Normally, I get a lot of questions about building ab muscles like “How do I get a six pack?” or “How do I get cut like the guys from the movie, ‘300’?” Let's talk about another vanity muscle: the chest.
My wife has said on multiple occasions that my shoulders aren’t the most developed, especially when compared to some of my other muscle groups like my triceps. She has said that my triceps are too big which makes my shoulders look small in comparison. I’m not bitter about that or anything… even though I’ve mentioned it many times before! The one thing I have failed to mention is that she has always felt that my chest muscles were well developed and in proportion with the rest of my body (except my shoulders of course). So, I feel like I'm qualified to share the exercises I do for my chest. If you had asked me about how to build up your shoulders, I probably couldn’t help you.
Chest Muscles & Genetics
I’ll start by saying something that most folks don’t like to hear, especially when it comes to their lack of progress. Genetics can be to blame. The next time you’re at the beach or the pool, take a quick glance at the various shapes and sizes of your fellow gents’ chest muscles. You’ll notice that they vary quite a bit. Of course, some of that is due to how they work that muscle group, but some of that is also due to their genetics. If you want a chest that looks a certain way, just know that with consistency you may be able to get really close to that ideal, but chances are your muscles will still look a little different.
Anatomy of Chest Muscles
I keep referring to the chest or pectorals as if it was one, big muscle. In fact, it’s made up of two main parts: the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor. These can be split into different parts, too–there are the interior and anterior pectorals, and the upper and lower pectorals. I’m going to assume that you want all of these to be well developed, so my suggestions will target all of these areas. What I’m about to share is likely not earth-shattering, but rather fundamental moves that have been shown to be effective over time.
Best Chest Muscle Exercises
The key is to mix things up by altering grips, rest periods, sets, and repetitions. I’ll start by mentioning the basic moves that need to be a part of everyone’s chest routine:
- Flat bench press
- Incline bench press
That last one may surprise you, but it works! You may think, “Whoa, wait, aren’t dips for building triceps??” My answer is yes, absolutely, but it’s also a great chest move with one slight modification. I’ll come back to this.
These 4 moves are fundamental and really should never go out of style. But if you’re already performing these chest exercises and aren’t seeing the results you want, then you need to change your rest periods, sets, and repetitions.
Chest Exercises for Beginners
First, let me start with a structured workout for beginners using the 4 exercises I just mentioned. It might look something like this:
After a 5 minute warm-up like walking, a light jog, bicycle, or elliptical, you could do:
- 1 set of barbell presses on a flat bench (you could substitute dumbbells here, too) at a weight you can lift 8-10 times. Basically, you’re performing 8-10 repetitions
- Rest for 2-3 minutes
- 1 set of barbell presses on an incline bench (feel free to substitute dumbbells here, also) at a weight you can again lift 8-10 times
- Rest for 2-3 minutes
- 1 set of wide-grip dips to failure. Note: to make this more of a chest move, before you begin the dip, lean forward just a bit so that your chest and your head begin to face the floor. Maintain this position during the up and down motion while you’re performing the dip. You should feel your chest muscles begin to engage.
- Rest for 2-3 minutes
- Perform standard push-ups until failure. This means your arms are about shoulder-width apart, your chin touches the floor, and you lock your arms out at the top of the move.
That’s it! You’re done. This is great for beginners.
Advanced Chest Exercises
To mix things up for those of you that are more advanced, the possibilities are seemingly endless, but let me give you an idea of what that might look like using these same 4 moves:
After a 5-minute warm-up:
- Perform a pyramid of flat barbell bench presses, where you perform 10 reps, then 9 reps, then 8, and so on. Increase the weight by a little bit as you decrease the number of reps. Rest only 30 seconds between sets. If you perform these correctly, you would have completed 55 repetitions total with just this one move
- Rest 2-3 minutes
- Moving on to the incline bench, perform 25 repetitions without stopping. Note: you’ll need to select a lighter weight here–a weight that you can lift 25 times without stopping
- Rest 2-3 minutes
- Perform 2 sets of dips each until muscle failure (rest 2-3 minutes between sets)
- Perform 2 sets of push-ups until muscle failure (resting 2-3 minutes between sets here, too)
That was just a sample. You could use the pyramid idea for every chest exercise (the one where you perform 10 reps, followed by a 30-second rest, then perform 9 reps with a slightly higher weight, etc.).
Another Variation: Go Up and Down the Pyramid
Something I love to do is to go “up and down the pyramid.” That would like something like this:
- Perform the standard pyramid: do 10 reps, then 9 reps, then 8… resting only 30 seconds in between, and gradually increasing the weight each time.
- Rest for 2-3 minutes.
- Start at the top of the pyramid and perform 1 rep using a heavy weight. Rest for 30 seconds, and follow that with 2 reps using a slightly lighter weight, rest for 30 seconds, then follow that with 3 reps at an even lighter weight… and eventually get all the way back up to 10 reps.
At this point you may not even be able to hold the bar up anymore! That’s because you would have just completed 110 reps, so I wouldn’t blame you! Sometimes my entire workout is just going up and down the pyramid for every exercise. I’ll do the same thing for incline bench, dips, and push-ups.
I should mention that I usually only work my chest like this once a week. I do other routines throughout the week that might involve push-ups, but I really only have one day where I focus on this muscle group.
Change Up Your Routine
You can begin altering the rest periods between sets and exercise–maybe between sets you only rest for 10 or 15 seconds before jumping back in. Between exercises, maybe only rest for 1 minute instead of 2-3 minutes. You could also mix up the order of exercises to see how your body responds. Maybe start with push-ups, then incline bench presses, then dips, then flat bench. You could also vary the distance between your hands for each. Sometimes use a narrower grip. Other times, use a wider grip. This will work the interior and exterior chest muscles differently. I think you get the idea.
Work those supporting muscle groups as well; don’t neglect working your shoulders, triceps and back. You will likely find that if you pay some attention to those muscle groups, too, your chest will thank you.