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Incline Dumbbell Press | How To | Benefits | Common Mistakes & Solutions

For a 3D-looking chest, the incline dumbbell press is a must. It should be at the forefront of your chest workouts and given as much care as you do to the classic bench press.

In this article, I’ll explain how to do the incline dumbbell press (including some secret pro tips), why you NEED to do it, and the common mistakes that beginners and even some experienced lifters make.

The incline dumbbell press primarily targets the upper chest (pectorals), the front delts (shoulders), and the triceps as secondary movers in the exercise.

You’ll find more engagement of the upper chest and delts in this exercise compared to its flat bench alternative.

Why you NEED to incline dumbbell press

The chest is a large muscle. It consists of the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor.

The muscle that we’re targeting is the pectoralis major (the clavicular head specifically).

Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced lifter, for a 3D-looking chest you need to work on the upper chest and pecs.

Consider it a universal law.

Luckily, the incline dumbbell press targets the upper chest, and with the right technique, the pecs too.

So if you want to fill your shirt, here’s how.

How to incline dumbbell press like a pro

This how-to exhausts everything you need to know about this exercise. I’m treating you as if it’s you’re first time in the gym but if you’d like to skip around, here’s the hub:

  1. Setting up the bench & dumbbells
  2. Lifting the dumbbells to the starting position
  3. Dumbbell pressing
  4. Returning the dumbbells to the floor

Setting up the bench & dumbbells

To set the bench at an incline, use the knob underneath the bench to adjust the angle. Knobs differ by brand but they could be brightly colored to help you see them.

Whatever the brand, the knob will always be underneath the bench on the long part rather than the front seat.

Note: Always make sure that the bench is locked in place. Although rare, if a bench isn’t locked, you’ll end up falling with the bench to a flat or decline position. 

(I have never seen this happen personally, and I’d like to keep it that way)

Set the incline to 30 – 45 degrees. This is somewhere in the middle of upright and flat bench.

The more you incline the more the front delts will get involved in the exercise. 

The point is to find the balance between upper chest engagement and shoulder engagement because you can’t have one without the other.

Lifting the dumbbells to the starting position

There are 2 parts to this. 

  1. Lifting to your thighs
  2. Lifting to your chest

You can’t just lift the dumbbells off the ground and get straight to your chest.

Maybe you can with 10 lb dumbbells but not with 40 lb dumbbells.

The incline dumbbell press is a heavy exercise, which is why the lift-off needs 2 parts.

Lifting to your thighs

Lifting to your thighs is essentially a mini deadlift.

Place the dumbbells underneath your feet ready to be gripped overhand.

Bend your knees while keeping your back straight and reach out for your dumbbells.

As you straighten out your knees, thrust your hips forward.

That is the deadlift portion

As you lift those dumbbells, you want to turn your wrist so that your palm faces your side. This is so that the weight part of the dumbbell can sit flat on your knees.

This is all one motion and it may sound complicated but it’s actually really simple with a bit of practice. You can even do this at home.

Give it a try with a chair and some imaginary dumbells😉

Lifting to your chest

This is even simpler. All you have to do is kick up the dumbbells to your chest.

Think of knee-upping a wooden plank in karate. That’s essentially what you’re doing but with only enough force to bring the dumbbells up to your chest.

Again, as you bring those dumbbells up, you want to turn your dumbbells so that your palms is facing in front and your fists are to the sky.

Dumbbell pressing

This is the actual muscle-making part of the guide. 

Pressing the weight is basically pushing away from you. Like a pushup. Exactly like a pushup…

The only thing you should note is that your elbows should be at an angle of around 45 – 60 degrees from your side. This is the best angle.

Like with any other exercise, breathe in before the movement and out at you press the weight.

At this angle, you can best squeeze your pecs to maximize engagement. You may feel this from the very first rep.

Advanced techniques:

  • Squeeze your chest and pecs at the top of the movement to maximize engagement
  • Have a slower eccentric (return to neutral) to maximize engagement and completely exhaust the chest.
  • Hold at the bottom of the movement to emphasize the stretch.

Don’t let your arms go too far behind the bench

I’ve seen this mistake done far too many times and unfortunately, even if you tell people why it’s a mistake, they still do it!

Going very slightly behind the body to emphasize the stretch on the chest is a valid technique however most people have their elbows way behind their bodies. 

This puts their elbow joint at a huge disadvantage because the dumbbells are now stacked on top of them rather than with the chest. On top of this, you’re also hyperextending your shoulders.

These mistakes become more detrimental as you lift heavier. 

Always keep your elbows in front of your body line or at the very least alongside it.

Returning the dumbbells to the floor

Once you’ve finished your set, your dumbbells will still be at your chest level. So how do you get them to the floor? Drop them to the side? Drop them to your knees? Just drop them anywhere?

You don’t drop them. 

The safest way, without being noisy, dropping the dumbbells on your phone, or risking injury is to bring them to your knees in a controlled manner.

Some people just drop them onto their knees which may be okay with lighter weights, but this isn’t so much fun when you’re lifting dumbbells over 70 lbs.

As you’re bringing the dumbbells down to your knees, also bring your knees up to the dumbbells. Your knees and dumbbells will meet halfway allowing for the best control to a normal seated position.

At this point, drop the dumbbells to your feet, and you’re done.

Side note: You’ll only ever have to read this how-to once or twice. As humans, we learn best by watching and then doing, so make sure to rewatch the clips.

Common Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

It’s very easy to make mistakes on the Incline Dumbbell press so I’ve included this common mistakes guide for beginners and anyone that hasn’t looked into this before.

Bouncing the dumbbells 

Bouncing the dumbbells refers to using the momentum you build as you bring the dumbbells to your chest, to “jumpstart” the next rep.

While it does make the exercise “easier”, you end up reducing the tension on the chest. Less tension = fewer gains. 

Using too much weight

By using too much weight, you reduce the quality of your form, increase your risk of injury, and reduce time under tension which is necessary for muscle hypertrophy.

As a rule of thumb, you want to be able to do atleast 6-8 clean repetitions with your chosen weight, and after that, a few more reps where you’re giving it your all to squeeze out as much tension as possible.

Flaring out your elbows too much or tucking them in too much

I’ve stated that the correct angle for your elbows is around 45 – 60 degrees from your side.

But what if you go outside that range?

By flaring your elbows out more than 60 degrees, you’re putting more stress on your shoulder joint. Shoulder injuries are pretty common when it comes to pressing exercises.

Shoulder injuries come from a combination of flaring elbows and using more weight than you can handle.

On the other hand, tucking in your elbows puts more tension on the triceps. You’ll notice that you won’t be able to lift as heavy since the tricep is a smaller muscle compared to the chest.

By tucking in your elbows, you actually create a different exercise. One that isn’t as conducive to chest growth.

Bro tip: You can test out elbow angles with pushups. Give it a try and you’ll notice the different areas of tension with each variation.

Locking out your elbows

You’re likely to be lifting heavy or working up to lifting heavy for this exercise. 

Because of that, avoid lockout. 

This is when you press the dumbbells and straighten out your arms at the top. For “full range of motion” some might think, but no. Once the elbows are locked out, tension is reduced in the chest. 

You could also consider it a mini rest in between repetitions. For your chest, yes, for your elbow joint, NO. 

By fully locking out, you put an enormous amount of stress on your elbow joint. The heavier the dumbbells, the more likely you are to injure yourself. 

Avoid locking out fully, and your elbows will thank you.

Instead, you can get close to locking out but never actually hit that full lockout point. It’s very apparent what a full lockout looks and feels like, so test it out with pushups.

Setting the bench too high

The optimal position for the bench is around 45 degrees. Anything above that increases the involvement of the front delts (shoulders) and reduces the involvement of the upper chest.

Make sure to check the angle of your bench before you start the incline dumbbell press.

Advice from a gym bro

If you’re a beginner, I recommend you use what you’ve learned to work your way up with the dumbbells.

It’s as simple as good form and progressive overload. 

If you’ve hit plateaus this is what I would do…

Breaking plateaus & advanced techniques

Plateaus are hard to deal with. You get stuck on the same weight and the same number of reps and don’t know what to do to get out of it.

Here are a few techniques you can use to break the loop.

Get a spotter

This is the quickest way to break a plateau. By getting a spotter, you can squeeze out a few more reps or even increase the weights to the next interval.

This is an ongoing process. By getting the help of a spotter, week after week, you’re guaranteed to get stronger over time. 

A spotter could be a friend, a gym partner, or anyone in the gym. The gym community is a positive environment. Everyone is there to improve themselves. Just ask and you’ll be surprised by how welcoming everyone can be.

Paused repetitions 

If you’re not ready for that, here are some solo techniques.

By pausing at the top or bottom of each rep, you practice maximizing tension. Squeeze your chest at the top and stretch at the bottom and you’ll really feel the burn.

When it comes to progressive overload, it’s all about time under tension and intensity. If you’ve already got time under tension covered, then you’ve got to increase the intensity.

Drop sets

It’s a little strange. I’ll hit a set of 85-pound dumbbells for 10 reps but I’ll feel like I can get a lot more tension in.

That’s because I put more effort into strength compared to hypertrophy.

To balance that out, hit a drop set.

Once you’ve hit your set, grab dumbbells which are around 50% of what you did before, and rep out. Focus on time under tension and intensity.

Experiment with different dumbbell weights and choose the one that squeezes out the most tension.

Fuel up properly

It goes without saying but fueling up with carbohydrates is important before a workout. Carbohydrates are the most efficient source of energy so make sure you get in some food before you lift.

This can include foods like:

Banana

Bread

Rice

Oats

Maltodextrin powder

Etc

FAQ

Dumbbell press vs Barbell press Which is best?

The main benefit of using the barbell over dumbbells is that it’s easier to progressively overload with it. You can find plates as little as 2-3 lbs while increasing dumbbell weight is around 4-5 lbs (per dumbbell).

It is evidently harder to increase the weight using dumbbells because the marginal increase is so much higher.

Other than that, here’s the list of benefits of the dumbbell press over the barbell press:

  • Mind-Muscle Connection: Dumbbells can provide a better mind-muscle connection with the chest due to the better range of motion.
  • Range of Motion: Dumbbells can offer a better range of motion and the ability to adjust hand/wrist rotation during the exercise.
  • Muscle Engagement: Dumbbells allow for slight adjustments in wrist angles to target the chest more effectively.
  • Shoulder Comfort: Dumbbells are easier on your shoulders because of the flexibility of your elbow positioning.
  • Mobility: Dumbbells offer better mobility and feel more natural.
  • Imbalances: Dumbbells can help address muscle imbalances because each side operates independently. Each side carries its own weight therefore highlighting any weaknesses – Symmetrical control
  • Safety: Dumbbells are considered safer for some individuals, especially when working out alone, as they can be dropped to the side in case of failure.

How should I warm up?

The best type of warm-up is a progressive warm-up. It makes no sense to jump straight to 60-pound dumbbells. Your chest’s not ready for it. And just because you do some stretches also doesn’t mean your chest’s ready

To warm up progressively, increase the weight of the dumbbells. You can do 2-3 warm up sets depending on where this exercise is in your workout.

If it’s the first exercise, I would do 3 warm-up sets.

It would look like this:

Warm-up set 1 – 20 lbs ( ~15 reps)

Warm-up set 2 – 40 lbs ( ~10 reps)

Warm-up set 3 – 60 lbs ( ~ 8 reps)

First Hard Set – 80 lbs ( 8 – 12 reps)

The point of the warm-up isn’t to exhaust the chest, it’s to get it engaged. Don’t rep out, don’t even try to feel the burn. Just feel the mind-to-muscle connection.

Here’s the warm-up equation

Weight of first hard set/(No. of warm-up sets + 1 set) = weight increase for each warm-up set

Plug in the example above and you’ll see it works.

Wrap up

We’ve covered why you need to incline dumbbell press, how to incline dumbbell press, the common mistakes to avoid, and my personal advice on how to progress with advanced techniques.

You’re now equipped with the knowledge on how to best use the incline dumbbell press in your chest workouts and you’re one step closer to a stronger, more 3D chest.

Want to know how to get a wider upper body? A thicker upper back? Read my article on the lat pulldown to find out how to spread your wings (i.e. your lats).

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