Batman, Captain America, Thor: All of these superheroes have graced the big screen with huge, muscular chests. But having a strong chest isn't just about looking good.
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There are two main muscles in your chest — pectoralis major and pectoralis minor — and they assist in four primary functions:
- Shoulder flexion (side-arming a baseball)
- Shoulder adduction (flapping your arms)
- Internal rotation of the arm (think arm wrestling)
- Keeping your arms attached to the trunk of your body
For men, a muscular chest is typically considered a badge of pride. But everyone can benefit from strengthening and training the muscles of their chest. Use the following five exercises to build a stronger, more defined upper body.
Before the invention of barbells or dumbbells, push-ups were the best way to build a bigger chest. They also go a long way in building stronger shoulders and arms.
To activate more of your pectoral muscles, position your hands halfway in from your shoulders, according to a February 2016 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.
- Begin with hands directly under your shoulders with your legs straight behind you. Then slowly slide your hands out 2 to 3 inches further than shoulder width. Keep your back straight and slowly lower your chest to the ground.
- As you descend toward the ground, keep your arms at a 90-degree angle. Once your chest touches to ground or is slightly hovering above it, push your body back up. Perform three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.
- You can also add weight to push-ups by having a gym partner or friend place a moderate weight plate on your back before you start your set.
Reps: 3 sets of 10
2. Bench Press
If you have access to a gym, swap out your push-ups for the barbell bench press. According to research from 2012 sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), this exercise resulted in the most muscle activation in the pectoralis major.
- Lie down on an exercise bench. Grab the barbell with your hands, maintaining a shoulder-width distance.
- Lower the bar until it touches your chest, inhaling as you lower it.
- Pause for a brief second and then press the weight off your chest, exhale as you press.
- Pause at the top for a moment, take a deep breathe, and repeat the exercise.
Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 12
Switch things up by doing a single-arm dumbbell version (pictured above) or setting the bench at a 30- or 45-degree angle for an incline bench press.
3. Dumbbell Flyes
The second most effective chest isolation exercise in the 2012 ACE study was the pec deck. But if you don't have access to a gym, grab a pair of dumbbells for this alternative that works basically the same movement pattern but lying down.
According to a December 2017 study from the Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, the horizontal position activates more of your pectoralis major than lifting at an incline.
- Lie down on a bench with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and above your shoulders.
- Keeping a slight bend in your arms, slowly lower the dumbbells down toward your the sides of your chest — your elbows should come to shoulder level or slightly below.
- Raise your arms back to the starting position — with your pinkies pointed toward each other — and squeeze your chest together at the top.
Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 12
The dumbbell fly should be considered a complementary lift to the barbell or dumbbell bench press, since muscle activation isn't as strong, per a May 2005 study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
4. Dumbbell Pullover
The dumbbell pullover was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's favorite chest-building exercises. It targets the sternal portion of your chest and even requires a little work from your latissimus dorsi (aka lats) in your back.
- Place a dumbbell on a flat bench, then sit down in front of a bench. Place your upper back on the bench, keeping your hips slightly flexed. Grab the dumbbell with both hands under the plate of the dumbbell.
- Move the dumbbell over your chest and keep a slight bend in your elbows. This is your starting position.
- Keep your elbows slightly bent throughout and lower the dumbbell behind your head, until upper arms are in-line with your torso.
- Pull the dumbbell up and over your chest, back to the starting position.
Reps: 3 sets of 10 to 12
Dips have become one of the lost treasures of building a stronger and more defined chest. Unlike grabbing a pair of dumbbells for bench presses, it's not an easy exercise. And thanks to this, many people skip over dips, but they're also missing out on one of the best ways to increase strength and size in their upper bodies.
- Using either a dip station or two straight parallel bars, start by placing each hand on the bars. With your feet dangling below you and your arms full extended and hands underneath your shoulders, begin the movement by bracing your core and leaning forward slightly.
- Bend your elbow and slowly lower yourself until your chest dips below the plane of the handles you're holding. You'll feel the tension in your chest.
- Push through your wrists, triceps and chest until you come back to the fully extended starting position.
Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Dips should always be the first exercise in your training block for the day. This will keep your chest muscles at their freshest and prevent you from using too much of your shoulder to get your body back up.
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: Effect of the push-up exercise at different palmar width on muscle activities
- American Council on Exercise: ACE-Sponsored Research: Top 3 Most Effective Chest Exercises
- Journal of Exercise Physiology Online: Electromyography of Dumbbell Fly Exercise Using Different Planes and Labile Surfaces
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Electromyographic activity of the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid muscles during three upper-body lifts.
- Schwarzenegger.com: Don’t Forget the Dumbbell Pullover