The Best Muscle Building Chest Exercises (Including 3 Chest Workouts)

Ahh the chest.

The modern-day man’s armour plating.

It’s probably the most worked muscle in the gym, yet the effort doesn’t always translate into results for a number of reasons;

  • Overloaded barbells

  • Quarter inch reps

  • Poor exercise selection

  • And more

These are just a few of the main culprits for misshaped and underdeveloped pec muscles the world over.

If you want to build a chest that looks great in, and out of clothes, then you need to choose the right exercises, use proper technique and apply progressive overload.

To help you out and give you a leg up over the competition this article will breakdown everything you need to know to build a strong, muscular chest.

 

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;

  • Pectoralis major (sternocostal head)

  • Clavicular pectoralis (clavicular head)

Chest muscles.jpeg
 

The pectoralis major muscle is the bigger muscle of the chest and is responsible for the bulk of the chest shape and size.

The clavicular pectoralis is a much smaller muscle that makes up the top portion of the chest.

The important point here is that because these are sperate muscles with their own origins and insertions their fibres run in different directions.

This means that some exercises are better at training the upper chest whilst others do less to stimulate this portion of the chest but heavily train the big pectoralis major muscle.

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 developed the whole chest.

However, by using exercises that emphasis 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 look.

For this reason, I like to prioritise my incline lifts before moving to any flat bench lifts or dips.

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 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 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.

 

The Best Chest Exercises for Strength & Size

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.

 

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.

 

Weighted Dips

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 additional weight attached on 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.

 

Dumbbell Pullovers

The dumbbell pullover has been around for long time and rose to popularity back in the old school days of building 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 in 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 or 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 performed with bad form and/or with weights that are too heavy.

Start very light and ensure you have sufficient shoulder mobility before you jump right in. If at any point you get shoulder pain that stop and pick another exercise.

 

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 main difference that it recruits less stabilisation 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 for the incline variation, any of the other compound movements mentioned is the post as fantastic alternatives for the resistance machine press.

 

Press Ups

The press up is a chest exercise that uses your own body weight as resistance against gravity to provide a training stimulus.

It is also a compound movement that works the chest, shoulders and triceps.

Like dips it is also 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 press up is a fantastic movement and can be used anywhere that you have enough floor space to perform it in. There are also several progressions and regressions to adjust the difficulty level depending on your strength.

Regressions;

  • Box press ups

  • Press up from the knees

  • Press up with the hands elevated i.e. on a bench or low wall

Progressions;

  • Side to side press ups

  • Close grip press ups

  • One-arm press ups

  • Feet elevated press ups

The press up can be switched with another other chest exercise when it comes to creating your own chest workout.

 

The Best Workout Routines for A Stronger, More Muscular Chest

Compound movements - work in the 4 - 8 rep range

Isolation movement - work in the 8 - 15 rep range

Rest 2 to 4 minutes in between sets and exercises

Add weight once you hit your set and rep goals

- - - - -

5 Day Split - Chest

Incline Bench Press

Flat Bench Press

Dips

Chest Flys

 

Compound movements - work in the 4 - 8 rep range

Isolation movement - work in the 8 - 15 rep range

Rest 2 to 4 minutes in between sets and exercises

Add weight once you hit your set and rep goals

- - - - -

Push, Pull, Legs - Push Days

Flat Barbell Press

Shoulder Press

Incline Dumbbell Press

Chest Flys

Tricep Extensions

 

Compound movements - work in the 4 - 8 rep range

Isolation movement - work in the 8 - 15 rep range

Rest 2 to 4 minutes in between sets and exercises

Add weight once you hit your set and rep goals

- - - - -

A, B Split - Chest & Back

Incline Bench Press

Bent Over Rows

Flat Dumbbell Press

Lat Pulldowns

Bicep Curls

Skull Crushers

A Quick Primer on Building Muscle

Research shows (1) that high intensity resistance training (moderate reps, heavy load) is superior for building both muscle and strength than moderate intensity resistance training (high reps, moderate load).

Researchers identified two reasons for this:

  1. Higher mechanical stress placed on muscles

  2. Greater activation of muscle fibres

Research (2) also shows that progressive overload and the increase in muscle tension is the main driver for quality muscle growth.

Not only this but using moderate rep intensity (4 – 11 reps) and high load whilst specifically applying progressive overload is even better.

What does this mean?

  • Work primarily with heavy compound lifts using 70 - 90% 1RM

  • Train in the 4 – 8 rep range with some additional work in the 8 – 12 range

  • Rest 3 - 5 mins between sets for full recovery

  • Train the chest directly 1 -2 times a week

 

How To Make Progress

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.

The best way to do this is to apply progressive overload.

Applying progressive overload simply means doing more;

  • It could be one more rep

  • One more set

  • Using more weight

  • Decreasing rest time

My preferred method of progressive overload is to increase the weight lifted within a rep range.

For example, if you’re doing the bench press and aiming for 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps and you hit 6 on each set then the next time you’ll increase the weight.

The increase in weight will probably bring you down to the 3 sets of 4 reps, but that’s ok, build your way back up to 3 sets of 6 with the new weight before increasing it again.

Continue like this to make consistent strength and muscle gains over time.

WEEK SETS REPS WEIGHT
1 3 6,6,6 60kg
2 3 5,4,4 65kg
3 3 6,5,5 65kg
4 3 6,6,6 65kg
5 3 4,4,4 70kg

 

Eat To Build Muscle

To build muscle you need to be eating in a calorie surplus and to build muscle with minimal possible fat gain you need to balance eating too much and not eating enough. 

I recommend a calorie surplus of 10 – 15% as a good starting point with the aim being to gain 0.5 – 1 lbs of weight per week.

I know this may not sound like much but think 2 – 4 lbs of solid muscle a month adds up to 6 – 12 lbs every 3 months and this can make an outstanding difference to your physique.

Trying to gain muscle any faster than this and you will gain more fat in the process, which will ruin your look. The key to successful weight gain is put on as much muscle as possible whilst keeping fat gain to a minimum.

The quickest way to calculate this is to take your body weight in lbs and multiply it by 16.

This will give you a good starting point. You can then adjust as you go based on your rate of weight gain and how much exercise you are performing.

As for macros my preferred set up is:

  • Protein – 0.8 – 1g per lb of body weight

  • Fat – 30% of daily calorie intake

  • Carbs – remainder of daily calorie intake

 

Training Mistakes To Avoid

If you really want to make sure you’re getting the most out of your workouts then there are few common training mistakes you need to be aware of.

 

Mistake #1

Not Using A Full Range of Motion

Just doing these exercises 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 with an unweighted bar or a little weight before lifting heavy.

This will not only allow you to learn the movement pattern faster, but it will also decrease your risk of injury and allow you to lift more weight.

 

Mistake #2

Using The Smith Machine

There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The smith machine reduces the work of the smaller stabilizers muscles

  • The smith machine uses a fixed bar path which doesn’t allow for natural movement

  • Research (3) shows that the smith machine is inferior to a barbell for both bench pressing and squatting. It’s only reasonable to assume the same of the deadlift and row variations.

The bottom line is; avoid the smith machine where possible for better strength, muscle development and a decreased risk of injury.

 

Mistake #3

Not Prioritising Rest & Recovery

Too many people underestimate the importance of rest and recovery, mistakenly thinking that more time in the gym = more progress.

When the reality is that a lot of your progress happens when you rest and allow your body to complete several important processes;

Allowing your body to do this means it will begin to adapt to the stresses of exercise which in turn means you will get bigger and stronger. 

The best way to help your body complete these actions is to stay hydrated, get adequate sleep and eat appropriately for your goal.

Neglecting to give your body the time it needs to adapt and repair itself after training will result in a noticeable deterioration in your energy levels, performance and results.

 

Takeaway Point

Training your chest properly is the difference between strong slabs of dense muscle and droopy uneven chest development.

Having a strong chest also gives you superior pushing power, builds your shoulders and triceps and contributes to a t-shirt filling physique.

When training your chest, you need to focus on even development of both the pec major and minor as it’s this that will give you the look you want.

Some of the best exercises for doing this are;

  • Incline bench presses

  • Flat bench presses

  • Dips (weighted when possible)

  • Chest flys

  • Press ups


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