Chest training – we all love it! There is nothing quite as satisfying as pumping out some heavy reps of barbell or dumbbell bench presses and feeling satisfied with a job well done. However, a lot of guys are guilty of following the same chest-building workout for weeks, months, or even years at a time. This is a big mistake.
To grow, your body needs a variety of exercises. In fact, studies tell us that exercise variety is just as important as load assignment and reps ranges for muscle growth (1). This is especially true for the chest muscles, properly called pectoralis major, or pecs for short.
Take your pec development to a whole new level with the best chest exercises.
The pectoralis major is a large, thick, fan-shaped muscle located on the upper part of your chest. Its name comes from the word pectus, which is the Latin word for breast. This muscle makes up the bulk of your chest mass. The underlying muscle, pectoralis minor, is much thinner and doesn’t contribute much to the size of your chest. Subsequently, the focus of this article is the pec major.
The pectoralis major is a convergent muscle with three broad attachment sites that come together at a single insertion point. It can be divided into two sections or heads – the clavicular or upper head, and the sternal or lower head. The sternal head is also known as the abdominal head (2).
The functions of the pectoralis major are…
The Clavicular head:
- Shoulder flexion
- Horizontal adduction
- Internal rotation
The Sternal head:
- Shoulder extension
- Horizontal adduction
- Internal rotation
The clavicular head of the pectoralis major, often just called the upper pecs, is more active during incline chest exercises. Conversely, the sternal head, or lower pecs, is more active during decline movements. Because of this, you must train your pecs from multiple angles to develop it fully.
Do you need to be an expert in pec anatomy to build a chest to be proud of? Probably not! But it is useful to understand these basics so you can choose the best exercise for sculpting the chest of your dreams. To help you on your way, here are the ten best chest building exercises.
The Best Chest Exercises
To get the most from these chest exercises, make sure you use the right weight and set and rep scheme. While it’s okay to train outside of these parameters occasionally, the bulk of your workouts should match your goal.
- For strength, do sets of 1-5 reps using heavy weights, resting 3-5 minutes between sets.
- For hypertrophy, do sets of 6-12 reps with moderate weights, resting 60-90 seconds between sets.
- For endurance, do sets of 13-20 reps with light weights, resting 30-60 seconds between sets.
Also, remember to warm up before you start working out. A few minutes of light cardio plus some dynamic stretches will help, and you should also do a couple of light sets of your main exercises to fully prepare your joints and muscles for what you are about to do.
Ready? Here are the ten best chest exercises!
1- Barbell bench press
The barbell bench press is probably the most popular chest exercise around. As well as being used by bodybuilders, the bench press is also the second discipline contested in powerlifting competitions. Whether you want to build powerful-looking pecs or unstoppable upper body strength, the bench press can help.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back on the bench press station. Your eyes should be directly beneath the bar. Reach up and hold it with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
- Press your upper back into the bench, arch your lower back slightly, lift your chest up toward the ceiling, and push your feet firmly into the floor. Squeeze your shoulders down and back.
- Unrack the bar and hold it over your chest.
- Bend your arms and lower the bar to your sternum. Do not bounce the bar off your chest. Tuck your elbows slightly into your sides as the bar descends. Your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor at the bottom of each rep. If they are not, adjust your grip on your next set.
- Drive the bar back up to arms’ length and repeat.
- A good measure of upper body strength
- A very popular, widely performed exercise
- Suitable for developing both strength and muscle size
2- Dumbbell bench press
As popular as the barbell bench press is, for some bodybuilders, it may not be the best choice. For example, if you have short arms or a very deep barrel chest, your range of motion will be shorter than if you have long arms because the bar will touch your chest sooner. While this may be helpful for lifting heavy weights, it also means the bench press is not always the best chest builder for short-armed guys. Others find that using a barbell is hard on their shoulders. The good news is that dumbbell bench presses are an ideal alternative.
How to do it:
- Lie on an exercise bench with a dumbbell in each hand, pressed up to arms’ length. Your palms should be facing down your body.
- Bend your arms and lower the weights down to just outside your shoulders.
- Press your dumbbells back up and repeat.
- No need for a spotter; just lower the weights to the floor if you are unable to complete a rep
- Useful for fixing left-to-right strength imbalances
- Easier on the shoulder joints than barbell bench presses
- A larger range of motion than barbell bench presses
3- Incline bench press
Adopting an incline position increases clavicular or upper pec activation. Studies show that the best angle for targeting the upper pecs is 44 degrees (3). Most benches don’t allow for such precise adjustment, so shoot for 30-45 degrees. If you increase the angle beyond this, you’ll just end up working your deltoids (shoulders) more than your pecs. You can do incline bench presses using a barbell or dumbbells.
How to do it:
- Lie on an incline bench set to around 45-degrees. Hold the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Lift your chest and pull your shoulders down and back. Plant your feet firmly on the floor and arch your lower back slightly.
- Unrack the bar, bend your arms and lower the bar down to your upper chest.
- Press the weight back up and repeat.
- Allows you to emphasize your upper pecs
- An effective muscle builder
- Can also be done using dumbbells
4- Decline bench press
The sternal or lower pecs are involved in all chest exercises, but using a decline bench allows you to preferentially emphasize this part of your chest. A lot of lifters also find that decline bench presses are easier on their shoulders than the flat and incline versions. If you can’t bench press because of shoulder pain, this exercise could be a good alternative. The ideal angle for targeting your lower pecs is around 15 degrees below parallel.
How to do it:
- Lie on your exercise bench with your head lower than your hips. If your bench has one, anchor your legs behind the pad. This will stop you from sliding down the bench.
- Hold the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Lift your chest and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Unrack the bar, bend your arms and lower it down to your sternum. Press the weight again up and repeat.
- Preferentially targets your upper chest
- Less strain on the shoulder joint
- Can also be done with dumbbells
5- Parallel bar dips
While barbells, dumbbells, and even machines may be your first choice for building a bigger chest, you can achieve impressive results with bodyweight exercises too. Parallel dips are a challenging exercise that emphasizes your lower pecs. Be warned, this exercise can also be hard on your shoulders, especially if you descend too far or bounce out of the bottom of your reps.
How to do it:
- Grab the parallel handles and step or jump up so your arms are supporting all your weight. Lift your chest and lean forward slightly. Cross your feet behind you to help with this.
- Bend your arms and descend until your upper arms are at least parallel to the floor.
- Push back up and repeat.
- A wider-than shoulder-width grip increases chest activation but also increases shoulder joint stress.
- Dips are also an effective triceps builder
- Can be made harder by using a weighted dipping belt
- Useful for targeting the lower pecs
Push-ups are probably the most widely performed exercise in the world! From elite athletes to kids at school, almost everyone has done at least a few push-ups. This bodyweight exercise is a very useful chest exercise because you can do it anywhere and anytime. With your feet on the floor, push-ups are a decline chest exercise. But, the more you elevate your feet, the more they affect your upper chest. Change the angle of your body according to the part of your chest you want to emphasize.
How to do it:
- Kneel down and place your hands on the floor, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Your fingers should be pointing forward. Rotate your hands outward to stabilize your shoulders and maximize chest muscle activation.
- Bend your arms and lower your chest to within an inch of the floor. Do not allow your hips to sag.
- Extend your arms and repeat, remembering to keep your body straight throughout.
- Elevate your feet to put more weight on your hands, and also increase upper pec activation. Bend your legs and rest on your knees to make this exercise easier.
- You can do push-ups anywhere and any time
- Easy to modify for a harder or easier workout
- Easy on your joints
7- Dumbbell flys
Dumbbell flys are an isolation exercise. This means they involve movement at only one joint. Unlike compound chest exercises, which also involve your triceps, dumbbell flys are a much purer chest exercise. You won’t be able to lift as much weight but, with minimal triceps involvement, it’ll still feel challenging. Take care not to lower the weights too far as this could lead to a shoulder injury.
How to do it:
- Lie on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Press the weights up to arms’ length. Rotate your wrists so that your hands are facing inward. Bend your elbows slightly, but then keep them rigid.
- Open your arms and lower the dumbbells down and out to your sides. Your arms should be perpendicular to your body. Get a good stretch, but do not hyperextend your shoulders.
- Use your pecs to squeeze the weights back up and repeat.
- Can be done on a flat, incline, or decline bench to target different parts of the chest
- A good finishing exercise
- Good for pec flexibility and shoulder mobility
8- Pec deck
The pec deck is a popular gym exercise. It allows you to work your pecs without having to worry about balancing a barbell or dumbbells. Because of this, it’s a good exercise if you want to train to failure. It’s also an excellent choice for things like drop sets and forced reps.
How to do it:
- Adjust the seat so that, when you hold the handles, your arms are perpendicular to the floor. Grab the handles and bend your arms slightly. Keep them rigid for the duration of your set. Pull buyout shoulders down and back and keep them pressed against the back support. Be careful not to overextend your shoulders, adjusting your starting position to accommodate your shoulder mobility and chest flexibility.
- Push your arms forward and together.
- Slowly open your arms to lower the weight and repeat.
- An easy exercise to master
- Allows you to isolate your chest
- Removes your triceps from the exercise
- Good for hypertrophy and endurance
9- Dumbbell squeeze press
This exercise keeps your pecs under almost constant tension. This is in contrast to nearly every other chest exercise where, because of leverage, your pecs get a brief rest between reps. You don’t need a lot of weight for this exercise, making it easy on your joints and also ideal for home exercisers who don’t have access to big dumbbells.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back with a dumbbell in each hand. Hex dumbbells work best for this exercise. Press the dumbbells together and keep pressing for the duration of your set.
- Bend your arms and lower the weights to your chest. Push them back up and repeat.
- You can do this exercise on a flat, incline, or decline bench to target different parts of your chest.
- Easy on your joints
- Great for getting a chest pump
- Does not require heavy weights
10- Chest press machine
Working your pecs on a chest press machine leaves you free to focus on cranking out as many reps as possible. You don’t have to worry about balancing the weights or whether you’ll complete your next rep; you can train to failure in safety. Use a chest press machine to wring the last drop of energy out of your pecs.
Chest Press Machine
How to do it:
- Adjust the seat so that the handles are level with your armpits. Grab the handles with an overhand grip, lift your chest, and slightly arch your lower back.
- Extend your arms and push the handles away from you. Stop just short of locking your elbows.
- Lower the weights and repeat.
- Easy to learn
- Train to failure safely
- Most chest press machines offer several hand positions for variety and comfort
Important chest training tips
Use these tips to get the best results from your pec-building workouts.
1- Use a full range of motion on all pec exercises. Using too much weight may prevent you from lowering your barbell or dumbbells all the way down to your chest. This means your triceps will end up working harder than your pecs. Make your workouts as effective as possible by using the fullest range of motion you can safely complete.
2- Mix heavy weights and low reps with lighter weights and higher reps. This will ensure you stimulate both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. You can do this within the same workout, e.g., by doing heavy weight/low rep exercises followed by moderate weight/higher rep exercises, or by having a heavy workout followed by a lighter workout a few days later.
3- Don’t bounce out of the bottom of your reps. This might allow you to complete a few extra reps or lift more weight. Still, it also increases your risk of injury and actually takes stress off your target muscles. Instead, lower your weights under control, pause for 1-2 seconds, and then push them back up. This makes whatever chest exercise you are doing harder and that’s good for building muscle and strength.
4- Experiment with different grips and hand positions. You don’t always have to use the same grip. In fact, there are seven different grips you can use in your training. Try different grips and hand positions to find out which ones are best for your chest development. In most cases, a wider grip increases pec activation.
5- Don’t overemphasize the barbell bench press. Unless you are a powerlifter, you don’t need to live and die according to the amount of weight you can bench press. There are lots of other exercises you can use that are every bit as effective. Abusing the bench press can take its toll on your shoulders, and lack of exercise variety could hurt your progress.
Frequently asked questions
Do you have any questions? We’ve got the answers! If you can’t find the answer you are looking for below, drop us a line in the comments section, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.
Can I build a good chest with just bodyweight exercises?
You probably can – just look at the pecs on the average gymnast! But you’ll need to do a whole lot of push-ups and dips to build the chest of your dreams using nothing but bodyweight exercises. You may soon become bored with such a limited selection of exercises. If you do want to go down this road, I suggest you buy some parallettes and gymnastic rings to add some variety to your bodyweight workouts.
Bench presses hurt my shoulders - what should I do?
Firstly, make sure you are bench pressing correctly and aren’t using too much weight too soon. Next, be sure to include plenty of upper back exercises in your workouts to keep your shoulders balanced and healthy. Band pull-aparts and face pulls are good options. Finally, if barbell bench pressing still hurts your shoulders, drop it from your workouts, and use dumbbells instead. A lot of lifters find dumbbells easier on their joints.
Which is best for building a bigger chest – compound or isolation exercises?
Compound exercises allow you to lift more weight, and that usually means they are better for building muscle. But isolation exercises allow you to really focus on your pecs, and that is beneficial too. Rather than worry about which is better, why not do both and enjoy all the benefits on offer? I suggest doing more compound than isolation exercises, but there is no reason to choose one type over the other.
What does using chains or bands add to the bench press?
Bench pressing with bands or chains increases the amount of weight you have to overcome at lockout. This means your triceps have to work harder than usual. Powerlifters use these tools to increase strength and power and eliminate sticking points for competition. They are also an excellent way to add variety to your workouts. However, if you are training for chest muscle size, chains and bands are much less useful as they could mean your triceps get a better workout than your pecs. Use chains and bands sparingly if at all if muscle mass if your main objective.
Can I do my bench pressing in a Smith machine?
Smith machine bench presses often get a bum rap because they are supposedly bad for your shoulders. The theory is that, because the bar runs on rails, it locks you into a very repetitive movement pattern that could lead to chronic shoulder problems. However, this same criticism can be directed at regular chest press machines too, but that exercise is much less contentious.
Providing you don’t do all your bench pressing on a Smith machine, and mix things up by training your pecs with free weight and bodyweight exercises too, I see no real reason you can’t bench press using a Smith machine. But, if you do feel this exercise is hurting your shoulders, please drop it and select another.
With ten best chest exercises to choose from, you should have no problem creating an almost endless selection of pec workouts. Because the pecs are such a multifaceted muscle, you must hit them from a variety of angles, using a range of exercises and equipment. Think of these exercises as tools. Sometimes the best tool is a hammer, and other times it’s a screwdriver. Put all these exercises in your workout toolbox, so you have the right one when you need it.
1- PubMed: Fonseca, Rodrigo M.; Roschel, Hamilton; Tricoli, Valmor; de Souza, Eduardo O.; Wilson, Jacob M.; Laurentino, Gilberto C.; Aihara, André Y.; de Souza Leão, Alberto R.; Ugrinowitsch, Carlos (2014-11). “Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 28 (11): 3085–3092. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000539. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 24832974. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24832974
2- Encyclopedia Britannica: Pectoralis muscle https://www.britannica.com/science/pectoralis-muscle
3- PubMed: Trebs, Arthur A.; Brandenburg, Jason P.; Pitney, William A. (2010-07). “An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24 (7): 1925–1930. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181ddfae7. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 20512064. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20512064
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