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Incline Barbell Bench Press Vs. Reverse-Grip Bench Press

Which Builds A Bigger Upper Chest?

Posted by Scott_Herman - December 3rd, 2018

In this edition of the VERSUS series we are going to see which exercise will help you build a bigger UPPER CHEST!  The INCLINE BARBELL BENCH PRESS or the REVERSE-GRIP BARBELL BENCH PRESS. If you missed the last episode where we compared the FRONT SQUAT VS. BACK SQUAT, you can read that article HERE.

Now we already talked a great deal about the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor and how they function in the Barbell Bench Press VS the Dumbbell Bench Press article so if you want to learn more about origins, insertions and how these muscles work, CLICK HERE. In this article we are just going to focus on one specific area of the pectoralis major and that is the clavicular head or “upper chest”.

Remember, the clavicular head originates on the anterior surface of the medial half of the clavicle and inserts on the lateral lip of the bicipital groove of the humerus and anterior lip of the deltoid tuberosity. For most of us this is an area we desperately want to target to help give the chest a fuller and rounder look! But which exercise is best for targeting this area?  Let’s find out starting with the incline barbell bench press.

Incline Barbell Bench Press

The incline barbell bench press is an exercise used by most gym goers specifically to target the upper chest area. You are still working the entire pectoralis major, but more emphasis will be placed on the clavicular head. Throughout the movement you will also be activating your triceps brachii and anterior deltoids as synergistic muscle groups and the short head of your biceps brachii will assist as a stabilizer throughout the movement as well.  

To perform the movement the first thing you want to do is set up your bench so that it’s at a 30 – 45 degree incline. It’s going to be up to you to mess around with the incline to see what feels more comfortable for you. Once you have your bench set up, I would rather you get into position with just the bar (no added weight) to make sure your position feels right. Make sure you can un-rack the bar, bench properly and then re-rack the bar, because what can sometimes happen is if you set it up and push the bench too far back, when you start benching you can hit the bar on the j-hooks and ruin your entire set. Once your set-up is complete, then you can toss on some weight.

Another thing to keep in mind is whenever you’re doing any kind of bench press exercise, you need to retract your shoulder blades. This puts you in the correct posture to be able to get a full descent and then get a full extension with every single repetition. When you do an incline barbell bench press, if your shoulder blades are retracted but then when you push through to the top of the movement you push too far and flatten out your back, that changes the entire range of motion of the barbell. What that can actually do, without you even realizing it, is it can cause you to bring the bar down more over your shoulders, which is also going to increase your elbow flare and this can put a lot of pressure in your shoulders as well. So make sure you keep your shoulder blades retracted, even when you go to the top of the movement. DO NOT flatten your back out before you come back down, because you might end up hurting yourself and putting a lot of pressure through that shoulder area.

Now that all of that is out of the way, to perform the movement what you’re going to do is lay back and keep your glutes planted firmly against the bench because whenever you do any bench press movement, your glutes should stay on the bench. Keep your knees pointed out, feet flat, arch your back, retract your shoulder blades and keep your core nice and tight. Then grab the bar just outside of shoulder width and un-rack the weight. Take in a breath, keep your core nice and tight and then press back up, which is when you breathe out. The reason why you take in a breath and keep your core tight is because that’s going to allow you to keep your body (basically from your torso down) as one solid piece so that you can get as much pushing power as possible through the bar.

You’re also going to make sure that as you perform the movement, your elbows aren’t flaring backwards. Your elbows should stay in position underneath your wrists and should be tucked in a little bit towards your torso. When you push the bar up, you should still be keeping your elbows pushed forward. One thing you don’t want to do (and this can happen even when you have your shoulder blades retracted) is have too much elbow flare because as we covered earlier, that changes the range of motion completely. Also, when you have elbow flare, you’re actually pushing more through your shoulders and this can cause a lot of shoulder pain. What’s happening is as you flare your elbows is your humerus is squeezing the rotator cuff tendons against the AC joint. When that happens you’re basically irritating your shoulders on every single repetition. So if this exercise bothers your shoulders, it’s not because the exercise is bad for you, it’s because you have too much elbow flare.

However, there is something to be said about having a little bit of elbow flare on the way up. This is more of an advanced powerlifting move, but as you get stronger and better with the exercise you can do it as well. As you come down, you keep those elbows forward, then as you come up it’s OK to flare your elbows out a little to get a bit more power into the movement. If you’ve never tried this technique before, I suggest trying it with light weight first and getting used to it before implementing it into your working sets.

Another thing you want to keep in mind during this movement is hand position. If you grab the barbell too wide, you will be engaging more of the muscles in the surrounding areas of your chest and you will greatly reduce your ability to shorten the muscle at the top of the movement. To ensure maximum pec activation, you have to find a grip that is closer to shoulder width or just outside of shoulder width apart to use when you bench. This will ensure you get the full stretch at the bottom of the movement and the full contraction at the top.

Reverse-Grip Barbell Bench Press

During this movement you will also be working the entire pectoralis major, but will be placing more emphasis on the clavicular head as well. Because of the hand position, you will still be activating your triceps brachii and anterior deltoids as synergistic muscle groups, but you will feel more triceps activation when compared to the standard overhand grip. Also, the short head of your biceps brachii will be assisting as a stabilizer throughout the movement as well.

To perform the reverse-grip barbell bench press you are going to set yourself up the same exact way you would if you were doing the standard barbell bench press. You’re going to have your feet flat on the ground, push your knees out, keep your glutes on the bench, arch your back and retract your shoulder blades. The main difference here is you’re going to have your palms facing forward (towards you) as opposed to having your palms facing away. You’re also going to have an outside shoulder width grip on the barbell because if you grab too close, you’re going to activate your triceps more throughout the movement, so you want to make sure your grip is outside of shoulder width.

To un-rack the barbell you’re going to get into place and then it’s easier to do this movement to get the bar off the rack if you position your head directly underneath the barbell itself. Then put your hands on the bar (relatively wide) and remove the bar from the j-hooks. While keeping your wrists straight, your elbows slightly pointed out and your upper arms parallel to each other the entire time, you’re going to bring the weight down and then push it back up straight over your chest. You don’t want to fall into the habit of coming down over your chest and then pushing up over your face – that’s not the movement. The movement is to activate your chest, some come down over your chest and press back up over your chest.

If you need help keeping the barbell in the same position throughout the movement, before you start bringing it down, hold it in the air and pick a point on the ceiling to line the bar up with. Once you do, you can bring the bar down and then push it back up to that exact same spot on every single repetition and this will help you keep the barbell in-line.

Now if you are properly setting up for the exercise you should be able to rack and un-rack the barbell on your own. But if you are having a hard time I do have some alternative methods you can try, especially once you start lifting heavier weight. The easiest solution would be to have a spotter help you, but if you don’t have a spotter you can try un-racking the weight using the standard bench press position and then turning your hands around while letting the barbell almost rest on your chest at the bottom of the movement. Another solution would be to use a power rack and this is the safest solution if benching heavy with no spotter. First what you’re going to do is set up the racks so that the barbell rests across your chest with enough room for you to get out from underneath the barbell when your back is FLAT. This is because when you perform the movement you will have an arch in your back which will raise the height of your chest during the movement a few inches so if you fail you can simply lay flat and be safe. Once the racks are set-up you are good to go.

Which Exercise Is Best?

So which exercise targets the clavicular head or the upper portion of the chest more? Well, the answer is the Reverse-Grip Bench Press.  Believe it or not studies have shown that when compared to the STANDARD BENCH PRESS with an overhand grip, that the reverse-grip bench press muscle activity of the clavicular head increased by 30%!(2) That is a huge jump in engagement just from turning your hands around. Now don’t get me wrong, the standard bench press is still a great exercise and does have its place. It’s just that now you know it targets more of the sternocostal head of the pec major and if you are trying to build your upper chest, it is not the right exercise to be using.

As for the incline barbell bench press, studies showed that when compared to the standard bench press muscle activity in the clavicular head only increased by 5%. However there was a HUGE jump in activity in the anterior deltoids by about 85%.(1) If your goal is to build a bigger upper chest, this doesn’t really help you out.

So in simple terms, this means that if you are trying to build a bigger upper chest, the reverse-grip barbell bench press is 6 TIMES more effective than the incline barbell bench press. That means the clear winner here is the reverse-grip barbell bench press.

My suggestion would be on your next chest workout to replace the incline barbell bench press with the reverse-grip barbell bench press and perform 4 sets of 10 – 12 repetitions per set with only a 60 – 90 second rest period between each set!


There are a final few things I want to mention to end this article. If you do research online, especially with the incline barbell bench press, in this article I tell you to have a grip that’s just outside of shoulder width to maximize the shortening of the muscle at the top and the stretch at the bottom. You will see articles online where they tell you to grab as wide as possible to lift as much weight as possible. That’s where the key difference is though, because if you’re a power lifter and you’re trying to increase your overall strength on this lift then yes you want to grab as wide as possible to shorten the distance the bar has to travel.

However, if you’re trying to build muscle, with a really wide grip you are stretching the muscle out pretty much the same at the bottom of the movement, but when you come to the top you’re not shortening the muscle so you’re not getting as much muscle engagement. If you were to grab closer and come down and go up, you will see A LOT more muscle engagement.

I hope you learned a lot from this article and if you have friends that need some upper pec work, you better send them my way!

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Barbell Bench Press VS. Dumbbell Bench Press | WHICH BUILDS MORE MUSCLE?

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