The Best Chest Workout for Building Lean Muscle

To get a cut chest, you must put together two elements: a muscle-building workout and a fat-burning diet. If you only do the workout and skip the diet, you'll get bigger muscles — but you'll never see the striations and definition between muscles of a real cut.

Barbell bench press is a great chest workout. (Image: skynesher/E+/GettyImages)

Cutting in the Kitchen

To really see the definition and separation between your muscles, you're going to have to lose body fat. Although exercise can help with this, it's what you do in the kitchen that will ultimately determine the success of your cut.

If it's within your means, consult a professional dietician or nutritionist to help you design the best cutting diet for you. However, if you're willing to put in a little trial and error, you can find your own balance of macros (the macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrate).

Personal trainer and diet coach Mike Samuels, the brains (and muscle) behind Healthy Living, Heavy Lifting, offers some very helpful suggestions in his guide to calculating macros for cutting. Most pointedly, he recommends eating 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, daily, plus 0.3 to 0.6 grams of fat per pound of body weight, every day, with the remainder of your calorie intake going to carbohydrates.

Another Approach to Nutrition

A review of scientific literature, published in the May 2014 issue of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, gives a simple, stripped-down approach to natural bodybuilding.

Recommendations include:

  • Set your calorie intake to lose no more than 0.5 percent to 1 percent of your body weight per week.
  • Consume 2.3 grams to 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass every day; this will help you retain muscle mass.
  • 15 to 30 percent of your daily calories should come from fat.
  • The remainder of your calorie intake should come from carbohydrates.

In addition, the researchers recommend dividing your calories between three to six meals per day, including a meal before and after your weight training sessions to take advantage of any theoretical benefits of timing your protein intake to correspond with workouts. Emphasis on theoretical — there isn't a substantive body of evidence to prove or disprove that connection, and the same analysis notes that changing nutrient timing and frequency doesn't seem to cause much of a difference.

Of the popular supplements that may be beneficial in a natural fat-burning, muscle-building regimen, the researchers call out creatine monohydrate, caffeine and beta-alanine as potential candidates.

How Many Calories?

Samuels recommends multiplying your body weight in pounds by a factor of 11 to 14 to get an estimate of how many calories you should eat during your cut. The more active you are, the higher the factor you'll use.

But most approaches require you to know how many calories you eat to maintain weight before you can calculate how many you need to lose weight. Ultimately, the best picture of your calorie intake is going to come from a detailed food log that you keep every day for a week; you can use online calorie counters to track your intake and compare this to what your weight does.

Once you know how many calories you need to maintain your weight, you can calculate how much of a deficit you need to lose weight slowly — common guidelines include no more than 1 pound a week, or the 0.5 to 1 percent of your body weight per week, as recommended in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Gradual fat loss is better, because if you lose too much, too quickly, you risk losing muscle mass instead — exactly the opposite of your goal.

Your Chest Workout

The chest exercises you choose during your cut should work your pectoralis major — the large, easily visible chest muscle — through every motion it's capable of performing. These include sweeping your arms horizontally together in front of your body, lifting each arm straight up in front of you as if you were painting a fence and reversing that motion by swinging your arms down in front of you, especially when your shoulder is internally rotated (thumbs facing in).

Move 1: Barbell Bench Press

According to an EMG study of pec exercises sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, the barbell bench press is the most effective exercise for stimulating chest activity — and it works that motion of brushing or sweeping your arms horizontally in front of your body. If you're lifting anywhere near your limit, this exercise should be done with the help of a spotter.

  1. Lie face-up on a flat weight bench, then scoot up until your eyes are nearly level with the bar you're going to lift.
  2. Place your feet flat on the floor to either side of the bench; this wide base gives you better leverage and stability. Think of squeezing your abs and glutes to hold your spine stable in a neutral position instead of allowing it to hyperextend in typical powerlifting style.
  3. Reach up and take the bar in an overhand grip, hands just wider apart than your shoulders.
  4. Lift the bar off the racking pins and, keeping your arms straight, swing it forward so that it's over your shoulders. This should position it so that it'll clear the racking pins — glance up and make sure, or have your spotter do so.
  5. Bend your elbows, lowering the bar down toward your chest. Let your arms and elbows naturally flare out to the sides.
  6. For a conservative, shoulder-friendly range of motion, stop when your elbows break the plane of your shoulders. Then straighten your arms, driving the bar back up into the air to complete the repetition.
  7. When you're done with the set, have your spotter help you swing the bar slightly back and onto the racking pins. Verify that the bar is secure before you release it.

There's no need to let the bar actually touch your chest unless you're deliberately working a long range of motion. Be aware that if you do work an extended range of motion with this exercise, it puts your shoulder into an extreme, unstable external rotation.

Move 2: Bent-Forward Cable Crossovers

This "fly" motion came in a close third in the ACE-sponsored test of muscular activity in the chest. To do it, you'll need two high cable pulleys, each with a "D" shaped handle.

  1. Take one of the handles in your hand, and hold it close to your body as you walk over to collect the other handle.
  2. Position yourself between the two pulleys, facing out. Take a large step forward with one leg and hinge forward slightly from the hips.
  3. Smoothly bring your arms together in front of you, palms facing in and elbows slightly bent and pointing out, almost as if you were trying to hug a tree in front of you.
  4. Maintain the same slight bend in your elbows as you move your arms apart in another smooth, controlled motion to complete the repetition. Stop before your elbows break the plane of your shoulders.

Tip

Be very conscientious of your range of motion with this exercise. Much as with the bench press, letting your elbows move too far back puts your shoulders in an extremely unstable position.

Move 3: Dumbbell Pullover

The dumbbell pullover is one of the best ways to work your pecs' shoulder extension — or to put it another way, the motion that brings your arm vertically down in front of your body and to your side — a la the downward part of the up-and-down motion you'd make when painting a fence, and the last part missing from your chest workout.

  1. Lie flat on your back on a weight bench, holding one dumbbell close to your body.
  2. Stabilize the weight as you adjust your grip: You should hold one end of it in both palms, fingers of both hands wrapped around the weight and overlapping, along with your thumbs, so that the handle of the weight protrudes downward through the diamond or triangle shape formed by your hands. Make sure you have a secure grip on the end of the weight, with the handle "trapped" so it can't slip out of your hands.
  3. Extend the weight straight up over your chest, arms slightly bent and elbows pointing toward your feet, not out to the sides.
  4. Keep your arms slightly bent as you smoothly move the weight in an arc up and over your head. Stop as the weight is about even with the top of your head.
  5. Reverse the motion, swinging the weight back up over your chest to complete the repetition. Some prefer to swing the weight all the way down so it's over the hips, and then bring it back to the chest.

Tip

Needless to say, take great care with the position of the weight; at no point should it contact, or be in danger of contacting, your head.

What About Sets and Reps?

Conventional wisdom is that you need to do lots of heavy, low-repetition lifting to build bigger muscles — and if you're seriously bodybuilding, that's still the preferred approach. But if you're a "civilian" looking to get a cut chest, you might have another option.

That's because a small, interesting study published in the October 2015 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that low-load, high-repetition training can be effective for provoking muscular hypertrophy too. In the study, researchers split 18 volunteers into two groups. One group did low-load, high-repetition training, doing 25 to 35 reps to reach failure. The other group did relatively high-load, low-repetition training, reaching failure in eight to 12 reps.

The volunteers did three sets of each exercise, three times a week. And at the end of the study, both groups showed significant gains in muscular hypertrophy. This meshes well with a dose-response relationship for strength-training sets that was highlighted in a systematic review published in the July 2016 issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences. Or, to put it another way, the more strength-training sets the subjects of the reviewed studies put in every week, the bigger their muscles got.

Should I Do Cardio?

Whether or not you should do much cardio training when you're cutting weight and body fat is a hotly disputed subject — but there's no contesting the overall health benefits of doing at least some cardiovascular exercise. As a general rule, as long as you're not going overboard with it and you're eating appropriately to maintain muscle mass, you'll be fine.

Here's a simple rule to follow: As long as you meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines for cardiovascular activity to maintain good health, you can spend the rest of your time in the weight room — and in the kitchen, doing meal prep — with a clean conscience. That means getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio per week.

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