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Best Chest Exercises for Building Strength and Definition

Identifying the best chest exercises is key for efficiency in the gym, because for many regular lifters (especially guys), there are few body parts that get as much attention as the chest.  To see what I’m talking about, simply take a look around on your next visit to the gym and you’re sure to see the bench press equipment well-occupied.

And that attention makes sense…a well-developed chest not only makes you look good, but can also help you excel in many athletic activities.

Muscles of the Chest

Before we get into specific exercise that will help you build a strong chest, let’s first run through a quick anatomy lesson.
The main muscle of the chest is called the Pectoralis Major (often referred to as the pecs) and is composed of 2 portions, the upper chest and the lower chest.

The upper chest originates from the collar bone and inserts into the humerus.  It makes up about 1/5 of the whole chest mass.  The lower chest, on the other hand, is much larger and originates from the sternum and also inserts into the humerus.

Your chest exercise program should include exercises that target both the upper and lower areas of the chest.  And while some women may shy away from chest workouts because they fear they may reduce their breast size, that isn’t the case.  The pectoralis major actually lies underneath the breast tissue, so if anything, chest workouts would actually increase muscle under the breasts.

Best Chest Exercises

While everyone has their favorites, there are certain exercises that do a better job of working the chest.  Here are 5 best chest exercises that will do a great job of developing the entire chest:

  1. Barbell Bench Press
    The king of all chest exercises. The flat barbell bench press has long been the standard for strength prowess. If you could only choose 3 exercise to create a full body workout, the flat barbell bench press would have to be on the list. This is also the same exercise commonly used in powerlifting competitions. There a large number of variations of the flat barbell bench press… a close grip barbell bench press is used to focus more on triceps, while a wide grip flat barbell bench press is a standard pec builder. A middle/neutral grip is used most successfully to combine the strength of the triceps, pecs, and shoulders for a maximal effort bench press.

For a little variety or to focus a bit more on the upper chest, add in some incline barbell bench presses.

  1. Dumbbell Bench Press
    The flat dumbbell bench press is an awesome way to make sure you don’t have any strength imbalances between the two sides of your body. The dumbbell bench also more closely follows the intended function of the pecs by not only pressing but also by moving the weight toward the midline of your body.

Again, to mix things up a bit or to place an extra emphasis on the upper chest, you can also perform your dumbbell presses on an incline bench.

  1. Explosive/Plyometric Push-Ups
    Push-ups are a great exercise for the entire upper body, but over time the body adapts and they can become fairly easy. Enter the explosive push-up!  By incorporating the benefits of plyometrics into your push-ups, you can develop some serious strength and power in your chest area.

Clapping push-ups, explosive incline push-ups off of a bench, and band-assisted push-ups are all great ways to incorporate explosiveness into your chest routine.

  1. Dumbbell or Cable Chest Flyes
    When done properly, flyes are a great way to isolate the chest.  While the other chest exercises call on other muscle groups (triceps, shoulders) to assist, dumbbell or cable flyes require the pecs to do pretty much all of the work.

Plus there are a ton of variations you can do that will change the angle of the exercise…flat bench, incline bench, seated, standing, staggered stance, etc….making flyes a nice change of pace exercise to throw in every so often.

  1. Dips
    Dips are a great add-on exercise for the chest because they not only require a lot of strength from the pecs, but they also call on the triceps to be a big helper.  Strong triceps will be a great benefit to the chest when it comes to some of the other chest exercises like bench pressing.  They will allow you to move more weight, which will ultimately result in a more muscular chest.

Dips can be done using your own bodyweight, with added resistance attached to a belt, or with the assistance of and dip machine that will actually lighten your bodyweight load and allow beginners to perform them with perfect form.

Chest Workout

How you fit your chest workouts into your program is up to you.  Some people prefer to do total body workouts where they may incorporate an exercise or 2 for each body part.  If that’s the case, I would focus on the chest exercises that are going to give you the most “bang for your buck” like the bench press (bar or dumbbell) and/or the explosive push-ups.

If you like to isolate specific muscle group when you work out, then you’ll want to incorporate a full chest routine that might look something like this….

  1. Barbell Bench Press

Sets: 4, Reps: 5-8, Rest Time: 90-180 Seconds

  1. Barbell or Dumbbell Incline Press

Sets: 4, Reps: 8-12, Rest Time: 90 Seconds

  1. Weighted Dips

Sets: 4, Reps: 8-12, Rest Time: 2 Minutes

  1. Dumbbell or Cable Flyes

Sets: 4, Reps: 10-12, Rest Time: 1 Minute

About the writer: Ken Grall is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and owns and operates an Edge Fitness in Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Ken.

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