Let’s be honest, the chest is probably the most worked body part in the gym, it feels great, looks great and is relatively easy to post up some impressive numbers.
It’s not uncommon to walk in and find all the benches are in use and there is already a queue forming around the block for barbells and plates.
Whilst there is a lot of debate in the industry about which chest exercise is the best for the building muscle today I’m going down a different route.
Instead of wading into the thick of it and giving you my take on what exercise is the best, I’ve opted to give you a breakdown of the different chest exercises you could use to build stronger and powerful pecs.
Why? Well, that’s simple…sometimes you want to use a barbell, sometimes you don’t and let’s be honest sometimes you can’t because the gym is so busy.
Maybe you just want to switch it up and give yourself a mental break or it could be you need to use exercise rotation to break through a strength plateau.
Whatever the reason, you have plenty of alternatives to the standard bench press…
- No bench, no problem, do floor presses.
- No barbells, that’s ok, use dumbbells.
- No dumbbells, don’t worry, do weighted dips.
You see, if even if you can’t do your planned exercise if you know enough alternatives you can still do something and get a great workout.
After all, doing something is better than nothing.
The Muscles of The Chest
Ok before we jump right into the exercises let’s have a look at the chest and how it works.
The chest is made up of two muscles, you have the big pectoralis major which is the bulk of the muscle and then you have the clavicular pectoralis also known as the upper chest.
This smaller muscle is a part of the bigger muscle but its fibres run at a different angle to the major muscle and this difference is the reason why some exercises emphasise the large part of the pec but do less to stimulate the smaller muscle and vice versus.
Which brings us to the age-old question…
Can You Isolate the Upper Chest?
There is a lot of junk floating around the industry about the upper chest and whether you can isolate it, emphasise it or even need to think about it at all.
If you sift through all the junk it begins to come clear that because the fibres in the upper chest run at a different angle to the larger pec major, you can indeed emphasise the upper chest muscle.
The key here is that you can emphasise it but not isolate it.
This means when doing exercises that put more focus on the upper chest you are still working the rest of the chest at the same time and vice versa. Which is why even if you only use the flat bench press you’ll still develop the whole chest.
However, by using exercises that emphasize the more stubborn, smaller upper chest muscle you will still build an impressive set of pecs whilst also avoiding that common droopy or bottom-heavy chest look.
For this reason, I like to prioritise my incline lifts before moving to any flat bench lifts or dips. However, the choice is yours so let’s move on to the functions of the chest muscles before looking at the different exercises available to you.
Functions of the Chest
Although the chest muscles’ primary function is to push, especially when it comes to the most common exercises, it is also responsible for:
Flexing The Arm
Think of lifting your arm from being by your side to grab something in front of you
Medially Rotating The Arm
Rotating your arms so that they face your body
Adduction Of The Arm
Drawing your arms back to your side from an outstretched position
Horizontal Adduction Of The Arm
Like the above but moving in the horizontal plane instead. Think of clapping your hands in front of you.
Understanding the different functions of the chest muscles will allow you to better understand why pushing movements are superior for chest workouts and how exercises like chest flyes and the pec deck can work to contribute to a well-developed chest.
Weighted Chest Exercises & Their Variations
You’d be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to training the chest you have to use the flat barbell bench press and little else.
The problem with this is, as we’ve seen, you need to include exercises that emphasise the upper chest too for full chest development.
The following list covers a range of weighted chest exercises and their variations.
Flat Barbell Bench Press
The flat bench is probably the most well-known chest exercise there is.
It’s a compound movement which means it works multiple muscle groups (chest, shoulders, triceps) through multiple joint actions (elbow and shoulder).
If the barbell isn’t available this exercise can also be performed with dumbbells.
Alternatively, you could replace it with the close grip bench press, floor press or forward leaning dips.
Incline Barbell Bench Press
Like the flat bench press, the incline press is also a compound movement that works multiple muscles. However, the key difference is that the incline press emphasises the upper chest and also works the shoulders move.
Whilst it is 100% possible to build up a lot of strength on the incline press the flat bench press will always be the stronger lift.
Possible variations for the incline barbell press are the incline dumbbell press, low incline press and machine incline press.
Weighted dips are fantastic muscle builder and a great alternative or addition when there are no benches or barbells available.
It’s technically a bodyweight exercise but has been included here because the best benefits come from performing it with the additional weight attached to a weight belt.
As with the incline and flat bench, it is also a compound exercise that works the chest, shoulders and triceps. However, it can be performed in 2 different ways to put the emphasis on different muscles;
- Forward lean dips (emphasises the chest)
- Upright dips (emphasises the triceps)
Unlike the bench presses the dip is a closed chain kinetic exercise, which means your body moves through space and the hands are fixed instead of the hands moving through space with the body being fixed i.e. the bench press.
The dip can be substituted for the flat dumbbell, barbell and floor press.
Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press is often referred to as a tricep exercise when designing training programmes due to its ability to build big, strong triceps. However, the prime mover in the exercise is the chest which is why it'll be included here.
As it is a bench press movement at its core it is also a compound movement that works the chest, shoulders and triceps.
Due to the narrower grip width when doing this exercise it places much more emphasis on the triceps but is still a viable option if you short on time when doing your chest workout and want something that will blast your triceps and give you the benefits of the flat bench press.
The main disadvantage is that you won't be able to lift as much as you will with the standard bench press.
The close grip bench press can be substituted with any other bench press variation or dips.
The dumbbell pullover has been around for a long time and rose to popularity back in the old school days of bodybuilding before dropping out of favour over the years.
It’s also a compound movement working the usual suspects with the addition of the lats in the stretch portion of the movement.
The fact it works the chest and lats as primary movers as well as several other smaller pushing and pulling muscles as secondary movers can causes confusion over whether to include it as a chest or a back movement.
I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer, but it most certainly works the chest and deserves a place on this list.
There aren’t any direct variations for this movement but any of the previously mentioned chest exercises can serve as an appropriate alternative to the dumbbell pullover.
Guillotine Press / Neck Press
The guillotine or neck press as it’s also known is very similar to your standard bench press with the main differences being you flare your elbows and lower the bar down to your neck instead of clavicle or chest.
It’s also a compound movement working the chest, shoulders and triceps.
This exercise can only really be performed with a barbell but if you’re looking for a slight variation you can do it with a small incline. I’d avoid too much of an incline as it’ll begin to put more emphasis on the shoulders.
A word of warning, the guillotine press can be dangerous if not performed with good form and/or with weights that are too heavy. Start of very light and ensure you have sufficient shoulder mobility before you jump right in.
Flat Bench Dumbbell Flyes
A great way to finish your chest workout and really squeeze the most out of the muscle. Also, a pretty good way to start if you’re looking for an effective pre-exhaust movement.
The dumbbell fly is often referred to as an isolation exercise that works the chest but strictly speaking it also works the front of the shoulder. However, the main focus is purely the pecs.
There are several variations and alternatives to flat bench flyes including;
- Incline dumbbell flyes
- Cable machine flyes
- The pec dec resistance machine
Resistance Machine Chest Press
The resistance machine chest press is purely the machine equivalent of the flat bench press with the main difference that it recruits fewer stabiliser muscles that the free weight it equivalent.
It is a compound movement working the chest, shoulders and triceps and comes in both standard and incline press setups.
Aside from the aforementioned incline variation, any of the other compound movements mentioned in the post as fantastic alternatives for the resistance machine press.
How To Bring It All Together
Now we’ve covered the different weighted exercises you can use to train the chest; how do you bring it all together in a way that works?
Thankfully it’s quite simple and provided you follow the guidelines below you’ll soon see the progress you want.
1. Emphasise Both The Upper & Lower Chest
If you want a well-developed set of pecs you must include some form of incline pressing into your routine, if you don’t you’ll find you end up with bottom heavy pecs or worse, droopy looking pecs.
Yes, you can’t isolate the upper chest, but you can place more emphasis on it whilst still training the whole pec muscle. For this reason, it often makes sense to prioritise incline lifts at the beginning of your workout to give the upper chest the attention it deserves.
2. Apply Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the one tool you need to use to make consistent gains.
This means you cannot mindlessly use the same weight, sets and reps week in and week out. To get stronger and build muscle you need to continually challenge yourself.
You must strive to do a little better each and every time you work out.
Applying progressive overload simply means doing more; it could be one more rep, one more set or using more weight.
My preferred method of progressive overload is to increase the weight lifted within a rep range. For example, if you’re aiming for 3 sets of 6 – 8 reps and you hit 8 on each set then the next time you increase the weight a little bit. The increase in weight will probably bring you down to the 3 sets of 6 reps, but that’s ok, build your way back up to 3 sets of 8 with the new weight before increasing it again.
Continue like this to make consistent strength and muscle gains over time.
3. Use Correct Form
Just doing an exercise with no thought for form or progress is pointless, you need to fully understand how to perform each move with proper technique to effectively apply progressive overload.
Using good form has several benefits that you can’t afford to miss out on:
- Decreased risk of injury
- Faster progression
- Ability to lift more weight
Always take the time to thoroughly learn the movement will an unweighted bar or a little weight before lifting heavy.
This will not only allow you to learn the movement pattern faster and therefore progress quicker, but it will also decrease your risk of injury and allow you to lift more weight.
Hypertrophy Chest workout
Hypertrophy Chest Workout
Incline Barbell Bench Press
3 sets of 6 - 8 reps
Rest 3 minutes between sets
Flat Dumbbell Bench Press
3 sets of 8 - 10 reps
Rest 2 minutes between sets
2 sets of 10 - 12 reps
Rest 1 minute between sets
Flat Bench Chest Flyes
2 sets of 10 - 15 reps
Rest 1 minute between sets
There you have it, a comprehensive guide to weighted chest exercises including the muscles and function of the chest, the importance of good form and applying progressive overload and mistakes to avoid.