It's pretty unlikely that your first thought when you walk in the gym is, "Today I'm going to work on my chest." Often neglected in favor of legs and arms, the chest muscles are just as important to train — and not simply because you want to look a certain way at the beach.
Training the chest not only burns a lot of calories (the larger the muscles, the more calories you'll burn working 'em), but it also helps you do everything from everyday activities like opening heavy doors or mowing the lawn to push-ups in the gym.
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Instead of filling your workouts with every chest exercise you can think of, though, it's time to get specific. Below, we outline the anatomy of the chest and some simple tweaks you can make to common exercises to target your pectoral muscles — aka pecs.
Get to Know Your Chest Muscles
The chest is made up of two major muscles: the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. The pectoralis major is the biggest muscle in the chest. It makes up most of the mass in this region of your body, according to ExRx.net. This muscle originates at the collar bone and spreads in a fan-like shape toward the rib cage.
The pectoralis minor is the lower part of the pec muscle. It originates at the sternum and ribs and spreads across the chest, according to ExRx.net.
The Best Gym Exercises for Your Pecs
If you were out for a drive and someone gave you a roadmap that got you to your destination faster, you'd use it, right? That's what the the American Council on Exercise did with a 2012 study published in ACE Certified News.
Researchers determined the three exercises that are the most effective in activating the pectoralis major muscle, and thus, building a bigger chest. In order from most to least effective, they are: barbell bench press, pec deck and bent-over cable crossover.
"If people are worried about not having enough time to work out, they can actually get the most benefit out of one of the three exercises that we found best works the chest and, thus, get greater gains in less time," study author Whitnee Schanke told ACE Certified News.
1. Barbell Bench Press
- Begin with your feet flat on the ground and lie down on a flat bench.
- Place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders on the barbell, forearms perpendicular to the floor.
- Grab the bar and hold it with straight arms directly above your chest.
- Bend your elbows to lower it with control until it touches your chest.
- On an exhale, press the barbell upward, fully extending your elbows.
- Pause and repeat.
2. Pec Deck
- Begin seated at a pec deck machine with your feet feet on the floor about shoulder-width apart.
- Press your back firmly into the seat and elevate your elbows 75 to 90 degrees at shoulder level.
- Position your arms directly against the center of the pad or rotating portions (often referred to as "the wings.")
- Slowly push the wings toward the center until they just about meet.
- Slowly reverse to the starting position.
3. Bent-Over Cable Crossover
- Beginning with your feet hip-width apart, move your feet into a staggered stance, slightly wider than a walking stride.
- Grab a handle of a cable machine in each hand, keeping your hands lower than your shoulders, elbows slightly bent.
- Hinge forward at the hips, creating a straight line from back heel to shoulder. This is your starting position.
- Slowly bring your hands together with arms almost fully extended. You should be moving your hands down and in toward the midline of your body.
- Allow your hands to crossover momentarily, then slowly open back up to start.
While the above-mentioned exercises are some of the best for building muscle, they're really only possible with some pretty advanced (and pricey) gym equipment. Luckily, there are upper- and lower-pec exercises you can do at home to strengthen your chest.
These exercises will require a set of dumbbells or kettlebells and a long-loop resistance band. If you don't have any weights handy, you can use a dumbbell alternatives, like filled water bottles or soup cans.
The Best At-Home Upper-Pec Exercises
1. Dumbbell Incline Bench Press
- Lie on an elevated bench or with your back elevated on the couch.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
- With your elbows at about a 45-degree angle from your ribs, hold the weights at chest height.
- On an exhale, press the weights up, straightening your elbows.
- Lower back down to the starting position with control.
2. Incline Dumbbell Fly
- Lie on an incline bench or with your back elevated on the couch.
- Hold a weight in each hand.
- Hold the weights together directly above your chest with a slight bend in your elbows.
- Slowly, lower your arms out to the sides, keeping the bend in your elbow.
- On an exhale, reverse the motion and return to the starting position.
Perform this exercise with as much control as possible. Try your best to prevent gravity from pulling the weights down, says D'Annette Stephens, certified personal trainer.
3. Decline Push-Up
- Start in a high plank with your feet elevated on a bench or couch.
- Bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle from your ribs.
- Slowly lower your body toward the ground.
- When your chest hovers just above the floor, press into your palms and return to the starting position.
The Best At-Home Lower-Pec Exercises
1. Decline Dumbbell Fly
- Lie down on a decline bench holding a dumbbell in each hand directly over your chest.
- With a slight bend in your elbows, rotate your shoulders so your elbows point out to the sides and your palms face each other. This is the starting position.
- Lower the dumbbells to the sides of your chest in an arcing motion until you feel a mild stretch (not pull or pain) in your chest.
- Exhale as you reverse the motion and use your chest muscles to press the dumbbells back to start.
Consider safety first! Place weights or heavy objects on the seat of each chair for extra stability.
2. Incline Push-Up
- Start in a high plank with your hands elevated on the edge of a bench or couch.
- Bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle from your ribs.
- Slowly lower your body toward the bench.
- When your chest hovers just above the bench, press into your palms and return to the starting position.
3. Dumbbell Decline Bench Press
- Plant your feet at the end of the decline bench and slowly lie down.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand above your chest, wider than shoulder-width apart.
- As you breathe in, bring the weights down slowly until they reach your lower chest.
- Pause for a second, then press the dumbbells back to start on an exhale, using your chest muscles to push the weight.
- Straighten your arms and squeeze your chest as you hold for a second, then repeat.
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