Knowing that everyone wants a huge chest, we’re not too surprised to find less experienced lifters doing overly complicated workouts of a gazillion chest exercises in the hope of developing full, thick pecs. Unfortunately, that’s not the road to chest glory. If anything, it will only result with undue shoulder and wrist pain, while your pecs remain relatively flat and unchallenged. On the other hand, the conventional bench press, albeit effective, is infamous for causing shoulder, wrist and even forearm issues, which can reduce your form, strength and overall performance in the long term.
So if you’re looking for real upper chest thickness and you want it as soon as possible, the two top exercises to choose from are the incline bench and the reverse grip bench. You can incorporate both in your routine and be sure you’ll make stellar gains. But if we were to compare these two in terms of muscle activation and safety… who do you think would win? Check it out!
The Reverse-Grip Bench Press
The really great thing about the reverse-grip bench press is that it’s rather safe when performed correctly and it’s generally easy to perform. However, if you don’t have a partner who can spot you, you should do it in a power rack or squat rack to ensure you won’t get hammered by the weight – believe us, it happens more often than you think. Regardless of that, this move is a must-do for building a strong, well-rounded upper body. The underhand grip takes the pressure off the shoulders while hitting your pecs to an even greater degree than standard bench presses allow.
To do it, grasp the bar firmly with an underhand grip. The bar should sit in the heel of your palm, directly above the bones of your forearms, resting across the meaty part of the hand on the thumb side to the bottom of the palm on the pinky side. Slightly bend your wrists, creating a slight angle in your hands. As for the grip width, there’s no one-size-fits-all tip about it – you’d be best off figuring it out for yourself. Try a variety of widths before deciding which works best for you, but keep in mind that it shouldn’t differ too greatly from your regular bench press grip width.
The Incline Bench Press
This classic compound exercise is what professional bodybuilders from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jay Cutler have been using for decades to increase chest power and sculpt gigantic upper pecs. As one of the best moves for building a stronger and bigger upper body, it effectively targets many of the same big upper body muscles as the conventional version – the clavicular head of the pectoralis major, the anterior deltoid and the triceps – only from a different angle, which contributes to shifting a major part of the work to the upper chest and shoulders. In other words, as the angle of the bench increases, the shoulders take on more and more of the work until the exercise turns into a shoulder press on a vertical bench.
Depending on your goal, the incline bench press can be performed in a variety of ways. You can go very heavy (though you won’t be able to go as heavy as you would on the flat bench) to build maximum strength, or you can lighten the load and up the reps to accentuate size gains. When performed correctly, this exercise is a full-body movement that employs every muscle in your shoulders, back and core.
The Scientific Findings
An Australian study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that when weight-trained subjects performed incline bench presses, the muscle activity of their upper pecs was only around 5% greater than the upper pec activity during a flat bench press, which is kind of a shocking discovery considering the status that the incline bench press has enjoyed up until now.
Moreover, another group of scientists from Canada found that the muscle activity of the upper pecs in weight-trained subjects performing reverse-grip bench presses was more than 30% greater than when they did standard-grip bench presses, which makes this exercise one of the most underrated upper body moves ever.
So Why Not Get the Best of Both Worlds?
If you’re looking to fill out your upper pecs, you’d benefit the most from flipping your grip on the bench press. The reverse grip bench press is more effective when it comes to muscle activity and stimulation of the upper chest muscles, when compared with both the incline bench press and the standard flat bench press. That being said, training experts and bodybuilders alike agree that it’s essential to combine both exercises in your chest training program in order to ensure balanced and complete upper chest muscle growth.
Accordingly, our advice for anyone wanting to see their chest gains go through the roof would be this: start your chest workouts with 4 sets of reverse-grip bench presses, then move on to the incline variant. Switch between sets of heavier loads for fewer reps and lighter loads for higher reps for maximum gains. And once in a while, do the reverse-grip press on an incline bench!