Bench presses and curls are two of the first exercises that are learned by new weight lifters. For men, the chest or “pecs” (short for pectorals) are second only to biceps as the top show muscles in teenagers and young adults.
For women, the chest is even more important. Keeping well built, toned pecs can be useful in maintaining a solid, perky appearance of the breasts.
More importantly, the pecs are involved in one of the main powerlifting exercises, the bench press. The bench press is one of three exercises, including squats and deadlifts, in a standard big 3 powerlifting competition. For this reason, it is always important for powerlifters to increase their chest strength.
Therefore it seems to me that everyone has a reason to train their chest, including men, women, athletes, bodybuilders, powerlifters, strongmen… everyone; and here are the top 5 best chest exercises you should use.
How to Get a Big Chest
Training to build a strong back and triceps are just as important to building a big chest, as chest exercises are. So don’t forget to read up about the top 5 best back exercises and the top 5 best triceps exercises. One thing is for sure, without strong triceps, you will never have a big bench.
Also you must always train your lower body in order for your upper body to grow. For the lower body I recommend the top 5 best leg exercises and the top 5 best hamstring exercises. Training your whole body with a full body workout routine is one sure way to make sure everything grows or gets toned, depending on your goals.
Now we must examine how the pecs work so that we can better target them for growth.
Anatomy of the Chest
The pectoralis major (aka pecs) is located on the front of the rib cage.
The pecs attach to the humerus near the shoulder joint and originate on the breastbone in the center of the chest.
The fibers of the pec run like a fan across the chest. Their fan-like structure allows the humerus to move in a variety of planes across the body.
The pectoralis minor is located underneath the pectoralis major, attaching to the coracoid process of the scapula and originating on the middle ribs.
Functions of the Chest
The function of the pectoralis major is to bring the humerus across the chest. A flye movement is the best example of this action, although the true function of the pecs would be more of a combination of the first 1/2 of a chest press followed by the second half 1/2 of a flye, ending with the palms facing each other at the body’s midline.
The pectoralis minor serves to move the shoulder area forward. This can be seen by shrugging your shoulder forward.
The Top 5 Best Chest Exercises
- Barbell bench press
The king of all chest exercises. The flat barbell bench press has long been the standard for strength prowess. If you could only choose 3 exercise to create a full body workout, the flat barbell bench press would have to be on the list. This is also the same exercise used in any big 3 powerlifting competition.
You will find people use a large number of variations of the flat barbell bench press. A close grip flat barbell bench press is used to focus more on triceps, while a wide grip flat barbell bench press is a standard pec builder. A middle grip is used most successfully to combine the strength of the triceps, pecs, and shoulders for a maximal effort bench press.
To set up: find a flat standard Olympic bench with a standard 45 lb barbell. Laying down flat on the bench, you want the soles of your feet to touch the floor. This is because we want a solid base on which to use our legs to help drive the weight up. You want your butt, your upper back, and your head to be touching the bench at all times.
You should also set up so that when you unrack the bar it will drop almost directly down to your chest; in other words you don’t want to be doing a barbell pull-over once you unrack the bar from the bench, as this will create unnecessary fatigue and increase the possibility for shoulder injury.
All that being said, put a couple plates on that bar and lets start benching!
To bench: with a medium grip flat bench press, you don’t want your elbows tucked in nor flared out. They should naturally fall at a 45 degree position away from your body, locked in against your lats for stabilization at the bottom of the rep.
From the unracked position, you will lower the weight slowly so that the bar just lightly touches your nipple area; do not bounce. Using explosive chest strength you should drive the bar through the mid-way point of the rep, which is usually a sticking point. Once you are past the mid-way point you will increase your triceps activation to press and lock out the weight. When I say lock out, I do not mean to lock the elbows out 100%, instead they should be locked out about 95% so that the elbow is completely straight.
The best way I have found to maximize triceps activation is to focus on breaking the bar in half away from you. Think about holding a stick out straight in front of your body with palms down, then break that stick away from you by snapping both forearms and wrists away from the midline of the body. Clearly the bar is not actually going to break, but you can use this concept for maximum triceps activation.
Variations: wide grip, medium grip, narrow grip; board press, floor press, pin press.
The incline press is great! The incline bench press is often used to target the upper pecs, which is vital for developing a full overall chest with deep cuts between the upper and lower muscles. I always work a flat incline dumbbell press into my workout. If you have studied the anatomy of the pectoralis, you will notice that there is indeed an upper (pec minor) and a mid/lower (pec major) muscle. Your pecs will really have that powerful bodybuilding look once you have mastered various forms of flat and incline benching, and have developed the cut between the two muscles. That, my friend, is good stuff.
Controversial point #1: The decline bench press is mistakenly used to target the “lower” pecs, and I have a bone to pick with this notion. There is no “lower” pec muscle, there is only the pectoralis minor (upper pec) and pectoralis major (mid/lower pec). But just because there is no specific lower pec to target, doesn’t mean you should avoid decline benching altogether.
People are most often stronger on the decline bench because the range of motion is shorter, which eliminates weakness at the bottom of the press, because you are better able to recruit your triceps and lats throughout the entire exercise, and because you use less of your weaker upper pec and more of the bigger, stronger pectoralis major.
While I haven’t done a decline bench press in 8 years or more, I do intend to start working them into my workout once in a while. The close grip decline bench for focusing on triceps is also a great exercise. You can read about the 5 best triceps exercises for more information.
My only problem with the following video is that he lifts his butt off the bench during each rep. I only show you this because it demonstrates the concept of driving with your feet and legs. It is possible to drive with your feet and legs while simultaneously keeping your ass on the bench.
- Dumbbell bench press
The flat dumbbell bench press is like core chest exercise #2. This is one awesome way to make sure you don’t have any strength imbalances between the two sides of your body. The dumbbell bench also more closely follows the intended function of the pecs by not only pressing but also by moving the weight toward the midline of your body.
To set up: find a flat bench that allows your feet to touch the floor. You will once again want your butt, your upper back, and your head to be touching the bench at all times.
Most of the time I grab the dumbbells I want, stand with the bench about 6 inches behind me, and sit down slowly while transitioning the flat side of each dumbbell to rest on my thigh. From this position I can lay back, rock the dumbbells up to shoulder height, and press up the first rep all in one fluid motion. Without mastering this maneuver you will forever have people handing you the weight or spotting you on the first rep. By this point you have already completed half of your first rep.
To bench: lower the weight to finish your first rep, then at the bottom of the rep, which for me is when the dumbbells lightly touch my shoulders, I use explosive force in my chest and shoulders to power the weight past the mid-way point, and conclude the rep by using my triceps to lock it out. Again, only a 95% lock, not straight.
Many people do not advocate a full range of motion on a heavy dumbbell bench press. They would say stop short of letting the weight touch your shoulders. In fact, many would say only bring the weight down until your upper and lower arms form a 90 degree angle. I completely disagree with this. My shoulders are pretty strong and healthy, and I’ve always lowered the weight to the top of each shoulder.
Variations: incline, decline, flat. It is possible to use a wide, medium, close grip on your flat dumbbell bench, but I prefer to focus on the single medium grip motion so as not to compromise the integrity of my shoulders and rotator cuffs. Also, I think the decline dumbbell bench press is bogus, but probably more useful the decline barbell bench press. I still don’t do it.
I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to put up the infamous Ronnie Coleman dumbbell pressing 200 lbs in each hand.
- Explosive push ups
You have to admit, aside from using the smith machine, that it’s pretty hard to do any maximally explosive benching. Sure, you can use a Westside Barbell style dynamic effort day in which you use 45-50% of your 1 rep max for 9 sets of 2 reps.
Read about the Louie Simmons Westside Barbell theories on dynamic effort and speed lifting on the Westside Barbell Articles page. If you are a strength athlete or powerlifter and you haven’t yet read every article on that page, do it now and come back to Project Swole later.
In any case, this exercise will be used to develop explosive power in your chest, shoulders, and triceps. The two main methods I recommend are clapping push ups and plyometric push ups where you jump your hands up onto an object for each rep. For the purpose of this article we will talk about plyo push ups.
To set up: choose to do push ups either on your palms or on your knuckles. As you lay on the floor, your body should be in a straight line, touching the floor only at the hands and toes. If you are female and struggle with push ups, you may start by doing push ups on your knees, but within a month or two you must practice and master doing push ups from your toes.
Opinions differ as to how to position your head during push ups. When you are doing explosive push ups by jumping up onto objects, you won’t have much choice but to look down so that you aren’t missing your target. Ideally you would look up and forward while doing push ups.
Your hands should be placed 2-3 inches outside of your shoulder width. The closer your hands, the more you will activate your triceps. Since this is for explosive power in the chest, you will choose a wider hand position.
Select two large hardcover books, weight plates, or blocks that are at least one inch thick. Place one of these object directly beside each hand. At the beginning of each rep your hands will be on the floor. At the end of each rep your hands will be up on the blocks. As you get better at this exercise you will want to increase the height of the blocks.
To push up: the starting position is as low to the ground as possible without touching your chest, belly, legs, or chin. The initial movement should be to drive your body off the floor with as much force as you can muster. At the top of the rep, stopping before you fully extend your elbows, the last bit of effort should be a 100% maximal force that will propel your body up into the air, allowing you to execute a clap or to jump your hands up onto the blocks.
After a clap you will land in the original position and descend in preparation for the next rep.
After a plyo push up you can choose to either:
- Walk your hands back down to the starting position and descend in preparation for the next rep.
- Descend down into another rep and execute another plyo push up, jumping back down to the original starting position. Then descend in preparation for the next rep.
Variations: clapping, hopping, palms, knuckles, variable height boxes, alternating arms, incline, decline, super wide (more chest), narrow (more triceps), legs elevated.
Here is one of the best plyo push up videos I could find on YouTube.
Just so you can see how many examples of plyometric push ups there are, here is an example of a girl executing some mighty fine lateral plyo push ups.
- Chest dips
Similar to the triceps version, chest dips closely resemble what you would be trying to accomplish with decline pressing except that you are focusing on building triceps strength for chest pressing rather than trying to work the phantom ‘lower pecs’. If you have bad shoulders consider skipping this exercise or work at it slowly by shallow dipping rather than deep dipping.
To set up: find yourself a dip station. Grab a weighted belt and some plates or a dumbbell if you need to add weight for your dips.
To dip: start at the top with your arms almost fully extended. The goal is to lean slightly forward in order to keep tension more so on the pecs than the triceps. Now dip down until your upper arms are parallel to the floor, or lower if it doesn’t bother your shoulders. Do not bounce at the bottom, instead pause for half a second. Squeeze your pecs and use your triceps to push yourself back to the top. Never lock your elbows.
Variations: assisted, bodyweight, weighted. You will also find dipping stations with adjustable handles so that you can use a wider or narrower hand position. Keep your body completely upright to focus on triceps instead of chest.
I could not find a chest dips video on YouTube that I approve of, so here’s one with a guy who is clearly going super heavy. Aside from locking out his elbows randomly throughout his sets, this is a pretty good demonstration of the chest dip.
- Dumbbell flyes
How important are flyes? In my opinion not very important, but I needed a fifth exercise for this list. Honestly I would rather fill up my chest workout with flat and incline benching and dumbbell pressing, and end off with some heavy weighted chest dips. Some people just insist that flyes are the key to growth and flexibility, and I will admit flyes do have a purpose when it comes to bodybuilding.
There are many variations of flyes including dumbbells, cables, and any angular position you can put yourself in by either using an adjustable incline bench, or by standing and leaning over with the cables.
I highly recommend that if you are not into this for bodybuilding purposes, that you might want to consider dumbbell rather than cable flyes.
Most importantly, rather than doing dumbbell flyes at the end of your chest workout, choose dumbbell flyes as a recovery exercise a day or two after a heavy chest workout. This will allow you to stimulate your sore chest muscles with a free weight exercise that is dissimilar to what you used to tear them up in the first place. You will be able to get a good stretch and increase blood flow to all areas of the pec.
To set up: for dumbbell flyes, you want to assume an identical position to either the flat or incline dumbbell bench press; one dumbbell in each hand. You want to start the exercise from the top position rather than with your arms out to the sides. Start by pressing the weights straight overhead.
To flye: once the weights are fully extended overhead, keep your arms straight except for a very small bend at the elbow. Lower the weights out to your sides with each arm at the same time. At the bottom position your arms should be parallel to the floor. Pause for just half a second and rapidly bring the weights back to the top position, still without moving your elbows.
At the top position of this exercise you should find that your arms are not straight up and down, perpendicular to the floor. This would only remove the tension from the muscles. Instead, stop 15 degrees short of straight overhead.
This entire motion should be controlled by your chest and front delts.
If you don’t believe me, take it from The Oak himself!
Honorable mentions: hammer strength chest press machine, flat or incline; machine flyes; cable flyes.
Controversial point #2: many people say they do bent arm dumbbell pull-overs to work the chest. I don’t see how anything about dumbbell pull-overs has anything to do with the pecs. I can see them working triceps slightly, lats, and serratus. The exercise itself is great fun; I love dumbbell pull-overs. Unfortunately they aren’t that effective for working any specific muscle. I might add them to the end of a back workout just for fun, but I would never add them to a chest workout on purpose and they definitely have no place in any top 5 list except maybe top 5 best exercises for fun, or top 5 best serratus exercises.
Here is what a dumbbell pull-over looks like, although I’m not sure why this guy is using such a light weight.
Full Body Workout Integration
To integrate these exercises into a full body workout program, you should choose either barbell or dumbbell bench press as your main chest exercise (flat or incline). Follow it up with a leg or back exercise. Then choose either dips or flyes superset with something like calves or abs.
If you chose a flat bench press, you should choose incline flyes; if you chose incline bench press, you should choose flat flyes. This will allow you to lift maximal weight on the compound movement and hit the pecs from a secondary angle, while also training a second muscle group in an assistance fashion (flyes for shoulders, chest dips for triceps).
On a subsequent full body workout day you should choose plyo push ups as the only chest exercise for the day. Focus on completing 10 sets of 5 reps, or 5 sets of as many as you can complete in each set. The goal is to focus only on explosive chest training for that day. Once you start to slow down, or if you you miss a jump or a clap, the set is over. You should never train slowly or with compromised form on an explosive exercise.
Standard Split Workout Integration
To integrate these exercises into a training program that splits the body amongst different days, you can do a flat bench press followed by an incline bench press on chest day, and follow those up with either flyes or dips. I recommend doing one barbell and one dumbbell movement, but choosing two of the same is also acceptable.
As with full body training, explosive or speed training should be done on a different day from strength training.
Focusing on your chest is a significant effort. If you wish to make superior gains in chest training, you should put your squat and deadlift progress on maintenance until you complete a 4-6 week chest prioritization phase. Don’t get me wrong, you can still choose to focus on everything at once and make great gains, but to prioritize any one muscle group you should put everything else on hold.