While some people have difficulty building their upper chest due to bad genetics, poor exercise selection/execution, or not enough training years under their belt, just as many people find they have a similar difficulty when it comes to developing their lower chest.
When training any variant of a flat pressing of fly type exercise, the lower chest will always get some form of stimulation. It’s very difficult to actually isolate the lower chest and therefore a good strategy is to eliminate the upper chest engagement by using decline exercises like the decline bench press.
This is a good strategy but the only issue is that not many gyms will provide a specific decline bench press. It’s also very difficult (though still doable) to do this movement without a specific decline bench press setup.
Therefore, it’s usually a better idea to look towards some exercise alternatives…
The 8 best decline bench press alternatives are:
- Reverse Barbell Chest Press
- Decline Dumbbell Pullover
- Decline Plate Press
- Decline Machine Press
- High To Low Cable Crossover
- Decline Dumbbell Bench Press
- Elevated Push-Ups
What Is A Decline Bench Press
A decline bench press follows the exact same setup as a regular bench press, except for the height adjustment which is setting the bench to a -15 degree decline. As a result, the decline bench press can still technically be classed as a compound exercise due to the fact that it requires and utilizes multiple muscle groups.
Many people prefer a decline bench press for one very specific reason – the decline angle places less stress on the shoulder joint.
With a decline bench press, the range of motion is shorter as the bar travels a shorter distance during the movement. This can be even more true for those with a thick torso and shorter arms (think powerlifter body types).
In the fully lowered portion of the movement where the bar touches your chest, the shoulder joint (particularly the front deltoid) is not overly stretched. Contrast this to a bench press or Incline press, where the front delt is often overstretched and you’ll see why the decline bench press is not only used to build the lower chest but also as an exercise that is easy on the shoulder joint as well.
Decline Bench Press For Lower Chest
I’ve just mentioned that the decline bench press is often used to target the lower chest but an important distinction needs to be made…
The chest is made up of the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor, however, the pec as a whole (pec major) is one single muscle group. Therefore, when trying to separate the upper, middle, and lower chest, there is no real logic to this from a muscle group viewpoint.
To demonstrate, the triceps are made up of three heads – which are then three separate muscle groups – with each having a different function and needing to be targeted in a different way. You can’t just do tricep pressdowns and fully target all heads of the tricep and expect maximum muscle growth or development.
With the chest being one major muscle group (ignoring the pec minor for now), you can technically grow your entire chest with a standard press or fly. While the chest may not be split into multiple muscle groups, you can still target different areas of the chest by targeting different muscle fiber cross-sections.
The upper chest as an example has muscle fibers that run at an angle from your clavicle (collar bone) to your sternum. This means when targeting the upper chest you shouldn’t press in an up and down fashion but rather you should follow the path that the muscle fibers run (which is why many consider dumbbells to be better for developing the chest).
When it comes to targeting the lower chest, the same concept applies. The lower chest is not a different muscle group but angling your body position during a movement can shift more tension towards certain muscle fibers which is where a variety of exercises come in useful.
Decline Bench Press Alternatives
The below are what I consider to be some of the best alternatives to a decline bench press. As a general chest builder, the barbell decline bench press can actually be quite limited to muscle growth due to a short range of motion so some of these will not only act as a substitute exercise but may actually be a better option when looking to grow your chest.
Reverse Barbell Bench Press
The first alternative on the list is the reverse grip barbell bench press. The key point to note initially with this exercise is that it’s performed on a flat bench (ideal for those using a commercial gym) and the hand position is what places emphasis on the lower chest.
Taking an underhand (reverse) grip with a shoulder-width – wide placement you’ll shift the direction of force/tension towards the lower chest, especially when taking the bar to a lower chest or upper rib position on the eccentric.
During the concentric, the underhand grip brings your elbows closer together which allows for a shortening of the pectoral muscle and ultimately a better contraction and ability to fatigue the muscle fibers. The key point to keep in mind though is you’ll be much weaker in the reverse grip position when pressing so will need to reduce the weight in comparison to your normal bench press numbers.
Decline Dumbbell Pullover
The pullover is an old-school bodybuilding exercise that will target the chest, serratus (muscles running along the ribs), triceps, or lats depending on the equipment used and body position. To modify this classic exercise and target the chest, in particular, the lower chest, it’s best to use a decline dumbbell pullover.
With this movement, it’s crucial to focus on the range of motion in order to ensure tension remains on the chest throughout the movement. From the decline position, you won’t be able to get the chest into a fully stretched or contracted position so this is a movement with a shorter range of motion (don’t try to force it).
The dip is a powerhouse movement that’s often underutilized when it comes to chest development. As a compound movement for the upper body though, positioning is important to ensure you emphasize the chest over secondary muscle groups like the triceps and front delts.
During a dip (using a shoulder-width or wider grip), you’ll want to ensure your body weight and any additional weight, if you’re using a dipping belt, is front-loaded. This will shift tension more towards the chest and increase muscle activation. To do this, you’ll want to lean forward during the dip and also shift your feet/knees in front of your torso. This ensures that all the weight is front-loaded.
The reason the dip is such a good alternative and lower chest builder is that the top of the dip puts the lower chest into a better-contracted position. The end range of motion with your arms by your side is similar to a cable Crossover from high to low (more on this later) and allows for a better contraction of the lower chest compared with most other pressing movements.
Decline Plate Press
The reason I’ve chosen the decline plate press is that it’s a great exercise for developing the mind-muscle connection with the lower chest. Once you are comfortable with this movement the progression will then need to be the decline dumbbell together press.
For the decline plate press, you’ll need to use a small plate so either a 25lb or 35lb as the range of motion is quite short so a 45lb plate won’t fully stimulate the chest. Grasping the plate with an open palm on both sides, you’ll perform a basic press but grasping the palms together ensures that tension remains on the chest throughout the movement.
Decline Machine Press
The simplest alternative on this list (providing you have access to this machine) is the decline machine press. The handles and seat position on these machines are set so that focus is placed primarily on the lower chest.
While this is not an alternative movement in terms of being a similar compound exercise, you can specifically target the lower chest much better with a machine variant for a number of reasons. Firstly, you don’t need to use smaller stabilizing muscles in order to balance the weight with a machine so force and tension will be placed solely on the pec.
Secondly, you can brace against the back of the machine much better than you can when lying on a bench (and balancing additional weight against gravity). This means you can get tighter, generate more force, and ultimately recruit more muscle fibers.
High to Low Cable Crossover
I debated including this exercise on this list as most people will struggle to generate tension and contract the muscle in the right places. Therefore, I’d only recommend this exercise if you’re more of an experienced lifter and know how to follow exercise queues.
The major queue is to bring the cables together at mid-thigh but around 12″ out in front of you. Trying to isolate the lower chest is very difficult with this exercise so the key is to not only “cross the cables over” in front of you but to also bring the forearm/elbows together to really shorten the pec muscle for a full contraction.
** By simply bringing the handles together you won’t be able to fully contract the lower pec so focus on bringing the elbows together.
Decline Dumbbell Bench Press
The setup for the decline dumbbell bench press is very much the same as the setup for the decline plate press. The movement is also exactly the same with the exception being that you’ll hold a dumbbell in each hand rather than a single plate. This also means you can use a lot more weight but I’d still recommend trying the decline plate press just so that you can learn what it feels like to actively contract the lower chest during the move.
This exercise is arguably the closest substitute you can get to the decline bench press and while you won’t be able to lift as much weight as you can with a barbell, you should still be able to lift 80%-90% of the weight.
A key exercise tip here is to focus on bringing your elbows together at the top of the exercise. Most people will focus on touching the dumbbells together but instead of pressing upwards and bringing your hands together, press upwards while trying to bring your forearms and elbows together instead. This subtle change will ensure a better contraction and will fatigue more muscle fibers.
The most basic alternative to a decline bench press is an elevated push-up. This option is more for those that have access to a minimal amount of equipment, are training at home, need to rehab an injured shoulder, or just need a shoulder-friendly alternative.
Using a stair, bench, box, or stepper to place your hands on and raise your torso, the key is to not put yourself at too much of an incline. The higher the platform that you press from, the less weight you’ll be lifting as a result (as you take the weight of your legs out of the movement).
Therefore, do an elevated push-up on as small a platform as possible to still shift tension onto the lower chest without necessarily making the exercise too easy and losing the ability to fatigue the fast-twitch muscle fibers. This isn’t really an alternative for adding mass though so I’d either recommend using this exercise as a warm-up or finisher in your routine.
Targeting the lower chest is not really a straightforward process. A flat press could theoretically work your lower chest with just as much efficiency as a decline press so adding too many variations into your chest routine could result in overtraining and fatigue rather than optimal stimulation and growth.
Oftentimes when it comes to building muscle a “less is more” approach is better.
Therefore, when looking into decline bench press alternatives the idea is not to pick as many as possible but instead choose the option that is most beneficial to your individual goals, anatomy, and training style. As an example, a weighted dip working up to 100lbs-150lbs in additional weight could likely do more for chest development than any cable fly.
Alternatively, a decline plate press could help lifters activate their chest and contract the muscle if this is something they struggle to do with a barbell or dumbbell press – again leading to good results. The above is not an exhaustive list but some trial and error could definitely see you yield some significant progress in the long term.
If you are looking to make changes to your physique by either losing body fat, building muscle or looking to maintain a lean physique then sign up to my weekly newsletter below. Each week I send out actionable tips to help you lose that extra 1lb of fat or build that extra 0.5lb of muscle mass on a weekly basis.
If you sign up now you’ll also receive my 28 day body recomp program completely Free. This ebook will be sent straight to your inbox and will provide an intense 28 day program aimed at helping you lose up to 8lbs of body fat whilst also building 2lb-4lb of lean muscle mass in just 4 weeks.
Don’t worry if you’re not ready for an intense program just yet, my weekly newsletter will give smaller tips that when implemented daily, will stack up over time and see you transform your body with seemingly minimal effort!