This week we are continuing our feature where we provide our view on which are the top 5 exercises for different body parts.
What are the criteria for selecting the ‘best‘ 5 exercises? They are those that build muscle, or tone, and do so in a balanced, aesthetically pleasing way. They should work well for most people and provide maximum stimulation. As a collection they need to provide an all over stimulus that will develop a well-proportioned pleasing shape.
Not all the exercises in this series are going to work for everyone, but I have tried to choose exercises that most people should be able to perform whilst also offering variety.
This week we give our view on the top 5 best chest exercises.
The chest muscles are referred to as the pectoral muscles. There are several muscles in the chest but there’s really only one that is trained if you want to develop your chest and that’s the ‘pec major’. The pec minor isn’t something you would specifically target for aesthetics and the serratus, although it looks great when it’s developed and you can see it, is better trained as part of a posture session, or with straight arm pull downs or pullovers on back day.
So, we’re really only talking about the pec major here. And we’re really only talking about flexing the shoulder joint, that is, moving the arm forward. That said, you can flex the shoulder joint at different angles, which gives rise to some variety in chest training.
There are two types of movements in chest training: presses and flyes. With presses you both flex the shoulder joint and extend the elbow joint. Presses are therefore a compound multi-joint movement and better for moving a lot of weight. With flyes the elbow joint stays more or less at a fixed angle and only the shoulder joint flexes, so they are a single joint isolation exercise.
Variety in chest training comes from angle and equipment. Use barbells, dumbbells, machines or bodyweight for presses. Use cables, machines or dumbbells for flyes. Choose an angle where you move your hands upwards to target the upper portion of the pec major. Choose a downward angle to target the lower portion of the pec major. Or choose any angle in between.
In our list of best chest exercises below, I’ve tried to include a variety of angles and equipment.
So, with the intro done, on to our 5 best chest exercises…
1. Bench press
Well, it had to be the first our list of best chest exercises didn’t it? The bench press has its critics but, for me, it’s the biggest and best of the chest exercises. It’s probably the exercise that is given more attention than any other by regular gym goers. “How much do you bench?” is a frequently heard question. It’s something that a lot of lifters know about and with which they can instantly assess the strength of another lifter.
If you want to lift heavy and safely, you have to get your form right. You will damage your shoulder joint if you bench with poor form. Your shoulder blades must be retracted and stabilised. This position also opens the chest up and allows for a better stretch and pec range of motion. The exercise will be ‘chesty’ if you get this right and ‘shouldery’ if you don’t. Control the weight until it just touches mid chest then power it back up.
You see lots of poor benching in commercial gyms, performed by people who want to show how much weight they can lift. They drop the weight on to their chests and bounce it off to get that initial upward speed. They do half reps, stopping several inches short of their chest. They don’t use a thumbs-round grip and risk breaking their ribs if the bar comes out of their hands. They push the bar as high as they can, protracting the shoulder blades. If you want a decent chest you should retract, go all the way to your chest and control the weight at all times.
There isn’t a lot of variety with this exercise, other than grip width and various drills for boosting strength or getting through a plateau. If you want to build your chest, just bench. Keep it simple, hard and heavy.
The next on our list of best chest exercises is push-ups. Being able to do a lot of push-ups maybe doesn’t attract the same reverence as being able to bench a lot, but that doesn’t make the push-up a poor exercise for building the chest. There’s a lot you can do with push-ups before you become too strong for them to be useful to you. Here are some ideas for variety
- Do them with feet up or feet down to target upper and lower pec and make the exercise harder or easier.
- Do them on an unstable surface such as a swiss ball, two medicine balls or a BOSU.
- Do them in a plyometric way – try a hand clap at the top of each rep or try an alternating staggered hand position.
- Do them with one hand on a step or alternate left and right hand as you move your body to one side and back over the step.
- Do them with one hand if you’re strong enough.
- Do them super slow – 5 seconds up, 5 seconds down
In my book, if your chest… or nose, whichever hangs lowest…. doesn’t touch the floor, it’s not a proper push up. The same form rules apply here. Control the weight, get the touch, keep your shoulder blades tidy.
The other good thing about the push-up is that it requires no equipment. You can train your chest on holiday if you want to. A lot of people who don’t have time for the gym do a certain number of push-ups a day as a quick exercise at home. If you do this, just be careful your body does not become unbalanced due to a lack of work on the back muscles. Find a way to also do rows.
Another good thing about the push-up is that it’s also a plank. It works your core, particularly if you add some asymmetry or instability to your push-ups.
3. Incline bench press
The third of our best chest exercises is the incline bench press. This is just a bench press but at a different angle. Why is this a separate choice? Because too many people neglect their upper chest. If you want a chest that looks more ‘manly’ then you really should be giving the upper chest as much priority as the rest of it. If you don’t want a ‘manly’ chest, then fine, just do flat bench, but for most men the upper chest has to be a priority.
The angle allows more of a stretch in the chest and you can get a better stretch reflex by opening your chest at the bottom of the lift. Bring the bar to your clavicles and just miss your chin, rather than bringing it to mid chest. Push the bar back over your face. To do this you’ll need to bring your elbows forward a little. This will stop you pushing the bar directly away from your chest and having to use your shoulders to pull it back in. I prefer to use a steeper angle on the incline bench press because there’s always a tendency to arch the back and flatten the angle a little. Keep it steep to keep it on the upper chest.
If you keep the incline bench press a staple in your chest training, you should be able to get the numbers up to 80-90% of your flat bench press.
4. Dumbbell bench press
I think you have to use dumbbells somewhere in your chest training. You can get a great stretch with dumbbells, and a great stretch reflex. The other obvious benefit is that dumbbells will help to even out, or expose, any strength differences between the two sides.
With practice you should be able to get to 75-80% of your bench press with the combined weight of the two dumbbells. So if you bench 100kg, you should be looking at two 35s or up to two 40s.
5. Seated incline cable flye
We’ve made it to the final of our best chest exercises. This seems a curious choice, you’re thinking. Try it and see what you think. The reason I like it is that it is strict. And it targets the upper chest really well.
I’m not a massive fan of dumbbell flyes because the range of motion is short. You get the stretch in the bottom position and then you’re coming up to about 60° to keep the tension on the chest. Go any higher and your pecs get a rest. A lot of people use too much weight and do a sort of press-flye. Heavy weights on flyes put your shoulders at risk. Most lifters don’t get a good enough stretch. Dumbbell flyes are all about the stretch.
Although I like cable crossovers, it’s too easy to use your body sway to get the weight down and you have to work hard to stabilize yourself. They also target the lower portion of the chest which gets enough from pressing work.
The seated flye does not allow any loose form and you can vary the angle to hit the chest in different ways. Keep the angle of the elbow as constant as possible, get a great big stretch and hug the tree, bringing the handles around and high in front of you. Give the pecs a squeeze then repeat.
Because this is a cable exercise, you can do drop sets easily or you can vary the angle on each set. Or why not superset it with push-ups?
So, there you have it, my top 5 best chest exercises. When designing your workouts for chest, make sure to regularly include both barbell and dumbbell exercises, both presses and flyes. Be sure to stretch your pecs as they can become tight and short, exacerbating any postural issues or shoulder problems brought about by lots of sitting and reaching forward. So, what are you waiting for? Go and put some variety in your chest training and watch them grow!