Let’s be honest. A big chest might be the number one reason why you head to the gym — especially on Monday. But it’s not just about those pecs. Building your chest can have a ripple effect on your entire upper body. They improve pressing strength to change how your shirt fits. Chest workouts are also just fun workouts.
It’s a safe bet that with any muscle group, you’re looking to make big progress as fast as you can. As much as you love training your chest, your pecs aren’t immune to some common mistakes and plateaus.
To help you continue growing, here’s everything you need to know about how to train your chest for maximum hypertrophy.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Chest Hypertrophy 101
The major muscle that makes up the chest is your pectoralis major. Honorable mentions go to the pectoralis minor (a smaller muscle found underneath your pectoralis major) and even the anterior deltoid. Both of these contribute to your overall chest aesthetic. Luckily, many of the key exercises you’ll do for your chest will build out all three of these muscles to some degree.
In terms of maximizing your chest hypertrophy (and really any muscle), perform consistently challenging sets. Building your chest may call upon some heavy, moderate, and even occasionally lower loading for certain exercises.
No matter the weight, push yourself. Research suggests that getting as close to failure as you can — especially with light weights — helps to achieve similar hypertrophy results as training with heavier weights. (1)
Stimulating a hypertrophy response through exercise is only half of the equation. Making sure you’re getting adequate recovery is the other. Aim for high-quality sleep and adequate nutrition (particularly protein) to drive your long-term growth. (2)
Chest Hypertrophy Tips and Tricks
The pectoralis major is one of your larger muscle groups. Its size allows for a few unique muscle-building techniques like training for strength, the pump, deep stretches, and arm path considerations.
If your goal is hypertrophy, you might be following a traditional approach of using only moderately-heavy weights (instead of super heavy ones). But building your max strength can be a tremendous benefit to maximum chest hypertrophy.
Using a compound exercise that heavily relies on the pecs can be a tool that keeps raising the ceiling on your potential growth for years to come. Select an exercise such as the bench press and aim to build as much strength in that particular exercise as possible.
This can prime your chest to handle more intense loads, which can have a lot of carryover into your accessory exercises that are programmed specifically for hypertrophy.
Chase The Pump
A great compliment to heavy resistance training is dropping the load a touch and hitting a higher repetition count. Certain exercises are just easier for you to perform with clean technique using higher repetitions — for example, cable flyes to high reps don’t risk dropping anything on your neck like high rep bench presses.
Along the way, you can get a huge chest pump for your efforts. A well-designed chest hypertrophy plan will incorporate some serious pump-chasing to cap each session. This will ensure that your muscles are truly giving their all to each workout, increasing muscle damage strategically to stimulate growth.
The pectoralis major (the main muscle group of your chest) is a broad fan-shaped muscle. The deeper you stretch this muscle, the more all the fibers of your chest will get stimulation on any given exercise.
This doesn’t mean you’re aiming for an excessive range of motion — you don’t need to sink your hands underneath the bench with dumbbell flyes. But you also don’t want to skimp on your range of motion, either. Aim to generate a stretch in your chest to engage the majority of the upper, middle, and lower muscle fibers in your chest.
Arm Path Essentials
Designing your chest workout can come with a dash of individuality than some other muscle groups. The fan-shaped pectoralis major means that there are actually a few more distinct regions or divisions of the chest that you can specifically target. (3)
With a good range of motion, each region should get some stimulation. However, depending on exercise execution, you can shift a bit more stimulation towards the upper, middle, or lower chest. An upward arm path — or exercise angle — helps stimulate a bit more upper pec. A standard linear press will smoke your middle fibers, while a declining angle will target more of the lower fibers.
The precise angles you’re able to get to are influenced by your limb length and body type. So, take the time you need to experiment with the exact positions you need to be in to access the pump, stretch, and stimulation you need to target different areas of your chest.
How to Program for Chest Hypertrophy
The nuts and bolts of programming will look different depending on your skills, experience level, and specific goals. But certain key components — like intensity, volume, and frequency — can help establish your structure.
Intensity for Chest Hypertrophy
Very often, you’ll determine the intensity of your load based on a percentage of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) of an exercise. If you don’t know your 1RM or prefer to train with another method, you can opt for gauging your rating of perceived exertion (RPE) — how hard each set feels.
For exercises that are more consistent to load and easier to program — such as the barbell bench press — aim to drive a heavier load. Try to get close to muscle failure with good form by utilizing sets of around six to eight repetitions with 80 percent or more of your 1RM. (4)
For single-joint exercises or moves involving cables or resistance bands where you won’t max out, it’ll be easier to utilize RPE. Hitting a higher RPE on a scale of one to 10 difficulty (10 being the hardest) has been shown to be on par with using a percentage-based load in terms of stimulating muscle growth and strength. (5)
Volume for Chest Hypertrophy
Progressive increases in training volume seem to be a great predictor of hypertrophy outcomes. (6) While each program should be individualized for your current level of training experience, it seems like a good landmark goal would be to perform around 10 or so hard sets of exercises for your chest per week.
This is a landmark that you can build towards. If you’re a beginner, start with a much lower volume per week. Start where you are and use the principles of progressive overload — gradually increasing the difficulty of your workouts — to guide your advancements. (6)
Frequency for Chest Hypertrophy
Frequency is a very useful programming tool. It can be easily tailored to best suit your programming needs. In terms of maximizing chest hypertrophy, it seems that workout frequency throughout the week matters less than total volume over the course of that week.
This means you can hit a muscle-group split, a push-pull-legs split, or use a full-body style of training. No matter how many days a week you wind up hitting your chest, so long as you accomplish your weekly total volume goal, you’ll likely be able to make gains. (7)
So if you’re doing 10 total sets, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you do 10 sets in one day, five sets twice a week, or a three-set, three-set, four-set split over three days. As long as you’re hitting your target number of sets with the same overall volume (number of reps multiplied by load), you’ll be on track.
Common Chest Hypertrophy Mistakes
While chest training is extremely popular, there are still some common mistakes and misconceptions that might be affecting your results. Look out for these errors the next Monday you find yourself getting your pump on.
Too Much Pressing
A good chest press can be a staple in your chest hypertrophy program — especially if you’re also looking to get strong. But you can have too much of a good thing.
Using too many pressing variations within the same workout might start having diminishing returns. Each press you program will draw on your chest, triceps, and anterior deltoids. As you continue through your day, each press will fatigue all three of these muscles.
When that fatigue sets in, your triceps and deltoids will likely fail before you’ve worked your chest enough.
A combination of exercises works best for growing your chest. Utilizing a press or two in the same workout is fine, but look to incorporate more single-joint movements as the workout goes on. A chest fly will reduce the number of muscles involved and help the chest remain the primary target once the other muscle groups have hit some fatigue.
Too Much Range of Motion
You certainly want to perform a full range of motion during each of your exercises. However, a common misconception is that if some is good, more must be better.
You can accidentally exceed the active range of motion of your chest — the range of motion where you can best keep tension on your pectoralis major. When this happens, other muscles are likely taking on a greater degree of the effort. And especially when your shoulders are in play, that can expose you to a higher risk of injury.
Exceeding the active range of motion of the chest has a fairly easy visual cue. If you notice your shoulder (particularly the anterior deltoid area) begin to dump forward and down, you’ve gone too far.
Perform a warm-up set or two on any exercise you’re about to train and determine where you should stop before loading it up.
To best grow your chest, you’re going to want to develop all angles at some point. This means finding a way to target the upper, middle, and lower chest to some extent. But if you’re only performing flat bench presses and flyes, you may only ever perform your chest exercises within the same general angle.
After you’ve got a handle on the basics and grown some baseline muscle, ensure you hit each angle in your program. Look to incorporate incline, flat, and decline presses and flyes throughout your training cycles to chisel out all the finer details.
Your pecs will feel great when they get a deep stretch and a hard contraction. Many trainees will unknowingly be drawn to exercises that feel fantastic but end up having a much smaller contribution to growth.
Exercises such as the Svend press are a good example here. They undoubtedly can contribute to muscle growth and are a tremendously helpful exercise for developing a strong mind-muscle connection to your chest.
If you have trouble “feeling” your chest, this accessory move and others like it can help a lot. But on their own, certain exercises may provide disproportionate sensation as compared to the growth they deliver.
Focus on exercises such as barbell or dumbbell presses as your key staples. Exercises that have long-term progressive overload potential should take center stage in your program. If you’re chasing a good pump without these movements, you’re likely not maximizing growth.
A good rule of thumb is to prioritize exercises that you can most heavily load or get a deep range of motion. Any other exercises can be icing on the cake instead of the main course of your workout.
Best Exercises for Chest Hypertrophy
The chest can benefit from a variety of exercises — but there will always be a few staples that act as workhorses of your program.
Barbell Bench Press
The barbell bench press can be contentious because it locks you into a specific bar path and has a limited range of motion. Still, the absolute strength you can build cannot be denied.
The barbell bench press will be a huge asset to your long-term chest development. Since you’ll get a lot stronger overall, this move will help raise the bar on all your accessory exercises, too. A strong chest is a chest that can grow a ton of muscle.
Dumbbell Bench Press
Where the barbell variation involves a somewhat limited range of motion, the dumbbell bench press solves this issue. Since dumbbells are split between both arms, the unilateral nature of the press allows for a significant and more customized range of motion.
Because you can sink a bit deeper into each rep, you can build a ton of muscle with less load than the barbell version. The relatively lighter weights can help keep you fresher for other exercises, as well.
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
The incline dumbbell bench press is a fantastic tool to start carving out a bit more specific real estate. Once you’ve got a bit of general mass on the chest, taking advantage of regional hypertrophy by utilizing an incline can help build up your upper fibers.
Incline dumbbell pressing allows for a range of motion and individualized technique based on your limb length. It will also help fill in the finer details of your chest.
Cable Chest Press
The cable stack offers more stable versions of the dumbbell exercises that will build your chest. They are great tools to individualize your technique and tailor your movement patterns to your body. And since cables are set in a semi-fixed system, they’re easier to control than a dumbbell.
When compared to both barbells and dumbbells, using cable set-ups is a solid option for really chasing challenging sets in a safer environment. Try the cable chest press to lengthen your range of motion and make the most of a customized movement pathway.
Incline Cable Chest Press
Similar to the incline dumbbell bench press, the cable version allows you to hone in on a bit more specific areas of the chest — particularly the upper fibers. If the name of the game during hypertrophy training is to take your sets close to failure, hitting the upper fibers using cables is a great tool for long-term success.
With this movement, you can make sure you’re setting yourself up for success with warm-up sets. In addition to getting your muscles ready for action, use your warm-up sets to find the angle at which this move will work best for you.
Converging Chest Press Machine
If you’re lucky enough to have access to a converging chest press machine, you’re in for a treat. They’re similar to typical chest press machines (featured below), but with a key difference.
With a converging chest press machine, you’ll draw your arms across your body at the end of the press (picture a cable crossover). While basic chest press machines can get the job done, a good converging machine allows for a bit more range of motion at the end of the lift. You’ll also be in stabilized by the machine itself, which means you can put your entire focus on the press.
Machine Pec Flye
This creates a greater emphasis on the chest itself. With longer ranges of motion and fewer muscles involved, you’ll be in for a sick pump and some great growth potential.
Standing Cable Pec Flye
The standing cable pec fly is a close cousin of the machine pec fly. The major distinction between the two will be the ability to get slightly more customization out of your standing cable flye variety.
The machine version will be slightly more stable but also offer less freedom of movement. If you’re in need of a completely customized movement pattern, the standing cable pec flye will be your variation of choice.
The chest is a dynamic muscle group to train. Because the pectoralis major has such a sweeping shape, it opens itself up to multiple opportunities to target every nook and cranny. The keys to successfully maximizing chest hypertrophy are:
- Incorporate the upper, lower, and middle pecs within your long-term programming.
- Build toward at least 10 hard sets of chest exercises per week (using a training split that works best for you).
- Progress a barbell or dumbbell bench press as a strength movement. Aim to use around 80 percent or higher of your 1RM and seek to build strength.
- Finish off your chest day with an intense pump. Lock in on some good machine or cable exercises and aim for a few hard sets close to muscle failure.
Picture Perfect Pecs
Training your chest for maximum hypertrophy is perhaps one of the more universally beloved parts of working out. It feels great, involves everyone’s pet exercise (the bench press), and even has its own designated day of the week (International Chest Day, aka Monday, anyone?).
But as with any muscle group, your chest gains might start lagging after a while. To kickstart your growth once again, learn all about how to train your chest for maximum hypertrophy and come out a winner. Don’t forget to fill in the details — hitting each of your upper, middle, and lower pec muscle fibers — and you’ll be replacing your wardrobe in no time.
Can’t get enough of chest training? Neither can we. Check out these articles for more on building a big, strong chest.
- The 15 Best Chest Exercises for Big Pecs and a Strong Bench Press
- The Best Bodybuilding Chest Workout, Customized for Your Experience Level
- The Best Powerlifting Chest Workouts To Help You Bench Heavier
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