This chest training guide teaches you the best exercises, training tips and strategies for building an a strong and aesthetic chest.
Working the chest is an important part of any effective weight lifting routine. And let’s be frank, almost everyone wants a muscular chest.
By selecting the correct chest exercises and implementing a sound training strategy, you’ll no-doubt be sporting a stronger and more muscular upper body in no time (well, it’ll take some time, but you get the point)…
…Read on to find out how to do just that.
The Best Chest Exercises
Here’s my top 5 pick for the most effective chest exercises:
- Barbell Bench Press
- Chest Dips
- Dumbbell Incline Bench Press
- Cable Incline Flyes
- Push Ups
In my post on the best chest exercises, I explain how to do these 5 exercises and what their benefits are.
The Benefits of Training Your Chest
Benefits of Chest Training. While it shouldn’t take much if any convincing, I’ve listed the top reasons for training your chest, below:
- Add Upper Body Strength. Your chest plays a big role in upper body strength. And not just on chest exercises. It is shoulder press movements, and even pull ups, chin ups and lat pulldowns to an extent.
- Build Muscle Mass. Intense chest training with the right exercises is the only way to get the coveted thick, square chest muscles that are a staple entity for beach season.
- Improve Your Posture. Walk with your chest sticking out – literally. Your chest (and your back) plays an important role in keeping your upper body stable. A developed chest that is in balance with the back encourages good posture. However, it is very important to stress the importance of strong back muscles; if your chest overpowers your back, you’ll end up looking like a damn hunched-over Neanderthal! (Related: back training).
Chest Anatomy Guide
For a more informed understanding of how to train the chest, we must first gain some basic knowledge of the chest anatomy.
At the most fundamental level, the chest muscles are upper body “push” muscles. You activate chest any time you do any pressing motion with your arms, such as when doing push ups or pushing a vending machine after it steals your money. You also use the chest when bringing your arms together, such as when doing flyes or giving somebody a big bear hug…
…However, the functional anatomy of the chest gets a bit more complex than that, as I detail below.
- Pectoralis Major – This makes up the bulk of the chest. It is responsible for moving your arms horizontally toward the midline your body (transverse adduction, transverse flexion), pulling your upper arms down from overhead (shoulder extension, shoulder adduction). It also helps with internal shoulder rotation and some scapular functions (depression, downward rotation, protraction). The pec major is divided into the upper (clavicular) and lower (sternal) fibers. Incline movements emphasize the upper fibers (which are more likely to lag), and decline movements target the lower fibers. Some exercises to correct or prevent an overactive pec major are the cable face pull with external rotation and the shoulder dislocation exercise. Also, training your upper back more will help.
- Pectoralis Minor – The pec minor is the small chest muscle, which connects from the ribs to the scapula. It’s role is limited to scapular mobility (depression, downward rotation, protraction). You don’t need strength this muscle directly. In fact, you’ll probably have actively stretch it to prevent or correct scapular/posture issues because its prone to becoming overly tight. I use a couple of corner pec minor stretches (this one and this one), and I massage it with a lacrosse ball.
I should note that the serratus anterior is often considered part of the chest. However, this is technically false. But the serratus is important for full chest aesthetics because it ties into the chest region, on the sides of the ribs. It’s also essential for good scapular mobility (specifically, protraction, upward rotation and elevation).
Chest Training Tips
- Pull the weight down during the negative. (This tip applies to pressing and fly movements.) It sounds counterintuitive, but activating your upper back muscles as you lower the weight actually causes your chest to engage more than if you kept your back relaxed.
- Push your torso into the bench, away from the weight. (This tip applies to pressing movements.) Pretend like the bar is stationary and your pushing your body away from it. Kind of like you’re doing an upside-down push up against the bar. For whatever reason, this mental trick helps you lift heavier and more intensely engage the pecs.
- Focus on moving your upper arm to move the weight. (This tip applies to pressing and fly movements.) Imagine that you are somehow holding the weight at your elbows. When you think this way, you focus on moving the upper arms across your body toward your midline, as opposed to simple moving the weight from point A to point B. The result is that you fully engage the chest muscles and use better technique.
- Squeeze the handle harder to increase strength output. (This tip applies to pressing movements.) The harder you grip, the more you can lift. Clenching your fists hard allows to contract your arms and pectorals much more intensely than with a weakly- or non-clenched fist. Don’t believe me? Test it yourself: strike a most muscular pose with open hands first, then do it again with fists tightly clenched. The difference is night and day.
- Keep your pinky slightly higher than thumb on dumbbells. (This tip applies to dumbbell press movements.) Tilting the pinkies up increases the tension on the pecs. And it makes it easier to move your arms up and together as you reach the top of the rep. The difference is slight, but noticeable.
- Use dumbbells for muscle, and barbells for strength. This is a very general rule – Don’t take it too literally. That said, dumbbells tend to be better for mass building because you are able to make adjustments that isolate the pecs more. For example, you can move your arms up and together, and hold the dumbbells with the pinkies slightly up (see previous tip). With barbells, you don’t have to work your left and right side independently. You focus all your power on moving one object. The bar limits your grip and arm movement, such that you’re forced to use more triceps and shoulders. The result is higher power output.
- Train your upper back more. The chest is a typical “mirror muscle.” People train it because they can see it, and it’s an impressive muscle to show off. As such, people tend to overwork it compared to the opposing muscles of the upper back. Combine that with the fact that most people have tight pecs/shoulders and stretched-out back muscles from so much hunching over, and you’ve got a major muscular imbalance. The greater the imbalance, the worse your posture and the more likely you are to get injured. To negate this, I recommend doing more upper body pull exercises than upper body push exercises. I personally train my upper back about 2x as much as my chest/shoulders.
- Do external rotation exercises. All chest training exercises involve internal rotation. In fact, most upper body (back included) involve internal rotation. So, for most people, it’s a good idea to do some exercises that involve (or otherwise aid in) external rotation. I like cable face pulls with external rotation, lying external rotations and different band pull apart variations.
What’s the Best Chest Training Strategy for You?
If you want to achieve serious results, you should select a training program that’s geared toward your experience level. Beginners often want to skip the basics and go for advanced exercises… Intermediate and advanced weight lifters often find themselves in a routine rut, frustrated that their progress has hit a plateau. Neither group will meet their goals.
So be honest about your experience, train at the appropriate level, and bask in the results! Below, I’ve outlined exercise choices for different levels of experience to help get you started.
Beginner Chest Training Strategy
As a beginner, your goal of all goals should be perfecting technique. Developing good technique on a few carefully selected chest exercises will develop overall strength. Think of it as laying the foundation for the results you desire. It’s a clear case of quality over quantity…
…Here are my recommendations for the best chest exercises to include for beginning trainees:
- Barbell Bench Press
- Dips or Push Ups
The best way to do an effective beginner chest workout is by exercising you chest within a full body workout routine. Developing spot-on weight lifting exercise technique will enable you to fully benefit from the weight lifting routine you choose now. More importantly, it will maximize your long-term strength and size results as well as your ability to avoid nasty shoulder (or other) injuries.
Intermediate & Advanced Chest Training Strategy
As an intermediate or advanced lifter, you’ve presumably mastered technique for at least the major chest exercises, as well as a variety of other basic weight lifting exercises – And if not, then I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re still a beginner!
You can feel free to do whichever chest exercises you want. Just make sure you’re doing one or two “heavy” compounds to act as a foundation – Barbell bench press, dumbbell incline press and weighted dips are my favorite foundational compound chest exercises.
If you are an intermediate to advanced trainees, below is a list of three basic workout templates that provide different structures for working your chest. All have the potential to yield great results, but much depends on your specific goals, needs, abilities and schedule:
- Full Body Routine
- Upper/Lower Split Routine
- Push/Pull/Legs Split Routine
- Body Part Split Routine (such as the Max OT Program)
More Chest Training Options. What if you’re happy with your current workout structure, but you’re still looking for ways to further enhance your pectorals? The key to kicking your chest workout to the next level is using creativity to overcome “adaptation.” In other words, you need to put the principle of progressive overload into play for your chest training by implementing one or more of the following tactics:
- Perform more total sets…
- …by keeping the same exercises and simply adding more sets. Or…
- …by adding another chest exercise to increase the number of sets.
- Increase the weight…
- …and perform fewer reps. Or…
- …do the same number (or more) of reps by going closer to, or reaching failure.
- Increase the number of reps…
- …and decrease the weight. Or…
- …increase the weight by going closer to, or reaching failure.
- Keep everything the same, except…
- …go to failure on the final set(s) of an exercise.