The 3 Best Exercises for Your Chest

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 super important to train — and not just because you want to look a certain way at the beach.

The upper and lower regions of the pectoral muscle work together to help push weight. (Image: coja1108/iStock/GettyImages)

Training the chest not only burns a lot of calories (the larger the muscles, the more calories you'll burn working 'em), but also helps you do everything from everyday activities like opening heavy doors or mowing the lawn to push-ups in the gym.

Instead of filling your workouts with every chest exercise you can think of, 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 — aka pec — muscles.

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 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 from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. 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.

Barbell Bench Press

  1. Begin with your feet flat on the ground and lie flat against the bench.
  2. Place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders on the barbell, forearms perpendicular to the floor and elbows flexed at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Grasp the bar and lower it with control to touch your chest.
  4. On an exhale, press the barbell upward, fully extending your elbows.
  5. Pause and slowly bring the weight back down to your chest.

Pec Deck

  1. This exercise requires a pec deck machine. Begin with your feet feet on the floor, about shoulder-distance apart.
  2. Press your back firmly into the seat and elevate your elbows 75 to 90 degrees at shoulder level.
  3. Position your arms directly against the center of the pad or rotating portions (often referred to as "the wings.")
  4. Slowly push the wings toward the center until they just about meet.
  5. Slowly reverse to the starting position.

Bent-Forward Cable Crossover

  1. Beginning with your feet at hip-width distance, move feet into a staggered stance, slightly wider than a walking stride.
  2. Grab a handle 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Allow your hands to crossover momentarily, then slowly open back up to start.
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