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How to Do the Dumbbell Incline Chest Press

How to Do the Dumbbell Incline Chest Press

How to do the Dumbbell Incline Chest Press Correctly. The incline bench is a great exercise for the high chest and is one of the highest-rated and most used in the gym however, there is no scientific confirmation in this regard.

The objective of this article is to take stock of the situation, from a scientific point of view, of how things really are regarding the training of the high chest and more generally of the chest and to understand in practice what you can do to stimulate the chest muscles to the fullest.

Does The Incline Chest Press Stimulate The High Chest More?

The upper chest is very often a missing point in many athletes. This has led to some attention being paid to exercises for the pectoralis major in which its upper portion is stressed.

The reason why the upper part of the chest appears deficient is most likely explained by the force of gravity: the arm is drawn downwards, therefore it is logical that the upper part is stretched while the middle and lower beams are passively more contracted.

If an athlete were to position themselves upside down with their arms dangling, they would notice that the upper beams would “fill up” while the lower beams would flatten. Similarly, this can be seen by raising the arm vertically.

Therefore, the high chest is not actually a deficient point in itself, rather its fullness is penalized by gravitational issues and by the position of the arm with respect to the body.

Nevertheless, it is in the athlete’s interest to ensure that in a normal upright position with the arms at the hips the visual effect of the pectoralis major is that of a full and swollen muscle also in its upper part.

Tilting the bench on the exercises dedicated to the pectoralis major ( presses, crosses ) is a practice that would have the purpose of increasing the activation or recruitment of the upper bundles of the muscle in question.

This hypothesis is based on the fact that during the horizontal flexion movement of the shoulder (transverse plane), the inclination of the bench alters the work plane.

This modification, therefore, changes the direction of movement of the shoulder, resulting in a different activation of the motor units innervated in the pectoralis major.

Dumbbell Chest Press

The pectoralis major is responsible for carrying out many shoulder movements on different anatomical planes, but the activation of the three bundles that compose it – clavicular, sternocostal, and abdominal – varies according to the specific work plan.

Since the inclination of the bench favors a movement on a two-dimensional plane, that is intermediate between flexion and horizontal flexion this would seem to be more suitable for the specific stimulation of the superior bundles of the pectoralis major in what follows the direction of its fibers.

On this basis, the common theory was supported according to which the degree of inclination of the bench determines the activation of the three beams: the inclined bench for the “high chest”, and the declined bench for the “low chest”.

Functional Chest Anatomy (Pectoralis Major)

The pectoralis major is a parallel bundle muscle of the fan type. It originates from the anterior medial half of the clavicle, from the anterior aspect of the sternum, from the sixth and seventh ribs, and from the aponeuroses (origins) of the rectus abdominis and the external oblique of the abdomen.

The definitions of the various origins of the muscle are not perfectly consistent between the various sources, but these differences do not matter here.

The muscle inserts a strongly flattened tendon into the outer lip of the bicipital sulcus of the humerus, lateral to the insertions of the great dorsal and the great teres.

It is interesting to note that the insertion of the different bundles is reversed or crossed, meaning that the tendon is wrapped around itself so that the low bundles are inserted more proximally, below the high bundles which are inserted more distally.

How Does The Chest (Large Pectoral) Work?

The pectoralis major has several functions in the movement of the shoulder on many work planes, i.e. flexion, extension, horizontal flexion (or horizontal adduction), adduction, internal rotation, and of course in intermediate movements among those mentioned.

Essentially this muscle is involved in a good part of the shoulder movements understood as the glenohumeral joint. In reality, it has other indirect secondary functions, mobilizing the entire shoulder girdle mainly through interposition and depression of the shoulders.

As for the clavicular bundles of the pectoralis major, these are widely involved during horizontal flexion (transverse plane), predominate over the other heads during pure shoulder flexion (sagittal plane), and are antagonistic during shoulder extension

What Is The Most Important Function Of The Pectoral?

Among the various anatomical movements mentioned, the pectoralis major is the most important muscle in the horizontal flexion of the shoulder a movement that characterizes stretches and crosses, or machines such as the chest press or the pectoral machine.

During horizontal flexion, the clavicular bundles have their own specific direction in the contraction (line of pull or line of action) which, looking at the standing subject, goes from bottom to top.

Anatomically, the clavicular bundles originate from the highest point on the chest but are inserted at the lowest point on the humerus, therefore in horizontal flexion these are generally more involved when the humerus starts from an abduction level between 45 ° and 60 °, moving diagonally towards the face. This mechanism, known as functional differentiation,

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There are many other synergistic muscles in the horizontal flexion movement of the shoulder, mainly the anterior deltoid, the coracobrachialis, the brachial biceps (especially the short head), and, to a lesser extent, the subscapularis.

Particular attention, in this case, deserves the anterior head of the deltoid, the most commonly mentioned among the synergistic muscles in this movement, whose activity is regulated by the inclination of the bench.

What Does The Incline Bench Mean For The Pectoral Major?

What Does The Incline Bench Mean For The Pectoral Major?

The inclination of the bench presses the pectoralis major at a mechanical disadvantage, and this is reflected in a general loss of strength in the press compared to the flat and declined bench. The reduction in force appears to be proportional to the inclination above the horizontal.

This is because the force is preferentially transferred to a more restricted selection of the pectoral masses, taking some of them out of action. Due to the dependence on gravity, the inclination of the bench is capable of modifying the angle of pull of the muscle in such a way as to favor the optimal activity of the clavicular bundles.

The horizontal flexion diagonally (starting from the humerus plus adduct), involves a greater activation of the clavicular bundles because these have a mechanical advantage: in addition to being more pre-stretched, They “pull” the humerus from an angle perpendicular to it towards their origin (clavicle).

This means that the humerus is making exactly the movement that belongs to this portion in a position favored by gravity, also managing to allow greater elongation in the eccentric phase.

This working angle does not respect the line of pull of the sternocostal and abdominal bundles, which in addition to being more pre-contracted, pull the humerus in different and in some cases opposite directions, but are also disadvantaged because they are less perpendicular to the lever. Managing also to allow a greater elongation in the eccentric phase.

Ultimately, the incline of the bench alters the strength curves and resistance curves along with the intended range of motion (ROM). Endurance and muscle strength during movement are not constant but vary at ROM points due to gravity.

This means that the most difficult points of the ROM foreseen by the two variants are different, placing themselves at different levels during the horizontal flexion extension of the shoulder.

Pectoralis Major Activation

In the 1990s, the first two studies were published which compared the differences in activation of the pectoralis major between various inclinations of the bench (Barnett et al., 1995; Glass and Armstrong, 1997).

Both recorded clavicular chest activation that was not significantly different between the flat bench and the incline, when the inclination was + 40 ° and + 30 °, respectively.

In both cases, the subjects were young and fit, and the loads used corresponded to medium-high load intensities (70-80% 1-RM).

Until the 2000s, the official literature seemed to confirm that the inclination of the bench did not affect the activity of the clavicular bundles, until 2010, the year in which the study by Trebs et al is published.

In this analysis, the researchers compared different inclinations of the bench to see if the previous observations could be confirmed even with greater inclinations than those tested.

Here 4 different inclinations were compared: 0 °, + 28 °, + 44 °, + 56 °. An increase in clavicular bundle activity was observed to occur from + 44 °, but the differences between the flat bench and the incline at + 28 ° were not significant. These observations were consistent with previous findings, suggesting that up to about + 40 ° the high chest was not much affected by the inclination of the bench.

The fourth study was that of Luczak et al. (2013), where, despite various limitations (including loads <30% 1-RM), Trebs’ observations were reconfirmed: an inclination of + 45 ° produced a significant increase in the activity of the pectoral clavicular flat bench.

It is important to keep in mind that 3 of these 4 studies, analyzing the activity of the anterior deltoid, observed that it increased in proportion to the inclination. Another relevant observation made by Barnett was that the tight grip increased the activity of the clavicular bundle compared to the wide grip in all variants tested, including the flat bench.

The various analyzes organized the protocols in different ways. The studies of Barnett and Trebs used the smith machine, Glass and Armstrong used the free barbell, while Luczak prescribed the use of dumbbells.

The first three studies used realistic loads for gym activity (70-80% 1-RM), while Luczak used 4.5 kg dumbbells. However, the general conclusions were that the clavicular chest significantly increases its activity, compared to the flat bench, only when the inclination reaches approximately + 45 °.

This level of inclination, however, can be disadvantageous for several reasons, including, a general decrease in the activity of the pectoralis major with the sternocostal and abdominal bundles, a large transfer of force on the anterior deltoids, and a significant loss of strength in distension.

Can The Incline Bench Really Increase Upper Chest Activation?

The incline bench may actually be capable of increasing the activation of the clavicular beam, but only if the incline reaches approximately 45 °. This is essentially due to the alteration of the work surface and the different angles of traction.

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Little considered is the fact that even on the flat bench the work surface can be altered to such an extent that it roughly recreates these premises. These hypotheses were confirmed by an unpublished analysis by Paoli et al, in which it was observed that at 60 ° of shoulder abduction, the EMG activity of the clavicular bundles during horizontal flexion was greater than at 30 ° or 90 °.

Barnett himself previously found that in all the variants of the bench press tested, the narrow grip activated the clavicular bundles more than the wide grip, even on a flat bench. It was observed that the tight grip tended to orient the elbows outwards, imposing a horizontal flexion on a two-dimensional plane as described by Paoli.

Also according to Barnett, on a flat bench the tight grip produced a similar activation of the sternocostal bundles, but greater than the clavicular bundles. Another noteworthy study was that of Lehman (2005 – 13), where it was recorded a 30% increase in clavicular bundle activity on the bench press with the reverse (supine) grip compared to the normal prone grip.

Also in this case it is largely probable that this was due to an altered trajectory of the humerus since the inverse grip imposes large adduction of the humerus from the start compared to the prone grip.

Therefore, the conditions are created to follow a more functional work plan for the clavicular bundles of the pectoralis major, as confirmed by Barnett and Paoli.

The proposed theory recognizes that the horizontal flexion of the shoulder that starts with the most adducted humerus (45-60 °), distances the origin and insertion of the clavicular bundles bringing them into a position of greater pre-stretch, and this also occurs on the flat bench.

Another relevant aspect in this sense is that the two-dimensional trajectory allows to perfectly respect the line of pull characteristic of these beams, which does not happen in the same way with wide-grip stretches or with crosses with very open arms.

In conclusion, the factor influencing the activity of the clavicular bundle of the pectoralis major seems to be the specific work plane of the humerus, and not necessarily or only the inclination of the bench.

On the flat bench, it is possible to maximize the activity of the clavicular bundles only by modifying the trajectory of the humerus, therefore starting from a lower level of abduction (about 45-60 °).

The inclination of the bench can only increase the activation of the upper beams starting from about 45 °, but it is not known whether this effect could be similar to the simple modification of the angle of the humerus on a flat bench. This change also leads to a slight reduction in strength, but less than what the incline bench requires.

The Anatomical Plan Of The Clavicular Bundles

Much more often the average user tends to maintain a level of shoulder abduction not unlike that adopted on a flat bench (70-90 °).

The greater abduction of the shoulder in the inclined bench involves a reduction of the ROM in the eccentric phase, with the difference that the maximum stretching of the pectoralis major occurs earlier, i.e. at a lower degree of horizontal extension.

This variant is facilitated because the ROM is reduced and the pectoral great bundles are able to reach a greater level of stretching more easily. If the shoulders are more adducted (45-60 °), the humerus is able to descend deeper (greater horizontal hyperextension),

In this case, the clavicular bundles are more recruited, while the anterior deltoids are less.

If the inclination of the bench in itself requires a slight external rotation of the humeri, with greater adduction at the start, the extra rotation is greater. This can result in further pre-stretching of the upper beams.

Are Multi-joint Exercises Important For The Arms?

We have so far analyzed exercises that involve only the elbow joint and are therefore called monoarticular exercises. But how relevant is the work done by biceps and triceps in multi-joint exercises?

One of the cornerstones of physiology regarding the potential expression of the force of a muscle is the tension length, according to which, an excessively stretched or excessively shortened muscle will not be able to fully express its potential.

If on the other hand, it is at an optimal length that is not too elongated and not too shortened, it will be able to express its maximum strength.

This is the case of multi-joint exercises such as pull-ups, rows, pulleys, bench presses, pushes, and dips at the parallels in which the elbow flexion or extension is always accompanied by a shoulder extension or flexion.

These particular couplings of movement (elbow flexion and shoulder extension, elbow extension and shoulder flexion) tend to neither stretch nor shorten the biceps and triceps excessively, bringing them to an optimal length to be able to express strength.

Good work on multi-joint exercises will be of fundamental importance in order to improve the size of the muscles of your arms and increase their strength that will allow you to carry out progressions on volumes later on.

In addition, some even speculate that adding single-joint exercises to a multi-joint exercise program alone is not critical to achieving good results.

Since this is a topic much discussed by experts in the sector, a review of 23 different studies was conducted in which groups of subjects trained with only multi-joint exercises only, only single-joint exercises, or with multi-joint exercises combined with single-joint exercises were examined.

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In the long run, it was found that for the upper limbs, there were no substantial differences in terms of strength gain and muscle size.

This does not mean that you should not perform single-joint exercises but if you want to train the muscles of the arms you do not have enough time to complete the entire training session, give up single-joint exercises in favor of multi-joint exercises and not vice versa, in this way not only will you train your arms, but also other muscle groups, and your body will benefit from it entirely.

How To Perform The Incline Bench Safely?

During the exercises on the inclined bench, greater adduction of the shoulder (closing of the elbows) is suggested to respect the line of traction of the clavicular fibers and to bring them into pre-stretch, but this choice also has the advantage of preserving joint health.

This modification is suggested to prevent stress on the glenohumeral ligaments and joint capsule, which with the shoulder abducted to approximately 90 ° are subjected to great tension if the elbow is posterior to the body.

Another advantage of the incline bench is to prevent excessive hyperextension of the shoulder due to the different working angles: thanks to the inclination of the torso, the humerus reaches a lower level of hyperextension than the flat bench.

Theoretically, flexion and horizontal flexion movements of the humerus beyond 60 ° -80 ° can lead to subacromial impingement if the scapula does not move correctly according to the scapulohumeral rhythm.

In the incline bench, this risk could be assumed, because the shoulder blades would be trapped between the chest and the backrest, and therefore would not be able to move freely in elevation.

Some analyzes of the 45 ° inclined bench have observed that the upper trapezius intervenes in a rather significant way (9), but it is not known whether this activation actually corresponds to a large movement of scapular elevation.

Therefore, the risk of subacromial impingement at a horizontal flexion level of at least 80-90 ° if the bench is rather inclined (~ 45 °) cannot be excluded. To overcome this problem, you can simply reduce the degree of inclination (~ 30 °), and/or stop the movement just before the 80-90 ° of shoulder elevation.

Once the humerus reaches perpendicular to the ground, the internal load is reduced to minimum levels, while the clavicular bundles are in a position of mechanical disadvantage.

It would therefore have the double advantage of preventing subacromial impingement and emphasizing the work and the mechanical-metabolic stress of the clavicular bundles.

Conclusions And Practical Advice On The High Chest And The Incline Bench

Even on a flat bench, it is possible to modify the execution to emphasize the activation of the clavicular bundles, by tightening the handle.

Variations specific to the clavicle bundles should include a shoulder-width grip, but with the elbows oriented outward and not along the hips as in the close grip triceps press.

Another valid alternative is the reverse bench press, which imposes a similar trajectory of the humerus.

Stretching with dumbbells or crosses, being with independent limbs, require greater voluntary control of the trajectory of the humerus to repeat this specific movement, keeping it adducted in the early stages of the concentric contraction.

Conclusions And Practical Advice On The High Chest And The Incline Bench

A third possibility is to perform the exercises on the bench less inclined than 45 °, but keep a tight grip or elbows closed during the execution. Although the inclination between 30 ° and 40 ° is not significantly effective in increasing the activation of the pectoral major compared to the flat bench, with these same inclinations it is still possible to obtain this effect by tightening the handle to shoulder width and keeping the elbows oriented externally.

This represents a valid compromise to allow to increase the activation of the sternocostal and abdominal bundles, reduce the activity of the anterior deltoids, and maintain a greater expression of force.

Differences in clavicular beam activation between the narrow grip flat bench and the 45 ° incline bench could not be verified, but both can be used for the same purpose. The main differences between the two variants are to be recognized in the fact that the first allows lifting greater loads, to involve relatively less the anterior deltoids, and to allow a slightly greater stretching of the clavicular bundles but less contraction.

Whether it is a flat or inclined bench, it is the specific work surface shared by both variants that have been found to be most suitable for the specific activation of the clavicular bundles. In this sense, the two modalities treated can be complementary to each other to stimulate the high chest.

It is good to end the article by raising doubts about the relationship between electromyographic activity (EMG) and long-term muscle hypertrophy. Although there is a tendency to assume that greater area-specific activation results in a greater hypertrophic response of the same area in chronic, these relationships are only hypothetical.

Consequently, these data do not confirm that the incline bench is the best choice for developing chest high, as long-term studies on actual regional muscle growth would be needed to verify this, which currently does not exist in this regard.

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