Working your chest can be extremely rewarding, since you can easily see your progress in the mirror as your muscles get stronger and more defined. Plus, chest workouts are generally less grueling than leg routines, since you're working smaller muscles. But you'll definitely still feel the burn!
The Muscles Involved in Your Chest Workouts
Your chest muscles span the front of your torso, from your sternum all the way into your shoulders. They bring your arms together in a horizontal motion, much like a bird flapping its wings.
One of these muscles is the pectoralis major. It's split into two heads. One is called the clavicular head, because it starts at your clavicle and attaches to your shoulder. The other is the sternocostal, which originates from your sternum and also connects to the shoulder. Your other main chest muscle is a smaller one underneath called the pectoralis minor, which runs from your ribs up to your scapula in a diagonal.
When you work your chest, you also typically work your front deltoid and even your triceps. Collectively, these muscles help you push. Think about a push-up or bench press, since both are pressing movements.
However, you can isolate the chest more with a movement like the fly, where you keep your elbows mostly straight and bring your arms together. The fly looks like you're giving someone a big hug.
How to Structure Your Chest Workouts
When structuring your workouts, the number of chest workouts you do each week, as well as the number of sets and reps you do, depends on your fitness level and goals.
Beginners can start with two to three full-body workouts each week that incorporate 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps per chest exercises. As the exercise gets easier, you can either add one set, increase the weight 5 to 10 pounds or increase the reps.
Building Chest Muscle
If you're more advanced and your goal is to build muscle, the most important thing to track is your training volume. That means the amount of weight you lifted, multiplied by the number of sets and reps you performed. So if you've done 3 sets of 10 reps with 100 pounds on the bench press, your total volume for your workout is 3,000 pounds.
A January 2019 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that more training volume lead to greater increases in muscle among participants. And if you want to continue to build muscle, you'll have to raise your training volume over time.
If you want to get stronger, start with 3 sets of 5 or 7 reps. When you lower the number of reps in a set, you can increase the weight, which will help you get stronger. You can also move up in weight and perform 3 reps.
The amount of weight you lift matters, too. An October 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined light weight versus heavy weight training. The researchers found that subjects could build muscle with either light or heavy weights. However, the heavy weights were much better at building strength.
How Often Should You Do Chest Workouts?
A March 2019 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that the number of days per week a muscle is trained doesn't matter, as long as volume is constant. In other words, if you're doing 6 sets of chest press, you can either do it all on one day or split it into two days.
On the other hand, if it helps you increase your training volume, you should work out more than once per week. You might not have time to do all of your sets on one day. In that case, you can add a second or third chest workout into your week.
The 3 Best Chest Exercises
The two best exercises for your chest are the bench press and push-up, and you can use the them interchangeably, according to a September 2019 study published in Sports Medicine International Open. The fly is a third option that also targets your chest. Here's how to do them.
1. Barbell Bench Press
The bench press is your best bet for isolating your chest, according to 2012 research from the American Council on Exercise. Typically you'd use a barbell, but you can also use dumbbells or a cable machine.
- Lie on your back on a bench.
- Your eyes should be in line with the barbell and your feet flat on the ground.
- Lift the barbell off the rack so that it's directly over your shoulders.
- Lower the barbell to your sternum, allowing it to briefly rest on your chest.
- Press the bar back up until your elbows are fully extended.
Bench Press vs. Push-Ups: The bench press makes it easy to adjust the amount of resistance you use, meaning it's a simpler way to build muscle and get stronger. But push-ups are convenient because you can do them almost anywhere.
2. Feet Elevated Push-Up
The regular push-up is challenging, but you might need something more advanced as you progress. Use this variation of the push-up to make things more challenging for your upper body.
- Get on the ground in a push-up position facing away from a bench.
- Put your feet up on the bench so that your body is parallel to the ground.
- Perform a push-up, going as low to the ground as possible. Don't let your hips or your head sag. Rather, keep your body in a straight line.
- Press back up to the top.
3. Seated Cable Fly
The pectoral muscles bring your arms across your body horizontally, like a bird flapping its wings. This exercise is closer to that movement than a press, and works the chest muscles effectively.
- Sit down in the chest fly machine.
- Adjust the handles so that your arms are open and your hands are in line with your shoulders.
- With your elbows slightly bent and back flat against the chair, bring your arms together.
- Slowly return your arms to the start position.
Try This 3-Move Chest-Strengthening Workout
When you get to the gym for your chest workout, begin with a thorough warm-up. Remember that you're using your shoulders and upper-body muscles, so choose an activity that uses those muscle groups. Warming up on the row or ski ergometer will hit the right areas.
A few sets of push-ups, arm circles or upward and downward dog will stretch your muscles and help prevent injury. When you feel that you're ready to work, start with the bench press.
Move 1: Barbell Bench Press
- Begin by warming up with the bar for 10 repetitions. Take at least 3 warm-up sets with 10 reps each.
- If your goal is to bench press 100 pounds, start with the bar for 10 reps. Then, do a set with 65, then a set with 85, for 10 reps each.
- Now you're ready for your 3 working sets at 100 pounds.
- Rest for at least 90 seconds between sets. You want your muscles to recover enough that you can push yourself on the subsequent set.
Move 2: Feet Elevated Push-Up
- Do as many repetitions as possible for 4 sets. Maintain proper form throughout.
- Rest for 90 seconds between sets.
If it's difficult to do more than 3 reps without compromising your form, lower your feet to the ground and do regular push-ups. If those are still difficult, you can elevate your hands on a bench. Ideally, you should be able to get 8 to 12 reps per set.
Move 3: Cable Fly
- Perform 1 or 2 warm-up sets of 8 reps to gauge the weight you should use for your working sets.
- Use the seated cable fly machine for 3 working sets of 10 to 12 reps.
- If you don't have a machine, you can lie on your back on a bench and do a dumbbell fly.
This is an isolation exercise for the chest muscle. It's best to perform this type of exercise after the bench press and push-up because it requires fewer muscles and less energy.
Are Machines or Free Weights Better?
If you have to choose between using cable machines and free weights, you should opt for free weights. For example, if your choices are the barbell bench press or a cable machine press, pick the barbell bench press. Even though it might be more difficult, you get more out of using barbells and dumbbells.
An October 2016 study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness compared the barbell back squat (free weight) to a leg press (machine). The researchers found that the group that used the barbell got stronger than the group that used the leg press.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you need to ditch machine weights altogether. They can still help you build muscle and strength. However, if you're pressed for time or don't have enough equipment, opt for free weight exercises with barbells and dumbbells.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men."
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: "Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men"
- Research Gate: "Strength, Body Composition, and Functional Outcomes in the Squat Versus Leg Press Exercises"
- Loyola University Medical Education Network: "Pectoralis Minor"
- Sports Medicine: "Comparison of Kinematics and Muscle Activation between Push-up and Bench Press"
- Sports Medicine International Open: "Comparison of Kinematics and Muscle Activation between Push-up and Bench Press."