There are dozens of exercises to improve your chest muscle, but you probably don’t want to spend your Monday doing them all. You just want to know the best exercises to build a muscular chest, so we’ve done the work to compare them for you.
We base our choices on a combination of results from the lab and the weight room. So, we used a number of parameters, including:
- Ease of learning and performing
- Total muscle stimulation and intensity
- Popularity among diehard lifters and bodybuilders (This matters!)
- Availability of equipment in commercial gyms
Using these chest exercises can help you see muscle growth. Performing these movements as part of a workout routine, combined with a nutritious diet and supplement intake, can help you achieve your goal of a larger chest.
5 Best Chest Exercises
1. Dumbbell Bench Press
There is a debate amongst weightlifters about whether dumbbell or barbell presses are better for growth. However, you can do both for a well-rounded workout. It is widely accepted that the dumbbell variation is more versatile.
Dumbbells have many benefits over other forms of weightlifting equipment. They allow each side of the body to work independently, creating more balanced strength and size. They also allow for a greater range of motion, which can lead to increased muscle growth. Additionally, you can more easily adjust your grip to create variety and a new stimulus on chest day.
Dumbbell Bench Press Variations for Chest Growth:
- Dumbbell bench press
- Neutral-grip dumbbell bench press
- Close-grip dumbbell bench press
- Single-arm dumbbell bench press
- Alternating dumbbell bench press
At some point during your chest workout, do flat dumbbell presses. They work well for heavy sets in lower rep ranges, and can also be effective for high reps on an incline or decline.
Doing the same sets and reps for the barbell bench press and the dumbbell bench press will not give you desired results. This was confirmed via EMG analysis, which demonstrated no significant differences between flat-bench dumbbell and barbell presses in terms of muscle activation.
An important reason why push-ups are on the list is that they are very versatile and easy to adjust for range of motion. Additionally, they can help target different parts of your chest by changing elevation or hand placement.
Push-Up Variations for Chest Growth:
If you’re looking to add some extra volume or to burn out at the end of your workout, sets of push-ups to failure are a great way to do it. You can also add them into a compound set with dips, a mechanical dropset after flyes or presses, or an antagonist chest-and-back superset with rows. Weighted push-ups and push-ups with resistance bands can also be a primary push movement, if needed.
Dips are on the list because they help to stretch the chest and make it work. You can add extra weight with a dip belt if you’re seriously strong, or use band or machine assistance if you struggle with bodyweight reps. Plus, they are a great alternative to the decline press.
On chest day, when doing dips, it is beneficial to do dips that focus on the pecs. Place your feet up behind you, lean forward as much as possible, and let your elbows flare out slightly as you dip.
Dip Variations for Chest Growth:
If you can do dips for high reps, they make a great way to finish a pro-level chest workout. If you can’t do them for high reps, you can do them earlier in your workout in traditional strength- or muscle-building rep ranges, such as 6-8 or 8-10 reps. Dips also make a great superset pairing with push-ups for a big pump at the end of your workout.
4. Chest Fly
Cable flyes are a great way to target your pecs while also getting a full range of motion. This exercise is great for building muscle and should be a part of your workout routine.
Cable crossovers are a great move for most lifters, but you can also try doing them lying down on an incline bench. They’re more stable than a standing press, so you can push further into fatigue. If you’re training with a partner, you can do a few dropsets for some real masochistic, muscle-building fun!
Fly Variations for Chest Growth:
- Incline cable fly
- Cable cross-over
- Low-cable cross-over
- Single-arm cable cross-over
- Dumbbell fly (flat, incline, decline)
Do your flyes after you presses or as the final exercise in your workout. You don’t need to go heavy, just do higher-rep sets like 10-12 reps or slightly higher.
5. Machine Chest Press
Why it made the list: This exercise is a great way to work your muscles without the use of free weights. The machine press and cable variations of this move make it easy to control the speed of the movement, which is beneficial for both the concentric and eccentric phases. Additionally, the stack-loaded machines are perfect for quickly completing dropsets.
If you don’t feel like free weights are giving you a good workout, don’t worry. Studies have shown that machines are actually better at recruiting your shoulder muscles, meaning you can focus on your chest more.
At the end of your workout, do machine exercises for sets of at least 8-10 reps. If you can, do dropsets or rest-pause sets. This is when you’ll see if the pre-workout you’ve been taking can help you reach your goals. Pump your pecs until they’re seriously fatigued and finish your workout strong.
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 results, you should select a training program that is appropriate for your experience level. People who are beginner often want to skip the basics and do advanced exercises, but this will not help them achieve their goals. People who are intermediate or advanced often find themselves in a routine rut, and they become frustrated because they are not making any more progress. Neither group will be successful if they do not make changes.
Here are some suggestions for exercises to try, depending on your level of experience. Be honest about your skills and choose a level that is appropriate for you to get the best results.
Beginner Chest Training Strategy
As a beginner, your number one focus should be on developing good technique. Doing a few chest exercises with perfect technique will develop overall strength. It’s like laying the foundation for the results you desire. Good technique is more important than doing a lot of exercises.
…Here are my recommendations for the best chest exercises to include for beginning trainees:
- Barbell Bench Press
- Dips or Push Ups
The most effective way for beginners to work out their chest is by incorporating chest exercises into a full body routine. Perfecting weight lifting technique will enable you to get the most out of your current weight lifting routine and maximize your long-term results in terms of strength and size, as well as reduce the risk of shoulder injuries.
Intermediate & Advanced Chest Training Strategy
If you are an experienced weightlifter, you have probably perfected your technique for major chest exercises, as well as various other basic weightlifting exercises. If you haven’t, I’m sorry to say that you are still a beginner.
Pick one or two chest exercises to act as a foundation, such as the barbell bench press, dumbbell incline press, or weighted dips. The rest of your routine can be focused on other exercises that target your chest.
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. 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.