Chest & Shoulder Exercises That Work the Best

Handsome man doing bench press. Studio shot, isolated on white.
The bench press is a key chest exercise (Image: mihailomilovanovic/iStock/Getty Images)

A strong chest and shoulders are important for overall fitness and muscle performance. Dozens of exercises for these muscle groups exist, but certain ones have been tested to outperform others. Some of the best exercises for your chest and shoulders are movements that you know well, such as the bench press and the overhead press.

Barbell Bench Press

The barbell bench press is the number one chest exercise according to a study performed by The University of Wisconsin, La Crosse in 2012. Out of nine exercises tested, the barbell bench press activated the pectoralis major, the main chest muscle, the most.

Step 1:

Place a bench in front of a barbell rack. Lie down on your back on the bench with your feet flat on the ground and place your hands on the barbell, shoulder-width apart. Lift the barbell out of the rack so that it is directly over your chest.

Step 2:

With control, lower the barbell down to your chest. As soon as the barbell hits your chest, press the barbell up towards the sky, extending your arms until your elbows straighten.

Pec Deck Machine

The pec deck machine was the second best exercise for activating the pectoralis major muscle according to the study mentioned above. This is a machine available in most gyms and isolates the pectoralis major muscle.

Step 1:

Sit down in the pec deck machine with your feet shoulder-width apart and your back against the padded rest. Place your hands on the handles and the posterior side of your arm on the pads or the “wings” of the machine. Your elbows should be at about a 90-degree angle.

Step 2:

Engage your core and bring your arms together to the center of your body. Slowly reverse the movement, allowing your arms to return to the start with control.

Bent-Forward Cable Crossovers

The bent-forward cable crossover is the third most activating exercise for the pectoralis major according to the 2012 study. Instead of using a dumbbell or barbell in this exercise, you use weights attached by cables to two tall stacks.

Step 1:

Start by standing in the center of a cable machine with one foot in front of the other. Grab a handle of a cable in each hand with your hands slightly above your shoulders.

Step 2:

With your arms almost fully extended, bring your arms down and across your body towards the center of your body. With control, return your hands to the starting position and repeat.

Shoulder Exercises

The shoulder consists of three muscles: the anterior deltoid, the middle deltoid and the posterior deltoid. According to a study published in 2014 by the American Council on Exercise, not one specific exercise stands out as the “best” shoulder exercise, because you should aim to target all three muscles with various moves.

It's not easy to lift such weights
The dumbbell shoulder press is the best exercise for your anterior deltoids (Image: gpointstudio/iStock/Getty Images)

Dumbbell Shoulder Press:

While there are many exercises that target your shoulders, it is the dumbbell shoulder press that activates the anterior deltoid to the greatest extent.

Step 1:

Stand with your feet hip width apart with a dumbbell in each hand. Raise the dumbbells to shoulder height with your palms facing away from your body.

Step 2:

Press the dumbbells up overhead until your arms are at full extension. Lower down with control for one repetition.

45-Degree Incline Row

According to the ACE study, the 45-degree incline row is the best exercise for targeting the middle deltoid muscle.

Step 1:

Lay face down (prone) on an incline-bench set at 45-degrees.

Step 2:

Hold a dumbbell in each hand, bend your arms and pull the dumbbells to your chest by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Slowly lower down with control and repeat.

Seated Rear Lateral Raise:

When it comes to targeting the posterior deltoid muscle of the shoulder, the seated rear lateral raise is among the best options.

Step 1:

Sit on a chair or bench with your feet on the floor. Bend slightly at the hips and rest your chest on your thighs with a flat back.

Step 2:

With a dumbbell in each hand and your arms as straight as possible, raise your arms up until your elbows are at shoulder height. Lower down with control and repeat.

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