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.
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
Everyone can benefit from strengthening and training the muscles of their chest. So, what exercises target your pectorals, and what is the single best exercise for your pecs? The good news is there's not just one.
You can use the following five chest exercises with and without weights to build a stronger, more defined upper body during your upcoming chest workouts.
The 5 Best Pectoral Exercises
Before the invention of barbells or cable machines, 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 width-wise, according to a February 2016 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.
- Position yourself on your hands and knees, hands under shoulders and knees under hips.
- Step your feet back and straighten your legs so that you're balanced on your palms and toes.
- Check your body and hand position: Your body should make a straight line from head to hips to heels, and your hands should be directly under your shoulders or slightly wider apart.
- Bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body and lower your body to the floor.
- Make sure to keep your body in one straight line from the neck through the spine to the hips and down to the heels.
- Press into your palms and push the floor away from you to come back up to a high plank, still keeping your body in one straight line.
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 flat on your back on a weight bench with your feet flat on the floor.
- Place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders with the barbell on a rack above your shoulders.
- Grasp the bar with an overhand grip (your palms facing out).
- Lift the barbell off the rack and bend your elbows to lower it down with control until it gently taps your chest.
- Root your feet into the floor and press the barbell back up until your arms are extended straight.
- Pause at the top and repeat.
Switch things up by doing a single-arm dumbbell version or setting the bench at a 30- or 45-degree angle for an incline bench press.
3. Dumbbell Fly
The second most effective chest isolation exercise in the 2012 ACE study was the pec deck machine. 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 of the dumbbell fly activates more of your pectoralis major than lifting at an incline.
- Lie down on a bench (or the floor) 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.
4. Dumbbell Pullover
The dumbbell pullover targets the sternal portion of your chest and even requires a little work from your latissimus dorsi (aka lats) in your back.
- Lie on the floor with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell at both ends, palms facing in, arms extended towards the ceiling.
- Keeping your core engaged and your arms straight, slowly bring the weight back toward the floor behind your head.
- Extend the weight as far as you can without feeling your core come off the ground.
- Slowly bring the weight back to the starting position. That's 1 rep.
5. Triceps Dip
Dips have become one of the lost treasures of building a stronger and more defined chest. 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 elbows 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.
Dips should always be the first exercise in your training block. 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.
To make this move easier, perform triceps dips facing away from a bench, chair, step or other sturdy object:
- Sit on the edge of a sturdy chair or workout bench.
- Place your hands palms down on the chair on either side of your hips and extend your legs out in front of you.
- Carefully slide your butt off the edge of the chair while keeping your arms straight and your back close to the edge of the chair.
- Slowly bend your elbows to almost a 90-degree angle while lowering your butt toward the floor,.
- Push back up to the starting position.
How Your Diet Plays a Role in Building Strong Pecs
Although your workouts are a major part of building strength, your diet plays a big role, too. Choosing a healthy, sustainable — and enjoyable — eating plan will help you achieve the strong pecs you're looking for.
Focus on adding more fruits and vegetables and lean protein from chicken, fish and beans into your diet, per the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Consume moderate amounts of whole grains and low-fat dairy and small amounts of healthy fats from nuts, olive oil and avocado. These foods will keep you fuller for longer, and they'll provide the nutrients you need to stay energized for your chest-building workouts.
The Benefits of Strong Chest Muscles
There are a few ways having strong pecs can come in handy in your everyday life, according to Northside Hospital:
- Your breathing will become easier: Your pec muscles are attached to your ribs, which expand with every breath you take. So, strengthening these muscles will promote deeper, easier breathing.
- You'll have better posture: Your pecs play a role in your posture because they stabilize your shoulder joint. Strong pecs can result in maintaining good posture.
- You'll have an easier time with daily tasks: Your pecs are involved in everyday activities like lifting, holding and pushing. Having strong pecs will make these tasks easier.
- 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"
- USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 and Online Materials"
- Northside Hospital: "4 unexpected benefits of chest exercises"