Best Exercises for Chest
Whether seeking strength, fitness, or the physique of a champion, there’s no question people want to know the best exercises for chest. Anatomy fans will recognize the four major muscles of the chest to be the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, serratus anterior, and subclavius. But as any gym-goer knows, chest exercises are nearly always compound movements – or those which involve multiple muscle groups – because the shoulders, triceps, latissimus dorsi, and even forearms are required to perform them.
Here are 5 Best Chest Exercises as well as their variations, ever bearing in mind that the goals of individuals do differ a bit. That said, our choices are based on their overall benefit to the chest muscles and supporting groups, ease of learning, and availability of equipment. In other words, what exercises give you the best bang-for-your-buck. Check out our collection of Best Strength Training Equipment as well as our other product reviews and it’s easy to see that whether one wants to be a champion-level powerlifter, a beach body wonder, or simply increase mobility, these five movements are difficult to dispute.
- Push Ups: Incline, Decline, Wide
- Flat Bench Press: Barbell, Dumbbell
- Chest Flyes: Dumbbells, Machine, Cable
- Pullovers: Dumbbell, Barbell
- Dip: Inward facing or Outward
Why do we offer push-ups at the top of the list? They’re easy to learn, free to perform, offer multiple variations, and work perfectly as either a warm-up, superset, or a standalone exercise. To perform a push-up, simply get down on all fours with your hands slightly wider than the shoulders, knees off the floor, and feet toes-down. Straighten up the arms and legs, then lower the body by bending at the elbows until the chest touches the floor. The final step is to press the straightened body up off the floor, pause and then repeat.
Push-ups generate a great deal of hypertrophy, which is the enlargement of muscles by way of forced blood flow through their fibers. Anyone who has ever performed a high number of push-ups will understand the swelling effect felt afterwards. But this movement isn’t just for showing off a pump. By increasing the number of repetitions and sets over time one can increase total body strength. One of the great things about this movement is that it incorporates nearly every muscle in the body as it greatly resembles the plank position.
Variations of the push-up are nearly unlimited, but for chest work, consider that the wider one places their hands, the more emphasis there is on the pectoral muscles and latissimus dorsi. The more narrow the hand placement, the more emphasis is placed on the triceps. By placing one’s feet on a bench and their hands on the floor, one can perform a decline push-up. And by placing one’s hands on the same bench or a box, and leaving their feet on the floor, they can perform an incline push-up. This varies the movement’s affect on the upper or lower chest.
A great tool for this exercise is the push-up bar, which we’ve reviewed here.
2. Flat Bench Press
Probably the first exercise which comes to mind when thinking of chest exercises is the flat bench press, whether with barbell or dumbbells. For those used to push-ups, the bench press is very similar, except upside and with weights in hand. For those unfamiliar, the bench press is one of the Big Four lifts, along with the Squat, Deadlift, and Overhead Press. A staple in gyms, it’s performed by lying flat on the back and holding weights in-hand, lowering the weight to the chest, and then pressing upward.
One of the good points to the bench press is that as a compound lift it also provides a tremendous amount of benefit to the shoulders, triceps, latissimus dorsi, forearms and, if done properly, the legs. Higher repetitions of the bench press can produce hypertrophy, but this is also an exercise for the Central Nervous System (CNS), the neural circuitry of the body that many refer to as the mind-muscle connection
Like with push-ups, the bench press offers some variations and as a rule, the wider one places their hands on the barbell, the more emphasis is placed on the pectoral muscles. The more narrow the grip, the more is works the triceps. Using dumbbells can provide even more variation yet, and if one side of the body is stronger than the other, consider a one-arm dumbbell bench press. By lying flat on the bench and using just one hand to press a dumbbell upward, you can tighten the entire body as a stabilizer, much like one-armed planks. Check out our review of benches for the home gym here.
3. Chest Flyes
If you’re looking for an isolation movement that focuses directly upon the pectoralis major and minor, then chest flyes are the go-to. Whether using a pec deck, dumbbells while laying on a bench, or a cable crossover machine. The basic movement is the same as one holds resistance in their hands and squeezes their arms together by using their pectoral muscles. By keeping the arms straight at the elbows, one limits the interference of other muscle groups such as the biceps and shoulders and produces a blood pump into the pectoral muscles that is difficult to replicate.
When designing a strength workout, it’s a good idea to incorporate at least one isolation movement into the routine to augment the compound movements. For a chest workout, the chest flyes can either serve as a warm-up or an exercise in their own right. As one lowers and raises the weight the lifter feels the stretch up around the rotator cuff and this movement can serve as a good stretching tool for those attempting to recover from injury.
Variations of this movement alter the section of the pectorals targeted and this can be done by using cable pulleys at the high, middle, or low section. Dumbbell flyes can be performed on a flat, incline, or decline bench as well. For more information on chest flye machines, check out our review here.
Often referred to as a “squat for the upper body,” the pullover is undoubtedly one of the best overall upper body movements around, and it does wonders for the chest. Like the other chest exercises mentioned here, the pullover is easy to learn and doesn’t require an extraordinary amount of equipment. It also offers different variations and functions. To perform a dumbbell or kettlebell pullover, lie down on the bench with your head away from the rack. With the heads up on the ground at the foot of the bench, grasp the weight by the top and literally pull it up and onto your chest in a straight-arm motion. The same movement can be performed using a barbell from the rack, gripping it near the center of the bar and lowering it up over the head onto the floor, and then pulling it back to the chest.
Whether as a stretching movement or an exercise set, the pullover lengthens and strengthens the pectoral muscles while also working the latissimus dorsi simultaneously. This also forces the abs to contract and tightens the legs while performing. A true compound movement, many people consider it an upper back exercise, but once it’s performed you’ll realize the stretching benefits to the pectorals.
The pullover is simple to learn and serves a great warm-up before bench pressing, and it can also be incorporated into recoveries where one has hurt a shoulder or rotator cuff. Always consult with a medical professional before launching into physical therapy, but there’s no doubt if you ask a therapist about the pullover, they’ll know exactly what you mean. To check out our reviews of adjustable dumbbell options out on the market, read here.
Like the push-up, the dip is a bodyweight movement which brings big bang for the buck. The mechanics are quite simple and the variations include facing inward or outward, with the former emphasizing the triceps and the latter the pectorals. By placing one’s hands on the bars, the lifter can hoist oneself upward and tuck the legs beneath them, then literally dip down parallel and raise back up. Resistance can be added by either wearing a weighted vest, a belt with a chain and weight plate, or by simply holding a dumbbell between one’s feet.
This movement stretches out the pectoral muscles and many people use it as a triceps exercise. All in all, it’s an upper-body powerhouse that works well with bodyweight alone. Consider a 200-pound man is effectively pushing 200 pounds using just his chest and triceps here with the shoulders and forearms as stabilizers. This movement pairs well in supersets with pull-ups and push-ups. In fact, if you’re looking for a chest-oriented bodyweight circuit, consider a five sets of push-ups, then wide-grip pull-ups, and then dips. That’s five sets of reps using three solid upper body movements. Throw in some abdominal crunches and call it a “hotel workout.”
Dips can be performed about anywhere, but if you’re looking to buy a unit for the home, check out our review of the best dips bars on the market.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What other body part best matches up with chest for workout splits? A lot of people like either the back or triceps for chest days. That said, if using a Push/Pull Split, it would go with the Push days.
- Can I get stronger doing just push-ups every day? Actually yes. Consider that football great Herschel Walker become a legend by focusing primarily on push-ups, sit-ups, and other bodyweight drills. Will you bench press 500 pounds doing just push-ups? No. But you can definitely get stronger with bodyweight movements.
- Are chest exercises dangerous? Any exercise can be dangerous if done improperly. Be sure to check with a medical professional or trainer before venturing into a new routine.