When it comes to targeting the muscle fibres in the upper chest, one of the first exercises that may come to mind is the incline bench press.
But what if you don’t have access to an incline bench and barbell? Or what if you simply don’t really like the exercise? Or what if you actually just haven’t been seeing the sort of results you were hoping for from this movement?
Well, you’re in luck, because we’ve got a list of the 6 best incline bench press alternatives that will help you build and tone muscle in the upper section of your chest. We’ve carefully selected these exercises as ones that will largely replicate the same outcomes and results as the incline bench press. Some of these exercises don’t even require any equipment, so are perfect for home workouts too.
At a Glance – Best Incline Bench Press Alternatives
- Decline Push Up
- Incline Dumbbell Press
- Low to High Cable or Band Flye
- Smith Machine Incline Press
- Incline Dumbbell Flye
What is the “upper chest”?
When we’re discussing the upper, middle and lower chest, we’re actually referring to the same muscle – the pectoralis major. But, the pectoralis major is made up of different sections of muscle fibres (or “heads”) that attach to the surrounding bones differently… and it’s these different sections of muscle fibres that can be targeted with specific exercises. For the upper chest, we’re referring to movements that put more emphasis on the “clavicular head”.
Decline Push Up
The decline push up is without doubt the best bodyweight exercise to target the upper chest. You don’t need any equipment… just a lot of determination and effort!
The decline push up is noticeably harder than a regular push up and your upper chest and shoulders will be more activated during the movement. It also requires more stability and balance, compared to chest isolation movements, so it’s a great all-round exercise to include in a chest/push workout.
Although a decline push up looks very different to an incline bench press on the face of it… it actually involves a very similar movement pattern.
It’s also incredibly easy to adapt and adjust… to really help you isolate and target that upper chest. The higher your feet are, the higher up your chest/shoulders the movement will focus on, i.e., you can find that sweet spot between the chest and shoulders by trial and error.
The decline push up features on our list of the best exercises for a calisthenics chest workout too.
A decline push up involves having your feet resting on an elevated surface, in comparison to a pike push up, where your feet are on the floor but your hips are raised.
Elbows tucked in
Keep your elbows tucked in during the movement and focus on activating your chest to create the power needed to lift yourself up.
Incline Dumbbell Press
If you do have access to an incline bench, but perhaps don’t have access to a barbell (or you’re simply bored of using a barbell), then the incline dumbbell press is likely the most similar alternative to try.
You could also do the incline dumbbell press on an Swiss exercise ball too.
The incline dumbbell press is largely the same movement pattern as an incline bench press, except you’re using dumbbells instead of a barbell.
An advantage of dumbbells for targeting the upper chest is that you can incorporate rotations during the movement to further activate the upper chest and shoulders. Done correctly, this means the movement involves both a pushing and squeezing element, which combine together to really elevate muscular development in the chest.
You can also leverage a neutral grip, where your palms are facing each other… which lends itself better for a close grip pressing movement. You’ll likely find, a neutral grip naturally keeps the elbows from sticking out (which engages the shoulders more), so the use of dumbbells instead of a barbell is definitely useful for those looking to specifically target the chest/upper chest.
Dumbbells also lend themselves better for unilateral training, which helps to combat muscular imbalances too.
Low to High Cable or Band Flye
If you’re looking for a completely different movement to target the upper chest, then the low to high cable (or band) flye is a great exercise to try.
The benefit of doing low to high flyes is that you can really increase the range of motion during the movements… namely, you can cross your hands passed the midline of your body. By crossing your hands passed this midline, you’re taking your chest muscles to a place they simply don’t usually go with regular pushing/pressing exercises.
This ability to extend the range of motion helps to really target and sculpt the individual parts of the chest.
Unlike a dumbbell flye, you’ll notice the maximum tension is at the top of the movement… i.e. the movement continues to get harder. You can’t have a rest at the top, like you can with free weights.
You may also find this is a fun exercise to include in a chest routine due to the different biomechanics involved and a chance to take a break from more pushing/pressing exercises.
We’d recommend including some slow, eccentric repetitions to increase time under tension… which will really force the chest muscles to work overtime.
The ability to do this with bands also makes this a great option for those exercising at home.
Smith Machine Incline Press
The Smith Machine is a great option for those who want to really overload the muscles with heavy weight… but don’t have a spotter or training buddy.
The Smith Machine makes it easy (and safer) to re-rack weights.
The criticism of using a Smith Machine for an incline press is that the bar has a restricted movement path… so take your time to really align the bench and the Smith Machine so it feels most similar to your natural pushing movement. A close grip will help you keep your elbows in and activating the upper chest.
The ability to use heavy weights with the Smith Machine mean you can really leverage training concepts like progressive overload training, which is proven to be an effective way to build muscle.
A Smith Machine also allows you to try different grips, such as a reverse grip, to further activate the upper chest.
Incline Press Machines
As well as using the Smith Machine, you may find some gyms actually have incline press machines. These are literally designed as an alternative to the incline bench press.
Incline Dummbell Flye
If you have got access to an incline bench or Swiss exercise ball, the incline dumbbell flye is undoubtedly a great exercise to include in any sort of chest workout.
The movement pattern should be across your upper chest… focusing on engaging this part of the chest. Again, you can play around with the angle to best target the upper chest. Compared to a flat dumbbell flye, the incline will increase the fibre engagement in the upper chest due to the way your arms move the weight across this part of the chest.
To make the most out of the movement, focus on maximizing the range of motion and really stretching the pecs as much as possible at the bottom of the movement.
A slow and controlled movement also ensures you keep your arms and the dumbbells moving across the upper chest.
You could also incorporate supersets with the press and flye too.
Dips are another bodyweight movement, perfect for anyone without any equipment. They also naturally challenge the chest muscles differently compared to holding a weight, such as a dumbbell or barbell.
Dips (using parallel bars) allow you to adjust your body position to change how your muscles are engaged.
You can also add weight to dips, to focus more on power and strength.
(Our list on the best calisthenics equipment includes some good dip bars for home use too).
The incline bench press is a fantastic movement, especially for training the upper chest… but it is by no means the only exercise that can build muscle across the clavicular head.
The exercises featured in this list are all great incline bench press alternatives. For best results, incorporate these exercises into a suitable fitness program for your fitness goals. Hypertrophy training programs are focused on muscular growth and are likely better for those looking for aesthetic outcomes, as opposed to absolute strength (in which case, powerlifting programs would be better).