Chest training is a staple in most weightlifters’ workout regimens. It is typically the day they push heavy weights on the bench press or achieve a powerful pump with visible (albeit temporary) effects.
Exercising strategically is key to achieving optimal results, especially when training the chest. Many lifters rely on misconceptions about “targeting” different parts of the chest, training with excessively heavy weights, or stressing shoulder and elbow joints more than pectoral muscles, which can hinder progress. It is important to avoid relying on luck when developing a well-designed program, as this can fail to yield the desired outcomes.
The Chest Muscles
The chest is composed of multiple heads, which can be effectively targeted through appropriate exercise selection. However, some lifters have been misguided in their interpretation of the muscle’s anatomy, which has led to unwarranted complications in their chest workouts.
Anatomical evidence suggests that the only subdivision of the pectoral muscles that can be isolated is the upper pecs, due to the attachment point of the clavicular head being particularly amenable to exercises performed at an incline. Consequently, there is no evidence to support the notion that a “lower chest,” “inner chest,” or other subdivisions exist.
The pectoral muscles (pecs) facilitate movement of the arms towards the body’s midline, as demonstrated when the arms are extended outwards in a flye or press and moved above the chest.
The pectoralis major muscle is the primary muscle of the chest. It consists of two distinct heads – the clavicular head, located in the upper quarter of the chest near the collarbone, and the sternocostal head, which makes up the remainder of the chest.
The pectoralis minor muscle attaches to the scapula and contributes to scapular protraction, especially during the lockout phase of pressing exercises. Although it is not visible and is not typically targeted directly, the pectoralis minor is nonetheless essential for shoulder health.
The serratus is a set of small muscles positioned adjacent to the ribs. Attaching to the scapulae, they aid in regulating scapular movement, similar to the pec minor. Furthermore, the serratus is called upon prominently when the body is locked out.
How Often Should You Train the Chest
While chest training tends to be popular, it is important to remember that it should not be overemphasized relative to other body parts. Too much focus on the chest and shoulder muscles can lead to postural problems if not balanced out with adequate back training. Therefore, for those looking to achieve a balanced workout routine, it is essential to ensure that the chest and shoulder muscles are not overworked versus the back. While it is important to work the chest and shoulder muscles, it should not be done to the exclusion of back muscles, as this could lead to an imbalance with negative effects on posture.
For optimal muscle growth, it is recommended to include one to three properly programmed workouts each week. This will help ensure that your muscles receive adequate training, enabling them to grow in a healthy and sustainable manner. When planning your workout sessions, it is best to focus on the chest muscles during one session, and then include the shoulders and triceps muscles in another. You can also opt for a workout session that targets the entire upper body, or the entire body itself. To maximize the benefits of your workout sessions, it is important to use a variety of exercises that target different muscle groups and adjust the intensity of your workout accordingly. With this approach, you can be sure to achieve optimal muscle growth.
When designing a workout split, it is important to adjust the total volume depending on the number of muscle groups trained in a single session. For example, when training the chest, shoulders, and triceps in the same workout, the volume for the chest should be lower than if the chest was the only muscle group being trained. A total of 14 sets for the chest, shoulders, and triceps may be appropriate, or you may choose to perform six sets for the chest, followed by the back, shoulders, triceps, and biceps. This would make up a complete upper-body workout, and depending on the goals of the workout, the same upper-body routine may be repeated several days later. Adjusting the number of sets and reps based on the total weekly volume is important.
How to Progress Your Chest Training
The chest is an incredibly important muscle group and can be effectively trained with various compound exercises, such as bench presses, push ups, and chest flys. By adding weight to these exercises each week, it is possible to progress steadily in strength and size. Other exercises, such as cable flies, dips, and chest presses, can also target the chest and ensure balanced muscular development. When training the chest, it is important to use proper form and ensure that the shoulder girdle is properly engaged to reduce the risk of injury. Furthermore, by incorporating chest exercises into a full-body workout routine, it is easy to ensure that the chest is adequately trained while still allowing time to target other muscle groups.
When it comes to dumbbell pressing exercises, adding 10 to 20 pounds per dumbbell weekly is not recommended. Such quick and dramatic increases in weight would be difficult to manage and could lead to injury. Instead, it is advisable to opt for a more gradual increase in weight over a longer period. This allows the muscles to become accustomed to the extra resistance gradually and increases the likelihood of achieving strength gains over a longer time. A good rule of thumb for increasing weight for dumbbell exercises is to add five to 10 pounds per dumbbell every few weeks. This will ensure the muscles are consistently challenged while avoiding any issues with dangerously high weights or unmanageable equipment.
Isolation exercises, typically involving a single joint and muscle group, can be challenging to perform with heavier weights. To maximize safety and ensure the target muscle is adequately stressed, it is important to focus on increasing the number of repetitions of the exercise. Adding an extra rep or two on exercises such as flies or cable crossovers can help to ensure the muscle is receiving the necessary stimulation for growth and development. Additionally, for more advanced lifters, slow and controlled reps can help to ensure the muscle is receiving the necessary tension for development, even when lifting lighter weights.
One reliable approach to chest training is to perform compound exercises such as presses and dips with a heavy weight and lower repetitions, followed by a combination of compound and isolation exercises with a moderate to high rep count using a medium weight. This approach allows you to hit the chest muscles from different angles and with varying intensity levels, allowing for comprehensive and efficient muscle building. Additionally, it is important to rest adequately between sets in order to ensure proper recovery and maximize muscle growth. To further optimize your chest training, you may also want to consider changing up your exercises and rep ranges from time to time in order to provide your muscles with different challenges to keep them growing.
How to Warm Up Your Chest
Before commencing chest training, a thorough warm-up is imperative due to the potential for wear and tear in the shoulder joint, as all chest exercises involve the shoulder. To warm up effectively, a light resistance band can be used to complete a primary warm-up circuit.
- Begin your Cat/Camel exercise by positioning yourself on your hands and knees with arms extended. First, look up towards the ceiling and slowly arch your spine downwards as far as your mobility allows. Then, drive into the ground through your arms and look down towards the floor while curving your spine in a deep bend. Repeat this sequence five times before proceeding to the following exercise.
- Band Pull-Apart: Grasp the resistance band with a palms-down grip and hold the bar arms-length in front of your body. Maintaining a slight bend in your arms, pull both hands back until the band reaches your chest. Momentarily pause, then return to the starting position. Perform ten repetitions of this exercise before moving on.
- Band Dislocate: Hold the resistance band wide, beyond shoulder width. Starting from your waist, extend your arms, keeping them straight, and raise the band above your head, extending as far back as possible. Once you’ve reached the full range of motion with your shoulders, resume the starting position. Move slowly and with control in each direction. Repeat five times before moving on to the next exercise.
- Pushup Plus: Start with a traditional pushup position, hands outside shoulder-width and feet together. Make sure your body is aligned from your heels to your neck. Lower your body until you nearly touch the floor, press back up under control. Push until you reach the top, shoulders rounding forwards, then lower your body to the start position. Repeat five times for a full set, and complete three circuits.
Building a Complete Chest
When it comes to targeting the chest muscles, a comprehensive approach is best. Rather than overcomplicating the workout with several exercises, or conversely, using only one exercise to train the entire pec, one should find a balance. Through the exercises discussed, it is possible to create an effective workout that maximizes gains without overexerting or wasting time in the gym.
The 8 Best Workout Moves for Your Chest
If you’re reading a list of the “best chest exercises” and don’t see the classic bench press, your instinct might be to close the page and move on. This founding member of the big three power lifts is also a time-tested bodybuilding staple.
Do it: This hypertrophy method means you’re more focused on building muscle than pressing max weight, so keep your butt on the bench, with your feet flat on the floor and your glutes and core engaged. It would be best if you also drove your shoulder blades into the bar.
Lift your barbell squeezing the bar tightly. Once your back is on the bench, don’t just hold the weights with your elbows parallel to your shoulders. Keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle to help to keep your shoulders safe. Squeeze your chest to drive the weight up, then lower under control under the same path to just above your chest. Drive back up to hit another rep.
Close-Grip Bench Press
You can lift more weight with a barbell than dumbbells because they’re more stable. That’s why barbell presses generally build more raw strength in your chest. But this variation puts more focus on your triceps, so you’ll get the bonus of extra work for the biggest muscles in your arms, too.
Do it: Using an overhand grip that’s a bit narrower than shoulder width, hold a barbell above your sternum with your arms straight. Lower the bar to your chest. Hold for 1 second. Press the bar up.
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
This is an upper-body push exercise that targets the pectoralis major (upper chest), clavicular, coastal, and sternal head, along with the anterior deltoids, triceps, biceps, and serratus anterior.
This is a great exercise to implement into your program, giving your upper body push routine variety. The mechanical load and position on the incline bench press provide a more significant challenge than the flat or decline bench.
This will allow you to get a more excellent adaptational response with less weight than with the flat bench press. With this exercise, there are more chest muscles at work and less stress in the shoulder joint compared to the flat bench.
You can program this as either a primary or accessory lift. The prescription all depends on the load, intensity, and volume.
Do it: Lie on a bench with the backrest at a 45-degree incline. Hold a pair of dumbbells above your chest with your arms straight, and your palms turned toward your feet, which should be flat on the floor. Keep your core tight and avoid arching your back, which means your butt should be glued to the seat.
Press the dumbbells up, directly above the shoulders. You might have seen some people in the gym knocking the weights together at the top, but there’s no need to do that here. Lower the dumbbells to chest level—but don’t stress on how deep you go—before you press them back up for the next rep.
When it comes to working their pecs, most guys just press. Adding the fly to your routine gives your pecs and front deltoids a new stimulus.
Do it: Attach two stirrup handles to the high-pulley cables of a cable crossover station. Grab a handle with each hand, and stand in a staggered stance in the middle of the station. Your arms should be outstretched but slightly bent. Lean forward slightly at your hips; don’t round your back.
Without changing the bend in your arms, bring your hands together. Slowly reverse the movement.
You’ve done pushups a million times before, and if you want a well-rounded workout, you’ll keep at it until you’ve done them a million more times. You can’t do a more fundamental exercise to train your chest, so ensure you’re doing them correctly.
Do it: Get into a high plank position with your weight on your hands directly beneath your shoulders, and your feet close together, keeping a straight spine with your core and glutes squeezed. Keep your gaze down to keep your neck in a neutral position.
Lower your chest to the floor, keeping your elbows close to your torso and not flaring them out. Push straight off the ground up to the top position with your elbows straight.
Decline Dumbbell Bench Press
Changing the angle on the bench does more than just switch up the scenery. This exercise zeroes in on your lower chest, helping to build serious size, according to Tyler English, C.S.C.S., author of Natural Bodybuilder’s Bible.
Do it: Lie on a decline bench with your shins hooked beneath the leg support. Hold a pair of dumbbells above your chest with your arms straight. Your palms should face your feet, and the weights should be just outside your shoulders.
Lower the dumbbells to your chest, pause, and then press them back to the starting position.
This explosive pushup nails the fast-twitch muscles in your chest, priming them for growth, said English. The movement also gives you another, more powerful option for at-home chest development.
Do it: Get into a pushup position, your hands just outside your chest, your feet shoulder-width apart, and your body forming a straight line from head to heels. Brace your core.
Lower your chest to the floor and press up explosively, so your hands come off the bottom. If you can pull it off, clap your hands together before returning to the starting position on the ground.
Utilizing a suspension trainer for pushups activates the core, chest, and stabilizer muscles more than the standard pushups performed on the ground. The T.R.X. straps provide an additional approach for at-home exercise.
Grasp the grips of the T.R.X. band and extend your arms in front of you, keeping your feet at shoulder width. Your posture should range from 45 degrees to a parallel angle with the ground, forming an even line from your head to your feet.
Descend with your chest until your hands are positioned beyond your shoulders. Maintain a straight neck and arms while having your core engaged throughout the motion. Push yourself back up to the start position and repeat.