The most popular muscle on Mondays, the pecs definitely receive their fair share of workout attention. You know the gym I’m talking about – they have 6 different benches, but no squat rack. But most guys don’t know the best chest exercises that are going to give them the biggest payoff for their effort.
Remember, there’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ exercise, but there is such a thing as a ‘better’ exercise.
For most of us, the goal is to get bigger pec muscles, and a stronger chest. So with that in mind, here are the best exercises for your pecs.
What are the Best Exercises for Upper Chest?
Incline Barbell Press
A standard chest exercise, the incline shifts the focus to the upper pecs. A lot of guys screw this up by arching their back a lot and turning it into a flat bench press to lift more weight. If you’re trying to build the upper chest though, make sure that you’re keeping only a slight arch in the low back.
Another small tweak to hit the chest harder is when gripping the bar, think about trying to break it in half. This extra tension through the hands and wrists will put your shoulders in a more advantageous position, and ensure more contraction through the muscle fibers of the pecs.
Alternating Dumbbell Incline Press
One of my favorites for building a high pain tolerance. Start off with dumbbells that are about 75% of what you would normally do for a set of 10.
Press both dumbbells up, then with control, lower the right dumbbell. Press back up.
Repeat with the left, ALWAYS keeping the other arm extended. This forces the pec minor to have to stabilize an external load while you’re pressing with the other arm.
Do 8 per side, alternating back and forth. If you’re feeling like a beast, rep out both dumbbells at the same time on the final set. Go for max reps. RIP Pecs
Low to High Cable Fly
Set the handles of a cable machine on a low setting. Grab both and take a staggered stance.
With your elbows bent slightly, hands a bit behind your body, and palms facing forward, lift the hands up to eye level and touch your pinkies together. The more your can externally rotate your hands (try to turn your pinkies to the ceiling) the more effective this will be for isolating the fibers of the upper chest.
What are the Best Exercises for Mid Chest?
Dumbbell Chest Press
With the dumbbells, you can definitely make a bench press a more shoulder friendly exercise by rotating the hands naturally.
For maximum tension, spend just a second at the top position trying to flex the chest as hard as possible.
The pushup is a staple chest exercise, but for many people it can be too easy. Take these to the next level by adding weight the same way you would to dips. Grab a weight belt, loop a plate or kettle bell through the chain.
Set up 2 benches or boxes, one for the toes, and one for the hands. Do it like this so that the weight can hang between the two without hitting the ground.
Make sure you’re able to get a full range of motion on these.
Mid Cable Fly
Set up a cable station with the handles at shoulder height. Take a split stance and squeeze the hands together, making sure to keep a slight bend in the elbows.
To get max tension, at the final range of motion, try to press your knuckles together and fully extend at the shoulders. Hold that position for a full second before pulling the shoulder blades back and together then releasing the weight under control.
What are the Best Exercises for Lower Chest?
Slight Decline Barbell Chest Press
Rather than doing the decline press, which doesn’t fit 90% of regular guys, do just a slight decline by lifting up the foot part of a flat bench press and sliding a 25# plate underneath.
This slight decline will take a significant amount of stress off the shoulders without putting your low back in a compromised position because of a restrictive exercise.
Find a dip station, grab the handles as hard as possible, and bend your elbows until they hit 90 degrees. Make sure that you’re leaned forward just a bit, because the more upright your torso is, the more you’ll be working your triceps, rather than chest.
Don’t let the shoulders roll forward, as this puts a lot of stress on the AC joint of the shoulder and the payoff in terms of muscle and strength isn’t worth being sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Double Plate Chest Squeeze
Grab two 5# or 10# plates and put them together so the smooth side is on the outside. Now hold these between your palms by squeezing together. The fingers should be extended, so the only thing holding the plates together is the force of your squeeze.
Now lift those plates up to chest height and hold for 30-60 seconds. Watch your toes toward the end of the set, as this one tends to go from easy to REAL NASTY quickly.
What are the Best Exercises for Chest Strength?
Barbell Bench Press
The king. Barbell bench press is the standard by which all lifters are measured. Because nobody is every going to ask you “Bro, how much can you RDL?”
Bench press may not be the best exercise for building big pecs or a strong chest, but it is the absolute BEST exercise for getting strong at the bench press.
If you’re building toward a massive bench, make sure you’re spending plenty of time in the 1-5 rep range.
Pin Press is done by setting up a bench in a squat rack and setting the pins about 4-6 inches off your chest. Now set up like you would for a bench press, except when you lower the weight, you’ll pause on the pins for a second.
This eliminates the stretch reflex that a lot of lifters use when powering through the bottom of a bench press or squat. Now you have to generate 100% of the force through your pecs to accelerate the bar from a dead stop.
This exercise is particularly effective at building the triceps and strength through the lockout position.
What are the Safest Exercises for Chest and Shoulders?
Sometimes when the shoulders are acting up and you don’t want to push massive weights on bench press, you just want to get a good pump through the chest without bothering your already cranky shoulders. Use these exercises as pain free, low risk alternatives to your standard exercises.
Incline Squeeze Press
Grab two dumbbells and set up on an incline bench. Now with the dumbbells at chest height, press them together, so that you are already feeling the tension through the chest.
Press these dumbbells up while still holding them together. This will result in a life changing pump. Enjoy.
You can do a floor press with a dumbbell or barbell. Barbell is not quite as shoulder friendly, but it’s easier to set up. Dumbbells are harder to get in and out of position, especially when you’re using heavy weight, but they’re very shoulder friendly.
The best way to get in position is to set two dumbbells on your thighs while sitting up on the ground. Now rock back with your knees bringing the dumbbells back to a normal bench position.
Set your elbows and upper arm down on the ground so that your arms are at 90 degrees. Pause here, then press back up and together with the dumbbells. Lower under control, pause on the ground again to decrease the stretch reflex and press again.
This is also a really great exercise for hitting the upper chest, and since it’s so shoulder friendly, it’s become a staple in my programming.
When in doubt, do pushups!
Pushups are a great closed chain shoulder exercise that can be shoulder friendly, even at high reps.
These divebomber pushups are awesome for thoracic mobility and upper chest development. Because you have to push back into a “down dog” position, you cant cheat these. There’s no human piston movement here, each part is sectioned out and takes strength and coordination.
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