The decline bench press is one of the fewest exercises that, in my opinion, don’t have any justification in a training program.
A lot of people use this exercise to train the chest, and especially the lower part, but it is actually not the best exercise for this purpose. And I say this, both on the basis of injury risk and the potential to stimulate muscle growth.
That being said, there are also strength training exercises, whose relevance is generally severely overestimated, and that for the most part, you will be better served without. One such exercise is the decline bench press.
Not convinced yet? Well, this article is just about decline bench press, and why the exercise, in my opinion, is severely overrated.
1. Poor hypertrophy potential
Especially the last part of the eccentric phase, where the muscle is most stretched, is important for stimulating hypertrophy, as it is this stretch and the microscopic muscle tearing that it causes that contribute to the growth of the muscle fibers (4 – 5).
So it is essential to move the weight over the full range of motion for the joint over which the muscle extends if you want optimal muscle growth and strength development.
In decline bench press you do the opposite. By setting the bench declined, that is, the head ends lower than the foot end, you change the angle of the press movement so that the chest comes much higher than the shoulders and the bar’s path is significantly shortened.
In ordinary bench press with a barbell, the range of motion can also be compromised to some extent compared to what is possible with dumbbells, but in decline bench press the problem is even more pronounced.
So while it is possible to focus more on the exercise effect around the lower muscle fibers in the chest by setting the bench to decline, there is thus a trade-off with one of the most important mechanisms to stimulate muscle growth, namely the lats.
And the compromise of this gets bigger and bigger, the steeper you make the slope on the bench.
2. Inward rotation of the shoulder
Due to the downward slope in the decline bench press, the pressure angle changes in a direction where the shoulder joint becomes very inwardly rotated. In conjunction with the elbows being held out from the body and the hands being locked in relation to each other due to the barbell, this exercise over time can be quite stressful to the shoulder.
These conditions are also something that may be relevant to be aware of in normal bench press, but just as with the problem of movement, the degree of inward rotation in the shoulder is significantly greater in decline bench press and increases, the steeper the slope of the bench.
Another reason why shoulder health may be a particular concern in the decline bench press is that you can lift significantly more kilograms in this way.
Precisely because the movement has been shortened and that you have primarily cut the most challenging part of the exercise, then you can put more weight on the bar.
A high mechanical load is not a disadvantage when it comes to stimulating muscle growth and strength (on the contrary!), but in this case, the extra pounds primarily serve to train your ego as they come at the expense of exercise hypertrophy potential, and additionally put heavy shoulder load in a position that may already be problematic in relation to injury risk.
3. Will cause shoulder problems
That is not to say that the decline bench press will always lead to shoulder problems. It’s all about dosing. But one of the most important conditions for creating continuous and long-lasting progress in your training is to be able to stay injury-free, or at least minimize the occurrence of injuries.
And including it certainly includes considerations in its programming, about how much volume one has in various press exercises, and how they affect the shoulder joint.
Training will always depend on a degree of risk-taking, but there is no need to make particularly risky choices when there are safer solutions that do the job at least as well.
And we should just talk about that in the next point.
Are there better options?
If you think your lower breast is limping and you have therefore included decline bench press in your program to put extra focus on the lower muscle fibers in your chest, there are good alternatives to this exercise.
Chest Dips are an excellent exercise for the entire breast muscle, with a downward pressure angle, which focuses in particular on the lower fibers of the pectoralis muscle. And unlike decline bench press, you won’t be limited to the range of motion.
If you want to focus on the chest with dips, you should do the exercise with as much movement as your shoulder painlessly allows, and possibly perform your dips relatively bent forward.
Use dumbbells instead of a barbell
Another solution is simply to do the decline bench press with dumbbells.
When using dumbbells you are not limited by the fact that the weight cannot come down further than to the top of the chest, and you can work out with the full movement of the shoulder joint. However, for large heavy dumbbells, it may be necessary to rotate the grip in the bottom position so that they do not extend across the chest.
Another advantage of having your decline press bench by the dumbbell rack is that you are not forced to use the very steep angle with which many decline benches are already built. In fact, one or two weight plates under the foot end of a regular workout bench, combined with plenty of tension, may actually be enough for people to notice a markedly increased stretch across the chest.
This avoids the very pronounced inward rotation of the shoulder joint, which is often forced on benches designed specifically for decline bench press. However, bench presses with dumbbells rather than barbell seem to activate the triceps a little less, but you do not see a lower activation of the chest muscles, which one would assume most people want to train with the decline bench press (6 – 7).
Can you use a larger load on a shorter range of motion to get stronger?
In fact, this might indicate that a combination between a full range of motion and partials can yield a better yield than any of the parts individually (8). But if you want to get strong in the regular bench press, you will be best served by working as specifically as possible, which is why it is not optimal to change the angle you press in.
In other words, if you want to use partials to get stronger in the bench press, then it makes better sense to shorten the range of motion in normal bench press by benching a wooden block above the chest, rather than setting the bench to decline.
The method of shortening the movement with bricks is called ‘board press bench’ and is used successfully by many strength lifters to increase their bench press strength.