If you want to be a bodybuilder, you need big pecs. There’s a reason Arnold Schwarzenegger was known as the Austrian Oak — alongside a broad, sculpted back and bulging biceps, Schwarzenegger’s chest helped cement him as one of the greatest physiques of all time.
However, lifting like Arnold won’t necessarily make you look like him. In fact, a common blunder for many new gymgoers is copying the current training style of their favorite athlete instead of following in their footsteps.
The right chest workout can help you move up a shirt size in no time, but if you’re a beginner, you can’t train like a ten-year veteran. Conversely, if you’ve been in the gym for a while and want to keep making progress, you shouldn’t take things back to basics.
Here’s one dastardly effective chest workout cut three different ways for you to make progress, no matter how long you’ve been working out:
Bodybuilding Chest Workouts by Difficulty
- Beginner Bodybuilding Chest Workout
- Intermediate Bodybuilding Chest Workout
- Advanced Bodybuilding Chest Workout
In your first year or two of training, the rules of the game are simple. As an aspiring bodybuilder, all you need to do is pick a couple of reliable compound lifts, diligently practice your technique, eat heartily, and let the gains roll in.
Building a solid chest from the ground up is all about developing good habits and motor patterns that will serve you well for years to come. You don’t need to be too fancy about it — keep things simple and work hard.
Beginners should prioritize gaining muscle and building a strength reserve simultaneously. Fortunately, not only is it conducive to hypertrophy to work with lots of different equipment, some literature suggests that beginners can gain strength faster by working with different exercises and loading schemes. (1)
By incorporating dumbbells, barbells, and even some calisthenics work from the beginning, you can cover your bases and develop muscular stability, strength, and size all at once — a blessing that more advanced lifters don’t have access to.
How to Progress
Making progress as a beginner is almost as easy as just showing up every day. You can perform the workout above once per week while you’re just getting started. Look to increase the weight you use on the dumbbell and barbell bench presses each session. For the dips and push-ups, once a 10-rep set becomes too easy, work up to comfortably performing 12-15 reps.
After you’ve logged a few (hundred) chest workouts in your fitness journal, you might notice that the gains don’t flow quite as freely as they once did. While your training might require a bit more finesse and effort than in your first year, you can still size-up your chest just fine with a bit of creativity and grit.
With a healthy amount of training under your belt, you need to start ramping up your approach to volume and intensity in order to encourage steady growth. The original guiding principles — compound movements, moderate rep ranges — still apply, but as an intermediate bodybuilder, you should begin to dabble in some specialized techniques too.
- Flat or Decline Barbell Bench Press: 3×6,8,10
- Incline Hex Press: 3×10-12
- Weighted Dip: 3×10-12
- Cable Flye superset Push-Up: 2×12-15 each.
How to Progress
You might find it slightly more difficult to follow resistance-based progressive overload, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Add weight to your working sets where possible — variable rep ranges should give you some extra flexibility in that regard.
Beyond that, you can increase work density by slowly cutting down your rest periods. If you rest two minutes or more between sets on the bench press, try trimming down to a minute and a half or even less, as long as you don’t have to reduce the weight you’re working with.
After many long and grueling years of training, it’s perfectly common to be frustrated with your chest growth, even if you’ve made some impressive gains along the way. Bodybuilding is a marathon, not a sprint.
An advanced bodybuilding routine may resemble that of a beginner’s, but with many more bells and whistles. You’ll need to check all the proverbial boxes to make progress after many years in the gym. Pre-exhausting the pecs with an active warm-up, varied rep ranges to fully fatigue every muscle fiber, and taking yourself to the limit with intensity techniques is the name of the game.
- Dumbbell Flye: 3×20*
- Dumbbell Bench Press: 4×6, with a 12-rep drop set at the end.
- Incline Barbell Bench Press superset Incline Hex Press: 3×8/12
- Cable Flye: 3-4×15
- Resistance Band Push-Up: 2 sets to failure.
*Note: Use very light weights and focus on shuttling blood into the pecs to get them warmed up and activated for the heavier sets to come.
How to Progress
Making progress at a high level in bodybuilding isn’t always straightforward. While beginners can track linear, consistent metrics like weight used or total sets per week, you can’t add five pounds to your bar indefinitely.
If you’re an advanced trainee looking to create new growth, you’ll have to rely at least partly on drop sets, cluster work, and other intensity techniques to force the muscle to grow. Beyond that, pay attention to the finer details. You might find that making small tweaks to your form and staying “in the zone” for the entirety of your session yields noticeable gains long-term.
Anatomy of the Chest
Despite what you may read online or overhear in the weight room, your chest is pretty straightforward from an anatomical perspective. There are no distinct “inner” or “outer” compartments, but there’s enough structural nuance to your chest to be worth covering.
The pec major, or sternal head, is the larger and more superficial of the two muscular compartments. It attaches from the sternum and ribcage onto the upper arm. Every chest exercise will work your pec major to some degree, particularly if you take extra care to hold your scapula in place while performing a press or flye.
Your pec minor — or clavicular head — is a deep muscle that sits partially underneath the pec major and connects from the shoulder blade and ribcage to the humerus. Since your pec minor attaches to your scapula, exercises that involve more shoulder flexion, such as most incline presses, are likely better for targeting your upper chest.
While your anterior, or front, deltoid muscle is completely distinct from the chest, it plays a supportive role in nearly every chest exercise you perform in the gym. Some “free” front delt engagement is certainly nothing to balk at, but some lifters also suffer from their front delts dominating what is supposed to be a chest-focused exercise.
If you don’t have a solid mind-muscle connection, you might find your front delts taking center stage on your presses or even flye movements.
How to Pick Chest Exercises
An effective chest workout can be as simple as blasting through some push-ups, or can be a complex series of properly-selected movements to burn out every last fiber in your pecs. When you’re building a chest workout of your own, there are some key factors to consider.
Free Weight vs. Machine
Meatheads may denounce time spent in the Smith machine as wasted, but for the purposes of muscle growth, your body doesn’t know if it’s holding a barbell or a fixed handle. It only understands tension.
However, plenty of literature has been published that all but confirms the superiority of free weights over fixed-path machines for developing both strength and stability. Even though pec activation is surprisingly similar between a barbell and a Smith machine bench press, you should probably stick to free weights most of the time if you want to work on your top-level strength. (2)
That said, in a busy gym or if you’re crunched for time, machines can come in very handy. They’re often more user-friendly and can still provide a solid stimulus without requiring you to wait for the bench station or manually load several heavy plates on and off.
Press vs. Flye
To get the most value out of your chest workouts, you need to include exercises that challenge the two main biomechanical functions of the pecs — shoulder flexion and adduction.
Chest press variations incorporate both motions, but the multi-joint nature of the movement itself will involve secondary muscles like the deltoids, serratus anterior, and triceps. In contrast, drawing your arm across your body in a dumbbell flye isolates the pecs as they’re the only muscle able to perform that action.
You can use heavier weights in your presses at the cost of sharing that load with secondary muscle groups, while flyes place all the resistance directly on the pecs at the cost of lower total tension.
Since mechanical tension is a primary contributor to hypertrophy, and research shows that pressing movements actually facilitate higher pec activation than flyes, (3) the majority of your overall chest work should probably come from pressing. You can include some isolation moves at the end with higher reps to fully burn out your pecs.
Flat vs. Incline
Some lifters swear by incline presses while others might steer clear of them entirely. While it is true that performing presses on an inclined surface does require more shoulder mobility, if you want comprehensive chest growth you might have to bite the bullet on that front.
Some electromyography (EMG) research aimed at analyzing chest activation across different pressing angles posits that a mix of both flat and incline work is optimal for pec hypertrophy. (4)
However, certain studies have collected conflicting data. Some suggest that there’s little noteworthy difference in activation between the pec major and pec minor when working on an incline bench instead of a flat one.
That said, most research does agree that decline pressing does take your upper chest out of the equation. (5) It seems that the best approach to exercise selection for chest growth is to work on a flat surface most of the time, and include some incline pressing along the way. If a decline press is more comfortable for you, it’s perfectly fine to include in a limited capacity as well.
The Big Picture
Your bodybuilding workouts need to evolve with the times, and with your physique. As the saying goes, you can’t do the same thing you’ve always done or you’ll get the same results you’ve always gotten.
Fortunately, if your foundation is properly laid, you can remix and redesign your training such that it continues to deliver high-quality hypertrophy for months and years. Building a big chest takes more than racking up sets on the bench press, but not a whole lot more. If you’re patient, creative, and consistent, you can absolutely build a chest that stands out in a crowd.
- Fonseca, R. M., Roschel, H., Tricoli, V., de Souza, E. O., Wilson, J. M., Laurentino, G. C., Aihara, A. Y., de Souza Leão, A. R., & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2014). Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(11), 3085–3092.
- Schick, E. E., Coburn, J. W., Brown, L. E., Judelson, D. A., Khamoui, A. V., Tran, T. T., & Uribe, B. P. (2010). A comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and free weight bench press. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 24(3), 779–784.
- Solstad, T. E., Andersen, V., Shaw, M., Hoel, E. M., Vonheim, A., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2020). A Comparison of Muscle Activation between Barbell Bench Press and Dumbbell Flyes in Resistance-Trained Males. Journal of sports science & medicine, 19(4), 645–651.
- Trebs, A. A., Brandenburg, J. P., & Pitney, W. A. (2010). 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.
- Barnett, Chris, Kippers, Vaughan, and Turner, Peter (1995). Effects of variations of the bench press exercise on the EMG activity of five shoulder muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 9 (4) 222-227.