Your chest is a powerful pushing muscle that works in concert with your triceps and anterior deltoids — so it's little surprise that the best compound chest exercises are almost all variations on the bench press.
The Best Compound Chest Exercises
Compound exercises offer a way to get more benefits in less time. Just a few examples of those benefits, laid out by the American Council on Exercise, include burning more calories, improving your intermuscular coordination and challenging your cardiovascular system. You don't have to be a bodybuilder to enjoy a serious charge from the following compound exercises that work your chest and triceps.
1. Barbell Bench Press
In a small, independent study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, researchers evaluated EMG activity in 14 volunteers as they performed nine common chest exercises. Of these, they found that the barbell bench press generated the most muscle activity in the chest.
However, that doesn't mean your chest is working on its own. A bench press also powerfully activates your anterior deltoid (the front section of your shoulder muscle) and your triceps. You're going to need a barbell, a sturdy weight bench with a bar rack above it and, ideally, a spotter too.
- Place the bar on the rack, make sure any weight plates are loaded equally on each side and add weight collars to hold the plates in place.
- Lie face-up on the bench and scoot your body "up" until your eyes are just below the level of the bar. Rest your feet flat on the floor, to either side of the bench.
- Hold the bar in an overhand grip (palms toward your feet) with your hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Swing the bar forward just a bit, over your chest, so it has room to clear the rack.
- Bend your arms, lowering the bar toward your chest. Let your elbows flare naturally out to the sides.
- Straighten your arms, pressing the bar back up over your chest. This completes one repetition.
- Allow your elbows to flare out to the side as you bend your arms, lowering the bar toward your chest.
How far down should you let the bar go? That's a subject of frequent controversy, because lowering the bar too far puts your shoulder in a weak, externally rotated position. For a conservative guideline, follow the recommendations of the American Council on Exercise to stop when your elbows are just below the level of the bench.
Two more exercises followed closely in the same study: The pec deck generated 98 percent of the barbell bench press's muscular activity, and bent-forward cable crossovers generated 93 percent. These are excellent chest exercises but, because they more or less isolate the shoulder joint, they're not compound chest exercises that will work your triceps too.
What Angle Bench Press?
If the barbell bench press is king of compound chest exercises, what angle should you be pressing at? In a small study published in a 2016 issue of the_ European Journal of Sport Science_, researchers tested EMG activity in the pecs, triceps and anterior deltoids of 14 volunteers. They found that, to get the greatest activation of both upper and lower (or clavicular and sternal) heads of your pecs, a flat bench angle was best.
If you don't have access to a barbell or don't like to use them, you can perform a similar exercise using dumbbells and a weight bench. This variation is easier to do at home and generally less intimidating to beginners, especially since you have the option of working out with light weights (whereas an Olympic barbell of the sort used for bench presses weighs 45 pounds on its own).
2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
If you do a bench press sitting straight up in an upright bench, it's called a shoulder press. Although this is still an option for compound chest exercises, with your pecs, triceps and deltoids all working powerfully together, a May 2013 study published in the_ Journal of Sports Medicine_ showed that it generates the least pectoral activity of the chest press variations. Or, to put it another way, your shoulders and triceps are left to do more of the work.
- Sit in an upright bench with a dumbbell in each hand. You can also do this while sitting upright on a normal bench or while standing. But for many people, feeling the bench against your back offers useful tactile feedback.
- Hold the dumbbells on either side of your ears, elbows below your wrists.
- Squeeze your abs to keep your back from over-arching as you straighten your arms, pressing the dumbbells up over your head.
- Lower the dumbbells back to the starting point in a smooth, controlled motion. This completes the repetition.
3. Chest Press Machine
Although the chest press machine didn't rank as high as the barbell bench press in the ACE study, generating just 79 percent muscular activity in the pecs when compared to the barbell press, it's the next-best example of a compound exercise that works both your chest and triceps at once.
This guided range of motion can be particularly helpful for beginners who haven't yet mastered the strength or control needed for managing free weights, or for those who might have impaired shoulder stability that keeps them from using free weights.
- Adjust the seat of the machine so that, when you sit down, the handles are at chest level.
- Sit down in the machine and grasp the handles. Some machines have a foot lever that you can press to help bring the handles forward into a more comfortable position.
- Keep your body pressed against the machine's backrest as you press the handles forward, straightening your arms.
- Slowly allow the handles to move back. For a conservative range of motion, stop when your elbows break the plane of your shoulders.
If you use the foot lever to bring the handles forward into a more comfortable position, remember to take your feet off the lever once you have a firm hold on the handles.
4. Push-Ups Variations
Although push-ups didn't rank very high in the American Council on Exercise study, generating just 61 percent muscular activity in the pecs when compared to the barbell bench press, another study shows that they're still one of the most effective compound chest exercises that also work your triceps.
In the June 2017 issue of the_ Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness_, researchers evaluated the muscle thickness, strength and power of 18 volunteers who did either relatively low-load bench presses (with a maximum load of 40 percent of their 1-rep max) or push-ups that were modified as needed to approximate the same amount of resistance. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that, when scaled appropriately to match resistance levels, both push-ups and bench press were similarly effective for gains in strength and muscle size.
- Position yourself on your hands and knees on the floor.
- Either extend your legs, so that your body is straight from head to heels, or walk your hands forward until your body is straight from head to knees (an easier variation).
- Check your body position: Your hands should be under your chest and slightly wider than your shoulders, and your body should be a straight line — don't let your hips pike up or sag down.
- Squeeze your core to keep your body straight as you bend your arms, lowering your body toward the floor. For a conservative range of motion, stop when your shoulders break the plane of your elbows.
- Straighten your arms, pressing back up to the starting position and completing the repetition.
You can use incline and decline push-ups to simulate the effect of incline/decline bench movements, placing your hands or feet a little higher to shift the focus of the movement. Or, place your hands on a stability ball for a serious challenge to your core stability.
5. Suspended Archer Push-Ups
Suspended push-ups — in which you place your hands in the handles of a suspension trainer, instead of on the floor — also featured in the ACE study, generating 63 percent of the muscular activity in your pecs. That's just a hair more than standard push-ups.
But using a suspension trainer for push-ups also works your triceps and shoulders, and it challenges your core strength and stability too. Better yet, it opens the door for a fun variation called archer push-ups. At its heart, this exercise is essentially doing a chest fly with one arm and a push-up with the other, all while holding your body in a plank position.
- Place both hands in the suspension trainer and walk your feet back until your body is straight from head to heels. Adjusting the trainer's handles higher will make this exercise easier.
- Squeeze your core to keep your body straight as you bend your right arm in a push-up movement. At the same time, keep your left arm almost straight and let it slide out to the side, as if you were doing a dumbbell fly. Keep your body square to the floor; your shoulders shouldn't tip to either side.
- Stop when your right arm reaches the normal "down" push-up position. If you've kept your body square, this will keep you within an appropriate range of motion on the left side too.
- Reverse the motion, straightening your right arm and swinging your left back in so that you return to the "up" push-up position.
- Repeat the motion on the other side, bending your left arm as for a normal push-up and swinging your right arm out as if for a chest fly. Continue alternating sides until you've finished a full set.
Work Your Whole Body
Once you've found the perfect compound chest exercises to work your pecs and triceps at once, you're off to a great start — but don't forget the rest of your body too. Your pecs may be impressive because they're front and center in the mirror, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends strength-training all your major muscle groups for optimal health.
You can use compound exercises to work your other muscle groups too. Just a few examples of exercises you can do for your legs include squats, lunges, curtsy lunges and side lunges, while doing pull-ups, lat pulldowns and rows will work your back, arms and shoulders.
- European Journal of Sport Science: "Influence of Bench Angle on Upper Extremity Muscular Activation During Bench Press Exercise"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Top 3 Most Effective Chest Exercises"
- Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness: "Low-Load Bench Press and Push-Up Induce Similar Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gain"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- American Council on Exercise: "5 Benefits of Compound Exercises"
- ExRx.net: "Bench Press Analyses"
- American Council on Exercise: "Chest Press"
- Journal of Sports Medicine: "Shoulder Muscle Activation of Novice and Resistance-Trained Women During Variations of Dumbbell Press Exercises"