A big chest can be appreciated and noticed year-round — under a tank top or a parka, it shows. And the chances are good that if you’ve spent years building up your pectorals to Terry-Crews-in-an-Old-Spice-commercial level, then you probably also have the pressing strength to match. Not there yet? That’s cool.
We’ve compiled a list of the eight best chest exercises (which, yes, are still useful if you’re already jacked) and a few sections on how to train your chest. Heed our advice and then heave some weights.
Best Chest Exercises
- Barbell Flat Bench Press
- Barbell Incline Bench Press
- Barbell Decline Bench Press
- Chest Flye
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Svend Press
The bench press is a classic exercise. Powerlifters do it to see who has the most pressing strength, gym rats use it to build up their pecs, and athletes utilize the bench for explosive pushing power. The bench press should be a staple in your routine for more chest size and strength.
Benefits of the Barbell Flat Bench Press
- It has direct carryover to powerlifters since it’s one of the three lifts judged in a competition.
- The bench press recruits muscles in the chest, triceps, and shoulders — so you’ll build a muscular torso.
- Compared to other chest exercises, you can load the bench press up with a relatively heavy amount of weight.
How to Do the Barbell Flat Bench Press
Lay back down on a bench, arch your lower back slightly, and plant your feet on the floor. Pull your shoulder blades together to enhance stability and upper back strength. Grab the bar (varying grips) and squeeze the hand hard to flex the arm and grip muscles maximally. With the load unracked, think about pulling the barbell to the body to touch the sternum/base of the chest. Press the weight upwards, making sure to keep your back tight, and shoulder blades pulled together.
The incline press is somewhat of a hybrid of an overhead press and flat bench press, and so pressing a barbell (or a pair of kettlebells or dumbbells) from an incline recruits more of the muscle fibers in the upper chest and taxes the shoulders a bit more. For that reason, strongmen like to use this pressing variation since it has more carryover to log presses and axle bar clean and presses.
Benefits of the Barbell Incline Bench Press
- More shoulder and upper chest activation compared to flat press variations.
- The incline bench press will have carryover to overhead pressing variations, as it strengthens the deltoids, too.
How to Do the Barbell Incline Bench Press
Adjust a workout bench so it is at 45 degrees and set up similar to that of the flat bench press. Unrack the loaded barbell and begin to pull the load downwards to line with the upper chest (a few inches below the clavicle). With the shoulder blades pulled together and elbows angled at about 45 degrees. Push the barbell upward.
The third major barbell bench press variation focuses on the lower pectoral fibers. This pressing variation is typically less strenuous on the lifter’s shoulders than the standard bench press because of the shifted shoulder angle.
Benefits of the Barbell Decline Bench Press
- The decreased strain on the shoulder joint, due to the angle of the bench you’re lifting on.
- A greater emphasis on the lower pectoral fibers.
How to Do the Barbell Decline Bench Press
Start by securing your feet into a decline bench set up and secure the upper back and hips to the bench (similar to the flat bench press). Unrack the weight and pull the load downwards toward the sternum while keeping the shoulder blades pulled together. Press through the barbell to lock out the elbows. Be sure not to allow the elbows to flare excessively out in the movement.
The chest flye — which can be done with dumbbells or on a cable machine — is a popular bodybuilding exercise to stretch the muscle fibers and pump up the muscle. That pump will help to drive nutrient-rich blood to the target area to help speed up recovery. Using dumbbells will also help improve your body’s ability to coordinate as you’re forced to stabilize each weight independently.
Benefits of the Chest Flye
- More muscular coordination as the lifter is forced to stabilize and lift two separate dumbbells.
- The chest flye stretch, which is achieved by extending the arms with light weight, will really tax the chest’s muscle fibers and pump the area with nutrient-rich blood.
- It’s a versatile movement that can be performed with dumbbells on a cable machine and kettlebells.
How to Do the Chest Flye
Lay back on a bench (either flat, decline, or incline — it doesn’t matter), with a dumbbell in each hand. With a slight bend in your elbows, lower your arms out to your sides slowly and with control. Now, reverse the motion to engage the chest. You should look like you’re hugging a tree.
The dumbbell bench press doesn’t allow you to go as heavy as its barbell counterpart, but there’s a lot to like about this move. For one, you’re controlling two dumbbells, which works your chest (and the smaller stabilizer muscles around your shoulder joint) differently than the bench press. If you have a weaker side, then this movement’s unilateral nature allows one side to catch up to the other. If you’re a person who suffers from shoulder or elbow pain, using dumbbells lets, you manipulate the grip and arm angle to find a pressing position that’s more comfortable for you.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Bench Press
- It’s easier to find a pressing position that’s more comfortable for someone who may have shoulder or elbow aches.
- You’ll acquire more joint and muscle stability from lifting two separate dumbbells.
- Since each side has to work to lift the dumbbells, you’ll allower a weaker side of your body to catch up.
How to Do the Dumbbell Bench Press
Sit up on a flat bench and then hinge forward to pick up each dumbbell. Place each weight on a knee and get set. Lean back and then drive the dumbbells back towards you (carefully) with your knees, simultaneously pressing the weights over your chest. Lower the weights, keeping your elbows tucked in at 45 degrees until your elbows break 90 degrees. Then, drive the dumbbells back up. You can also turn your palms, so they’re facing each other and press from this neutral position.
Do we need to sell you on the push-up? Probably not, but what kind of training resource would we be if we didn’t tell you that the push-up is easier on your joints since you’re not loading them with weight. And would be worth our salt if we didn’t mention that because they’re relatively safe, you can pump out a bunch of push-ups for more volume (and therefore muscle growth)? No, it wouldn’t be cool if we left those details out.
Benefits of the Push-Up
- Because you’re working out with just your body weight, your joints won’t be under as much stress as weighted movements.
- You can also really do a lot of pushups, so you’ll accumulate more muscle-building tension over time.
How to Do the Push-Up
Get into a plank position, with your hands underneath your shoulders, back flat, and feet together. Screw your palms into the ground. You should feel your chest tighten. Hold this position, and then slowly lower yourself until your chest is about an inch from the floor. Now, drive back up through the palms of your hands.
The dip is another bodyweight gem. Compared to the push-up, which has you on all fours, you’re suspended for the dip, and so your complete bodyweight is in play. You’ll also seriously recruit your triceps, which are essentially involved in all pressing movements, so working them in tandem with the chest will help strengthen the synergistic muscles in unison.
Benefits of the Dip
- You’ll strengthen the triceps and pecs — two key pressing muscles — together.
- You’ll utilize 100 percent of your body weight, which is far more than what you lift during a push-up.
How to Do the Dip
Grab the dip bar firmly and get yourself in the top of the dip position, with the upper back tight and shoulder blades squeezed together. Angle your torso slightly forward and allow the elbows to bend as they slightly tuck inwards towards the sides of the torso. Lower yourself down until your elbows bend at about 90 degrees. When ready, press through the handles and bring your body upright into the top of the dip position.
Ironically, the wimpiest looking move on our best chest exercise list will probably burn the worst (we mean best). To avoid dropping two plates on your toes, you need to squeeze the weights together continuously. That alone will get those pecs activated. Then, you’ll extend your arms to squeeze the chest together even more. The Svend press (or plate pinch) is low-impact and so safer compared to heavy pressing. It also requires little equipment (so you won’t need to wait for a bench to open up on International chest day.)
Benefits of the Svend Press
- Finally, a pressing movement that won’t require you to have to wait for everyone else to finish their bench press sets.
- The squeeze and press combination will create a lot of time under tension for a serious pump and muscular hypertrophy.
How to Do the Svend Press
Start by taking two smaller weight plates (five or 10-pound plates) and pressing them together between your hands. Your arms should be extended outwards in front of you.
While actively pinching the plate together and not letting them slip apart (constant tension), pull the plates towards your sternum as you keep the chest up and shoulder blades pulled together. Once you bring the plates to the sternum area, flex the chest and press the weights back outwards, making sure to keep the plates pressed together and the inner chest muscles engaged.
How Often Should You Train Your Chest?
Beginners (a year or less of training) should aim for 12 weekly sets, a novice trainee (2-4 year) can up the volume to 14 to 16 sets per week, and a veteran gym-goer (four or more years) may be able to do 16 to 20 weekly sets. Because the chest is one of the larger muscles in the upper body, you can train it more often than your shoulders or arms.
That said, your chest training frequency also depends on your workout split. If you’re a bodybuilder who trains only their chest once per week, then 20 sets may be too much for a single session. However, if you follow a full-body split, six sets of chest per session three times per week will yield 18 total sets but with less fatigue per workout. Powerlifters, who need to focus on chest strength, may have one low-rep, strength-focused session and then one higher rep, hypertrophy-focused workout. In that case, 20 sets wouldn’t be too difficult to accumulate.
Typically, your muscles need a minimum of 48 hours and up to 72 hours to recover. If general health and aesthetics are your goals, then you can easily train your chest twice per week. It’s common to pair your chest with your triceps — since the muscles work together in many lifts — or to train your entire upper body and then your lower body in separate sessions. As important, if not more, how often you train your chest is how you progress your chest training.
How to Progress Your Chest Training
To get stronger and bigger, you need to add more weight or more reps to each of your chest sessions. This is not hard in theory. It’s a straightforward philosophy. Of course, if you’ve been working out for even just a year, you know that this is easier said than done.
Even if you add just a pound to your bench press each workout, you’ll eventually stall out before the year is up. One of the best methods of progression is one that combines both reps and sets. For example, let’s say you bench press 225 pounds for one rep. (If you don’t know your true one-rep max, you can use our calculator to find out.) Take 80% of that, and lift it for five sets of five reps. Add one rep each week until you’re doing five sets of eight reps. Then, increase the weight by two-and-half to five pounds and start the progression over at five sets of five reps.
We suggest starting with heavier sets of chest work first and then following that up with lighter weight for more volume. Otherwise, you’ll pre-fatigue your muscles too much and be too weak to lift weights heavy enough to build strength.
More Chest Training Tips
With this list of best chest exercises now in your training toolbox, read some other chest training-related pieces.
- 3 Chest Workouts That Build Size and Strength Without Weights
- Five Bench Press Programs to Build a Bigger, Stronger Chest
- Chest Workouts You Can Do at Home With Minimal Equipment
Featured image: Jaskinko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock