Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In praise of the incline

Back when I first got into lifting, I followed bodybuilding because well, that's what was available for me to read.  Bodybuilding rags.  Ironman, MuscleMag, Muscle and Fitness, Flex, etc all filled the magazine shelf each month, and I bought them all.

Without fail every month there would be a special on building some kind of barreled/huge/thick/slabs of pecs (boy that felt homoerotic).  Funny enough, the common theme in those articles was always that the incline press be the staple of your chest pressing.

You see, in bodybuilding it's more important to have more muscle mass in the upper pectoral region.  This gives a more aesthetic appearance and makes one look "prettier" if you feel.  I mean seriously, there's nothing worse looking than a case of some saggy boobs....or moobs.

The dumbbell variation is solid as well

While I benched plenty when I was younger (who doesn't?), I never neglected my incline.  I always did a lot of incline work, sometimes even dropping the flat bench for long periods in favor of it.  Without fail, if my incline went up during this time, I could go back to flat bench and find a bigger press there too.

Now this sort of goes against my own theory of specificity reigning.  If you want a big squat, squat.  Don't box squat.  If you want a bigger pull, you gotta spend some time pulling.  If you want a bigger bench, then bench.  I still believe this to be true, however over the years my ability to bench more often has declined due to my creaky elbows and the fact that my permanently separated shoulder causes my pec tendons to get inflamed and painful.

This is what eventually caused me to create my split of inclining one week, then benching the next.  I never found this to hurt my bench, and often helped it by giving my elbows and such a break.

I'm not the only one that has found this to be beneficial as I've received tons of write ins from guys who ran the "all my shit hurts" split with great success.

All My Shit Hurts Split - 

Week 1 -
Bench (heavy) - 5,4,3,2,1,1,1 (no back offs)
Incline (light) - 225 or 250 for max reps x 2 sets

Week 2 -
Incline (heavy) - up to a top triple, 1x8-10 back off
Overhead Press - medium weight - 2 sets all out

This was the routine that helped get my bench back up to over 400 on a consistent basis.  Since then I've done many modifications of it.  For this past meet, this is how it looked most of the time.  

Week 1 - 
Bench - base building work, then later the short cycle

Week 2 - 
Incline - base building work

That was pretty much it.  Lots of volume from either option 1 or option 2 of my base building cycles, then later into the peaking stuff.  

In retrospect what I should have done, is taken one of the incline weeks and thrown the 350 method back into it.  The amount of volume that I do now week after week will in fact take a toll on the joints, even using lower intensities.  So backing way off to get some blood moving through there would have probably benefited me quite a bit.  

So basically just swap out one week of base building incline work, with the 350 method.  

Let me also add that one thing I've always noticed about guys with good inclines is that they were both good at benching AND overhead pressing.  I've known lots of shitty benchers that could overhead well, and lots of great benchers that couldn't overhead press well.  I don't know of any guys that can incline pretty well that can't bench and overhead pretty good as well.  From a "duh" kind of perspective, it's probably because incline falls between those two pressing angles.  So if you get good at incline, you'll probably see some carryover to one or the other, or both.  Just my own opinion.  

Actually incline pressing.....

I do not bring the bar down all the way to my chest, no.  I talked to John Meadows about this because he does the same thing.  Cuts the ROM just an inch or so short.  He told me he does so for the same reason, because it's much harder on the shoulders to come all the way down to the chest.  I can vouch for this.  I can't incline without pain if I come all the way down to the chest, so I cut the ROM an inch or so short.  I also learned this years and years ago from IFBB Pro Chris Cormier, who had a 500+ incline and did this as well.  

If you feel better bringing the bar all the way down to your chest, do so.  If it gives you pain or discomfort, shorten the ROM that inch or so and try that.  

I never think of all the trivial things to mention however the bar path on incline is pretty simplistic.  You bring it down to your upper chest area, and press it straight back up.  This is one of the reasons why I like the incline for beginners rather than the bench, and that's because there is no "set up".  There isn't anything to worry about other than mostly lying down on the incline bench, and doing some pressing.  There is a brutal simplicity to it that I like in that way.  

Some benchers with a huge arch and small ROM due to setup, might hate the incline because it exposes their pressing as being weak.  If they just competes in powerlifting and their pressing really revolves around technique, that's fine.  However I am in the gym to actually be strong as well. And I think one of the things about being strong is that you need to be strong, period.  If someone wants to do a new movement, you shouldn't be weak as shit on it because you can't squeeze yourself into some sort of leverage advantage.  I'm not saying getting better leverages isn't a part of actually lifting more weight, but there is a difference in being "strong" and using leverages.  Some people are going to argue with that, and I don't give a fuck.  Anyone who has been around the iron long enough knows the difference.  

I also believe, and so do lots of S&C coaches, that the incline offers better application for sports strength.  

From Charles Poliquin.....

Let’s make something clear before we go any further. Incline pressing 280 kilos does not guarantee you a gold medal in the shot put at the Olympics, but improving your incline press strongly correlates with improving shot put performance. Thus, if you already have good mechanics in putting the shot or throwing baseballs, concentrating on improving incline presses will do more for your shot put performance than spending hours at the dipping station.

Next, throughout the years, for all lower body sports that require speed, I have found there is an optimal ratio that, when achieved, translates into short-distance improvement. For example, in short-track speedskating, when the incline press reaches 85 percent of the front squat, you get the best potential speed for the 500 meters. Of course, the skater should also work on getting his or her front squat numbers as high as possible.

If you are going to choose only one test to measure shoulder flexion and elbow extension strength, an excellent choice is the incline bench press performed with a barbell.

Although the bench press is one of the basic tests used in the NFL combine, it is overrated as an upper body maximal strength test. The pressing angle of an incline bench press is more specific in terms of sporting movement due to the shoulder joint angle in relation to the trunk. Whether it is a punch delivered in boxing, the release of a shot put, or the push-off position in the short-track speed skating relay, you will notice that the upper arm is at a 45-degree angle upward in relation to the trunk. There are also many sporting movements where one pushes with the upper arm directly at 90 degrees to the trunk.

The last many years the incline has taken a back seat to guys just wanting to bench and overhead press, and I don't know why.  I am pretty much an overhead pressing phenom and I can tell you that I never did a thing to make that happen other than show up at the gym.  Overhead work also never did a single thing for my other lifts.  

If you've been slaving away at your pressing for a while with no results and aren't doing incline I suggest you rotate some inclines in for a while and see what happens.  You're not going to get weaker, so I'm not sure why you're not doing them.  If you don't do them because you suck at them, that's probably an even better reason to do them.  


  1. When someone has to zircher squat to give you a hand-off, you know you are STRONG! Love that vid! Barbell OHP is challenging for me because of crappy shoulder mobility after spending years hunched into a shoulder ball through boxing. DB inclines and BB inclines have really helped my bench numbers and shoulder health (BB military press now not so uncomfortable). In fact I got to the stage where I had to kick the DB up the other evening to the start position, which made me feel like a BOSS! (haha!)

  2. Man, I'm going to have to accelerate my plans on buying an incline bench. Those things are expensive, and with my son finally married I can start saving again (I hope). That's my only excuse for not doing them right now.

    I think Rippetoe is a big contributor to the lack of incline pressing. A lot of folks cut their teeth with his program, me being one of them. He's got a beginner's program and deals with beginners a lot so he takes a "just do the f'n program" stance on most things. He likes the bench/overhead combo and claims that works the same muscles if you did the incline.

    My overhead pressing sucks balls, but my bench is doing pretty good. I'm thinking some incline work for a while will help even things out a bit.

  3. Inclines are pretty much my Kryptonite. I never get so humilated until I'm doing incline presses. Anybody who's trained with me via benching and sometimes overhead pressing (on a good day),theyknow I can press. Then when I get challenged to do Inclines----I can't make of it, man. But you know what, it's been like a good 3-4 years since I inclined.

    Poliquin's little write-up---does not match my experience. I punch hard, shot-put well, and I was a hell of a line-man. But I could never incline worth diddly shit.

    Might have to give it another shot!

    But we all know it works for you, dude!

    1. But do you think you are just bad at inclines, or that you're bad at inclines because you never train them?

      I never trained the incline press with any degree of seriousness. Then a few months ago I took 2 months off flat pressing due to a pec strain and did nothing but inclines. Went from pathetic to merely bad, but I did make some fast progress. Didn't see improvement to my flat bench after the 2 months, but lost no strength either... maybe it's worth rotating in from time to time.

    2. Sorry for the delayed response, went away for a vacation! But thats a damn good point. I never train them. But even when I started in high school through College, i could bench over 300 and overhead press 225 for reps. The incline being the middleman, I'd figured it would be decent. No go. I sucked at 135lbs. But then again, I never gave them much seriousness.

      Havent trained them in several years, might be time to give them another go.

  4. Excellent thoughts! You always seem to write exactly what I am doing wrong as well as many others no doubt.

    I gave up incline in search of a better overhead press many years ago now because well, you can only do so much in a session. You are absolutely right, overhead pressing has not done a single thing for my other lifts as well.

    I think alternating weeks of flat bench with incline should get the job done.

    Thanks for pointing all of this out.

  5. Just wondering. Have you done any experimenting with a swiss bar or football bar? The neutral grip would put your shoulders in a more favorable position and should help alleviate pain. If you have but don't any longer why not?

    1. Agree on using the Swiss bar!

    2. So, I guess the ideal angle for the bench would be 45°? Or rotate the incline press through different angles?

  6. Post came just in time i have been debating what to rotate in for dips

  7. Started giving a brief pause an inch off the chest on these today after reading this. It was awesome and I really felt it in the chest a lot better. Had to lower the weight slightly but it was worth it to really feel the muscles work more effectively.

  8. I can remember talking with my father often about incline benching as having a greater application to sports, in this instance football. If you look at the angle linemen are at when they are blocking, its much closer to an incline press. Similar with boxing and even throwing to an extent. The incline featured heavily in all his programs over 17 years of pro ball for just that reason. Thanks for reminding me. This is a great blog.