Among the multiple bench press variations, the decline bench press tends to be ignored by many gym-goers and lifters, however it does provide several benefits for you to consider, related to both strength and hypertrophy.
The 6 main benefits of the decline bench press include:
- Increased Activation of Lower Pecs
- Tricep Activation
- Reduced Stress on Back
- Reduced Stress on Shoulders
- Ability to Lift More Weight
- Strength Transfer to Arched Benching
Although there are 6 benefits, there is also one drawback to consider when programming the decline bench press. In the article, I will go through each of the benefits as well as its limitations and how that may influence your strength or muscle building goals.
I will also go over how to execute the decline bench press as well as who should include it in their program and then some considerations for how to program it for yourself based on what you hope to accomplish.
I wrote a similar article discussing the benefits of the close grip bench press, which you should read after this to understand how different bench press variations can help you.
What Is Considered A Decline Bench Press?
A decline bench press is a horizontal press where the top of the bench is angled downwards in the range of 15 to 30 degrees.
Most commercial gyms will have a barbell decline bench press rack placed close to the other bench press set ups.
However, the option for those who go to gyms where there isn’t a decline bench press rack includes setting a free bench with leg lockdowns in a declined position and opting for a dumbbell press variation.
6 Decline Bench Press Benefits
1. Increased Activation of Lower Pecs
The most well-known reason for doing a decline bench press is for its greater focus on the lower pecs when compared to the incline or flat bench press.
According to a study by Glass et al. (1997), the decline bench press has demonstrated to produce more activation of the lower pec, while still activating the upper pec like other bench press variations. This would suggest that if overall chest development is a primary goal, this may be the superior bench press variation for you.
This is not to say the lower pecs are not used at all in the flat or incline bench, they are just not the focus like they are in the decline. In addition, changing up exercises and adding different training stimuli will contribute to an overall positive effect for muscle growth.
2. Tricep Activation
While close grip bench press variations are most superior for tricep activation, the decline bench press shows similar activation to that of a traditional, flat bench press.
In a 2017 study, results showed greater activation of the triceps in the decline and flat bench press when compared to the decline. While this isn’t a unique feature of the decline bench press, it’s important to know that swapping out flat benching with decline benching likely won’t result in detrimental effects and can still contribute to tricep strength and overall growth.
Therefore, if focusing on the triceps and lower pecs is a goal for you, choosing decline over flat benching may be the way to go. However, if the triceps specifically are an important goal for you, a close grip bench press may be better suited.
3. Reduced Stress on Back
The decline bench press is the bench press variation that puts the least amount of stress on the lower back when compared to the flat and incline options.
Whether you are a competitive powerlifter, bodybuilder, or average gym-goer, your bench press set up likely has at least some natural arching throughout your mid and low back region. While this may not pose an issue for most, some may be more sensitive to keeping a stable arch.
This can be particularly useful for those who are currently working around any back injuries or limitations. Alternatively, competitive powerlifters whose competition bench press set up requires an exaggerated arch may find the decline bench press a good chest exercise that doesn’t add extra stress on the back.
4. Reduced Stress on Shoulders
Although all bench press variations will include activation of the shoulders, or anterior deltoids, the decline bench press does so to a lesser degree than the incline or flat bench, and dips.
For a head-to-head exercise comparison, check out my article on Dips vs Decline Bench Press.
In the decline bench press position, the shoulders are alleviated of bearing as much weight since a greater focus is shifted to your lower chest.This effect is partly due to the bar path but also the shorter range of motion.
To better understand this, compare it to benching on a flat bench with no arch vs with an arch, essentially any level of decline will inevitably be easier on the shoulder joint.
5. Ability to Lift More Weight
Many lifters will notice that the decline bench press position allows you to move a little bit more weight than you would otherwise be able to with other positions.
Although direct research on this has not been tested, one study indirectly found that study participants were able to hit a one-rep max that was 1.25x body weight whereas their incline bench press 1RM was about 1.07x body weight.
This difference may be more or less pronounced depending on your lifting history but several lifters anecdotally report the same finding. Therefore if you’re looking for a bench variation where you can use heavier weight the decline would be more superior to the incline press.
Take a look at my article on Is The Decline Bench Press Harder?
6. Strength Transfer to Arched Benching
A powerlifting athlete with a large arch may find the decline bench press to transfer well to their competition bench press since the angle and range of motion are similar.
When a lifter produces a large arch, their chest is in a declined position relative to the bench. With that said, if lifters are having trouble in any portion of their competition bench, a decline press may be better suited as an accessory to help them work on more specific strength and hypertrophy without needing to implement the actual arch itself.
1 Drawback of Decline Bench Press
A drawback of the decline bench press is that it will feel awkward especially for those who haven’t done it before and as a result may result in less optimal lifting mechanics.
The decline position will feel like the least “natural” position for your torso since your legs and torso are elevated above your head. In addition to the decline position, there is no real leg drive that you can rely on in this variation, aside from the leg locks keeping you in place.
Anecdotally, I remember my first time doing a decline press and being hesitant about lowering the weight because I thought it would just land straight down on my face instead of my chest. Therefore, it may take some time to feel comfortable going heavier.
With that said, it would be strongly advised to always have a spotter with you, especially as you learn how to activate the pecs and move the decline press in a more consistent manner.
Who Should Do The Decline Bench Press?
The decline bench press can really be done by anyone, and bodybuilders, strength athletes and everyday gym-goers may all find some benefit to adding it into their programs.
Bodybuilders are the most obvious group who would benefit from a decline bench press, especially if chest development is their priority. While all bench press variations will build the chest, the decline gives an emphasis on the lower pecs while also not placing as much stress on the shoulders.
Other bodybuilding exercises that focus on the lower pecs, like vertical dips, tend to involve the shoulders, so bodybuilders who want to de-emphasize the delts will definitely want to consider adding decline pressing to their programs.
In addition, lower stress on the shoulders and back may be an important benefit especially since bodybuilders tend to train at higher volumes than casual gym go-ers or strength athletes.
For more information on the differences between bench pressing as a powerlifter vs a bodybuilder check out our article here.
Powerlifters and Strongmen
Powerlifters, especially those who bench with a pronounced arch, may benefit from using decline pressing as an accessory to their competition lifts.
Even if you are not someone who does use a high arch to press, the decline bench press may be a good way to still add some heavier bench sets to your week without adding extra stress to the back or shoulders.
Strongmen and powerlifters who don’t have a very pronounced arch can also benefit from the decline bench press from a muscle hypertrophy perspective. It can be a great way to build up the chest muscles, especially outside of competition season.
As an everyday gym-goer, you should feel encouraged to try all types of lifts and variations to see what you like and what helps you get to your goals.
The decline bench press will be great especially if you find the flat or incline bench are too stressful for your shoulders or lower back, or if you do wish to give your chest a different type of stimulation for muscle growth purposes.
How To Set Up A Decline Bench Press
To set up a decline bench press you will need to ensure your gym has a rack with a decline bench set up. Once you’ve identified you have access to the rack, follow these steps:
- Sit up near the edge of the bench and slip your feet under the pads that are meant to lock your feet in place.
- Slowly lay your body down on the bench, keeping the top of your foot wedged in place and making sure to watch your head on the way down.
- In the lying position, look up at the bar and make sure it is right above you and not behind or in front of your head. This is important for the decline bench as you do not want gravity to swing the bar any further back as you unrack.
- Retract your shoulder blades and reach and grab the bar just a little over shoulder width apart***. Once you remove the barbell off the rack ensure the bar is hovering over your chest.
***You may opt for a wider grip but the decline press already creates a shorter range of motion so be mindful of shortening it even more.
- With your shoulders and feet secured, bring the bar down to your chest, pause for 1-2 second and then press it up and repeat for as many reps as you have programmed.
Tip: most decline bench press racks do not have any safeties, so unless you are 100% confident in the weight you are using or in executing a decline press you will want to have a spotter nearby for all your sets.
Decline Bench Press Programming Considerations
When including the decline bench press into your program you will want to first assess what purpose it is serving and then go from there. The following are just general guidelines to get you started.
If you are an everyday gym-goer looking to build pressing strength or a powerlifter looking to do more heavy volume specific to your competition lifts, you will want to take the following considerations when programming:
- Sets: 4-6
- Reps: 2-5
- Load: 65-90% 1RM
- Rest: 2-3 min
For powerlifters, opt for swapping out a competition bench press day with decline, or add an additional day of bench to your program.
Keep in mind that because of the potential to move slightly heavier weights with the decline it may be a good way to practice holding and pressing heavier loads. Therefore, if you plan on working on strength you definitely won’t want to do both on the same day.
If you are an everyday gym-goer looking to build your chest up or a bodybuilder looking to focus more on your pec development, you will want to take the following considerations into account when adding decline bench into your program:
- Sets: 4-6
- Reps: 6-12
- Load: 55-75% 1RM
- Rest: 1-2 min
An everyday gym go-er or bodybuilder can even replace their flat benching with a decline bench press and treat it as a primary movement if it is their preferred method of benching.
Alternatively, you can spend some training cycles focused on the decline and then return back to flat or vice versa, or if you are benching multiple times a week make each one a different variation.
Decline Bench Alternatives
If you are not currently in a facility that has a decline bench press or you don’t feel comfortable with the set up, but still wish to reap the benefits, there are several alternatives you can add into your program depending on your primary goals.
Some of the most popular exercises are decline dumbbell presses, cable chest flys or vertical dips with a forward lean. To find out more about the ones listed in addition to more decline bench alternatives, you can check out our article here.
The decline bench press is often a neglected bench press variation, but it still comes with several benefits that can be applied to bodybuilders, powerlifters and even the everyday gym-goer.
The major drawback to the decline bench press is that it can feel a bit awkward because of its positioning, but that is something you can overcome through practice.
With that, remember while the decline bench press does come with its benefits it isn’t a must-have lift and if you’d rather use different accessories or bench press variations to develop your strength and/or size there are several different ways to go about it and the decline press isn’t the be-all-end-all.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.