Your chest muscles are one of your upper body’s largest and most visible muscle groups.
The chest muscles are important for athleticism as they are involved in all pressing and pushing movements in front of your body. And a pair of well-developed pecs is an important part of creating the classic muscled torso that exudes power.
In this article, we’ll review ten of the best chest exercises you can do in or out of the gym. We’ll cover exercises for developing all parts of your chest: the upper, middle, and lower chest.
Let’s get into it!
Chest Muscle Anatomy
Before looking at exercises, understanding the muscle you will train is always a good idea. So, let’s take a quick look at your chest muscles first.
Your chest muscles are made up almost entirely of one large muscle on each side: pectoralis major. Or simply, the pecs.
The pectoralis major is generally divided into two parts:
- Your upper chest (clavicular part) is the smaller portion, which originates from the first half of your clavicle.
- Your mid- and lower chest (sternocostal part) is the larger, lower portion originating from your sternum, but also partly from your upper abdominal sheath and ribs.
All of your pectoralis major muscle fibers come together into one single tendon that inserts on the front of your upper arm bone.
The primary function of your pectoralis major is to bring your arm forward, like in a bench press, a throw, or a punch.
Different muscle fibers of your pecs will work more or less depending on the angle at which you bring your upper arms forward.
- Incline pressing will target the upper pec muscle fibers.
- Decline pressing will target the lower pec muscle fibers.
- Flat pressing will target the whole pec muscle pretty evenly.
The exercises we’ll look at target different parts of your pectoralis major. You can maximize your chest muscle growth and development by putting together the right exercises in your chest workout.
You also have a pectoralis minor. It is located beneath your pectoralis major and is tiny in comparison. It stretches between your ribs and scapula, and its main function is to pull your shoulder blade forward.
In terms of chest training, your pectoralis minor is negligible, and you can well focus on working your pectoralis major. Your pectoralis minor will get worked in most of the exercises anyway.
Now, let’s get into the list of the best chest exercises!
1. Bench Press
The first exercise on our list is the big ol’ classic: the barbell bench press.
Too simple for you? Too basic?
Think again – it’s a classic for a reason.
The bench press is one of the most well-studied exercises in exercise science, and it has proven it’s effectiveness in growing the pectoral muscles and increasing upper body strength again and again.
In previously untrained subjects, a 10–20% increase in muscle thickness over 2–3 months of bench press training is common.2 3 4
The bench press works most of your chest muscles, with an emphasis on the middle and lower regions. As an added bonus, you’ll grow your triceps and front delts, too.
If you were to only pick a single chest exercise, the bench press would be a great choice.
How to Bench Press with Proper Form
- Lie on the bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, and slightly arch your back.
- Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Inhale, hold your breath, and unrack the bar.
- Lower the bar with control, until it touches your chest somewhere close to your sternum.
- Push the bar up to the starting position while exhaling.
- Take another breath while in the top position, and repeat for reps.
2. Dumbbell Chest Press
Swap the barbell in the bench press for a pair of dumbbells, and you have the dumbbell chest press.
This is another great exercise for working almost your entire chest. The dumbbells mean you will load each arm individually, which can help you develop both sides at the same rate.
The main drawbacks of the dumbbells are the extra instability and the fact that getting in and out of the lifting position can be a real challenge when you’re using heavy weights.
How to Dumbbell Chest Press
- Lie on a bench, and lift a pair of dumbbells up to the starting position.
- Press the dumbbells up to straight arms while exhaling.
- Inhale at the top, or while lowering the dumbbells with control back to your shoulders.
- Repeat for reps.
3. Machine Chest Press
If you want to avoid instability and easily get in and out of the lifting position, the machine chest press is a great exercise.
Because the machine takes care of all the balancing, you can focus fully on exhausting your muscles, making this an equally good exercise for the aspiring bodybuilder who wants to train to failure, or the older individual that wants a safe, simple exercise.
Depending on the incline of the bench, the chest press machine can work either your upper or lower pec muscle fibers, but with an emphasis on your middle chest.
How to Machine Chest Press
- Adjust the machine to the appropriate settings. Sit down, and grip the handles.
- Press the handles forward until your arms are straight.
- Bring the handles back to the starting position with control.
4. Dumbbell Chest Fly
Moving on from the compound exercises, the dumbbell chest fly is an isolation exercise for your chest and shoulders.
This exercise can be a little tricky to get right at first because even a very light weight gets heavy really fast in the bottom position. I recommend starting very light and performing this exercise slowly until you get the hang of it.
This exercise is at its heaviest in the bottom position, when your arms are parallel to the floor, and your chest muscles are stretched. This is the most important part of the movement to load, as research shows that strength training at long muscle lengths is superior for muscle growth.5
How to Do Dumbbell Chest Flyes
- Lie on a bench, and lift a pair of dumbbells up to the starting position.
- With almost completely straight arms, lower the dumbbells out to your sides.
- When you’ve lowered the dumbbells as deep as possible, reverse the motion and return the dumbbells to the starting position.
- Repeat for reps.
5. Machine Chest Fly
Another chest fly variation is the machine chest fly.
A benefit of using a machine is that you get a more evenly distributed resistance throughout the whole range of motion, and not only in the bottom position like in the dumbbell chest fly.
A drawback is, like with all machine training, the risk of a machine not fitting your body and throwing off the movement path.
If you find a chest fly machine that does fit your body, however, it can be a great way of squeezing out the last bit of growth from your pecs after the big compound exercises.
Both this exercise and the dumbbell chest fly mainly target the middle segment of your pecs.
How to Do Machine Chest Flyes
- Adjust the back support and handles so that you can grip the handles at shoulder height and get a long range of motion.
- With a slight bend in the arms, push the handles forward until they meet in front of your body.
- With control, return the handles to the starting position.
6. Incline Dumbbell Press
After several exercises that target the middle portion of your chest, let’s take a look at some exercises for the upper portion of your chest.
The incline dumbbell press is one of the best upper chest exercises you can do. Compared to the flat bench chest press, the incline press will work your upper chest muscle fibers more. According to research, an incline of 30° is enough for this effect.1 6
Thanks to the incline, it is a little bit easier to get into and out of position with heavy dumbbells in this exercise compared to the flat press. You also have the alternative of performing barbell incline bench presses, but a lot of people prefer the freedom of motion that dumbbells offer in this exercise.
How to Incline Dumbbell Press
- Adjust the incline of a bench to be around 30 degrees.
- Sit down and lift a pair of dumbbells to the starting position.
- Press the dumbbells to straight arms, directly over your shoulder joints, while exhaling.
- Inhale at the top or while lowering the dumbbells with control back to your shoulders.
7. Smith Machine Incline Bench Press
An alternative to the free weights is to use a Smith machine for your incline pressing.
Like other machine exercises, the Smith machine offers stability that enables you to train closer to failure without worrying about balance, once again making this a popular choice among bodybuilders looking to exhaust their muscles fully.
How to Do Smith Machine Incline Bench Press
- Sit on an inclined bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, and hold your chest up.
- Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Take a breath and hold it, and unrack the bar.
- Lower the bar with control, until it touches your upper chest.
- Push the bar up while exhaling.
- Take another breath in the top position, and repeat for reps.
8. Bar Dip
Now that we’ve looked at exercises for your upper and middle pecs, only your lower chest remains.
The bar dip is one of the best lower chest exercises you can do. It is a classic bodyweight exercise that is great for developing your lower pec muscle fibers and triceps.
If this exercise is too heavy for you, you can do machine-assisted dips or use a resistance band for help.
If doing regular dips is too easy, you can add weights by hanging them in a belt.
Dips can be hard on your shoulders when you are first starting out, so I suggest you start with a low training volume. You might also want to gradually increase your range of motion over the first few weeks until you go as deep as you want.
How to Do Bar Dips
- Grip a dip station about shoulder-width apart, and climb or jump to get into the starting position.
- Lower yourself with control until your shoulder is below your elbow, or as deep as you comfortably can.
- Reverse the motion and return to the starting position.
9. Standing Cable Chest Fly
The standing cable chest fly is another isolation exercise for your chest, in which you can target different regions of your pecs depending on the height of the pulleys you use.
If you use the high pulleys and perform your flyes in a downward motion, like in the video above, you will target your lower chest muscle fibers more. If you, on the contrary, use the low pulleys and do your flyes in an upward motion, you’ll emphasize your upper pecs.
Because the cables pull slightly from the sides, the resistance curve when doing flyes in a cable machine is a little more evenly distributed than in dumbbell flyes. This enables you to keep constant tension in your muscles, which might help with chest muscle growth.
How to Do Standing Cable Chest Flyes
- Fasten a pair of handles in the top position of a cable cross. Grip the handles, step forward, and lean slightly forward.
- With just a slight bend in the arms, push the handles forward until they meet in front of your body.
- With control, let the handles go back to the starting position.
Finally, the push-up might be one of the most underrated chest exercises (and upper body exercises) of all.
The push-up works your mid and lower chest, plus your front delts, triceps, and even ab muscles.
Experienced lifters often scoff at the regular push-up for being too easy, but if you perform them as deep as possible and with control, they can be a great chest workout on their own. And they are available for free anywhere!
In a group of recreationally active college students, training push-ups twice per week for eight weeks increased pectoralis muscle thickness by 22% – the same muscle growth as a second group that trained the bench press.7
How to Do Push-Ups
- Assume the starting position, with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Try to form a straight line from head to feet, and brace your abdomen slightly.
- Lower yourself as deep as you can, while inhaling.
- Reverse the motion when you’ve touched the floor, and push yourself up to straight arms again while exhaling.
- Repeat for reps.
How Many Chest Exercises Should You Do?
How many chest exercises you should do depends on your training goal, how much time you want to invest, and how important it is to get optimal chest development compared to “just” good chest development.
Below are recommendations for the goal of muscle hypertrophy. If your goal is instead to increase your bench press strength, you should take a look at our bench press programs.
A minimalist approach is just to pick one great chest exercise. According to science, the bench press is a great exercise for developing your chest in general.
If your perform the flat bench press, you will probably grow most of your chest muscle fibers, but with an emphasis on the middle fibers.
While you can certainly build an impressive chest using only the bench press, you will probably not get optimal development of either your upper or lower pec regions.
Optimal Chest Growth
If you want to optimize your chest muscle growth, I suggest that you pick three different exercises, that each targets one region of your chest:
- One upper chest exercise. Like the incline dumbbell press or smith machine incline press.
- One middle chest exercise. Like the flat bench press or dumbbell chest press.
- One lower chest exercise. Like the bar dip, push-up, or standing cable chest fly.
It’s up to you if you want to perform all the chest exercises on one dedicated chest day, or if you spread them out over the week. It both works.
How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do of Each Chest Exercise?
How many reps you should do primarily depends on what your goal is.
- If your primary goal is chest muscle growth, I suggest you do most of your chest training between 6–15 reps per set.
- If your primary goal is strength gain, I suggest you do most of your chest training in the 1–8 reps per set range.
- If you want to increase both strength and muscle size, you could do a little bit of both: begin with fewer reps and heavier weights in the compound exercises and finish your workout with more reps and lighter weights in the isolation exercises.
The third alternative above is how we’ve structured our chest and tricep workout.
When it comes to how many sets you should do, research has found that more sets lead to greater muscle growth up to a point of about ten sets per muscle per week.8
This is based mainly on studies with previously untrained participants, and it is likely that you will require slightly higher training volumes to keep growing as you get more trained. Up to 15 to 20 sets per muscle group and week is not uncommon for trained individuals to do, but you should be careful not to do too much too soon, as that increases your risk of injury.
You should also consider the number of chest exercises you wish to include in order to work all parts of your pecs, and distribute your sets among these exercises.
Chest Workouts for Muscle & Strength Gains
Don’t want to design your own chest workout?
Then follow one of ours!
Here are all of our different chest workouts for muscle and/or strength gains.
They are all available in our free workout app, although some workouts require a premium subscription.
- Chest and Tricep Workout for Strength & Mass (5 Exercises)
- Chest, Shoulder, and Tricep Bodybuilding Workout
- Chest and Bicep Workout for Bodybuilding (7 Exercises)
- Chest and Shoulder Workout for Bodybuilding (8 Exercises)
- Home Chest Workout for Strength and Muscle Mass
To download our app StrengthLog and follow these workouts, use the buttons below.
I hope you learned something from this list of the best chest exercises, and wish you good luck with your chest training!
- Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Oct 8;17(19):7339. Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2020 May;34(5):1254-1263. Varying the Order of Combinations of Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises Differentially Affects Resistance Training Adaptations.
- Int J Exerc Sci. 2020 Aug 1;13(6):859-872. Effects of Horizontal and Incline Bench Press on Neuromuscular Adaptations in Untrained Young Men.
- Interv Med Appl Sci. 2012 Dec;4(4):217-20. Time course for arm and chest muscle thickness changes following bench press training.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 37(5):p 1135-1144, May 2023. Which ROMs Lead to Rome? A Systematic Review of the Effects of Range of Motion on Muscle Hypertrophy.
- Comparative Study Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(3):309-16. Epub 2015 Mar 23.
Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise.
- J Exerc Sci Fit. 2017 Jun;15(1):37-42. Low-load bench press and push-up induce similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gain.
- J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.