How to Do the Incline Dumbbell Press

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Incline Dumbbell Press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Also Known As: Incline Chest Press, Incline Dumbbell Chest Press

Targets: Chest, shoulders, triceps

Equipment Needed: Dumbbells and an incline bench

Level: Intermediate

The incline dumbbell press is a free weight exercise designed to target the chest, shoulders, and triceps, hitting each side of the body independently.

Unlike the more traditional flat bench press, the incline press shifts the focus of the movement to the upper portion of the pectoral muscle groups (specifically, the clavicular head of the pectoralis major) and the front of the shoulder (specifically, the anterior head of the deltoid). This allows for greater hypertrophy (muscle growth) of the upper chest when the exercise is performed regularly.

The incline dumbbell press is designed to increase strength and size through your chest, so it's typically included in a well-rounded strength training program. If you split up your weekly workouts by body part, include this chest exercise on your upper body or chest day, after exercises like pushups or the flat bench press.

Benefits

The dumbbell incline press targets the upper portion of the chest—specifically, the clavicular head of the pectoralis major—an area of the chest that's almost completely unengaged during other common chest exercises, like the bench press, pushups, and chest fly. The incline press also hits the anterior head of the deltoid muscle of the shoulders—the front part of your shoulder.

When the dumbbell incline press is performed regularly, you'll develop a more well-balanced chest and shoulder musculature, helping keep the shoulder joint stable and strong.

Functionally, the dumbbell incline press transfers naturally to all types of pushing and pressing motions, like pushing open a heavy door or putting groceries away on elevated shelves.

The dumbbell version of the incline press is especially beneficial for correcting strength imbalances between each side of your body. It's common for one arm to be stronger than the other, so by using dumbbells to perform the exercise, each arm has to work independently. This prevents one arm from "taking over" to perform the lift, improving strength and stability on both sides of the body.

Step-by-Step Instructions

As long as you have an incline bench or an adjustable bench at your disposal, it's pretty easy to get started. You won't need much space beyond the space required for the bench itself.

All you need to get started is an incline bench and a set or two of dumbbells. Set the incline of the bench between 30- to 45-degrees if your bench is adjustable. The bigger the angle, the more the exercise will engage the shoulders. Generally speaking, 30-degrees is the ideal angle for hitting the upper portion of the chest.

You'll want to select dumbbells that are lighter than you'd use for a flat dumbbell bench press, and also lighter than you'd use when performing a barbell incline press.

  1. Sit on the bench and lean back, holding a dumbbell in each hand, positioned at your shoulders, elbows bent. Relax your neck against the bench. Keep your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Brace your core and press both dumbbells straight up over your chest as you exhale. Keep your wrists straight (don't let them "cock" backward). At the top of the movement, the dumbbells should almost touch each other and your arms should be perpendicular to the floor.
  3. Reverse the movement and slowly lower the dumbbells back to the top of your chest as you inhale. As you lower the dumbbells, your elbows should come down at a roughly 45-degree angle to your torso—they shouldn't splay out to the sides, pointing toward the side of the room.
  4. Finish your set, then safely exit the exercise by sitting up and placing the dumbbells on your knees before you stand up. Avoid dropping the dumbbells while you're lying on the incline bench.

Common Mistakes

Selecting Too Much Weight

If you've been doing dumbbell bench press or incline barbell press for a while, you probably have a good idea of how much weight you can handle for these exercises. That doesn't mean you'll be able to lift the same amount when trying the dumbbell incline press.

The incline press, as a whole, uses smaller muscle groups than the flat bench press, so you'll need to decrease your weight for the incline press. But even if you're familiar with the incline barbell press, you may still have to decrease your weight for the dumbbell version of the exercise. This is because the dumbbell press requires each arm to lift its own dumbbell independently—this action is more challenging to control and ends up using more of the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder.

Selecting a lighter weight helps ensure you'll be able to complete the exercise safely. Plus, selecting a weight that's too heavy typically leads to other common mistakes. If you start with the right weight for you, you'll be less likely to fall victim to other problems mentioned here.

Cocking Your Wrists

Cocking your wrists backward while holding the dumbbells—forming a 90-degree angle between the back of your hand and forearm—may not seem like a big deal, but holding the dumbbells this way puts a lot of strain on your wrists. Focus on keeping your wrists straight so that they're perpendicular to the ground throughout the exercise.

Choosing the Wrong Angle For Your Bench

Doing a chest press on a flat bench positioned at 0-degrees targets the middle of your pecs. Likewise, doing a press on an upright bench positioned at 90-degrees targets your shoulders. It stands to reason, then, that to target the upper portion of your chest, you need to select an angle somewhere between those two angles.

The trick, though, is selecting the right angle. Generally speaking, you should set your bench between 30- and 45-degrees. The 45-degree angle will hit more of your shoulders, while the 30-degree angle will target the pecs to a greater degree.

Bouncing the Dumbbells Off Your Chest

Lowering the weights quickly and "bouncing" them off the top of your chest to gain momentum to help you propel the weight up again is essentially "cheating." This typically takes place when you're lifting more weight than you should be lifting.

When you speed through a movement like this, you end up losing the target focus for the exercise, allowing other muscle groups and momentum to help you complete the move. This may not seem like a big deal, but it ends up reducing the effectiveness of your workout, making it harder to see the improvements you want to see.

Arching Your Back While Pressing

When you get fatigued toward the end of a set, or if you're trying to lift more weight than you should, you may find yourself straining and arching your back to try to force the dumbbells upward. Not only can this open you up to the possibility of a back strain, but again, by recruiting muscle groups other than the muscles intended to be worked during the exercise, you're actually selling yourself short.

If you find yourself straining toward the end of a set, ask a friend to spot you as you lift. This will allow you to finish your set without altering the movement. If you find yourself arching your back from the get-go, choose a lighter set of dumbbells.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

Instead of trying the dumbbell incline press, opt for the barbell incline press. The barbell exercise targets the same muscle groups in the same way but doesn't require the unilateral control that the dumbbell press requires.

This will help you develop the baseline strength required for the movement while also starting to engage the stabilizing muscles of the shoulders without isolating each shoulder independently. Perform the exercise in the exact same way as the dumbbell press, but use a barbell gripped with both arms, instead.

Up for a Challenge?

Make the exercise harder by switching out your dumbbells for a set of kettlebells. Due to the uneven weight distribution of kettlebells (the "bell" portion weighs more than the handle of the equipment), it requires more stability and control to perform the exercise correctly. The exercise is otherwise performed in the same way, but you're pressing kettlebells with each hand, rather than dumbbells.

You can also engage your core more by performing the exercise as a single-arm kettlebell incline press. Use only one kettlebell at a time, performing a full set with your right arm before switching to your left arm. This type of single-sided exercise requires your core to engage to prevent your non-working side from rotating toward the side you're working.

In other words, if you're performing a right arm kettlebell press, your core has to engage to prevent your left shoulder and hip from rotating to the right as you perform the movement.

Safety and Precautions

The most important thing to remember when performing the incline dumbbell press is to select an appropriate weight for your strength level. You should be able to complete between 8 and 12 repetitions with the weight you select for a typical workout routine.

The dumbbell incline press is a generally safe exercise, but it does require a baseline level of strength, and shouldn't be attempted if you're brand-new to strength training. Start with machine weights or a barbell incline press as you grow accustomed to the movement.

The incline press can be problematic for those who experience shoulder pain. If you have ongoing shoulder pain, try the exercise on a machine or with a barbell before trying it with dumbbells. If you experience sharp or shooting pain at any point during the exercise, stop and opt for exercises that don't cause pain.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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