The Five Best Chest Workouts for Big Pecs and Powerful Presses

If you're trying to move up a t-shirt size, look no further than the workouts on offer here.

One of the first things a lot of new lifters want when they step into the gym is a strong bench press. Nice-looking pecs don’t hurt, and the bench can be an alluring lift for people who grow up thinking of it as the pinnacle of strength displays. While you do have to build a powerful back and strong legs to become a truly well-rounded lifter, there’s nothing wrong with diving into the weight room intent on racking up some solid bench numbers.

Figuring out the best chest workouts will always depend on your goals. Training for a big, muscular chest looks a little different than training for max bench press numbers — but both will make you bigger and stronger. 

This article will not only walk you through the best chest exercises for your goals, but will also teach you about the muscles of your chest, explain why having a strong chest is so important, and teach how to warm up to keep your upper body lifts healthy (and heavy).

Best Chest Workouts

Best Chest Workout for Strength

When you want to train your chest for strength, you don’t have to choose between push-ups and bench pressing. Incorporating both into your program will give you a well-rounded and strong chest. Your upper body pressing strength will improve when you give your chest an adequate training stimulus. That means you’ll want to use moderately heavy to very heavy weights. That way, you’ll make sure to be progressively overloading your chest.

The Workout

If you’re training twice a week, you can use the first indicated set and rep scheme (higher intensity, lower volume) for both workouts. If you’re going three times a week, use the second set and rep scheme (higher volume, lower intensity) in between sessions. Varying training intensity like this will help make sure your recovery can stay as high quality as your reps. You’ll also get a lot stronger on the way. Rest three or four minutes between sets on the intense days to maximize in-session recovery.

Best Chest Workout for Muscle Growth

You might be able to lift heavy, but if you’re not training for chest hypertrophy, it might not look that way. If you really want to target your chest for size, you’ll want to choose moderately heavy weights and focus on time under tension, and achieving an adequate range of motion. Your chest has a lot of dimensions, so you’ll want to emphasize each chest angle with your training.

The Workout

You’ll notice that you’re only breaking out the barbell once for this workout. That’s because there are so many rich ways to train the chest without locking your shoulders into a prescribed position. You’re also going to be working from various angles to hit each part of your chest. That way, your muscle development will be truly three-dimensional. Perform this workout two or three times a week, keeping your form perfect the whole time.

  • Decline Barbell Bench Press — 4 x 8
  • Pause Flat Kettlebell Bench Press — 4 x 8 (three-second hold)
  • Incline Push-Up — 3 x 2 reps shy of failure
  • Weighted Dip — 3 x 2 reps shy of failure
  • Cable Flye — 4 x 12
  • Push-up — two sets of max reps 

Best Chest Workout for Power

Your lower body might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about training for power and explosiveness. But improving your upper body’s power has a lot of advantages, too. It’ll keep your body well-rounded, and help you bust through stubborn benching plateaus

Building power in your upper body can give you that mental and physical boost you need to get the bar off your chest in a heavy bench press and complete those extra reps.

The Workout

In general, when you’re training to improve power, you’ll want to lift fairly heavy. But you’re often going to perform even fewer reps than you would while training for pure strength. That’s because you’ll be focused on speed work. Speed and explosiveness require maximum muscle activation as fast as possible. Because of that, you’ll need to focus even more than usual on perfecting your form. 

To recruit as many muscle fibers as possible, you’ll be manipulating time, your range of motion, and eliminating momentum. Just because it’s low volume doesn’t mean it’ll be easy — in fact, it might mean just the opposite.

Best Chest Workout for Beginners

If you’re one of the many, many people who purchased their first pair of dumbbells because you saw Arnold Schwarzenegger on a magazine cover or in a movie, you probably want a chest workout that sets you on the path to success. Luckily, chest training for beginners is very straightforward.

The Workout

If you’re a gym newbie, you’re in the unique position to benefit a lot from a low amount of stimulus. What this means in practical terms is that you won’t need the kind of high-volume, comprehensive training that a lifter with several years of training under their belt requires to progress. Hitting this workout once, maybe twice per week is more than enough to start building that barrel chest. 

  • Barbell Bench Press — 3 x 5 
  • Incline Dumbbell Press — 3 x 8 
  • Dumbbell Flye — 2 x 12
  • Bodyweight Dip — 2 x 2 reps short of failure 

Best Bodyweight Chest Workout

Yes, it can feel amazing to bench press heavy. Not to mention that if you’re a powerlifter, benching is one of your competition lifts. But lifting weights isn’t the only way to increase your chest strength. Bodyweight chest workouts can help you maintain and even grow muscle, not to mention get strong.

The Workout

Endless, regular push-ups aren’t the only way to work your chest without equipment. Yes, a lot of push-ups will be involved. But you’ll also vary the types of push-ups, speed, range of motion, and angle. Just make sure your form is spotless throughout. You can perform this workout two or three times a week, depending on your experience level and comfort with bodyweight movements.

Perform these exercises back-to-back as a circuit, with little to no rest in between. Repeat the circuit three times in total, resting up to four minutes between rounds. 

  • Incline Push-Up — two reps short of failure
  • Decline Push-Up — two reps short of failure
  • Plyometric Push-Up — three reps short of failure
  • Close-Grip Push-Up — one rep short of failure
Credit: Just Stock / Shutterstock

Anatomy of the Chest

It would be easy to assume that you only need the consummate chest exercise — the bench press — to build your pecs. But if you’re looking to truly improve pressing power and chest growth, it helps to know something about the full anatomy of your chest.

Pectoralis Major

The pectoralis major is what most people think about when they think of the chest muscles. That’s pretty fair, because it is the largest chest muscle. The pec major responsible for flexing your shoulder joint and for moving your arm across and toward your midline.

Pectoralis Minor

The pectoralis minor sits underneath the pectoralis major, but that doesn’t mean it’s less important. The pecs minor pulls your shoulders forward and down, which is far from insignificant when you’re doing anything from setting up your proper pus-hup to getting set to max out your bench.

Serratus Anterior

If your sides ever feel weirdly sore after a big day of push-ups, your serratus anterior is likely the culprit. Even though it’s not technically a chest muscle, the serratus anterior webs along the sides of your ribs and attaches to them near the pecs. It’s responsible for moving your scapula up and forward — hence the serratus’ involvement in push-ups and certain other pressing movements.

Benefits of Chest Training

Well-rounded chest workouts don’t just increase your benching numbers — although they will do that. Integrating chest-focused sessions into your training will help keep your body well-rounded and strong. This is especially so if you’re making sure to perform plenty of back and pulling movements on your other training days.

Increasing Upper-Body Strength

As long as you’re prioritizing your shoulder health, developing a consistent chest training routine should help improve your overall pressing strength. Forging a strong pressing routine will give you plenty of practice in bracing your core for upper body lifts. Incorporating chest work into your training regimen can strengthen your shoulders and triceps, both of which are key players in your setup and lockout. 

Growing Your Chest 

Adding benching and push-ups into your routine will target your chest muscles for growth, first and foremost. Even if you’re training primarily for power or strength, it’s very likely that your chest will also get bigger. This is especially true if you’re training your chest from multiple angles and are getting enough protein in.

Growing Your Arms 

Your pecs won’t be the only muscles to grow from pressing. Your delts and triceps will likely also get bigger from chest training since you’ll need to recruit both of these to perform the best bench presses and push-ups. 

How to Program Chest Workouts

Sometimes, you’ve just got to give in to the desire to have well-developed pecs. However, you must make sure that any program involving lots of chest work is well-balanced. Any workout for chest growth has to be accompanied by plenty of pulling work. Emphasizing back hypertrophy and plenty of lower body compound work has to be central to your overall program if you don’t want to be imbalanced by all that chest work.

Even if your primary goal is to develop your chest, you should centralize upper and lower body pulling in your program. You’ll need to recover well enough to also work your lower body and get in plenty of pulling to keep your routine balanced. So, make strategic choices about how much volume and intensity your body can handle with your upper body pushing work

Credit: Jasminko Ibrakovic / Shutterstock

If you’re the kind of person that gets wiped out after a heavy squat day and your priority is chest for your training cycle, avoid scheduling heavy chest work right after heavy squats. If deadlifts take you out of commission, give yourself enough time to recover before benching. And if benching takes a lot out of you, you might not be one of those people who can do it three times a week — and there’s nothing wrong with tuning down your frequency somewhat. 

How to Warm Up Your Chest

Regardless of your specific chest training goal, maintaining excellent shoulder health will be crucial. If you want to bench heavy, your first priority — before hitting the weights — should be reducing your risk of injury. So warming up properly is a must. 

That means more than swinging your arms back and forth a few times. You’ll want to include activation exercises for your upper back and shoulders (don’t underestimate the importance of the lats in benching). If you want to improve your bench press performance, don’t skimp on an upper-body warmup routine — move deliberately and with intention through each repetition. And don’t forget to breathe.

Sample Chest Warm-Up

More Chest Training Tips

If you want to forge unbeatable upper body strength, you can’t go wrong with focusing on solid chest workouts. Make sure you’re prioritizing your shoulder health and incorporating plenty of pulling work into other areas of your training routine. To learn more about how to give yourself the best chest workout possible, check out these extra chest training articles.

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