How to Train Your Chest Muscles: Exercises & Workout

How do you train your chest muscles effectively? What exercises are the best for building your pecs, and what does a good chest workout look like?

A broad and powerful chest is more than just a filler of your shirt. Strong chest muscles increase your physical performance in every athletic endeavor where you project force forward – whether you’re throwing a ball, a punch, or pushing an opponent out of your way.

Your chest muscles – along with your shoulders, upper back, and arms – make out the frame of your torso, and has a high impact on your visual appearance. Building big and strong pecs is thus important regardless if your goal is greater athleticism, or building a classic physique.

In this article, you will learn how to train your chest effectively. From chest muscle anatomy and growth, to the time-tested exercises that lifters, bodybuilders, and athletes have deployed for decades in pursuit of greater chest size and power. And then we’ll put together it all into one effective chest workout.

Chest Muscle Anatomy

Your chest muscles are made up almost entirely of one, large muscle on each side: pectoralis major. Or simply, the pecs.

Chest muscles pectoralis major

The pectoralis major has a wide, fan-shaped origin, and is generally divided into two parts:

  1. The sternocostal part is the larger, lower portion, which originates mainly from your sternum (and to a degree, from your upper abdominal sheath and ribs).
  2. The clavicular part is the smaller, upper portion, which originates from the first half of your clavicle.

Muscle fibers from this whole range come together into one single tendon, inserting on the front of your upper arm (humerus).

The primary function of your pectoralis major is to bring your arm forward, or shoulder flexion in anatomical terms. Such as when you are bench pressing, throwing a ball, or a punch.

Depending on the angle in which you bring your arm forward, different muscle fibers of the pecs will work more or less.

  • Incline pressing will target the upper muscle fibers (the clavicular part).
  • Decline pressing, or exercises like dips, will target the lower muscle fibers (the sternocostal part).
  • Flat pressing, like bench pressing, will target the whole pec muscle pretty evenly (the sternocostal and the clavicular part).

Other functions of your pecs are to adduct your upper arm (bring it closer to your side), and to internally rotate it (like in arm wrestling). Worth noting is that the transition from your upper pec to your front deltoid is almost seamless in terms of visual appearance and function, since your front delts also originate from your clavicle and insert in an adjacent position. Thus, exercises that target your chest muscles often also train your front deltoids.

What about your pectoralis minor? Well, that is a tiny muscle, located underneath your pectoralis major. It originates from your top 2–4 ribs and inserts on the coracoid process on your scapula. Its main functions are to protract your scapula and rotate your scapula forward. In terms of chest hypertrophy and strength training, the pectoralis minor is often negligible, and also often trained by similar exercises as your pectoralis major anyway.

How Fast Can Your Chest Muscles Grow?

A typical rate of muscle growth for the chest muscles is about a 10–20% increase in muscle thickness over 2–3 months of training, in mostly untrained subjects.1 2 3 4 5 6

One study had previously untrained subjects train bench press three times per week, for five months, and their pectoralis major grew by 43%, while their triceps grew by 17%.7

Chest muscle growth from bench press

The bench press is one of the most widely used chest exercises in scientific studies, and it seems to be effective for building your pecs. But what are some more good exercises for your chest muscles?

Chest Exercises: The Best Exercises for Building Your Pecs

In this section, we’ll take a look at four classic chest exercises, that complement each other in terms of what muscle fibers they target.

By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great chest workout.

1. The Bench Press

Bench press exercise

”It gives that armor-plated look to the upper chest” 

– Arnold Schwarzenegger

It’s said that you can’t go wrong with the classics, and when it comes to chest training, that couldn’t be more true.

The bench press is at the same time elegantly simple and ruthlessly effective for increasing your chest size and strength. Load up the bar, press it for reps, and repeat regularly – each time trying to add a little bit of weight to the bar, or another rep to your set.

The flat bench press is an excellent chest exercise, as it almost perfectly embodies the pecs’ primary function, which is to bring the arm forward. Moreover, a wide grip (“fingers on the rings”) where your upper arm points about 45° out to the sides, involves almost all of the pectoralis major’s muscle fibers.

The bench press is a great chest exercise, and if you increase the weight you can lift in this exercise, your chest will grow.

Looking to increase your bench press strength, while still getting complete upper body training? Check out our training program Bench Press Boogie, in our app StrengthLog.

Possible substitutes:

2. Dumbbell Incline Press

Incline Dumbbell Press exercise

The dumbbell incline press complements the bench press by emphasizing the upper portion of your pecs. A recent study showed that pressing at an incline leads to greater upper chest growth than flat bench pressing does.8

For many people, dumbbells are preferable to a barbell in this exercise. Not only because it might be easier to get into position with them, but also because they might allow a longer range of motion, which is likely positive for your pec muscle growth.

Don’t exaggerate the inclination of the bench. Just 20–30° incline is enough to target the upper chest muscle fibers good, while still getting additional training for your middle muscle fibers.

In summary, the dumbbell incline press is a great chest exercise, allowing a long range of motion in a stable position, for a large portion of your pec muscle fibers.

Possible substitutes:

3. Bar Dips

Dip exercise

Bar dips require a certain degree of strength and control to even be a possibility. But, if you can perform this classic bodyweight exercise, you have one of the best chest exercises at your disposal.

Just like incline dumbbell presses emphasized your upper chest, so will bar dips emphasize your lower chest. Peak resistance for your pecs occurs while they are in a stretched position, which is likely positive for your chest muscle growth.

Possible substitutes:

  • Bench Dips
  • Ring Dips

4. Standing Cable Chest Fly

Standing cable chest fly exercise

Standing cable chest fly is the last exercise we’ll cover before we’ll move on to an example of a chest workout.

This exercise complements the others, by providing a slightly different force curve for your chest muscles. Meaning, that instead of reaching peak resistance at or near the bottom of the movement, you will reach peak resistance slightly closer to the middle of the movement. This difference in force curve might provide an additional stimulus for your chest to grow.

Another boon of the standing cable chest fly is that it is easy to keep constant tension on the muscles throughout the whole range of motion. By never letting your pecs rest during the set, you occlude the blood flow in the muscles and hinder recovery between reps. This way, you gain another way of tiring your chest muscles out, and once again provide a slightly different stimulus to grow.

Possible substitute:

Chest Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength

So what does an effective chest workout look like?

Building on the exercises above, let’s construct an example workout, drawing on several principles:

  • The exercises cover all portions of muscle fibers: upper, medial, and lower.
  • The load and rep range covers a wide spectrum, ranging from low-ish reps with heavy weights, all the way up to high reps with light weights.
  • The force curve will be slightly different for each exercise. Meaning, that peak resistance will occur at slightly different positions and muscle lengths.

This workout is aimed at both strength and muscle growth, and you will be able to get good results of both with it.

Let’s have a look at the workout, and then go through why it looks like it does.

StrengthLog’s Chest Workout

  1. Bench Press: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets x 8 reps
  3. Dips: 3 sets x 12 reps (add weight if necessary)
  4. Standing Cable Chest Fly: 3 sets x 20 reps

This chest workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.

This chest workout begins with three working sets of bench press. These heavy sets will serve as the strength-foundation of your pec training, and your primary aim for these sets will be progressive overload. That is a fancy way of saying: ”try to lift more weight for the same number of reps.”

If you hit three sets of five reps, you increase the weight for the next workout and stick with that until you can once again make 3 x 5.

You will not be able to increase the weight each week, but keep at it, and try to increase by a rep here and there (for example getting 5, 4, 4 instead of 5, 4, 3 last time) until you get all 3 x 5. Use our workout log to keep track of your performance.

After the bench press, it is time to move on to incline dumbbell presses, dips, and standing cable flyes. The same principle of progressive overload still applies to these exercises, and you should always strive to increase the weight you’re using for a given rep goal. However, you shouldn’t increase the weight at the cost of technique.

With much of your strength and power training taken care of in the bench press, take the opportunity to focus even more on technique and muscle contact in the remaining three exercises, thus striking a balance between chasing strength and muscle hypertrophy.

First up after the bench press is the incline dumbbell press, for 3 sets of 8 reps. The incline dumbbell presses complement the bench press by targeting the upper portion of your chest more. Additionally, the dumbbells will help you discover and correct any side-to-side asymmetries you might have.

The next exercise is dips for 3 sets of 12 reps. That means that some of you will have to add extra weight (like in a weight belt) to land at the right rep range, will others will struggle with getting the prescribed reps with just their bodyweight. If the latter is the case for you, don’t fret too much: Either you can do machine-assisted dips to make them easier, or just do as many as you can, and try to improve a little bit each workout.

The dips will target the lower portion of your pecs a little bit more, and also provide some training for adjacent, smaller muscles, like your pectoralis minor and serratus anterior.

Last but not least come the standing cable chest flyes. Here, it is time to squeeze the last bit of work out of your pecs for this workout. The emphasis is all on muscle contact and technique here, and while you should still try to increase your working weights with time, you should prioritize feeling your pecs “squeezing” when performing this exercise.

How often can you train this same chest workout?

For a workout with this volume and intensity, something like 1–2 times per week is probably enough. Once a week will probably be plenty for many, but if you feel that you have recovered quicker and that you can beat your previous weights, you could repeat it every 4–5 days.

An alternative is to do this workout once a week, but do a lighter second workout in between each workout. In the lighter workout, you can reduce both volume and weights, so that you are refreshed and helping your recovery along the way, rather than adding to the burden.

Wrapping Up

And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your chest muscle anatomy, what some effective chest exercises are, and how you can combine them into one awesome chest workout.

Please feel free to download the StrengthLog workout app to train this workout (and many more!) and track your gains. Remember to try and increase the weight you are using in each exercise to ensure your continued muscle growth and strength gains.

Want more?

Check out the links below for more reading:

More muscle group training guides:

References

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. J Exerc Sci Fit. 2017 Jun;15(1):37-42. Low-load bench press and push-up induce similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gain.
  4. J Strength Cond Res. 2020 Mar 10. A Comparison Between Total Body and Split Routine Resistance Training Programs in Trained Men.
  5. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 Jul;41(7):699-705. Volume-equated high- and low-repetition daily undulating programming strategies produce similar hypertrophy and strength adaptations.
  6. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Apr;113(4):975-85. Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training.
  7. Interv Med Appl Sci. 2012 Dec;4(4):217-20. Time course for arm and chest muscle thickness changes following bench press training.
  8. 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.

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