Chest workouts are a vital part of whole-body workouts. Your chest muscles are among the largest in your upper body, and they need to be engaged and strengthened through a well-designed chest workout routine.
Effective chest exercises lead to well-developed chest muscles, which in turn allow you to easily carry out daily tasks involving pushing movements, to excel on the playing field, and to better avoid related injuries. And with a chest workout for mass in your training schedule, you can more easily achieve that sculpted physique you’ve been training hard for. Chest exercises, for men in particular, are as motivating as they are rewarding in terms of appearance benefits.
The best chest workout programs are a mix of free-weight and machine exercises that you can do at the gym or, if you have the necessary equipment, at home. Among the most commonly used equipment in a chest workout routine are barbells, dumbbells, flat benches, chest presses, cable machine and assisted dip machines, while popular chest exercises for men and women include the push-up, bench press, dumbbell chest press, seated chest press, cable fly and dip. Variations in how these exercises are performed make for good chest workouts that work your chest muscles from every angle.
For the best chest workout results, change up your selection of exercises and the sequence in which you execute them. Also, start your routine with stretches and a warm-up set to avoid straining your muscles and do both upper and lower chest workouts to achieve your shape and size goals.
Chest muscle basics
What are chest muscles?
Those large muscles spanning your upper chest wall are your chest muscles. Technically, they are called pectorals, but they are sometimes referred to simply as pecs. You actually have two pec muscles: the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. The pectoralis major is responsible for drawing the arm inward as well as rotating it. This is the muscle that weightlifters target during chest workouts.
The pectoralis minor is in charge of moving the shoulder blade (or scapula) forward and down, and of raising your ribs. Located underneath the pec major, it tends to get tight in people with poor posture and therefore needs to be released through massage.
Both pec muscles work with your arm, shoulder, neck and core muscles in producing power and movement.
What are chest muscles for?
Your chest muscles are not just a sign of strength. And they provide more than just support and stability. In fact, anything you do that involves forward motion uses your chest muscles, including all pushing, throwing and hugging movements.
So whether you’re pushing a lawn mower, hugging your mom, throwing a ball, driving to work or using a computer, your chest muscles are in action. And they play an especially big role when you play tennis, football or golf, go free-style swimming, or lift heavy weights.
Benefits of chest workouts
The best chest workouts can do wonders for your body and your posture.
The more you engage your chest muscles, the stronger they get. With strong pecs, you can easily push objects such as a full shopping cart or stroller. You might even be able to arrange the furniture in your new home with little to zero help.
As you age, strengthening your pecs is also key to preventing muscle loss in your upper body. So yes, chest workouts have long-term benefits too.
Developing your pecs through a good chest workout helps develop your athletic skills. If you play baseball or tennis, you can throw or hit the ball with extra oomph. If you box or practice martial arts, you will be able to punch harder. If you swim, you can get to the other side of the pool faster.
Added injury prevention
Because they are attached to your shoulder joint, your chest muscles can help keep your shoulders safe—that is if they’re strong enough.
With regular chest exercises, you can better avoid a shoulder injury when you’re pushing harder than usual to get something done (e.g., pushing a car out of a ditch or one that’s stuck in snow).
Of course, there’s the feel-good factor that has made chest exercises for men popular. This kind of training, when done properly, does pay off appearance-wise. Just don’t forget to manage—and be realistic with—your expectations.
This is an especially important reminder for men. Most men focus workout programs on their chests, as well-defined pecs make them feel stronger, better and more attractive.
Yes, pec training can lead to a fuller, sculpted chest that makes for a cover-model physique. And when you target your chest muscles, you do get results. You can see the progress. You become more motivated to train harder.
In some cases, however, motivation turns into obsession. Men overtrain their pecs, push the boundaries of their maximum lift and exclude other workouts in their exercise program—practices that can make them prone to shoulder injuries and result in overdeveloped chest muscles.
Many women, in contrast, avoid chest workouts because they are afraid of building bulk or looking manly. Others regard it as an exercise designed only for men.
In reality, the best chest workouts can be good for women with sagging breasts. In women, strong and toned chest muscles help lift and support the breast tissue, making breasts appear perkier. So while chest exercises won’t actually increase a woman’s breast size, they can make her chest look bigger and firmer.
When working your chest muscles, you can do free-weight exercises or use a good chest-workout machine.
It’s best to start your workout with free-weight exercises such as push-ups, bench presses, flys and dips. To perform these, you’ll need to concentrate more, exert greater strength and have better control, and so you should be full of vigor (rather than exhausted from using chest-exercise machines) when you take them on. Just don’t rush into the exercises. Taking it slow will be good for your muscles and joints.
For some variety to your free-weight exercises, go with machines such as chest presses and assisted dip machines. These not only provide convenience and assistance, but also allow you towork your chest muscles in other ways.
The classic push-up is a humble tool for developing your chest. And you don’t even need machines or weights. With sheer willpower, you can do it anytime, anywhere.
Lie on your stomach with your legs straight and together and your hands placed shoulder-width apart on the floor. Push up your body until your arms are straight. Bend your elbows and lower down to return to your starting position.
- Wall push-up: Place your hands on a wall, instead of the floor.
- Modified push-up: When you lower your body, rather than your chest touching the floor, your upper arms should be parallel to the floor. In addition to your chest muscles, this strengthens your triceps and shoulders.
- Incline push-up: Place your hands on the top of a step bench, chair or desk, instead of the floor. This will work your upper pecs.
If you wish to work your lower pecs, place your hands on the floor and your feet on the bench.
- Military push-up: Place your hands in the front of, but a bit to the side, of your shoulders so your elbows are right against your sides.
- Push-up on your knees or toes
- Push-up on an exercise ball or with resistance
- Place your hands closer together to work your inner chest and wider apart for the outer chest.
- Keep your head facing the floor. But avoid dipping your head toward to floor; this “head bob” can strain your neck.
- Keep your abdomen tight and your back straight to avoid a lower back injury.
- Push up without snapping or locking out your elbows. When you put too much pressure on your elbow joints, the risk for inflammation or tendonitis increases.
To bodybuilders, the bench press is known as the king of all chest exercises for men and thebest chest workout for bulking up. A standard horizontal bench press, which is performed on a flat bench, works out your chest muscles evenly while developing your triceps and shoulders too. Some benches can be set to incline or decline position.
Lie on a bench. Grasp the bar so your arms are a bit wider apart than shoulder width. Lift it off the rack until it is directly over your shoulders and your arms are straightened. Lower the bar to below your neck or to your nipple line, with your elbows slightly below your shoulders. Raise the bar back up.
- Towel chest press: Place a rolled-up bath towel across your chest. The bar should touch the towel when your lower it and before your press back up. This reduces the stress on your shoulder joint.
- Incline bench press: Incline the bench to work your upper pecs.
- Decline bench press: Decline the bench to work your lower pecs.
- Close grip bench press: Position your hands on the bar so that your arms are about two thumb lengths apart to work your inner chest.
- Have someone spot you for assistance and to ensure your safety.
- Breathe properly, exhaling as your lift the bar and inhaling as you lower it.
- Keep your shoulder blades on the backrest and your elbows relaxed even as you press the bar up. Otherwise, your shoulder blades might end up bearing too much weight, straining your shoulder joint.
- Keep your grip relaxed but firm.
- Don’t bounce the barbell off your chest.
- Don’t go too far when lowering the bar. It is not meant to be lowered all the way to your chest.
Dumbbell chest press
The dumbbell chest press targets the major muscles of your chest, triceps and shoulders. It is a lot like the bench press but allows for more range of motion and in turn better stretches your pecs. It also balances out your chest so that both sides become equally strong.
Lie on a bench. Hold one dumbbell in each hand, resting them on your chest with your elbows bent 90 degrees. Push the dumbbells up so they are just touching in front of your shoulders. With your palms facing forward and your arms fully extended, pause for a second in this position. Lower the dumbbells to your sides, with your elbows pointed and slightly below your shoulders. Return to starting position and push the dumbbells back up.
- Partial dumbbell press: Lower the dumbbells to only three-quarters the distance that the basic version requires. This is suitable for those with rotator cuff, shoulder or elbow problems.
- Incline chest press: Use an incline bench to work your upper pecs.
- Decline chest press: Use a decline bench to work your lower pecs.
- Keep your lower back’s natural arch so there is a little gap between the bench and your lower back. Flattening your back on the bench won’t be good for your back.
- Only lift the weight you can handle without contorting your body. Maintaining good form is key.
Seated chest press
The seated chest press engages the same muscles as the flat bench press but you’ll be executing the exercise in seated position.
Sit with your feet flat on the floor or footrest and place your hands on the handle. Push the handles outward until your elbows are fully extended. Return to the starting position.
- If the chest press machine allows changing positions, try different angles between vertical and horizontal to challenge your muscles.
- Use a vertical handle to reduce the strain on your chest and emphasize your triceps.
- Focus on using your chest to push out the handles. Exhale as you do this.
- Keep your feet flat, your abdomen tight, your back straight, your head steady, your neck against the backrest and your buttocks on the seat pad.
In a cable fly, loaded arms are pulled across the chest using cables in a cable frame. This allows you to strengthen your chest muscles, ligaments and tendons with little risk of injury. It is ideal as a definition exercise.
Once the pulleys are set above your head, grab a cable in each hand. Move one or two steps forward, then bring your arms together in the middle (you can also overlap them so one wrist crosses over in front of the other). Bend your elbows a bit before you extend your arms back until your hands are level with your shoulders.
- Flat bench cable fly: Do the exercise with your back on a flat bench and the cables set at the lower point on the towers. Move your arms as you would on a dumbbell chest press.
- Single-arm fly/one-hand crossover: Use one hand at a time, placing the other hand on the cable tower or your hip. Note that your core should be rock solid to pull this off properly.
- Lean slightly forward to ease the pressure on your lower back.
- Exhale deeply just before you pull your hands together.
- Focus on the squeeze as you get to the point of contraction.
- Place a different hand in front during the crossover portion of each rep.
Dips are not only beneficial for your triceps. It is also one of the best chest workouts for developing and defining your lower chest. While most people find it difficult, there are now different dip machines that make this lower chest workout easier to perform.
Stand between the dip bars and place your hands on them. Hop up to get your feet off the floor and lift your body upward while keeping your arms straight. Your legs should be straight too, or you could bend your knees a bit and cross your ankles.
Next, bend your elbows and lower your body so your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Return to starting position then push back up.
- Assisted dip: Use the platform of the assisted dip machine as you get into starting position.
- Negative-only dip: After you lower your body and finish a rep, jump up to the start.
- Weighted dip: Strap on a waist belt with a weight plate attached to the end of it for added resistance.
- Pull in your abdominals to prevent your back from arching. Arching your back may lead to overstraining or, worse, a back injury.
- Keep your body tall by aligning your neck with the rest of your spine while relaxing your shoulders.
- When setting the weight, remember that in the case of dips, the more the plates, the more counterbalanced your weight and the easier the exercise.
Best chest workout pointers
To create the best chest workout and get the most out of it, keep in mind the following pointers.
- Integrate your chest exercises into a whole-body routine.
- Start every workout with chest stretches. You could, for one, place your hands on the inside of a doorway with your elbows bent then lean out as you straighten your arms.
- Since your chest muscles are among your upper body’s largest, the number of sets for chest exercises should be more than the number of sets for arm exercises. Anywhere between three to 12 sets per chest workout routine will do (although first-timers should begin with one set).
- Start with an easy warm-up set. Say you can lift 500 pounds during a bench press. Don’t jump right into that weight. Instead start with a 45-pound bar.
- Do three to five different chest exercises per workout. The exercises should align with your fitness level and goals, and work your chest muscles from every angle. Mix up your selection by doing exercises that require you to stand, sit upright, lie face down, and lie flat or reclined on a bench.
- If you’re using a bench, adjust the angle of the bench so you can work your chest muscles from different angles.
- Try different exercise sequences to find our which ones work best for you. Then change up your sequence regularly to challenge your muscles and maximize the benefits of each exercise.
- Make sure to work your back as well. Perform equal amounts of and alternate between chest and back exercises. An off-balance routine could lead to muscular imbalances and bad posture.
Chest Building Nutrition
Even the best chest workout can only do so much for your chest muscles. You also need to pay attention to what you eat.
Poor nutritional choices can hold you back, stalling your progress. Don’t let this happen. Here’s how.
Eat more. The more calories you consume, the more mass you can gain. For an active man who does a regular chest workout for mass, 15 to 17 calories per pound of body weight is required for maintenance. So if you wish to gain a pound of muscle mass each week, make room for 3,500 additional calories in your diet.
To achieve your goals with every chest workout for mass, you could add 500 calories each day to your diet. Or have two calorie-packed meals (700 to 1,000 calories) after each tough workout so your muscles don’t “go hungry.” The best source for those extra calories? Carbs!
Protein, carb and fat intake
Besides a calorie surplus, you need the right mix of protein, carbs and fats. You won’t have to tweak your diet too much for this. You only need to stay on top of your intake.
For protein, the ideal daily intake is 1 gram per pound of body weight, or 1.2 to 1.5 grams on your chest-workout days. Go for egg whites, chicken, fish, lean beef and whey protein.
For carbs, you’ll need to boost your intake so you’re fully energized during workouts and can recover faster after. To build mass as well, most men should consume at least 150 grams of carbs each day and up to 200 grams on chest-workout days. If you’re already big on carbs to begin with, you can up your daily carb intake to 250 to 300 grams. Focus on complex carbs like barley, brown rice, oatmeal and sweet potatoes. Quinoa is a carbohydrate-rich grain as well—a dry ¼ cup of quinoa contains 31 grams of carbs.
For fats, stick to good and healthy fats and make sure these account for 15 percent of your total daily calorie intake. Yes, you need fats to optimize muscle growth and recovery. In fact, they help stimulate the production of testosterone, a major muscle-building hormone. So instead of being afraid of fats, incorporate avocado, fish oil, flaxseeds, natural nut butter and nuts in your diet.
It also helps to consume plenty of the following chest-building foods.
- Salmon is rich in calories, protein and fats, with a 4-ounce serving containing 233 calories, 25 grams protein and 14 grams fats (less than 3 grams saturated).
- Eggs are high in both protein and fats. For every large egg you consume, you get 6.3 grams of protein and 4.8 grams of fat, plus 72 calories. In addition, eggs are packed with vitamin D, which helps raise testosterone levels.
- Chocolate milk is an excellent source of protein and carbs, making it an effective alternative to commercial exercise-recovery beverages.
There is more to chest workouts than bench presses and bulking up. When done properly, chest exercises have real-life benefits that make it worth your time and effort. Just don’t forget to consult a doctor before you begin a chest-building workout and diet program. The best chest workouts are well-thought-out and carefully planned.