Chest training is a highlight in most lifters’ routines. It’s either the day they get to throw around big weight on the bench or the day they get an excellent pump with immediate (however temporary) results.
Exercise choice can dramatically influence overall results, especially when it comes to training the chest. Between myths about “targeting” different parts of the chest, training too heavy, or over-stressing shoulder and elbow joints more than pectoral muscles, many lifters are lucky to end up with a well-designed program. However, luck has a way of evaporating when you lean on it too often. Below, we list 12 of the best chest exercises to build your chest program around.
Best Chest Exercises
Flat Barbell Bench Press
If you’re reading a list of the “best chest exercises” and don’t see the classic bench press, your instinct might be to close the page and move on. This founding member of the big three powerlifts is also a time-tested bodybuilding staple.
The versatility of the bench press, which makes it well-suited to building strength as well as muscle size, makes it a key player in many chest-building workouts. Very minor technique adjustments can shift the emphasis towards size or strength, so it’s important to know how and why you’re performing the exercise to get maximum results.
How to Do the Flat Barbell Bench Press
Lie on a bench with your feet flat on the ground. Your glutes and shoulders should never leave the bench during the exercise. Maintain a slight arch in your lower back. For optimal recruitment of the pec (chest) muscles, grab the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width. A closer grip de-emphasizes the pecs and instead prioritizes the triceps. (1)
With your elbows slightly bent, pinch your shoulder blades together while staying on the bench. Straighten your arms to unrack the barbell and “pull” the weight from over your face to above your upper chest. Lower the bar to mid-chest level while aiming your elbows at an angle between your feet and shoulders. Briefly pause in the bottom position before pressing up. In the locked out position, the bar should be above your upper chest or neck.
Benefits of the Flat Barbell Bench Press
- It trains the chest through a complete range of motion, with assistance from the shoulders and triceps, making it an efficient upper body exercise.
- It’s sport-specific for competitive powerlifters and has carryover to any athletes (especially those in contact sports) who can benefit from upper body pressing power.
- You can load the barbell with a significant amount of weight relative to other chest exercises, making it suitable for very long-term progress.
The intimidating-sounding guillotine press (sometimes called a “neck press”) was popularized by bodybuilding coach Vince Gironda in the 1960s. It applies specific technique adjustments to the standard flat barbell bench press to place even more muscular stress on the pecs.
This increased muscular stress means less weight can deliver more results. In fact, the guillotine should not be performed with heavy weight, since it would lead to excessive joint strain. It can be an excellent addition to a chest-building workout, but lifters with pre-existing shoulder issues may have trouble performing the exercise properly.
How to Do the Guillotine Press
Lie on a flat bench with your feet flat on the ground. Keep your glutes and shoulders touching the bench. Flex your abs to flatten your lower back into the bench. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, nearly as wide as possible. Unrack the bar by pressing upwards, and pull the bar to a position above your neck.
As you lower the bar, keep your elbows pointed directly out to each side. This will drastically increase the stretch on the chest muscles. Keep the bar in line with your neck as you lower it as far as possible. Press upwards immediately after reaching maximum stretch.
Benefits of the Guillotine Press
- Targets the chest without the need for relatively excessive weight, reducing wear and tear on the joints.
- Emphasizes the chest while minimizing recruitment of the triceps and shoulders.
The barbell pullover is one of the oldest exercises a lifter can do, with weightlifters in the late-1800s advocating the exercise. It’s also one of the most confusing exercises. Rarely do lifters argue over which muscles are trained by a specific exercise, because there’s almost always a clear-cut answer, but the pullover is constantly at the center of an ongoing “chest exercise or back exercise” debate.
The pullover actually works both the chest and lats (back muscle) at the same time, but many studies, along with many anecdotal reports from lifters over the decades, support the pullover as a very effective chest exercise. (2)(3) If your lats “take over” during the exercise and you cannot feel your pecs working, perform the exercise at the end of your chest workout when the pecs are pre-fatigued. (4)
How to Do the Barbell Pullover
Hold a small barbell with an overhand grip slightly closer than shoulder-width. Sit on a bench and rest the bar across your legs. As you lie flat onto the bench, “kick” the weight into a position over your face and straighten your arms. Plant your feet securely on the ground.
Keep your glutes on the bench. Lower the weight towards your head, descending nearly in line with the bench if your shoulder mobility allows. Pause very briefly in the stretched position before pulling back to the starting position. Maintain a slightly bent elbow position during each rep and do not actively bend at the elbows to lower the weight.
Benefits of the Barbell Pullover
- Targets the chest, lats, and shoulder muscles.
- Emphasizes the chest with limited triceps recruitment.
- The pullover is an effective stretch for the lats, as well as the shoulders, and can improve shoulder mobility over time.
Low Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
Chest training often incorporates a variety of angles to optimally address both the “upper chest” (clavicular head of the pecs) and the “mid or lower chest” (sternocostal head of the pecs). These different parts of the chest muscle will be more thoroughly addressed in a later section.
Inclined chest exercises will target the upper pecs. However, a relatively low angle is ideal because an excessively inclined angle (more vertical than horizontal) will reduce chest activation and increase shoulder activation. (5) Dumbbells allow a deeper stretched position and/or more range of motion at lockout, compared to a barbell.
How to Do the Low Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
Set an adjustable bench to a low incline — the second hole on an adjustable bench or place two bumper plates under one end of a flat bench. Grab a pair of dumbbells and sit on the bench with the weights resting on your legs. Lie back onto the bench while “kicking” the weights into a straight-arm locked out position above your chest.
Angle your hands slightly towards your feet by rotating your wrists outwards. Neither your palms nor your thumbs should be directly pointed towards each other. Maintain this hand position throughout each rep. Lower the weights under control, reaching a stretched position with the weights near your chest. Press upwards, bringing the weights close together in the top position.
Benefits of the Low Incline Dumbbell Press
- The incline angle optimizes upper chest recruitment without excessive shoulder activation.
- Exercise variety (incorporating angles and different implements) has been shown to improve training results. (6)
- Dumbbells allow more freedom for the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joint compared to a barbell, making the exercise less stressful to the joints.
Decline Dumbbell Press
Decline bench press variations are often believed to emphasize the “lower pecs” due to arm position. However, the “lower pecs” aren’t one separate muscle, they’re only part of the larger pectoral (chest) muscle.
A decline angle has been shown to activate the chest comparably to the flat bench press, while recruiting less shoulder muscle, so decline pressing is an excellent option for lifters with shoulder pain (7) Using dumbbells instead of a barbell also allows a greater range of motion which can translate to a greater muscle-building stimulus.
How to Do the Decline Dumbbell Press
Adjust a flat bench to elevate your hips above your head. Take a pair of dumbbells and sit on the bench with the weights resting on your legs. Lie back onto the bench while “pulling” the weights into a straight-arm locked out position above your chest. Be sure to hook the bench with the back of your knees to prevent your body from sliding downwards.
Angle your hands slightly towards your feet by rotating your wrists outwards. Maintain this diagonal hand position for each rep. Your elbows should maintain a slight angle between your shoulders and feet. Pause briefly in the stretched position before pressing to the starting point. On the last rep of any set, lower the weights into the stretched position and perform a “curl” by bending at the elbows to lower them to the floor before getting up from the bench.
Benefits of the Decline Dumbbell Press
- Dumbbells reduce joint strain by allowing more individualized movement of the wrists, elbows, and shoulders.
- The decline angle trains the chest with limited shoulder stress.
Decline Dumbbell Flye
The dumbbell flye is an effective isolation (single-joint) exercise to activate only the chest muscle with minimized involvement of the shoulders and triceps, compared to compound (multi-joint) bench press variations which recruit all three muscles. This makes it an excellent addition to any workout focused specifically on training the chest.
The decline position takes advantage of gravity in the locked out position for increased muscular tension. On a flat bench, the weights offer limited resistance at the top. With a decline bench, the muscles are more highly activated to support the load.
How to Do the Decline Dumbbell Flye
Set an adjustable bench to a slight decline angle. Take a pair of dumbbells and sit on the bench with the weights resting on your legs. Lie back onto the bench while “pulling” the weights into a straight-arm locked out position above your chest. Be sure to hook the bench with the back of your knees to prevent your body from sliding downwards.
Maintain a slight bend in your elbows throughout the exercise. Begin with your palms facing each other. Lower the weights towards the ground while keeping your hands in line with your elbows. Don’t allow the weights to rotate your arms towards your head. In the bottom position, the weights should be near chest-level. Contract your chest to “pull” your hands back to the starting position.
Benefits of the Decline Dumbbell Flye
- Isolates and emphasizes the chest with limited activation of the shoulders and triceps.
- Decreased shoulder joint strain compared to pressing.
The dip, along with the pull-up, have both been called “the upper body squat” because of their potential for building size and strength. Makes you think that a program focused on squats, dips, and pull-ups would be great for adding a bunch of muscle and getting really strong, right? Yep, right.
Dips, specifically, are an excellent way to target the chest, shoulders, and triceps using only your bodyweight, making it ideal for lifters with limited equipment. It works the muscle through a long range of motion and has the potential for adding significant weight by using a weighted vest, dip belt, or dumbbell held with the legs.
How to Do the Dip
Begin at the top position on a set of dip bars with your arms locked out. To ensure optimal chest recruitment, lean your upper body forward during the movement. Keeping an upright torso will reduce chest activity and increase focus on the triceps.
Bend your arms to lower your body as far as your shoulder mobility allows. Pause briefly in the stretched position to further increase muscular stress before pressing up to lockout.
Benefits of the Dip
- The bodyweight exercise can be performed with minimal equipment.
- Assesses and builds shoulder mobility during the exercise.
- Bodyweight exercises are often seen as more “functional” than using free weights or machines, contributing to total-body performance and joint health. (8)
The basic push-up can be an effective introductory exercise for new lifters, but it can be difficult to progressively overload. Rather than adding weight, specific push-up variations can provide an effective training stimulus for continued size and strength.
The sliding push-up is an advanced variation which allows the pec muscles to work through an extremely long range of motion, moving the arms inwards during the exercise rather than remaining static. This inward motion has been shown to significantly increase muscle activation in the chest. (9)
How to Do the Sliding Push-Up
Take a pair of furniture sliders, or towels on a tile or wood floor, and set up in a push-up position with your hands on the sliders and nearly touching each other. Maintain a straight line from your heels to your neck.
Lower your body under control until your chest almost touches the ground while allowing your hands to “slide” outwards. In the bottom position, your arms should be well beyond shoulder-width. While pressing upwards, pull your hands together until they nearly meet in the starting position.
Benefits of the Sliding Push-Up
- Increased chest activation compared to basic push-ups.
- Allows intense training with limited equipment.
- Push-up variations train abdominal and total core stability while also targeting the chest.
The hand-release push-up was popularized by CrossFit as a way to achieve consistent, unquestionable depth during high-repetition push-ups.
The hand-release push-up manipulates the “stretch-shortening cycle,” which is a way muscles are recruited to provide force in response to being in a stretched position. (10) While the hand-release push-up does require a full range of shoulder mobility, it also recruits the chest muscles more significantly than standard push-ups.
How to Do the Hand-Release Push-Up
Begin in a standard push-up position, on your hands and toes with your hands just outside shoulder-width. Maintain a straight line from your heels to your neck. Lower your body until your chest touches the floor.
Briefly lift your hands off the ground and pull your shoulder blades together, allowing your entire upper body to rest on the ground. Immediately replace your hands just outside shoulder-width and press up to lockout.
Benefits of the Hand-Release Push-Up
- Increased chest activation compared to basic push-ups.
- Allows intense training with no equipment.
- Push-up variations train abdominal and total core stability while also targeting the chest.
The cable crossover is a time-tested chest exercise, often used by bodybuilders to “carve detail” into the chest muscles. That’s not actually a thing because “detail” is only achieved by lowering body fat to reveal muscular development.
Because the cable provides constant resistance, the muscle is worked completely through the complete range of motion, compared to dumbbell flyes which provide varying intensities due to leverage changing relative to gravity. Basic flat dumbbell flyes become less difficult as the weight moves from horizontal to perpendicular. Cable pulleys bypass that limitation.
How to Do the Cable Crossover
Stand in the center of two high cable pulleys with single-handles attached to each side. Grab the handles and begin with your arms at shoulder level and your palms facing forward. Keep a slight bend in your elbows while pulling your hands to meet at belly button-level.
Pause briefly to maximize the peak contraction before returning your hands to the starting position.
Benefits of the Cable Crossover
- Isolates and emphasizes the chest with little to no activation of the shoulders and triceps.
- The cable pulleys apply constant tension to the chest, increasing the muscle’s total time under tension and leading to increased growth.
Smith Machine Incline Press
The Smith machine has earned a relatively unfair reputation as being ineffective for muscle growth or, worse, dangerous for joint health. That mindset comes primarily from improper exercise form or loading, as well as the machine’s design which uses a fixed path and requires less joint stabilization.
The Smith machine press has been shown to activate the chest to a nearly identical degree compared to the flat barbell bench press while reducing shoulder muscle recruitment. (11) When combined with an incline angle to emphasize the upper chest, the Smith machine incline press becomes an extremely efficient chest exercise.
How to Do the Smith Machine Incline Press
Position an inclined bench under a Smith machine and ensure that the bar is in line with your collarbones. Grab the bar with a wider than shoulder-width grip. Unrack the bar and lower it until you feel a maximum stretch across the chest.
Press up immediately and smoothly. To maintain muscular tension, stop just short of lockout in the top position before beginning the next rep.
Benefits of the Smith Machine Incline Press
- Allows the upper chest to be targeted with decreased shoulder recruitment.
- The Smith machine allows lifters to bench press safely without the need of a spotter.
Medicine Ball Chest Pass
Medicine balls are often used in athletic or conditioning-based workouts, but can serve an important role for building muscle, strength, or power.
The medicine ball chest pass allows an explosive movement which has been shown to increase chest activation as well as boost strength when followed by heavier lifting. (12)(13) This makes it an efficient stimulus for building size and strength.
How to Do the Medicine Ball Chest Pass
Stand several steps away from a sturdy wall, with your feet shoulder-width apart and legs slightly bent. Hold a medicine ball in both hands, with the ball touching your chest. Quickly and forcefully throw the ball forward, not upwards, into the wall.
Carefully watch for the ball’s rebound. Pick up the ball (don’t try to catch it). Take a moment to set up the starting position before repeating. Note: To ensure explosive power, use a light medicine ball. For example, 10-15 pounds could be used by experienced lifters.
Benefits of the Medicine Ball Chest Pass
- Increases chest activation during exercises performed shortly afterwards.
- Develops explosive power which transfers to bench press strength.
- Recruits the legs, core, and upper body with an emphasis on the chest muscles.
The Chest Muscles
The chest has multiple heads, or sections, which can be emphasized by understanding their purpose and choosing specific exercises to target each separate section. Unfortunately, some lifters have misinterpreted the muscle’s design, which has made their chest workouts much more complicated than is necessary.
The pec major is the primary chest muscle. While it’s one specific muscle, it consists of two separate heads — the clavicular head (upper chest) located in the upper quarter of the chest near the collarbone and the sternocostal head making up the entire remaining part of the chest.
There’s no anatomical evidence for a “lower chest,” “inner chest,” or other popular subdivision of the muscle. Only the upper pecs have been shown to be emphasized separately, specifically from exercises performed at an incline, due to the separate attachment point of the clavicular head.
The pecs work to bring the arms in towards the body’s centerline, seen when the arms are extended in a flye or press and brought above the chest, for example.
The pec minor attaches to the shoulder blade and is heavily recruited to bring the scapulae (shoulder blades) forward, particularly in the lockout position of presses. The pec minor is not visible or often directly targeted, but plays a key role in overall shoulder health.
The serratus is a small series of muscles that sit alongside the ribs. Like the pec minor, they attach to the scapulae and help to control scapular movement. The serratus are also heavily recruited at the end portion of the locked out position.
How Often Should You Train the Chest
While chest training is popular, it shouldn’t be overemphasized relative to other body parts. Excessive chest or shoulder training may exacerbate postural problems unless balanced by comparable back training. (14)
However, for optimal muscle growth, one to three properly programmed workouts each week can be an effective approach for muscle growth. Ideally, the chest should be trained in a workout including the shoulders and triceps, the upper body, or the entire body.
Each training split would require a different approach to total volume (sets and reps), using lower volume for the chest when more body parts are trained in a single workout. For example, you may perform a total of 14 sets for the chest, followed by shoulders and triceps; or you might perform six sets for chest, preceded by back and followed by shoulders, triceps, and biceps (for a complete upper body workout) and repeat that upper body workout several days later.
How to Progress Your Chest Training
Because the chest can be effectively trained with a variety of compound exercises, it’s possible to progress steadily by adding weight to those exercises each week.
Dumbbell pressing exercises, for example, don’t necessarily accommodate adding 10 to 20 pounds per dumbbell each week. Those weights would quickly become dangerously unwieldy and strength levels don’t typically progress that fast. Increasing five to 10 pounds per dumbbell could be maintained for a longer period.
The nature of isolation exercises, being single-joint, doesn’t blend effectively with using heavier weights. To encourage joint safety and to maintain stress on the target muscle, focus on adding a rep (or several reps) on exercises like flyes or cable crossovers.
One reliable approach with chest training is to perform a compound exercise (like a press or dip) for lower reps with a heavy weight followed by moderate to higher reps with moderate weight using a mix of compound and isolation exercises.
How to Warm-Up Your Chest
All chest exercises involve the shoulder joint and, because the shoulders can suffer from significant wear and tear, a thorough warm-up is an essential first step to any chest workout. Take a light resistance band and perform this basic warm-up circuit before any chest training.
- Cat/Camel: Begin on your hands and knees with your arms straight. Look up to the ceiling while sinking the arch of your spine downwards. When you’ve reached as far as your mobility allows, reverse direction by driving into the ground through your straight arms. Look down to the ground while rounding your spine in a deep curve. That’s one full rep. Perform five reps before moving to the next exercise.
- Band Pull-Apart: Take a resistance band with a palms-down grip, holding the band at arms-length in front of your body. Keep a slight bend in your arms while pulling both hands back. Pause when the band touches your chest. Return to the starting position. Perform 10 reps before moving to the next exercise.
- Band Dislocate: Widen your grip on the resistance band to well beyond shoulder-width. Begin with the band at your waist. Keep your arms straight while raising the band above your head, reaching as far back as possible. When your shoulders have reached their full range of motion, return to the starting position. Move at a slow and controlled pace in each direction. Perform five reps before moving to the next exercise.
- Push-Up Plus: Begin in a classic push-up position, on your hands and toes with your hands just outside shoulder-width. Maintain a straight line from your heels to your neck. Lower your body until your chest nearly touches the floor. Press upwards under control. After locking out in the top position, continue pressing with straight arms and allow your shoulder blades to round forwards, before reversing the process to lower your body. Perform five reps before repeating the first exercise. Do a total of three complete circuits.
Building a Complete Chest
Chest workouts don’t need to be overly complicated with a half-dozen exercises “attacking” the muscle from every potential angle. However, efficient chest training also shouldn’t be overly minimalistic with just one exercise to train the entire pec. By sorting through the exercise options you’ve just learned, you can design a complete workout that delivers size and strength without wasting time in the gym and without beating up your body.
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