When it comes to building muscle, guys are often most fixated on what they can see directly in front of them in the mirror. That starts with a strong, proud chest—whether you’re filling out the top of a t-shirt or taking it off, a well-developed chest is likely the very first muscle group that comes into focus when you look at yourself or someone else. The muscle group is key for the V-taper shape commonly desired by bodybuilders, and it takes up some major real estate on your torso that you shouldn’t just ignore. While we hope that you’ll eventually balance out your workouts by training your legs and blasting your back muscles, the chest is a great place to start.
So how do you go about your chest workouts? Training your chest muscles properly is more complicated than just stacking plates on the barbell to push through the heaviest possible bench press. Yes, you might be an advocate of International Chest Day—we see you, we promise that we are impressed by your latest bench press PR—but your chest’s potential strength and size gains will take a major hit if you’re tied to the bench.
You will find greater success if you take a step away from the same simple routine and expand the limits of your workouts. That means dropping the big weights (at least for a few reps) adding accessory exercises. Variety is one of the major keys for muscle adaptation, so challenging your chest in different ways will be a key driver for growth.
What Are Your Chest Muscles
The chest is a muscle group you might have heard referred to by one catchall name: the pectorals, a.k.a. the pecs. There are actually two muscles that make up your pecs, the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor.
The pectoralis major is larger, as the name implies, and is superior (or located above) to the pectoralis minor, is smaller and located below the pec major. The pec major is tasked with adduction of the arm (movement in toward the body) and rotation of the arm forward, along with assisting other muscles in pulling the trunk up when your arms are above your head. The pec minor helps to move your ribs and shoulders.
The serratus anterior and subclavius are also chest muscles, which rotate the scapula and anchors and depresses the clavicle, respectively.
How to Train Your Chest Muscles
You can train your chest at home or in a pinch with bodyweight moves like pushup variations, feature chest-centric movements in broader full-body workouts to spread the workload, and if you feel like you’re lagging, even ramp up the volume beyond the Monday standard with multiple sessions dedicated to chest in a week.
There’s a whole treasure trove full of workouts and exercises to be uncovered to blast the chest that can sculpt your pecs and push your upper body training days to the next level. Just remember, if your goal is to build chest muscle, you should aim to work using the right protocols for hypertrophy, with the most efficient rep schemes and rest periods. Likewise, you’ll need to be eating right to gain muscle.
Here are some of the best chest exercises to do just that. Choose two or three to work into your routine, and for best results, rotate in new movements every 3 or 4 weeks. Just remember, there’s nothing wrong with a big bench for your chest—as long as your workout doesn’t start and end there
The Chest-Building Exercises
Sure, we just talked about branching out beyond the bench press. But you can’t avoid the exercise if you’re serious about training—or even if you just step foot into any typical strength facility in the world. The move is standard for a reason: it works. Let’s break it down with dumbbells for some variety.
Do it: This hypertrophy method means you’re more focused on building muscle than pressing max weight, so keep your butt on the bench, with your feet flat on the floor and your glutes and core engaged. You should also drive your shoulder blades down into the bench.
Lift your dumbbells up, squeezing the handles tightly. Once your back is on the bench, don’t just hold the weights with your elbows parallel to your shoulders. Keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle to help to keep your shoulders safe. Squeeze your chest to drive the weight up, then lower under control under the same path to just above your chest. Drive back up to hit another rep.
One of the absolute go-to chest exercises, the chest fly is all about creating tension through the movement. Your goal is not to flap your arms like a bird to take flight, like the name suggests—squeezing is the name of the game here. That means you’ll probably use less weight than you might expect.
Do it: Lay on a flat bench, gripping dumbbells in each hand. Press the weights up above your chest, keeping them from touching, with your pinkies turned slightly inward. Maintain full body tension on the bench.
Lower your arms down moving only at your shoulders, keeping a slight elbow bend. Only go as deep as your shoulder mobility allows. Squeeze your shoulder blades to raise the weight back up to the starting position, and emphasize the squeeze in your chest at the top.
You’ve done pushups a million times before, and if you want a well-rounded workout, you’ll keep at it until you’ve done them a million more times. You can’t do a more basic exercise to train your chest, so make sure you’re doing them properly.
Do it: Get into a high plank position with your weight on your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your feet close together, keeping a straight spine with your core and glutes squeezed. Keep your gaze down to keep your neck in a neutral position.
Lower your chest down to the floor, keeping your elbows close to your torso and not flaring them out. Push straight off the ground all the way up to the top position with your elbows straight.
Dumbbell Floor Press
No bench? No problem. Take your dumbbell press to the floor for a shoulder-safe chest pump. This is another excellent option for building up your chest with home workouts, since all you’ll need are some weights and some space to spread out.
Do it: Lay back on the floor gripping a pair of dumbbells tightly. Keep your feet flat on the floor, driving with your heels and squeezing your glutes. Keep your elbows at a 45 degree angle relative to your torso to keep your shoulders safe.
Press the dumbbells up and squeeze your chest at the top position. Lower back with control, allowing your elbows to rest briefly on the ground.
Band Chest Fly
For a great warmup before a chest workout or a killer burnout to finish one, try out the band chest fly. The move isn’t much different than its big brother, the cable fly (more on that below) or the dumbbell fly, but the use of exercise bands makes it more accessible, and potentially another exercise you can do at home. “This exercise can be an extremely effective single or double arm exercise increasing hypertrophy and muscular endurance (providing that pump) without putting the amount of stress on the shoulder joints that a chest fly with a dumbbell would,” says athlete performance and development specialist Curtis Shannon, C.S.C.S.
“I like programming it as an accessory, warmup/priming, filler, or finisher lift. It can also be programmed with a global lower and upper body pull exercise, such as a deadlift or bent over row. Or simply use it as a “beach day” workout exercise that focuses on high volume for that “pump”.”
Do it: Attach two bands to a stable base, like a power rack or tower. Grab the ends of the bands in each hand, wrapping around your palms. Stand in a staggered stance in the middle of the station. Your arms should be outstretched but slightly bent. Lean forward slightly at your hips and avoid rounding your back.
Without changing the bend in your arms, bring your hands together. Slowly reverse the movement, keeping the bands controlled.
T-Bench Glute Bridge Fly
Take the bench fly, then add an idea from the floor press to hit your chest muscles in a shoulder-safe manner. You’ll also challenge your glutes and abs too, since you’ll be challenged to hold a difficult position.
Do it: Sit on the edge of a horizontally oriented weight bench, and place a set of dumbbells on your lap. Kick the weights back, shift your shoulder blades onto the bench, and press the weights straight up. Drive your shoulders into the bench to “set” them, then squeeze your glutes and abs to form a bridge shape with your feet planted on the ground.
Open your arms to lower your elbows down to the bench, forming the shape of the letter T. Focus on the eccentric portion of the movement, taking 3 to 4 seconds to lower. Then, squeeze your chest to fly the weights back up.
Spend more time at the bottom of the movement to really reap its benefits. Start with light weights to get used to the move, and try alternating between overhand and neutral grips to switch things up.
Do it: Sit on an incline bench with dumbbells in each hand. Start with the weights held with your hands at your pecs, as if you were preparing for a press. Keep your chest strong, with a natural arch in the lower back.
Straighten your arms out to each side, maintaining your strong chest position. Pause for a count with your arms extended, stretching the muscles.
Half-Kneeling Chest Press
Take a knee for some chest gains. The half-kneeling chest press also gives you the opportunity to hone your core while you’re off-balance, offering even more benefits and making the exercise more realistic. “In the real world, we don’t get to work symmetrically. We’re kind of off balance a little bit,” said Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. “This puts you in an off-balance position.”
Do it: Kneel with one leg forward in front of a cable machine setup. Grab the cable with the same hand as the knee that’s down on the ground. Keeping your core tight and your up-knee straight, press the cable out in front of your chest. As you return your arm back to the starting position, avoid turning with the cable by squeezing your core and stabilizing your hip against the ground.
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
This is an upper body push exercise that targets the pectoralis major (upper chest), clavicular, costal and sternal head, along with the anterior deltoids, triceps, biceps and serratus anterior.
“This is a great exercise to implement into your program, giving your upper body push routine some variety,” Shannon says. “The mechanical load and position on the incline bench press provides a greater challenge than the flat or decline bench. This will essentially allow you to get a greater adaptational response with less weight than with the flat benchpress. I personally feel more muscle in the chest and less stress in the shoulder joint when I perform this exercise, in comparison to the flat bench.”
Shannon recommends programming this as either a primary or accessory lift. The prescription all depends on the load, intensity and volume.
Do it: Lie on a bench with the backrest set at a 45-degree incline. Hold a pair of dumbbells above your chest with your arms straight and your palms turned toward your feet, which should be flat on the floor. Keep your core tight and avoid arching your back, which means your butt should be glued to the seat.
Press the dumbbells up, directly above the shoulders. You might have seen some people in the gym knocking the weights together at the top, but there’s no need to do that here. Lower the dumbbells to chest level—but don’t stress on how deep you go—before you press them back up for the next rep.
Close-Grip Bench Press
You can lift more weight with a barbell than with dumbbells because they’re more stable. That’s why barbell presses generally build more raw strength in your chest. But this variation puts more focus on your triceps, so you’ll get the added bonus of extra work for the biggest muscles in your arms, too.
Do it: Using an overhand grip that’s a bit narrower than shoulder width, hold a barbell above your sternum with your arms straight. Lower the bar to your chest. Hold for 1 second. Press the bar up.
When it comes to working their pecs, most guys just press. Adding the fly to your routine gives your pecs and front deltoids a new stimulus.
Do it: Attach two stirrup handles to the high-pulley cables of a cable-crossover station. Grab a handle with each hand, and stand in a staggered stance in the middle of the station. Your arms should be outstretched but slightly bent. Lean forward slightly at your hips; don’t round your back.
Without changing the bend in your arms, bring your hands together. Slowly reverse the movement.
Stance Change Kneeling Fly
Target your lower chest and get some extra oblique work with this exercise that you can take on even if you don’t have access to a cable machine. This fly variation is just as effective using a resistance band anchored to a rack or some other sturdy point as it is with a cable machine. Use this as a chest day finishing move.
Do it: Kneel in front of the band’s anchor point, glutes and abs tight, right arm grasping the band, left foot on the ground. Keeping your hips and shoulders square to the front and a slight bend in your elbow, perform a fly rep, pulling the band in front of you, wrist at about belly-button height. Hold when you get to this position.
Tighten your core and shift your left leg back so you’re kneeling on both knees. Shift back to the starting position. Keep your hips and shoulders square to the front as you do this. Return the band to the start position.
Decline Dumbbell Bench Press
Changing the angle on the bench does more than just switch up the scenery. This exercise zeroes in on your lower chest, helping to build serious size, according to Tyler English, C.S.C.S., author of Natural Bodybuilder’s Bible.
Do it: Lie on a decline bench with your shins hooked beneath the leg support. Hold a pair of dumbbells above your chest with your arms straight. Your palms should face your feet and the weights should be just outside your shoulders.
Lower the dumbbells to your chest, pause, and then press them back up to the starting position.
Photograph by Beth Bischoff
Band or Chain Barbell Bench Press
Adding chains or bands to the ends of a barbell changes the load as you move through the different phases of the lift.
Each chain link weighs ‘X’ amount of pounds, and that poundage is now something you’re actually lifting and managing. As you move through the eccentric (lengthening) part of the lift, lowering the weight to your chest, you’re lessening the load as there is more of the chain on the ground. When you press the weight up, you lift more links of the chain up, bringing that extra weight up. Bands work in a similar manner using the constant tension on the bar.
Do it: Hang a chain over each end of the barbell, or anchor resistance bands to the bench and place them over each end of the bar. Start without weight, in order to get used to the unstable bar.
Grab the barbell and lie on a bench. Using an overhand grip that’s just beyond shoulder width, hold the bar above your sternum, keeping your arms straight. Lower the bar to your chest, and then push it back to the starting position.
This explosive pushup nails the fast-twitch muscles in your chest, priming them for growth, said English. The movement also gives you another, more powerful option for at-home chest development.
Do it: Get into a pushup position, your hands just outside your chest, your feet shoulder-width apart, and your body forming a straight line from head to heels. Brace your core.
Lower your chest to the floor and then press up explosively so your hands come off the floor. If you can pull it off, clap your hands together before returning to the starting position on the ground.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
This exercise hits your chest like any awesome bench variation. But what makes it particularly special is that the other side of your body, specifically your core, has to lock down so the dumbbell doesn’t pull you off the bench, says Dan John, legendary strength coach.
The end result: The exercise sculpts your chest—and abs—to a greater degree.
Do it: Lie with your back flat on a bench holding a dumbbell in your right hand. Press the dumbbell directly over your chest until your arm is straight. Slowly lower the dumbbell to the right side of your chest.
Pause, then press it back up. Do all your reps on your right side, and then repeat on your left.
Start moving like a superhero and pile up time under tension to give your muscles an even greater challenge. You’ll also work your hip mobility as an added bonus.
Do it: Start in pushup position, abs and glutes tight. Lower into a pushup, bringing your chest an inch from the ground. Pause in this position.
Keeping your chest parallel to the ground, lift your right foot off the ground and drive right knee to touch your right elbow. Drive back up as you return your right leg to standard pushup position. Repeat on the other side.
Performing pushups with your hands in an unstable suspension trainer works your core, chest, and stabilizer muscles harder than doing pushups on the floor, said English. Using the TRX straps makes this another more accessible option for home training.
Do it: Grab the handles of a TRX strap and extend your arms in front of your chest. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and your body anywhere from 45 degrees to parallel from the floor. Your body should form a straight line from head to heels.
Lower your chest toward the floor until your hands are just outside your shoulders. Keep your elbows in and your head in a neutral position as you lower. Brace your core throughout the movement.
Standing One-Arm Landmine Press
Most chest presses stress your shoulders. This exercise nails your chest while improving your shoulder mobility.
Your shoulder blade moves with you as you press, putting less strain on the joint, said Eric Cressey, co-owner of Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA.
And because your core has to lock down to prevent your torso from bending back or twisting, it also rocks your abs.
Do it: Perform this unique exercise by placing one end of a barbell securely into the corner, grabbing the opposite end with one arm. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, bending slightly at the knees while pushing your butt back.
Start with your elbow by your side with your wrist up near your shoulder. Brace your core and press your arm straight up and out toward the ceiling.
Bear Plank Chest Press
This pressing variation flips your chest day upside down, challenging your stability and torching your core. You’ll need a cable machine or a pair of resistance bands set on high anchor points.
Do it: Start in bear plank position, bands set overhead or cable handles in your hands, core tight. Keeping your hips and shoulders square to the ground and your back flat, shift one arm back towards your torso. Pause.
Press down to the ground, still keeping hips and shoulders square. Repeat on the other side.
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