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Incline-Pressing Problems

The clinical verdict on the incline press is that it’s a good exercise, but it requires a little technique modification to make it safer


The incline press is a very popular exercise in any gym. Some trainees use it to build the upper pectoralis major. Some use it as an alternative to the bench press, which may have become painful. Many trainees fall into one of two categories:

1) They can perform flat-bench presses pain free, but incline presses cause pain.

2) They can perform incline presses pain free, but flat-bench presses cause pain.

The dumbbell incline press has certain advantages over using a barbell. For one thing, you can perform it without a spotter. For another, you can position your shoulders, elbows and wrists to perform the movement in a more comfortable, unrestricted manner. What’s more, you usually perform it on a bench that you can adjust to as low as 30 degrees or as high as 80 degrees. Olympic weightlifters used 80 degree incline presses when the press was still one of the competitive lifts. Working various angles on this exercise can improve development of the pecs.

The incline barbell bench is typically fixed at a 45 to 60 degree angle. The barbell enables you to handle more weight in a safer manner, and you also get to start the lift from the racks or have a liftoff from a spotter.

Both versions, however, have disadvantages. Quickly lowering very heavy dumbbells back to the ground can tear the biceps tendon. It’s also easy to lose control of a dumbbell during the motion if you try to move them too quickly or become fatigued. If that loss of control is significant, you’re at serious risk of a rotator cuff tear or even dislocation of the shoulder.

The last disadvantage is a common problem. In the bodybuilding world you generally want a greater stretch of the muscle during the exercise. You can achieve that with the dumbbell incline press by turning your wrists so the palms face each other. That lets you lower the dumbbells farther than you can with palms forward, in a barbell-like position. The added stretch, however, can overstretch the ligaments in the front of the shoulder and stress the cartilage ring around the shoulder socket. Once the ball—the head of the humerus—begins to move too much in the socket because the ligaments are too stretched, the cartilage ring can tear. Also, if you train to failure or you’re more tired than you anticipated, you can become stuck with the heavy dumbbells, and it’s difficult for spotters to help. Returning the dumbbells to the tops of the thighs is the only way out that tough situation.

Trainees often seek greater range of motion on the incline barbell press by bringing the bar toward the neck instead of touching the bar to the middle or lower chest. Bar placement on the neck can overstretch the ligaments and stress the cartilage ring. If you have long arms, that neck placement is a severe overstretch. Also, performing the exercise without a spotter is inherently risky.

The clinical verdict on the incline press is that it’s a good exercise, but it requires a little technique modification to make it safer. As I’ve always noted, you’ll make gains if you can keep training. Every time you have to miss a month or more of training to recover from an injury, you don’t make gains during that time, and then you need time to adapt to training again so you don’t reinjure the muscle, tendon and/or joint. Train smart first, then train hard.

Editor’s note: Visit www.SoftTissueCenter.com for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRON MAN. You can order the books, Strength, Conditioning and Injury Prevention for Hockey by Joseph Horrigan, D.C., and E.J. “Doc” Kreis, D.A., and the 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution by Horrigan and Jerry Robinson from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008, or at www.Home-Gym.com.

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