There are three certainties in this world: death, taxes, and everyone at your gym doing chest on Monday.
It’s definitely a favorite body part of gym bros, and is the crown jewel in the “I only train glory muscles” camp of training. But unlike your other main muscle groups: back, legs, and even arms, abs, and calves, your chest is really just one, albeit large, muscle: the pectoralis.
Despite people’s tendency to make chest exercises overly complicated, you really don’t need to make chest exercises overly complicated.
Heavy, compound pressing movements should be the majority of your chest training. Then, to overload the muscle further, you can add accessory pressing movements. If you really want to go from a B to a C cup, do some isolation chest work.
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Free Weight Exercises
You want to start your chest work with the hardest, most compound movement you can. And when it comes to training the chest, there is no better exercise than the barbell bench press. Not just for your ego, but for overall development.
The barbell bench press is fantastic for a number of reasons: it’s super easy to progressively overload (i.e. add more weight over time), it activates a large percentage of muscle mass, and it transfers over well to other pressing movements, like machine or dumbbell presses.
How to Do a Barbell Bench Press
To do a barbell bench press, lie back on a bench with an appropriate amount of weight loaded on the bar.
Grip the bar so that a 90-degree angle is created in the middle of the movement between the forearms and the upper arms.
Push the bar forward —not up —to un-rack in order to keep your scapula retracted.
Hold the bar straight over your shoulder joints with your arms locked out.
Breathe into your belly before lowering the weight down to just below your nipples.
Briefly pause before pushing the bar away from you and return the weight to the top position, keeping the weight above the shoulder joint.
You can also use an incline or decline bench to change the angle of the press and target different parts of the chest in training.
Try not to increase the incline more than 45 degrees, as that can target the shoulders more than the chest. You can do a bench with dumbbells as well, but will not be able to do as much weight since it requires a higher activation of stabilization.
If for whatever reason you cannot bench press, or want to do another compound chest exercise, weighted dips are another great exercise for chest development.
However, just know that I’ve been asked “how much do you bench?” more times than I’ve been asked “what’s your name?” and no one in the history of the universe has ever asked, “how much do you dip?”
How to Do a Weighted Dip
To do a weighed dip, find a dip rack or a pair of parallel bars.
Take a grip that is just outside of shoulder width. Lock your arms out and support your weight in your palms.
Make sure that your shoulder blades are pushed together and down in order to keep the shoulder joint nice and stable throughout the lift.
Lean a little forward until you feel your chest being activated.
Bend at the elbow, stretching out your chest as you come down under control.
Your forearms should not move, staying perpendicular to the ground the entire time.
Keep your knees back and don’t use momentum as you press the bars down when ascending in the rep.
To make this movement easier, you can use the dip assisted machine at the gym. To make it more challenging you can place a dumbbell between your feet or use a chain belt with some weight attached.
After you do your main pressing movements, you want to continue overloading your chest. For this reason, it makes sense to incorporate machine-assisted pressing movements.
Variations like machine pressing and cable pressing are great for targeting the pecs without requiring as much recruitment from the shoulder stabilizer muscles.
Machine presses also have the advantage of targeting specific angles of the chest, depending on the design of the machine.
To do a machine press, sit in the machine press and grab the handles. When your arms are extended, your hands should be parallel with your shoulder joint. Tuck your shoulders underneath you, creating an arch in your back. As you bring the weight down, think about protecting your armpits like someone is about to tickle you. Bring the weight as far back as you can before pressing again.
How to Do a Standing Cable Chest Press
If your gym does not have a machine press you can use a cable system to do your pressing movements as well.
To do a standing cable press, position the pulleys to about chest height and stand a foot or two in front of where the cables attach.
A good tip is to stagger your stance for better balance.
Position your upper arm at a 90-degree angle with the shoulder.
While keeping the rest of your body still, press the cables away from you before bringing them back under control.
This movement can also be performed sitting down in a bench as well, and by adjusting the pulleys either higher or lower, you can target the lower or upper chest respectively.
Once the chest has been adequately fatigued from a few sets of heavy presses, it’s time for some isolation work to close it all out. The best chest isolation exercise there is? The chest fly.
There are a number of variations on this exercise, but they all follow the same basic principles.
How to Do a Dumbbell Chest Fly
We’ll start with the dumbbell fly.
To do a dumbbell fly, lie on a bench with a slight arch in your back, shoulders packed underneath you.
With a dumbbell in each hand, extend the weight with your arms locked out directly over your shoulder joint.
With your palms facing each other, keep your arms straight as you lower the weight horizontally until you cannot stretch your chest out any further.
Squeeze the weight back up, keeping a slight bend in your arm to prevent strain in your bicep tendon.
Careful not to press your flies. Press your presses, fly your flies.
I personally like to do this exercise at a slight decline, as I feel like I get a better stretch in my chest that way.
You can also do this movement using the cable system, or on a pec dec machine, whichever your gym has.
The advantage of these variations is that you get a constant, even amount of tension throughout the lift, unlike the dumbbell version, which stresses the pec more at the bottom part of the rep than the top part.