Do you like the way your pecs look in the mirror? If you're trying to find the best lower chest workout for definition, you can get there by shifting to new angles in some familiar exercises.
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Defining Your Chest Muscles
Your pectoral muscles are divided into two sections — but they might not work quite the way you're expecting. The two divisions are the clavicular head and the sternal head. But the lower, or sternal head, isn't just at the very bottom of your visible pecs; it covers most of your chest wall. So if you look in the mirror and think you need to add more definition to the very bottom of your chest, you might actually need to add more muscle throughout your entire chest.
That said, the key to fully developing your muscles is to work them through a full range of motion at a variety of angles. And if you haven't been doing decline exercises that emphasize the lower portion of your pectoral muscles, adding them into your workout might give you that extra pop of muscle definition and development that you're looking for.
Opting for Decline Exercises
In a study published in a 2016 issue of the European Journal of Sport Science, researchers tested muscle activation with a barbell bench press at four different angles: zero, 30, 45 and -15 degrees. They found that the activation of the lower pectoralis (aka, the sternal head) was greatest during the decline (-15 degrees) and flat (zero degree) presses, with the decline winning by the barest of margins.
The takeaway? You can't turn off the upper portion of your pecs entirely, but you can shift the emphasis to the lower portion by doing decline exercises.
Here's a bonus takeaway: Even if you're not comfortable doing decline exercises, you can still exercise your lower chest almost as much by working out on a flat bench. This is especially handy if you're doing a lower chest workout at home, because a decline bench isn't a terribly common piece of equipment in home gyms.
Lower Chest Exercises With Dumbbells
Unless you're a very serious weightlifter, you're more likely to have dumbbells than barbells at home. But most of these exercises can easily be done with a barbell too, as long as you have the appropriate equipment.
Heads up: To safely do decline exercises, you need a weight bench that's designed to tip the head lower than the feet. Most decline benches have leg pads of some sort to help secure you in place, or might be close enough to the ground that you can still plant your feet firmly on the floor. Don't try to lie upside down on an incline bench; this isn't safe.
If you don't have access to a decline bench, do these exercises with a flat bench instead.
1. Decline Dumbbell Press
Although your triceps help out with the decline press, it's still an excellent workout for your pecs.
- Carry the dumbbells with you, holding them close to your body as you carefully position yourself on the decline bench. Or, even better, have a spotter hand them to you once you're in position.
- Press the dumbbells straight up against gravity; they'll be centered over your lower chest. Your palms should face toward your lower body.
- Bend your arms and lower the weights, keeping your wrists positioned over your elbows. (The weights will move down and out as you lower them, as if they were outlining two edges of a triangle.)
- Press the weights back up to complete the repetition.
Read more: Top 5 Pectoral Exercises
You can easily do decline presses with a barbell, as long as you have appropriate racking equipment too. Having a spotter is especially important for a decline barbell press — using a decline bench makes it that much harder to escape from under the bar if you fail a lift, and you don't want to get hurt or be that guy who has to shout for help when he gets stuck.
2. Decline Dumbbell Flies
This exercise isolates your pec muscles, so you'll use slightly smaller weights that you can lift for a dumbbell press.
- As with a decline press, hold the weights close to your body as you position yourself on the bench.
- Press the weights straight up against gravity; they'll be centered over your lower chest. Your palms should be facing in toward each other, and you should have a slight bend in each arm. Maintain that bend throughout the exercise, with your elbows pointing slightly out, not down toward your feet.
- Spread your arms apart, as if you were parting the covers of a book. Keep the motion under control, and restrict yourself to a pain-free range of motion; this isn't the exercise for stretching your muscles under a load.
- Swing your arms back together as if you were bringing the covers of the book back together.
3. Dumbbell Pullover
Although this is often thought of as a lat exercise, a small EMG study published in the November 2011 issue of the Journal of Applied Biomechanics showed that dumbbell pullovers actually activate the pectoralis major more than the lats. This exercise should be done on a flat bench.
- Lie face-up on a weight bench, holding one dumbbell in both hands.
- Adjust your grip on the dumbbell: Either hold it by the weight at one end, with the free end dangling and your thumbs and fingers overlapping to create a "cage" where the handle meets the end you're holding; or if you can't manage that, wrap both hands around the handle.
- Press the weight straight up over your chest, keeping a slight bend in your elbows.
- Squeeze your abs to stabilize your core as you flex your shoulders, swinging the weight in an arc down and behind your head. Keep this motion under control and limit it to a comfortable range of motion. Even if you're super-flexible, stop when your elbows break the plane of your face.
- Reverse that arc, drawing the weight back up over your chest to complete the repetition.
4. Bent-Forward Cable Crossovers
No access to dumbbells and a decline bench — or maybe it's just time to switch up your workout?
No problem: In a study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, researchers found bent-forward cable crossovers to be one of the most effective exercises for working your chest. It also mimics the angle of decline flies without requiring you to actually go inverted.
Position yourself between two high cable pulleys, each with a D-ring handle.
Step forward on one foot and lean forward from the hips, keeping your back flat.
Swing your arms together in front of you; your hands should line up together, or just slightly overlap (with one on top and one below) at the end of the motion.
Maintain a slight bend in your arms as you spread them apart, elbows pointing back toward the pulleys; this completes the repetition. Most exercisers should stop the motion before your elbows break the plane of your shoulders — or sooner, if necessary —
to maintain a pain-free range of motion.
- European Journal of Sport Science: "Influence of Bench Angles on Upper Extremity Muscular Activation During Bench Press Exercise"
- Journal of Applied Biomechanics: "Effects of the Pullover Exercise on the Pectoralis Major and Latissimus Dorsi Muscles as Evaluated by EMG"
- ExRx.net: "Pectoralis Major (Sternal)"
- ExRx.net: Dumbbell Pullover
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Top 3 Most Effective Chest Exercises"