If the flat barbell bench were cast as the Batman in some bizarre meathead franchise reboot, then the incline dumbbell press would be the perfect fit for the role of Robin as the trusty sidekick who never steals the show.
Let's flip the script today and shine the lime light on incline DB presses, one of the most effective (but oft-ignored) chest builders.
You'll discover how to perform it with optimal form, the best angle to use, and how many sets and reps to do for maximal strength and size gains.
We'll start with a question I hear all the time...
Are Incline Dumbbell Presses Good for Upper Body Muscle Growth?
A staple bodybuilding exercise, incline dumbbell presses are an excellent movement to add new muscle on your frame.
Because they help you zero in on a part of the pecs that most lifters gloss over – the clavicular head (aka upper chest).
Thanks to years of flat barbell bench pressing, many athletes overdevelop the sternocostal head (lower chest) while their upper chest development lags behind.
The incline dumbbell press balances out this discrepancy between the two heads of the pecs, helping you chisel a more symmetrical physique.
What Muscles Do Incline Dumbbell Presses Work?
Depending on the angle of the incline, it works the chest, anterior deltoid (front part of shoulder), and triceps to varying degrees.
A low incline targets the chest, whereas a steeper angle shifts more stress to the shoulder muscles.
What Is the Best Incline Dumbbell Press Angle?
The lower the angle, the more it hits your chest.
It's also a stronger position to press from, so you can go heavier.
Another thing to pay attention to?
Unless you have a spotter helping you, kicking the dumbbells into starting position can become a limiting factor at higher angles.
While I don't have any trouble handling a pair of 100-pound DBs on a flat bench, there's no chance I can hammer curl the 70-pounders up on seated presses (~80 degrees).
I like this higher angle for more shoulder stimulation, but I have to power clean the weights to my shoulders before each set.
It's a hassle I'd rather avoid. That's why I choose the Smith machine when seated overhead pressing heavier loads.
At 45-60 degrees, you have to chuck the dumbbells into place by kicking them up – which can turn into a struggle and cause you to get stuck at a certain weight.
So you sacrifice load increases for inferior chest pumps. Not smart.
I prefer a low, 15-30 degree incline (1-2 notches up from a flat position) for these reasons.
You get to press big boy dumbbells for wicked pec pumps. And getting into position isn't a massive bitch.
You could use 45-60 degrees in higher rep ranges now and then for variety, but I'd stick with 15-30 degrees as your go-to chest builder.
Incline Dumbbell Press Form
How you execute an exercise determines the results you get from it.
I see too many guys butchering the incline dumbbell press with half-reps and flared elbows.
That's a great way to guarantee achy shoulders and zero muscle growth.
Let's make sure you're not one of them.
Sit down and rest a pair of dumbbells on your thighs.
Holding the DBs close to your chest, lean back and kick them, one at a time, into starting position at arm's length.
Once you're in position, screw your elbows in by engaging the lats.
As you do this, rotate the wrists out. We're looking for a semi-neutral grip – your palms won't completely face each other, but they're not facing forward, either.
Before the descent, take a big breath into your belly. Lock your feet into the ground.
With your upper back tight, lower the dumbbells under control until they graze the sides of your chest.
Your elbows should remain at a 45-degree angle (flaring them out will lead to shoulder issues), while maintaining a strong, neutral wrist.
As soon as the dumbbells touch your chest, push them back up.
Keep your elbows slightly bent at the top. This will maintain more tension on the pecs.
Don't twist or bang the dumbbells together at the top like so many numbnuts do. It adds nothing to the movement.
Sets & Reps
Because the incline dumbbell press is an assistance exercise designed to build muscle, stick to moderate rep ranges.
You can't go wrong with 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps bodybuilders have used since time immemorial.
One of my favorite set/rep schemes?
3-4x8-10 using a 4010 tempo (go down in 4 seconds, press up in 1 second).
For a novel training stimulus, try 5-7 reps with a 2210 or 3110 tempo.
If you're feeling particularly frisky, pump out some 1.5 reps. These will torch your chest!
Best Incline Dumbbell Press Alternatives
Are you missing an adjustable bench?
Don't have access to heavy dumbbells?
Replace incline dumbbell presses with two great bodyweight exercises:
Weighted dips and ring push-ups.
Use external loads and emphasize the eccentric/isometric parts to overload both exercises for continuous muscle gains.
A pair of well-rounded pecs is a hallmark of a muscular physique.
If your upper chest needs a growth boost, give it some extra love with the incline dumbbell press.
At steeper angles, your shoulders will take over.
So stick with a 15- or 30-degree incline to add some serious mass to your upper chest.