Your pecs are some of the largest and most powerful muscles in your body, but they’re also notoriously difficult to develop, making it rare to see a man with an impressive chest. In this article we go over the best overall chest exercises, as well as the best chest exercises to bring up your upper, mid, and lower chest. Some are heavy compound lifts; others are light isolation lifts. If you want the best results, we recommend using a mix of all of them. That’s the only way to build a truly strong, full chest.
It’s also common for guys to have trouble activating their pecs when doing chest exercises, which not only makes it impossible to grow their chests, but will also limit the amount of weight they can lift. So we’ll also teach you how to do each exercise properly, which should not only speed up your chest growth, but also instantly boost your bench press strength.
HOW DO WE KNOW WHICH CHEST EXERCISES ARE BEST?
There are a few different ways to determine which chest exercises are the best, all of which dovetail together beautifully:
- Muscle physiology research, which focuses on the principles of muscle growth. For example, Dr Brad Schoenfeld’s research has shown that lifting heavy weights through a wide range of motion (mechanical tension) is the factor that produces the most muscle growth, so we would expect that heavy compound exercises like the barbell bench press would stimulate the most overall chest growth.
- Electromyography (EMG) research, where people do exercises while covered in electrodes to see which muscle fibres are activated during which lifts (study). For example, while the barbell bench press is indeed the best overall chest exercise, Dr Bret Contreras found that the best exercise for the upper chest was the incline dumbbell bench press, as it was better able to activate muscle fibres in the upper chest.
- Randomly controlled trials, where people do various chest workouts for a period of time and then their chest growth is measured against a control group. For example, the research of Jose Antonio, Ph.D., found that combining various exercises together improves muscle shape and size when compared with doing just more sets of the same exercise.
With these three streams of research working together, we know which chest exercises are the best overall, which are the best for the different parts of your chest, and how to combine them together to build a full, strong chest.
Other notable muscle-building researchers include:
- Layne Norton, PhD, who not only broke a world record in the bench press, but is also one of the foremost experts on bench press technique (for both powerlifting and bodybuilding).
- Menno Henselmans, MSc, who studies how to alter popular exercises to better stimulate muscle growth. For example, he discovered that rotating your hands while doing the chest fly stimulates more chest growth.
- Mike Israetel, PhD, who studies how to combine various chest exercises together over time, teaching us how to alternate between lighter and heavier lifting, and how to alternate between easier and more intense weeks.
- James Krieger, PhD, who conducted some of the best research on how often you should train your chest, and how many reps and sets you should do each workout.
Anyway, this is how we’ve chosen the best chest exercises and where we’ve gotten our various techniques to help you further boost your chest growth. Without further ado:
THE BEST OVERALL CHEST EXERCISES
THE BARBELL BENCH PRESS
Why the bench press is such a good chest exercise: Powerlifters, bodybuilders, and the scientific literature all agree that the bench press is the best chest exercise. Not only does it allow you to load up the bar with the heaviest weights, providing the most mechanical tension, it also tops the EMG charts for chest activation (study). To remove all doubt, researchers then confirmed that a stronger bench press directly translates to bigger chest muscles, meaning that every pound you can add to the bar will reliably increase your chest size (study).
In addition to being the best exercise for chest growth, the bench press also does a great job of strengthening your shoulders and triceps (which assist in the push), and a decent job of strengthening your entire back (which stabilizes the weight). In fact, once you’re able to lift heavy enough, the weight of the barbell will even begin to strengthen the bones in your arms. This makes the bench press not only the best chest exercise, but also one of the top three bodybuilding and strength training exercises overall.
Here’s how to get more chest growth out of your bench press:
- Use a wide grip and flare your elbows. Grip the bar about twice as wide as your collarbones and flare your elbows to about 80 degrees. This will line up the angle of pull with your biggest and strongest chest fibres (in your mid chest), improving your strength and getting you better chest gains (study). Dr Layne Norton notes that this wider grip is especially important for lankier lifters.
- Use a parabolic bar path. When you lift the bar off your sternum, first work to bring it above your nipples, putting the barbell in line with the strong fibres of your mid chest, and then push it straight up from there (as shown in the illustration above). Again, this will improve both chest growth and bench press strength.
- Lift heavy. The bench press works best when you use heavy to moderate rep ranges (5–12 reps), which forces your powerful chest muscles to handle more of the load. If you go too light, your smaller triceps and shoulders are more likely to dominate the lift.
- Arch your back. This sturdy arched position puts your chest in a better position to push from, it makes the range of motion safer for your shoulders, and it keeps your spine locked down and safe. To quote Dr Layne Norton, “many bodybuilders think that arching your back is just a powerlifting move, but arching your lower back will actually help you maintain a neutral spine and keep your back tight and protected as you press.”
- Vary your bench press routine. You can get great chest gains out of the bench press day after day, month after month, year after year—provided that you vary the rep ranges, number of sets per workout, and assistance exercises.
Note for beginners: this is an advanced exercise, requiring that you know how to brace your core and arch your back. You may wish to start with the dumbbell bench press or floor press variations, both of which are explained below.
How to do the barbell bench press
- The setup. Plant your feet firmly on the floor underneath you, arch your back firmly, and retract your shoulder blades down and back, driving them into the bench. Next, take a deep breath of air and brace, then have your spotter help guide the bar into the starting position. (If you don’t have a spotter, see below.)
- The lower. Lower the weight to your sternum, neither rushing nor dawdling. The goal is to lower the weight with proper technique, but not to waste energy that could be used on the lifting portion of the exercise, which is where most of your chest gains will come from.
- The lift. When the bar touches your sternum, drive it back up with all of your might. Greg Nuckols, founder of Stronger by Science, recommends the cue “flare and push,” which he find helps lifters improve their bar path (link).
How to do the barbell bench press without a spotter
When benching without a spotter, most people choose a lighter weight and stay further away from failure. Now, you don’t have to go all way to failure on the bench press (and you probably shouldn’t), but without a spotter you’d have to play it so safe that you don’t even risk failing. Your chest is a big, hearty muscle that benefits from being pushed hard, and this is the best strength lift in your arsenal. It’s better to find a variation that truly lets you give it your all. That’s where the power cage comes in:
To safely do the barbell bench pressing without a spotter, set the bench up inside a power cage with the safety bars at chest height. Instead of getting a hand-off from a spotter, you start the lift in this bottom position, with the barbell resting on the safety bars (as shown in the illustration above). If the weight is too heavy, you won’t be able to lift it up, and no matter how spectacularly you fail during your set, you won’t crush your chest, decapitate yourself or, worst of all, trap yourself under the barbell in the middle of a crowded gym.
If you don’t have a power cage, do the dumbbell bench press instead (shown below).
The best bench press variations:
- Dumbbell bench press. The downside of the dumbbell bench press is that you’ll have to lift lighter. Your chest will need to do more work to stabilize the weights, meaning you’ll need to choose lighter weights. And because it can be hard to get heavy weights into the starting position, you’ll need to choose weights further away from your 1-rep max, forcing you to use higher rep ranges. On the other hand, because the weights aren’t held together by a barbell, your chest needs to fight bring the weights together—the main function of your chest muscles. As a result, electromyography (EMG) research shows that the dumbbell bench press is just as effective as the barbell variation (study).
- Dumbbell floor press. If you have cranky shoulders or you’ve misplaced your bench, the floor press is a great exercise to build chest size and strength. With the floor press, your range of motion is limited, keeping your shoulders in a safe position.
- Dumbbell bench press hold. To do this variation, lower the dumbbells into the bottom position and hold them there for 20–45 seconds. As the researcher Dr Mike Israetel explains, the blood won’t be able leave your muscles during the hold, which will fill your muscles with metabolites and local growth factors, boosting your chest growth. (This lift is best done near the end of your workout, after you’ve already done your heavy chest exercises.)
Why push-ups are such a good chest exercise: Even though they’re often relegated to bodyweight and general fitness programs, push-ups remain one of the best exercises for gaining chest strength and size. In fact, any strength gains made while doing push-ups translate perfectly to bench press performance (study), making them the perfect accessory lift.
However, one of the best things about the push-up is how different they are from the bench press. To quote Dr Brad Schoenfeld, “maximal muscular adaptation can only be achieved by fully working all aspects of all the major muscles, and this can only be accomplished by training with a variety of exercises.” So, oddly enough, one reason why push-ups are so great is because they’re a powerful compound chest exercise that’s different from the bench press—different range of motion, different arm angles, different line of push.
Push-ups have a couple other notable benefits:
- Greater range of motion. You don’t need to keep your shoulder blades retracted while doing push-ups, giving you extra range of motion at the top of the push, which bulks up your serratus anterior muscles (the muscles on top of your ribcage). This also helps you develop more versatile push strength.
- Push-ups are easy to do at home. Easygoing sets of push-ups on rest days will pump blood into your chest muscles, speeding up recovery. Harder sets of push-ups on rest days can count as a light chest workout. To get optimal chest growth, you’ll want to be stimulating your chest about three times per week, but one of those workouts could be as simple as an at-home push-up workout.
How to do push-ups to emphasize your chest
- The setup. Start in a plank position with your hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart, facing forward (as shown in the illustration). Put your body into a plank position by flexing your butt and abs, and tucking your chin.
- The lower. Lower yourself down as far as you can go, flaring your elbows no more than 45 degrees. You may even be able to touch your chest to the ground. (If your nose hits the ground first, remember to tuck your chin.)
- The lift. Push the floor away, and keep pushing until your chest is fully contracted and your back is fully expanded. That extra range of motion, where you expand your back, is great for bulking up your serratus anterior muscles… which aren’t part of your chest, but they’ll add some nice size and strength to that same area.
Note for the strong: Once you can do more than around 30 push-ups in a row, they stop being good for gaining chest size and strength, becoming more of an endurance exercise. At this point, you’ll need to switch to a harder variation.
The best push-up variations for your chest
- Weighted push-ups / band push-ups: If you’re interested in gaining chest size and strength, these variations are the best, allowing you to make your push-ups progressively heavier as your chest gets bigger and stronger.
- Clap push-ups: If you can’t add weight to your push-up, make it more explosive instead. The principle here is simple: force=mass x acceleration, so if you can’t increase the mass you’re lifting, accelerate that mass faster. To do this exercise, start in the bottom position and push off from the ground explosively, trying to propel your upper body as far off the ground as possible. When your upper body leaves the ground, clap your hands, and then catch yourself before you break your nose.
There are a million other push-up variations, but they aren’t very good at stimulating your chest. Yes, you could raise up your feet, but that only makes the exercise harder because it shifts the stimulus from the big muscles in mid and lower chest to your smaller upper chest muscles. Similarly, you could use a narrower grip, but again that just makes the exercise harder by shifting the stimulus away from your bigger chest muscles to your smaller triceps. Same thing with the one-handed push-up, which transforms the exercise into an anti-rotation and shoulder exercise. So stick with push-ups, weighted push-ups, and clap push-ups if you’re trying to grow your chest.
THE DUMBBELL PEC FLY
The dumbbell pec fly is a classic chest exercise, and one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s all-time favourite bodybuilding exercises. It’s less popular in strength training programs, which is a shame, because to quote Dr Brad Schoenfeld:
If you’re training for maximum size, just doing “the big lifts” won’t get you very far. Isolation exercises are a must.
The dumbbell pec fly is great for isolating your chest muscles, it pairs perfectly with the bench press, and all you need are a pair of dumbbells, making it a great addition to any chest routine.
How to do the dumbbell pec fly
- The setup. Start by pressing the dumbbells into the starting position, and just like with the bench press, set your back with a small arch and drive your shoulder blades down into the bench behind you.
- The lower. Lower the weight down slowly and under control (2–3 seconds), letting your elbows bend freely, and feeling the tension on your chest as it stretches out. If you have good range of motion in your shoulders, your elbows will finish slightly below your torso.
- The lift. Hug the weight back up until the weights are back in the starting position, focusing on squeezing your pecs.
While the dumbbell pec fly is a fantastic chest exercise, it isn’t perfect, with the main downside being that the tension on your chest isn’t steady throughout the exercise. The dumbbells put plenty of tension on your pecs at the bottom of the exercise, but by the time you lift them to the top, they’re just resting on your outstretched arms. This isn’t an issue if you have other exercises that work your chest through its entire range of motion—that’s why we recommend plenty of exercise variety—but there are some other ways of doing the chest fly that solve this problem:
THE MACHINE FLY / PEC DECK FLY
The benefits of the machine fly are that you have constant tension on your pecs throughout the entire range of motion and you have good leverage to use heavy weights, making this a great exercise for building up the size of your chest.
I’m tempted to say that this is the best isolation exercise for your chest, but some argue that because the bar path is fixed, your stabilizer muscles won’t be stimulated, and as a result, your chest muscles won’t gain as much functional strength. On the other hand, it’s your shoulder muscles that do most of the stabilization work, so when you do a fly with a fixed bar path, it allows you to better isolate your pecs (study). Furthermore, because the lift is so incredibly simple, you can focus purely on squeezing your pecs.
To quote Dr Schoenfeld again:
From a hypertrophy standpoint, the benefits of machines counteract the disadvantages of free weights, and vice versa. By taking out the need for muscle stabilizers in free weight exercises you can put more focus on a given aspect of a muscle and enhance the hypertrophic response.
How to do the machine fly exercise
- The setup. Set up the machine so that the starting position fully stretches out your pecs. If you have good range of motion in your shoulders, your elbows will be slightly behind your torso. Just like with the dumbbell fly, use a small back arch and drive your shoulders into the bench behind you.
- The lift. With your chest fully stretched, start the lift by squeezing the bars together with your chest (1–2 seconds).
- The pause. Pause for a second with your pecs fully contracted.
- The lower. Lower the weight slowly and under control (2–3 seconds).
THE CABLE FLY
The cable fly also puts constant tension on your chest muscles throughout the entire range of motion. The difference is that the path isn’t fixed. The benefit is that it builds more versatile strength, but the downside is that it can be harder to isolate your chest.
The cable fly isn’t a better or worse chest exercise than the machine fly, just different. If your chest routine has other machine exercises in it, this could be a good way to balance it out.
How to do the cable fly exercise
- The setup. Set yourself up between two cable stacks and make sure that your chest is fully stretched in the starting position.
- The lift. Bring your hands all the way together, focusing on feeling the contraction in your chest (1–2 seconds). You can let your hands rotate as you do this, either keeping them facing one another or rotating your palms down towards the floor—whichever feels better and allows you to lift more weight.
- The pause. Pause for a second with your chest fully contracted.
- The lower. Lower the weight slowly and under control (2–3 seconds).
THE BEST UPPER CHEST EXERCISES
LOW-INCLINE DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS
Although the barbell incline bench press is the heaviest compound lift for your upper chest, the electromyography research of Dr Bret Contreras found that it’s the dumbbellincline bench press that’s the best exercise for stimulating the upper chest in particular. This is likely because with the barbell variation, the barbell prevents your arms from drifting apart as you lift. With the dumbbell variation, your upper chest needs to not only lift the weights up, but also hug them together—adding in a bit of a fly movement.
How to do the incline dumbbell bench press
- The Setup. There are two tricks to ensuring that the incline bench press targets your upper chest. First, set the angle of your bench to 30–45 degrees. The steeper the angle, the more you’ll transform the incline bench press from a chest exercise into a shoulder exercise (study). Second, if you tuck your elbows to around 45 degrees, the range of motion will line up better with the line of pull of your upper chest muscles (study). Other than that, use the same setup as with the regular bench press: feet firmly planted, back firmly arched, and shoulder blades driven down into the bench.
- The lift. Lift explosively, trying to accelerate the dumbbells.
- The lower. Lower the weight under control, neither rushing nor dawdling, until your chest is fully stretched out.
Incline bench press variations:
The barbell incline bench press: this barbell variation is similarly effective, and can be a better choice if you’re using lower rep ranges, as it’s easier to get heavy weights safely into the starting position. If you’re trying to bring up a lagging upper chest, starting your workout with a heavy low-incline barbell bench press is a good choice. You could then follow it up with a lighter dumbbell bench press for your mid chest.
Also keep in mind that you can vary the incline. Spend a few weeks training at 30 degrees, then another few weeks training at 37.5 degrees, and then another few weeks training at 45 degrees, stimulating your upper chest in slightly different ways.
THE LOW-TO-HIGH CABLE FLY
The best isolation exercise for your upper chest is the low-to-high cable fly. With this exercise, you’re lifting perfectly in line with your upper chest muscle fibres, with the cable stacks putting constant tension on them throughout.
This exercise works best with higher rep ranges and lighter weights. Practice developing a mind-muscle connection, and use this as the pump exercise for your upper chest, lifting more slowly and keeping constant tension on your upper chest muscles.
How to do the low-to-high cable fly for upper chest growth
- The setup. Set up a cable stack on either side of you, putting them in their lowest positions. Use a staggered stance for extra stability. Stand in front of the cable stacks with your arms drifting slightly behind your body, stretching out your upper pecs.
- The lift. Squeeze your upper chest muscles to bring your hands up over your head. As you do this, rotate your hands freely. You may be able to get more power out of your upper chest by rotating your hands to face downwards at the top of the lift.
- The lower. Lower the weight down slowly while keeping tension on your upper chest. To get an even fuller stretch on your pecs, you can rotate your hands outwards at the bottom of the lift.
THE BEST LOWER CHEST EXERCISES
Weighted dips are a heavy compound exercise where the line of pull lines up perfectly with the muscle fibres in your lower chest, and the EMG research of Dr Bret Contreras confirmed that they were the most effective exercise for stimulating your lower chest.
An extra benefit is that, similar to with push-ups, your shoulder blades aren’t retracted during the lift, giving you some extra range of motion at the top of the push—great for your chest as well as your serratus anterior muscles.
Note for beginners: Dips require quite a lot of shoulder strength and stability in order to do safely, making them a fairly advanced lift. If you’re new to lifting or you’ve got cranky shoulders, save these until you can comfortably do all of the other exercises on this list.
How to do weighted dips
- The setup: To put more emphasis on your chest, lean forward a little bit and bend your knees, letting your feet drift back. This little bit of a lean over the bar will ease the load on the triceps and bring more of your lower chest into the lift.
- The lower: To put more emphasis on your chest, let your elbows flare out to the sides a little bit as you go down. Lower yourself until you’ve got a full stretch on your lower chest (or until your shoulders get cranky), keeping your forearms as vertical as possible.
- The Lift: Push yourself back up to the starting position, flexing both your chest and your armpits at the top of the lift. This slightly increases the range of motion for your pecs and stimulates your serratus anterior muscles.
Pullovers are the only exercise on this list where you’re pulling your arms back towards your torso instead of pressing them out, giving you an opportunity to stimulate your chest muscles in a new way, which should help to develop rounder, fuller pecs. This makes them a popular chest exercise among bodybuilders (and they’re another favourite of Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Dr Bret Contreras’ EMG research has confirmed that pullovers do indeed stimulate your pecs quite well, although it depends what kind of pullover you do. While straight-arm cable do pulldowns primarily work the lats, the dumbbell pullover is a chest exercise. It does stretch your lats out at the bottom of the lift, but then the tension quickly dissipates, shifting the majority of the load to your chest. So while these aren’t a mandatory chest exercise, they do offer you a novel way to stimulate muscle fibres in your chest, which should help improve your chest size and appearance.
Pullovers also help strengthen your chest, shoulders and back in a broad range of motion, which is a great boon for your physique overall.
How to do dumbbell pullovers for chest size
- The setup. Put a dumbbell at the top of the bench to grab later, then rest your back sideways on the bench, forming a cross. This cross position gives you the option of either dropping your hips for a greater stretch or keeping your butt and abs tight for a better core workout. We recommend bracing your core, as shown above, as it translates better to your other lifts—bench press, deadlifts, squats, etc. Grab the dumbbell from beside you with both hands, as shown in the illustration. (If you want a crooked Owen Wilson nose, use dumbbells with loose plates.)
- The lower. Slowly lower the weight back behind you until both your pecs and lats are fully stretched (or until your shoulders protest).
- The lift. Bring the weight up by focusing on squeezing your pecs. It’s okay if your lats or triceps chip in, but try to get your chest doing most of the work.
Okay, now to sum it all up:
THE BEST CHEST EXERCISES (SUMMARY):
- The Bench Press (entire chest): The best exercise for overall chest strength and size, as it allows you to lift the heaviest weights. This exercise should be the foundation of your chest workout.
- The Push-Up (entire chest): A great secondary exercise for your overall chest. Low-intensity sets can be done on rest days to boost chest recovery (a feeder workout), and intense sets can be done on rest days to boost chest growth (a light chest workout).
- The Pec Fly (mid chest). The best chest isolation exercise to pair with the bench press, either as a follow-up exercise or even as a superset. You can do this with dumbbells, a pec fly machine, a pec deck machine, or a pair of cable stacks—all will be effective.
- The Incline Bench Press (upper chest). The best compound exercise for your upper chest, as it allows you to lift heavy weights through a large range of motion.
- The Low-to-High Cable Fly (upper chest). The best isolation exercise for your upper chest, allowing you to focus on your pecs without any triceps involvement.
- The Weighted Dip (lower chest). The best compound exercise for your lower chest, allowing you to lift a massive amount of weight through a huge range of motion.
- The dumbbell Pullover (lower chest). A great exercise for working your chest through a novel range of motion, helping you to build a bigger, fuller chest.
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