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When's the last time someone asked you how much you squat or lat pulldown? Likely never, but you've probably been asked several times, "How much do you bench press?" Let's face it - the barbell flat bench press is the king for chest exercises and building upper-body muscle mass. Monday is known as "International Chest Day" because the barbell bench press is the most common exercise and center point of a chest workout.
While the bench press is one of the best chest exercises for muscle growth, other chest exercises should be used to maximize chest hypertrophy. In this article, we will show you the best chest exercises, including two sample chest workouts, to help you take your chest workouts to the next level.
Table of Contents
Below are the best barbell exercises you should include on chest day to increase muscle mass.
The flat bench press is the holy grail and should be the cornerstone of any chest workout. The bench press is a compound exercise, as it works multiple muscles in the upper body. The standard bench press primarily targets the pectoralis major. It also works:
For those training for competitive sports or lifting heavy weights, it's acceptable to have a slight bend in your back when lifting, but be sure to avoid over-arching the back.
The barbell incline bench press is a variation of the standard bench designed to target the upper chest specifically. Incline bench presses also work the anterior deltoids, triceps brachii, and serratus anterior. The upper pecs are arguably the most important to building a complete chest muscle and increasing chest size because they help the chest pop out more.
The decline bench press is arguably the third most important chest press after the flat and incline bench. The lower portion of the chest is much smaller than the middle and upper chest, but it's still important to train it. The decline bench press primarily targets the pectoralis major, but it focuses on the lower portion of the chest. Like the other chest press exercises, the decline bench press uses the triceps, anterior deltoids, and serratus anterior.
Your decline bench set should be performed after a flat or incline press because the decline is the easiest. The decline bench is easier because it has a shorter range of motion, places more stress on the lower chest rather than the shoulders, and puts the body in a better leverage position.
The reverse grip bench press is identical to the regular bench press, except the grip is reversed into a supinated grip, and your elbows are at a different angle. Although it's a minor tweak of the original, it targets the chest in different areas. Compared to the regular bench, the reverse grip bench has a few key differences:
The reverse bench press is much more difficult than the regular bench press, so start with a lighter weight. This is a much less natural movement, so be sure to go slow and use a spotter if you're using heavy weights.
The Smith Machine can be a great tool for specific exercises or for people who aren't uncomfortable or experienced with the motion. One of these exercises is the Smith Machine floor press, a variation of a bench press performed lying on the floor. Doing the bench press while on the floor adds stability to the back and limits the range of motion to minimize the stress on the shoulders. It slightly works the triceps more than a regular bench because the body is restricted from generating chest momentum.
The Smith Machine floor press is a great alternative for people returning from an injury or someone with shoulder problems because of the shorter pressing motion. Touching the ground makes sure you don't cheat on any reps. It also helps build lockout strength as your body presses the weight from a locked position.
The dumbbell bench press is a twist on the classic exercise, simply swapping the bar for dumbbells. It is a great alternative for people who struggle with the regular bench due to shoulder or elbow pain. Dumbbell bench presses also give users a greater range of motion because they can get a far greater stretch, whereas the barbell limits range of motion. Due to this, many people believe that the dumbbell bench press isolates the chest muscle better, whereas barbell presses are more of a compound exercise.
Fully extend your arms above your chest, returning to the starting position.
Using dumbbells adds versatility that a barbell doesn't have, like increased range of motion and changing the grip, arm angle, or lift motion. Using dumbbells helps avoid muscle imbalances. They also activate stabilizer muscles that barbells don't require.
The dumbbell chest fly is one of the best isolation exercises for sculpting different parts of the chest. The dumbbell chest fly is very different from any chest presses, which are multi-joint, compound exercises. The chest fly primarily targets one muscle group (pec major) and only involves the movement of the shoulder joint. The anterior deltoids and serratus anterior stabilizer muscles are secondary muscles.
Make sure you don't use heavy weights for the chest fly because it places you at risk of injury. Use a lighter weight and focus on feeling the chest muscle contraction rather than using arm and grip muscles to lift the weights.
The pectoral muscle (chest) is a muscle group in the upper body that connects the chest to the shoulder and upper arm bone. Your pectoral muscles are responsible for moving your arms and any pushing movement, like opening a door. The pectoral muscle is divided into two groups: the major and minor.
The pec major is a fan-shaped muscle comprising the middle and upper chest. The pectoralis major is made of three heads:
The primary purpose of the pectoralis major is to flex, extend, stabilize, and rotate the chest muscles to the humerus. It also provides stability to the shoulder joint, the scapula (shoulder blade), and the chest.
The pectoralis minor is a small, triangular-shaped muscle below the pectoralis major. It starts from the third, fourth, and fifth rib and inserts into the coracoid process of the scapula. In addition to supporting the scapula, it plays a major role in downward rotational movements and protraction of the scapula (shoulder blades).
The chest has several parts, so it's important to use different angles to have a complete chest. One study compared the bench press at five different angles (0°, 15°, 30°, 45°, and 60°) to see how the angle affects different parts of the chest muscles (upper, middle, and lower), triceps, and anterior deltoids. An electromyograph (EMG) measures the muscles' electrical activity levels, indicating muscle strength and contractions. The results showed the highest EMG levels for the upper chest at 30°, while both middle chest and lower chest at 0°, or the flat bench. Anterior deltoids (front shoulder) showed the highest levels at 60°, while the triceps had similar EMG levels across all five angles.² Based on this study, you should set your bench at a 30° angle to maximize upper chest activation. You should avoid going beyond a 45° angle to keep the focus on the upper chest rather than the shoulder muscles. Use a flat bench for the middle portion of the chest and decline angles to hit the lower chest.
Studies have shown that doing a large muscle group first and progressing to smaller muscle groups results in the greatest anabolic response.³ So, if you are doing another muscle group with the chest, like the triceps, you should do the larger muscle group (chest) first. You should always do a compound exercise, like the bench press, first while your muscles have the most energy. This way, you will be able to lift the most weight on the more important lifts.
After your barbell exercises, isolation exercises and machine lifts should be done towards the end of the workout. The machine press should be performed in addition to barbell presses, not as a substitute. The cable machine is arguably the best "machine" for chest isolation because it has great versatility. You can use a cable machine to do chest presses and cable crossovers by using a variety of grips and angles. This applies to bodyweight exercises also, like push-ups. Many people like to end a workout with a burn-out set to failure using a bodyweight exercise.
We combined all of the best exercises to create two sample chest workout routines: a lean-muscle builder for those going for the aesthetic look and a mass-builder for those looking to add strength and size.
Lean Muscle Chest Workout
Heavy Mass Builder Chest Workout
*For each of the bench presses, rest 90-180 seconds; 60-90 seconds rest on isolation exercises.
Other great chest exercises include:
You can also do bodyweight chest exercises such as push-ups and chest dips.
When it comes to chest training, the bench press and its variations should be the staple of your routine. The best chest exercises for muscle growth are the barbell bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press, dumbbell bench press, and the dumbbell fly. Upper chest exercises include incline presses, incline flyes, and low cable crossovers. Decline presses, decline flyes, and high cable crossovers work the lower chest. Don't be afraid to try different angles or grip positions to target different parts of the chest. For more information, check out our article, Bench Press Grip Guide.
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