How to Do the Incline Dumbbell Press

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

a woman doing an 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 and the front of the shoulder. 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 chest strength and size, so it's typically included in a well-rounded, intermediate 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 traditional bench press, incline pushups, and chest fly. The incline press also hits the anterior head of the deltoid muscle of the shoulders, or 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 to keep the shoulder joint stable and strong.

Functionally, the dumbbell incline press transfers naturally to a range of pushing and pressing motions, such as 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. By using dumbbells to perform this exercise, each arm works independently, which prevents the dominant arm from "taking over" to perform the lift, improving strength and stability on both sides of the body.

Step-by-Step Instructions

All you need to perform the incline dumbbell press is an incline bench or an adjustable bench and a set or two of dumbbells. You won't need much more space beyond the space required for the bench itself.

If your bench is adjustable, set the incline to between 30- to 45-degrees. 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 when performing a barbell incline press. If you're unsure of the right weight, start light and work your way up until you feel challenged but can still do an entire set using proper form.

  1. Sit on the bench and lean back. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with hands positioned at your shoulders, elbows bent and angled down below your ribs. 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 roughly a 45-degree angle to your torso. They shouldn't splay out to the sides, pointing toward the side of the room. Instead, keep your elbows pointing to the floor.
  4. Aim to complete sets of 8 to 12 reps. Start with one set and work up to two to three sets over time as you build strength. When you finish your set, 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

This exercise can seem deceptively simple, making it easy to overlook possible mistakes. Read on to learn about potential issues as well as how to avoid them.

Using 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. However, 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 a bit for the incline press. Even if you're familiar with the incline barbell press, you may still need 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, which requires more strength. 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, which can undercut your efforts or result in injury. If you start with the right weight for you, you'll be less likely to encounter the other issues mentioned below.

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 issue, 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 to prevent wrist injury.

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. To effectively 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 to work the muscles you want to strengthen. 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 up off the top of your chest is ineffective. Using a bouncing movement to gain momentum to help propel the weight up again is essentially cheating. If you find yourself doing this (or if you are tempted to do so), that's a good indication you're lifting more weight than you should be.

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. Instead, reduce the weight you are lifting until you can complete the exercise without any bouncing.

Arching Your Back While Pressing

When you are 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. This can open you up to the possibility of a back strain.

Also, your efforts will be shortchanged. You'll end up recruiting muscle groups other than the specific muscles intended to be targeted by the exercise.

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

The incline dumbbell press can be modified in various ways or made more challenging to suit individual needs and fitness goals.

Need a Modification?

If using dumbbells or isolating each shoulder independently doesn't work for you, you can modify the exercise and still get similar results. Instead of 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 exercise 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, except use a barbell gripped with both arms instead of individual dumbbells.

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. This exercise is otherwise performed in the same way as the incline dumbbell press, but you're pressing kettlebells with each hand, rather than dumbbells.

You can also engage your core more substantially 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 doing 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, which is probably less than you think. 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 generally a safe exercise, but it does require a baseline level of strength, and it shouldn't be attempted if you're brand-new to strength training. In that case, start with machine weights or a barbell incline press to grow accustomed to the movement, then move on to the incline dumbbell press once your ready.

The incline press can be problematic for those who experience shoulder pain. If you have ongoing shoulder pain, attempt 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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