Ah, the humble chest workout. With the unofficial international chest day falling on a Monday for both amateur and veteran gym-goers alike, big and distinct chest muscles are the akin to the Holy Grail. Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a gym, you will know of the notorious bench press, one of the most commonly performed exercises in any well-rounded gym program.
But, any Tom, Dick and Harry can weigh in with suggestions as to what they think are the best chest exercises to help you get huge. But at the same time, because there are so many, sticking to the ones you believe to work, or forming any sort of routine, can often be easier said than done.
Whether you’re a fitness newbie who simply doesn’t like what they see in the mirror each morning, and is need of a starting point, or you’re a veteran gym rat who believes they know every chest exercises under the sun, it can always be handy to have some extra guidance.
Which is where we come in. We’ve rounded up the definitive list of chest exercises you need to be integrating into your weekly gym routine, if you want any chance of filling out those shirts of yours and being able to have bragging rights over how much you bench.
What Are The Chest Muscles?
Officially known as the pectoral muscles – or “pecs” as you would have most likely have heard – are the most prominent muscles on the front of the body that team up with the bones of the upper arm the shoulder.
The pectoral muscles comprise pectoralis major, the larger of the pecs, that is used to help manoeuvre, i.e. flex, extend and rotate, the humerus (the long bone found in the upper arm, for those who skipped biology class). Pectoralis minor, meanwhile, is a smaller muscle that attaches itself to your ribs. This muscle is used to help stabilise your shoulders.
Elsewhere in the anatomy of the chest muscles, you have the pectoral fascia, which as its name suggests, is a thin layer of tissue that covers the pectoralis major and extends round the latissimus dorsi muscle – “lats” – on your back.
These chest muscles and more can all be targeted with various exercises to build up both their size and strength, and a well-rounded chest workout should hit them all, resulting in an enviable set of pecs.
What Are The Main Movements Of The Chest Muscles?
Personal trainer Luke Andrew tells DMARGE, “Functionally speaking, your chest has 3 main movements and if we choose to include these into our training, we can get a deeper contraction and better activation. Try these movements with your right hand and place your left hand on your right chest and see if you can feel these contractions.”
- Flexion of the Arm i.e. bring your right arm from your side up so it parallels with the ground
- Medial Rotation of the Arm i.e. with your arm up, try rotating your arm inwards/medially so your palm goes from facing inside to facing the ground
- Abduction of the Armi.e. now try to bring your arm across your body as if you were performing a cable crossover movement
“You should be able to feel an increase in tension in your chest and hence by sneaking in these functional movements even in small amounts, we’ll be able to get better chest recruitment and make your workouts more functional.”
Best Upper Chest Exercises & Workouts
Incline Bench Press
An incline bench press (on an incline of around 45 degrees) is more effective at targeting the upper chest and front side of the shoulders.
How to perform: Lie down on a flat bench with a barbell set at shoulder height and ensure your hand grip is facing away from you – overhand grip – and with your hands set at wider than shoulder width.
Push yourself into the bench, as opposed to letting your arms do the work. Breathe out as you press both arms up and squeeze your chest as you get to the top before slowly returning back to the starting position. Count to three or four as you lower the bar.
To progress with the bench press, add weight and/or slow down the movement so your muscles are under tension a little longer.
Sets: 3 to 5 with 8 to 10 reps per set
Tempo: 2 seconds pushing up, 2-3 seconds bringing back to starting position.
The cable fly is a great chest workout to target your pecs and delts without having to press, adding a new stimulus and variety, ideal for getting results.
How to perform: Using a cable machine, make sure the pulley is up high and ensure the hand stirrups are attached. Take one handle in each hand and outstretch your arms with a slight bend.
Make sure you have a leading foot forward, brace your core and then pull the weight down and across your body, squeezing your chest at the end of the movement. With control, slowly release your arms back to the starting position and repeat.
To progress, simply add more weight.
Sets: 4 to 5 sets with 10 to 12 reps per set
Tempo: Fast, 1 second push out, 2 second return
Kneeling Two Arm Landmine Press
A landmine press is another incredibly effective chest exercise that some may find far easier to perform, since they take away some of the stress associated with other chest workouts.
How to perform: You’ll need to make sure your gym has the right equipment for a landmine press. You’ll need a barbell for starters, and a plate on the floor that can accept one end of the bar. You can attempt them with the bar pushed into a corner, but be careful it doesn’t slip.
Kneel down on one knee, keeping your upper body nice and tall with a neutral spine. Your shoulders and hips should be stacked on top of each other in alignment with the knee that is on the ground.
Place both hands on the end of the barbell, push upwards so the bar is over your head, bracing your core and squeezing your chest together. Not only does the landmine press torch your pecs, it also does wonders for your shoulders and triceps too.
Sets: 3 to 4 sets with 10 to 12 reps per set
Tempo: Consistent controlled tempo, 1 to 2 seconds up, 1 to 2 seconds down
Best Lower Chest Workouts
Low Cable Fly
Similar to the cable fly, the low cable fly sees the same handle attachments brought down to the lowest setting on the cable machine. Using this position and bringing your arms up from this position works the lower chest instead.
How to perform: As mentioned, position the handles at the lowest setting on the machine. Grab one handle in each hand with palms facing forward, and put a leading leg forward.
Push your chest out and lock your shoulders down. Bring your arms up, ensuring to keep your elbows as close to your body as possible. Aim to bring your hands as close to each other as possible, and you want to finish at around mid-chest height, so you squeeze the pecs.
Return your hands to the starting position, inhaling as you do. When you repeat the exercise, exhale as your bring your arms up.
Sets: 4 to 5 sets with 10 to 12 reps per set
Tempo: Fast, 1 second push out, 2 second return
Close Grip Barbell Bench Press
Staying with the barbell, a simple movement of hand placement can help target a different area of the upper chest. A close grip bench press is great for focusing on both your triceps and your chest while putting less strain on your shoulders.
How to perform: For this chest workout, stay lying down with your back at an incline, but have your hands just inside shoulder width apart.
Perform the close grip bench press in the same way as the incline bench press, breathe out as you push up, and bring the bar down slowly. Progression can be adding weight or changing the tempo again. You can also add in some tricep extensions depending on how heavy the bar is as well.
Sets: 3 to 5 sets with 8 to 10 reps per set
Tempo: 2 second push up, 2 second return
Best Chest Workouts For Mass
Chest dips are not only great for working your chest but also your shoulders, upper back and arms. Why? Because as you lower yourself down into the dip, you fight to stabilise your body which maximises the results.
How to perform: Go to the dip station and grab the bar. Make sure your arms are straight with your palms facing inwards. Slowly lower until your elbows are at right angles. Then drive yourself back up. Make sure you tuck in your core so your body stays tight.
To progress, add reps or if you really want to, add some weight in the form of a weighted vest.
Sets: 3 to 4 sets at maximum reps until failure
Tempo: 2 to 3 seconds lowering down, fast 1 second push up
Barbell Bench Press
The one we all know and love, the barbell bench press. Essentially the same as the incline bench press, this classic chest workout sees you lying down on a flat bench, parallel to the ground. There’s a reason it’s so loved, the barbell bench press is perfect for achieving some serious size in your pecs.
How to perform: Grab the barbell with a overhand grip, ensuring your wrists remain straight and your hands are set to wider than shoulder width apart. Keep your shoulders locked down and bring your feet close to the bench to help give you extra stability and driving force.
Lift the bar off the rack, breathe in as you lower it down to your chest so that it is inline with your nipples. Then, forcing your body and feet into the floor, breathe out and push the bar up. Squeeze your chest when you reach the top of the movement, with your elbows locked out.
To process with the bench press, you can either adds more weights to the bar, perform for a higher number of reps, or add in another set.
Sets: 3 to 5 sets with 8 to 10 reps per set
Tempo: 2 second push up, quick 1 second return
Best Dumbbell Chest Workouts
Dumbbell Bench Press
The dumbbell bench press is another chest workout staple. While not a replacement for the barbell bench press – although decidedly more effective – using a pair of dumbbells does have its advantages. Namely, they allow your arms to go through their full range of motion, allowing greater tension to be placed on more of your chest muscles.
How to perform: As with the bar bench press, the dumbbell bench press can be performed lying down flat, on an inline or on a decline. For the purposes of this description, we’ll be going with the lying down flat variant.
Taking a dumbbell in each hand, lie down on the flat bench with your arms out beside you and a slight bend in your elbow. You may be inclined to have your elbows set at a right angle, but a far more effective position is to have your wrists turned to 45-degrees. You can also adopt a neutral grip – palms facing inward – if you wish.
Press the dumbbells up, keeping the movement slow and controlled and using your planted feet for extra stability. Lower the dumbbells back down and past your shoulders, before pressing up again.
You want to aim to move the dumbbells close to each other as you reach the top of the exercise, but don’t let them touch.
Sets: 3 to 5 sets with 10 to 15 reps per set
Tempo: 2 to 3 seconds push up, 2 second return
The dumbbell fly offers a great alternative to the bench press, although we would recommend you include both in your chest workout routine. The dumbbell fly is a perfect chest exercise to build size, and to help create a defined separation where your pectorals meet your shoulders. One thing to note when performing the dumbbell fly, is that you’ll want to lower the amount of weight compared to what you bench, you just won’t be able to lift it.
How to perform: Lie down flat on a bench – the dumbbell fly can also be performed at an incline – with your feet flat on the ground. Taking a dumbbell in each hand, position them both up in front of you, above your chest, with palms facing each other. Slowly lower your arms out to your sides, ensuring you put a bend in the elbow. Keep lowering until your elbows are in line with your torso – it’s important you don’t overstretch and lower your arms too far.
Engage your chest muscles to bring the dumbbells back to their starting position, ensuring you’re not using your arms instead (a perfectly common mistake).
Sets: 4 sets with 8 to 10 reps per set
Tempo: 3 seconds down, 3 seconds up
Best Home Chest Workouts
Push-Ups are one of the best chest workout exercises, but it can be all too easy to get the form wrong. Common mistakes with push-ups include arching the back, with your torso falling towards the ground. But best of all, because you don’t need any equipment, you can perform them literally anywhere, including at home.
How to perform: To perform an effective push-up, get yourself into a position on the floor with your arms straight and you’re on your toes. Tuck in your pelvis so that your core is braced, keeping your back straight at the same time. If you can do these in front of a mirror to check your form, you’ll soon see the benefit.
Lower your chest to the ground, keeping your elbows close to your body. It’s ok if they flare out a little bit, but you don’t want to end up with them being at right angles to your upper body.
Inhale as you lower yourself, and exhale as you push up to your starting position, when your arms are straight.
Push-ups are incredibly effective at working a multitude of muscles in the upper body, not just the chest, and you can do them practically anywhere since you don’t need any equipment.
Sets: 3 to 4 sets with maximum reps to failure
Tempo: As long as they’re performed with the right form, you can set your own tempo. A consistent 1 second down, 1 second up is a good place to start.
Chest Exercise FAQ
Your body needs to recover after a chest exercise, so doing it daily is not ideal. A twice-weekly session will give you optimal gains, allow for muscle recovery and development and avoid excess stress. You can perform one to four chest exercises per workout. Doing too much can diminish returns, prohibiting your body from building new muscle mass and resulting to suboptimal quality volume. If your body is out of shape, chest tightness or pain during or immediately after exercise is no reason to panic. Slow down or stop exercising and drink water. Still, if you are worried, best see your doctor.
Can I do chest exercise daily?
How many chest exercises should I do per workout?
Is chest pain normal during exercise?
Your body needs to recover after a chest exercise, so doing it daily is not ideal. A twice-weekly session will give you optimal gains, allow for muscle recovery and development and avoid excess stress.
You can perform one to four chest exercises per workout. Doing too much can diminish returns, prohibiting your body from building new muscle mass and resulting to suboptimal quality volume.
If your body is out of shape, chest tightness or pain during or immediately after exercise is no reason to panic. Slow down or stop exercising and drink water. Still, if you are worried, best see your doctor.