Whether you’re working with a personal trainer, looking up a workout online, or are making a workout yourself: the Decline Bench Press is seldom seen as part of the plan. Many fitness professionals view it as inferior to the standard bench press or even the push up due to the minimal difference in sternal (lower) pec activation at the expense of losing clavicular (upper) pec activation. The Decline press may be inferior from this perspective alone, but it has some benefits for general fitness, injury prevention, and even bodybuilding.
In 1995, Barnett, Kippers, and Turner tested the EMG (electromyographic) activity of several muscles during the standard, incline, vertical, and decline presses. A more recent study in 2016 by Crispiniano et al. compared the standard, incline, and decline presses with just pectoralis major EMG activity. Both studies seemed to confirm the standard press’s slight superiority in terms of pec activation, with no statistically significant difference found in the 2016 study. However, the 1995 study yielded some interesting findings that make a case for using the decline press in certain situations.
Barnett et al. found that when compared to the other three press variations, the decline press elicited the most EMG activity from the latissimus dorsi and the least amount of EMG activity from the anterior deltoid. They hypothesized that this was due to the low level of shoulder flexion and high level of shoulder adduction required during the lift.
This reduced shoulder flexion would be beneficial to those recovering from shoulder injuries as the external rotation, abduction, and shoulder flexion required from all pressing exercises may put the lifter at risk for re-injury. The increased recruitment of the latissimus dorsi (albeit only in the beginning phase of the lift) can help lifters achieve the “V-Taper” aesthetic, labeled for its wide lat/big chest appearance.
Even if your goals don’t involve bodybuilding or injury recovery, the decline bench press can be a fine addition to any workout plan. It involves multiple muscle groups to perform and is therefore metabolically challenging. To add a core and glute strengthening component to the lift, you may also mimic a decline bench with your bodyweight by performing a dumbbell floor press while holding a glute bridge. For some, this variation can compress the cervical spine especially when using heavier weight. Therefore, a head-off glute bridge press can be performed if the proper flooring is available.
Seedman PhD, Joel. “Tip: Do This Chest Exercise Instead of Declines.” T NATION, 18 Aug. 2019, https://www.t-nation.com/training/tip-do-this-chest-exercise-instead-of-declines/.
Barnett, Chris, et al. “Effects of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise on the EMG Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 9, no. 4, 1995, pp. 222–227., https://doi.org/10.1519/00124278-199511000-00003.
Costa Crispiniano, Elvis, et al. “Comparative Evaluation of Strength and Electrical Activity of the Pectoralis Major Muscle during Bench Press Exercise in Horizontal, Incline and Decline Modalities.” International Archives of Medicine, vol. 9, no. 26, 2016, https://doi.org/10.3823/1897.
Durall, Chris J., et al. “Avoiding Shoulder Injury from Resistance Training.” Strength and Conditioning Journal, vol. 23, no. 5, 2001, p. 10., https://doi.org/10.1519/00126548-200110000-00002.