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Smith machine incline press: Avoid these 4 fatal mistakes for a bigger upper chest

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th November 2020

There are at least 5 different Smith machine chest exercises that target the upper pecs. Each of these exercises comes with supposed "scientific" benefits that will transform your chest from saggy to chiselled.

However, besides the Smith machine incline press, only one of them will make your upper chest bigger (more on this guy later). The rest are complete and utter rubbish—and one is even downright dangerous.

So what exactly makes the incline Smith machine press so effective for building proportional pecs?

Let's find out...

"An underdeveloped upper chest not only looks bad, it compromises your overall Bench Press performance."
Mike Matthews
Best-selling Fitness Author and Founder of Legion Athletics

Smith machine incline press exercise details

  • Main muscles: Chest, front delts, triceps
  • Supporting muscles: Abs, lats, rhomboids
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine, adjustable weight bench
  • Recommended gear: Wrist wraps, chalk, weightlifting belt
  • Exercise purpose: Develop more proportional pecs by building your upper chest

How to do an incline Smith machine press

Here's how to incline bench press on Smith machine systems:

  1. Wheel an adjustable bench into a Smith machine and set the backrest angle to 15-30 degrees.
  2. Lie on the bench and retract your scapula (squeeze your shoulder blades together). If this is difficult to picture, think about puffing your chest out.
  3. Grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and tuck your elbows in at a 45-degree angle.
  4. Push the bar upwards to unrack it and then lower it towards your mid-chest.
  5. Once your elbows are slightly past your chest (there's no need to actually touch the bar to your chest), reverse the rep by pressing the weight up explosively.
  6. Think about bringing your elbows together as you press the bar up, as this increases inner pec activation.
  7. Repeat for 3-6 sets of 6-12 reps.

Smith machine incline press mistakes

Do NOT make these 4 Smith machine incline bench press form mistakes if you want a bigger upper chest.

Gripping too wide

young man performing a shoulder press

Conventional wisdom tells us that benching with a wide grip will turbo-charge our chest growth. And yes, while this advice is certainly true up to a point, it's definitely not a case of "the wider, the better".

In fact, gripping the bar too widely will actually cause your chest growth to stagnate (or even regress) because your pecs will be left grossly understimulated. This is because you're essentially halving your range of motion (ROM) by using an excessively wide grip. And the research is quite clear, using a full ROM leads to faster and better muscle growth in just 12 weeks [1].

Using a high incline

bodybuilder doing a high incline press in a fitness centre

Ok, this one's controversial. However, I'm going to stick my neck out and say that any angle higher then 30 degrees is sub-optimal for the upper chest. Roid heads, leave your angry comments below.

But first, let's look at what the science says.

One study of 15 American men found that incline angles of 44 and 56 degrees produced higher levels of upper pec activation than a 28-degree angle. The researchers also noted that front delt activation increased along with the incline, which makes sense given that steeper inclines are naturally closer to the shoulder press position [2].

However, muscle activation and tangible muscle growth are two very different things. For example, I could squeeze the heck out of my chest during flys with 1kg pink dumbbells and elicit extremely high levels of muscle activation. But would I build any actual muscle mass doing that?

Absolutely not.

Plus, we're naturally weaker at steeper inclines, meaning that our pecs receive less tension overall.

Moreover, when you increase the incline angle, you starve your chest of stimulation (and thereby muscle growth) by increasing front delt involvement.

So, like most things in life, more is not always better. Sure, steep inclines work, but you're probably leaving a lot of gains on the table by taking it to the extreme [3].

Going too deep

Bodybuilder Working Out Chest With Barbell

This might seem a little bit hypocritical of me considering that I just gave kudos to using a full ROM—but hear me out.

For best results, you need to think of range of motion in terms of joint positions, not barbell positions.

So, in the case of a Smith-machine incline press, once your upper arm descends below your chest, you've already got a full range of motion—regardless of where the bar is.

Sure, you could go deeper. And you might even eke out slightly more chest activation this way.

However, there's a sharp increase in diminishing returns once your upper arms break that 90-degree threshold. Plus, there's an equally sharp increase in injury risk. So unless your parents gifted you with iron rotator cuffs, then I recommend reversing the rep before the bar touches your chest [4].

Forgetting about your legs

woman doing an incline bench press

Yes, despite being the biggest and strongest muscles in the human body, many lads forget that their legs even exist—and I'm not just talking about skipping leg day.

Putting your legs up on the bench during a Smith machine incline bench press—or simply not utilising their power—is single-handedly the dumbest bench press mistake. And I see it all too often.

But doesn't raising your legs work your chest more?

No. Planting your feet firmly on the ground will significantly increase your chest stimulation because you can overload your muscles with heavier weights.

Understand that by activating your legs, you're not actually putting any direct tension onto them. Instead, you're using these muscle to get more tension for your upper body (you can lift heavier with leg drive). [5]

So, don't forget about your legs during the Smith machine incline bench press. And please—whatever you do—don't skip leg day.

Recommended training gear for Smith machine incline presses

"If you have problems with a bent wrist when you bench, a tight wrap can instantly add 5-10lbs to your bench press in my experience."
Thomas Narvaez
Powerlifting To Win

1. Wrist wraps

man wrapping his wrists before a workout

Now, I'm not a powerlifter, so I certainly don't spend a lot of money on lifting gear. However, I never train chest without my trusty RDX Wrist Wraps.

These wraps use a blend of cotton (for support) and elastic (for flexibility), so I never have to choose between strength and a full range of motion. They also come with heavy-duty velcro fasteners so that the wraps don't come undone and leave your wrists exposed to injury.

aqf wrist wraps

I've tried about a dozen pairs of wrist wraps over the course my training career, including a few professional "powerlifting" ones. However, I can honestly say that a cheap pair of wrist wraps offers just as much joint protection as any of the expensive products.

For example, I also have some Plate Fitness Wrist Wraps.

These things cost me less than a tenner. And while they're not as comfy as my Beast Gear wraps, they offer plenty of wrist support for my heavy lifts. Plus, they're incredibly durable and ridiculously easy to clean, too.

2. Weightlifting chalk

weightlifting chalk

Why the staff at Globo gyms frown upon using chalk but not at lifting with improper form is beyond me. I suppose they don't have to spend their "precious time" cleaning up bad form, do they?

Anyway, you can still get away with using chalk if you're willing to be a bit naughty. Just make sure to always use the liquid variety.

If you buy a good liquid chalk, it'll dry in a matter of seconds. But, more importantly, it won't leave any evidence behind that links you to your rebellious behaviour (and by that I mean no gigantic dust clouds!)

Of course, if you train in a proper gym, then you can use regular lifting calk like the Psychi Chalk Ball.

This type of chalk is generally a bit more budget-friendly than the liquid kind. However, unless you go with a quality product like the Psychi Chalk Ball (or something similar) that has a mesh covering, then there'll also be more wastage.

"With the bench, tightness is very very important in terms of injury prevention and maximising the amount of weight that you can lift [...], I feel way way way way more stable when I bench with a belt on."
Alex from Alpha Destiny

3. Weightlifting belt

One of my mates has got this ninety quid powerlifting belt that he practically lives in. In fact, I'm pretty sure that he sleeps in it at night for extra good luck in the gym.

Anyway, I tried it myself. And sure enough, my big three lifts shot up. However, it got me thinking...

What's so special about this particular belt?

rdx weightlifting belt

So I did a little experiment. I ordered two "cheapo" belts (his words) and compared my strength levels to when I wore my mate's designer handbag—crap—I mean belt!

I bought the RDX Powerlifting Belt for Weightlifting and also ordered the Dark Iron Fitness Genuine Leather Lifting Belt.

I tested my squat, bench and deadlift one-rep maxes on two different occasions. And, to my friend's horror, I was just as strong in my "cheapo" belts as I was while wearing his fancy lifting belt. Actually, the Dark Iron Fitness Belt increased my bench and squat 1RMs by a further 2.5kg.

dark iron fitness weightlifting belt

But maybe I was just feeling powerful that day, who knows.

Anyway, I just want to make it clear that you don't need to waste your money on fancy weightlifting belts. They all do the same thing. Plus, the two that I tried, in particular, are made from the same materials as my friend's designer lifting belt. And they're less than half the price.

Smith machine incline press muscles worked


Illustration of the pectoral anatomy

Performing the incline bench Smith machine style is one of the best ways to fix a lagging upper chest because you can focus completely on the working muscle. Unlike the barbell version, you don't have to stabilise the bar. Plus, you can lift safely without a spotter, which encourages you to push yourself harder and stimulate more growth.

Front delts

Illustration of the deltoid anatomy

The front delts are naturally more active when you set the Smith machine bar in an incline position than when you leave it on flat. This is simply because steeper bench angles are closer to a shoulder press, which are one of the best front delt exercises.


Illustration of the triceps anatomy

Any type of press naturally involves a fair amount of triceps. However, since the incline Smith machine press allows you to develop a stronger mind-muscle connection with your chest than the free weight version, it's much easier to stop your triceps from taking over.

Smith machine incline press benefits

Proportional pecs

ripped bodybuilder flexing his huge muscles

Nothing says "I've neglected my physique" quite like a droopy pair of pecs.

A developed upper chest can quite literally be the difference between Arnold-like aesthetics and becoming an internet gym meme.

So if you want to develop that coveted upper chest shelf that separates the men from the boys, then you need to include the Smith-machine incline press in your workout routine [6].

Beefy shoulders

fitness model flexing his upper body muscles

Did you know that bodybuilders—competitive and recreational—have 5x the front delt size of the general population?

Do you know why their shoulders are so much bigger than average?

Bench press. That's why.

And no bench press variation builds the front delts more dependably than the incline press.

In fact, the Smith machine incline bench press is so effective at stimulating shoulder growth, that you could remove all overhead pressing from your program with zero consequences.

Stronger flat bench press

male athlete bench pressing at powerlifting competition

You're only as strong as your weakest link. At least that's what I've been telling lifters for years...

Listen, you could have a colossal lower chest and titanic-sized triceps, but if your upper chest is lagging, then your bench press strength is going to suffer.

Neglecting your upper pecs is akin to skipping rotator cuff training—it's going to catch up on you.

Ever wondered why powerlifters still do incline work even though their sole goal is to build a stronger bench press?

Because they know that they're only as strong as their weakest link.

Smith machine incline press alternatives

Smith machine bench press

strong man performing the flat bench press

If you often train alone like me, or if you simply prefer the feeling of machines, then you'll feel right at home with the flat Smith machine bench press.

The free weight bench press injures more shoulders (and claims more lives) each year than any other exercise, so I stick with the Smith machine version in my own training. And if anything, my chest is bigger now that I've stopped focusing on merely pressing heavy barbells.

Smith machine guillotine press

The aptly named Smith machine guillotine press is simultaneously the best (in theory) and worst (in practice) chest exercise that you can do in the gym—yes, you can literally guillotine yourself if you're not careful. I'd just stick to doing the incline press Smith machine style if I were you.

Smith machine decline press

The hard-hitting Smith machine decline bench press is a brilliant exercise to add to your strength program if your chest could do with more overall mass. The setup is a bit tricky, so I can see why most people opt for the barbell version. However, if you don't have a spotter handy, the Smith machine version is much safer.

Reverse grip Smith machine press

Besides the Smith-machine incline press, the Smith machine reverse grip bench press is the only upper chest exercise that's worth your time. You can't lift a lot of weight on this little-known exercise, but you'll feel the resistance in every last fibre of your upper pecs—that's for sure.


Is the Smith machine incline bench press good for bodybuilding?

bodybuilder flexing upper body muscles

Yes, when you consider the Smith machine incline press bodybuilding wise, you start to see just how special this chest exercise really is.

What rep range is most optimal for the incline Smith machine bench press?

man performing the bench press in a gym

I like to use sets of 8-12 reps for the Smith machine incline bench press. This way, my muscles receive a nice amount of training volume without getting zapped from the lactic acid that's inevitable with high rep training.

Also, I avoid going lower than 8 reps because I'm not interested as much in "strength" as I am in building a more prominent upper chest.

How many sets of Smith-machine incline press should I do?

Young woman lifting a barbell with help from her personal trainer

Do between 3-6 sets of Smith machine incline barbell press for the best results—fewer if you're a beginner, and more if you're advanced.

Can you compare the Smith machine incline press vs the barbell incline press?

A barbell resting in a rack at the gym

When you do incline bench on Smith machine stations, you can overload the pecs with heavier weights, which triggers more growth in the fast-twitch muscle fibres.

Also, you don't have to waste valuable energy stabilising the bar, meaning that you'll naturally develop a stronger mind-muscle connection.

And—most importantly—performing the incline bench press Smith machine style is much safer than doing the free weight version because you can re-rack the bar at any point during a set. No spotter required.

So, overall, it's clear that the Smith machine incline press is a better exercise than the barbell version.

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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