you grief during the press, try kettlebells for a change.
Kettlebells are way more complicated than they look if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying them before, as they demand more stability and control.
The handle width is wider and lighter than the bell part, making the weight unevenly distributed, hence the need for more excellent stability and control.
You can use one or both kettlebells to perform the incline press; the choice is yours. However, one-arm incline kettlebell presses demand more core muscle groups, making the exercise much more demanding and challenging.
Incline Dumbbell Press Variations
One end of an empty barbell should be either wedged into the corner of the room or in a landline attachment (preferable), and weights loaded on the empty side of the barbell.
- Stand up straight and face the weighted end of the barbell, uplift it to chest height, and grab it with palms facing each other grip (neutral), ensuring one hand is above the other.
- Now press the barbell away from your chest until both arms are extended and allow the elbows to have a slight bend in them, then slowly reverse out of the movement and return to the starting position.
Low Incline Press
- Angle the bench between 15-30 degrees and safely unrack the barbell.
- Stabilize yourself once the barbell is unracked and slowly bring it down to the top of your chest, stopping a couple of inches short of actually touching it, and momentarily pause.
- Drive the bar back up to the top where the movement started ensuring arms are straight and elbows are just short of locking out completely.
Incline Dumbbell Hex Press
- Angle the bench at 45 degrees and sit on it, holding a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on your thighs to start the movement.
- With palms facing each other and both dumbbells pressed together, hoist them towards the upper middle of your chest.
- Ensure the dumbbells are squeezed together during each repetition and press them up to the ceiling until both arms are fully extended, and elbows nearly locked out.
- Carefully lower dumbbells back down to chest and repeat.
About the author
I'm Chris. I have a vast interest in all things relating to health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition. I also love to improve my mindset and learn how to increase my productivity. If you'd like to say hello or ask me a question, please visit my contact page, and I'd be glad to hear from you. Alternatively, you can find me on Twitter (@liveliftlife).