by Mike Carlson, NSCA-CPT
There’s a reason Superman has an “S” on his chest. A large well-developed chest sends a message of supreme confidence and power. So, how do you increase your chest size? What exercises will grant you those superhero proportions?
The best chest workout takes several factors into account: exercise selection, number of reps, how long you rest and even the speed of the bar. When you understand these variables, it’s easier than you think to build a chest that is big, strong and injury-proof.
Anatomy of the Chest
Three muscles make up the chest but are truly dominated by one: the pectoralis major. Commonly called “the pecs,” the pectoralis major are the large twin muscles on either side of the sternum and one of the most sought after vanity muscles. When people talk about how to get a bigger chest, they are invariably referring to the pectoralis major.
The pectoralis major is a massive contributor in pushing motions that involve the arm and the shoulder. Whether you are moving furniture or on the defensive line of a football team, the pectoralis major will be doing most of the work. These muscles control many of the motions of the arms and shoulders, including:
- transverse flexion — the hugging motion of bringing the hands together in the middle of the body with your elbows pointed out; internal rotation, bringing the forearm across the center of the body
- transverse adduction — moving the upper arms toward the center of the body while the back of the arm is facing downward
- extension — moving the upper arms down and to the rear; and adduction, bringing the upper arms down and to the side of the body (1)
The pectoralis minor is a much smaller muscle that runs above the pectoralis major and inserts at the clavicle. Along with the serratus anterior (the shark tooth-shaped muscles that run along the outside of the rib cage, and make you look incredibly fit when your body fat levels are low enough to see them), the pectoralis minor controls the movement of the scapula.
Collectively, the muscles of the chest complex are short and can provide a platform for generating a large amount of force. Some strength athletes have bench pressed upwards of 1,000 pounds in recent years. However, these muscles maintain an intricate relationship with the generally delicate makeup of the shoulder girdle.
Anyone who has spent years in the gym will most likely experience some shoulder pain from years of abuse that heavy chest exercises heap on the much smaller muscles of the shoulders. The chest workouts we describe here can circumvent that fate, however, by using modern warm-up strategies, proper lifting technique and a more sophisticated approach to sets and reps.
Multiple Nerve Innervations Boost Chest Muscles
The pectoral muscles have a specific feature that makes training them slightly different than your biceps or deltoids. The chest muscles have five different nerve innervations, points where the nerve branches out and addresses the muscle fibers via the motor units.
“Nerve innervations are the basis for muscle action,” says strength coach and kinesiologist, Brian Richardson, MS, CPL2, NASM-PES, co-owner of Dynamic Fitness in Temecula, California. “Nerves run down that motor unit to the motor end plates and attach to muscle fibers. Then, whatever the motor unit is addressing those fibers will contract. The beauty of having more nerve innervations within a muscle is that you can generate different contraction spectrums.”
Multiple nerve innervations allow you to stimulate different aspects of the chest muscles. To take advantage of this physiology, you’ll want to choose chest exercises that will hit the pecs from multiple angles in a myriad of ways.
How Do You Increase Your Chest Size?
When it comes to choosing chest exercises, what kind of chest workout is right for you? If you want to look strong and fill out a t-shirt with dense, hard muscle, then you need to train like a bodybuilder. The phrase “bodybuilder” often conjures up images of oily, juiced-up guys in bikini briefs posing on a stage.
However, bodybuilders are masters at increasing the size of a muscle. Unlike athletics or first-responders who train for “functional strength,” the No. 1 priority for a bodybuilder is to improve how a muscle looks — its size, its symmetry, and how it appears in relation to the rest of the body. And if we are being honest, that’s what most folks in the gym are interested in as well.
To coax your chest to grow, you want to direct as much stimulus as possible on the pectoralis muscles. You want a chest workout that allows you to isolate the pecs while taking the other muscles out of the equation.
“Scientifically, you want less emphasis on the core and more on the pec major. That means you want to be on a stable platform, such as the flat bench press, dumbbell bench press and incline bench press,” says Richardson.
A study published in the journal The Physician and Sports Medicine found that the best chest exercises for stimulating the pectorals are stable movements, such as the bench press and push-ups performed on the floor. (2) Exercises performed on an unstable surface, such as an exercise ball, recruited more muscle fibers in the core but fewer in the chest.
A bodybuilding-style workout that isolates the muscles, calls for a strong stable base, and utilizes a relatively high rep scheme (more on that later,) is also the perfect workout for anyone who is relatively new to weight training. And this chest workout is not just for looks. Many bodybuilders are incredibly strong, and this selection of chest exercises will make anyone much stronger, especially newcomers to the gym.
How Do You Get a Wide Chest?
A wide chest helps create the Holy Grail of fitness: the v-taper. A narrow waist to a wide chest topped with pronounced shoulder caps has been celebrated since man first began to paint and sculpt. To ensure that your chest muscles grow both thick and wide, use a wide variety of exercises with a full range of movement. Regularly mix up the hand placement of where you grab the bar or place your hands.
Lastly, don’t neglect training your back. The width of your chest can be improved by fixing your posture. Too many chest workouts for men lead to a closed-in crab-like posture called kyphosis. Training your back with row variations (such as ring rows, inverted rows and TRX rows) as well as deadlifts and other spinal extensor exercises can improve your posture and stave off back pain while giving you the appearance of a wider chest and a more dramatic v-taper. (3)
Similarly, some might covet the striations in the chest of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger and ask “How do you tone your chest?” The answer is “a toned muscle is a big muscle.” A muscle simply gets bigger or smaller. It’s body fat that obscures the lines and cuts that makes a muscle look so good. Use the workout strategies here to force the chest muscles to grow. After consistent training and size gains, you can begin to work on lowering your body fat to see the beautiful detail of the muscle you built.
How Many Chest Exercises Should You Do?
One of the most important questions about an effective chest workout routine is, “How much is enough?” While the upper threshold can vary widely depending on the individual, the minimum amount of work has been clearly established.
A recent study published in The Journal of Sports Sciences found that 10 or more sets per week for a given body part produced the most muscle growth in trained subjects. (4) You might get even more growth out of 20 or 25 sets (as long as you can recover), but 10 or more sets per week should be your minimum.
Dr. Chris Zaino, DC, is an IFBB professional bodybuilder and former Mr. America. In his workout, Dr. Zaino suggests 12 to 16 sets per workout. You can spread this volume out over three to five different pectoral exercises.
Chest Exercises for Women
The most effective chest exercises for men are also the best ones for women. However, women should approach certain exercises with caution.
“Women have less cervical extensor muscle mass than men, therefore the position of the head and neck is critical during pressing exercises,” says Richardson.
When performing chest exercises where the head and neck are not supported, such as the Swiss ball dumbbell bench press, the extensor muscles in the neck can quickly become fatigued in women. During those sets, Richardson recommends pressing the tongue firmly to the roof of the mouth, which recruits more muscle fibers in the extensor muscles, increasing stability and overall comfort.
How to Have a Safe Chest Workout
Heavy chest workouts have caused innumerable shoulder problems. A proper warm-up can dramatically decrease your risk of injury.
Before every chest workout, go over your soft tissue with a foam roller. To get to the pectoral muscles, you can use a lacrosse ball or softball placed on the floor. Roll it across the muscle fibers at a speed of one inch per second. When you find a particularly painful spot, hold the pressure on it for 30 seconds. Next, grab an elastic exercise band and make some X and T shapes with your arms, using the band for resistance. Perform five to 10 minutes of cardio and be sure to do some warm-up sets of each exercise with a very light weight or empty bar. (These do not count as part of your work sets.)
When using a barbell during the workout, do not feel like it needs to touch your chest. This habit was created by massive bodybuilders and powerlifters who had giant chests. Instead, stop the bar two to three inches (about the height of your fist) above the chest before pressing it back up.
Chest Workout No. 1
Here, Dr. Zaino recommends a chest workout designed to promote rapid muscle growth, that is appropriate for any level.
Chest workout No. 1 training protocol:
- Incline Barbell Press — 3–4 sets of 8–12 reps
- Flat Barbell Bench Press — 3–4 set of 8–12 reps
- Slight Incline DB Press — 3–4 set of 8–12 reps
- Cable Flye to Cable Chest Press — 3–4 set of 8–12 reps
(See all chest exercises below.)
Chest Workout Plan
No matter what your training session is like — whether you are doing a strict dumbbell chest workout or a chest workout without weights — a few variables are going to stay the same.
Tempo: This is the speed you will move the weights, and is one of the most important factors for building muscle. While athletes may want to practice using fast and explosive movements, a slow tempo increases the amount of time under tension the muscles experience, ultimately leading to more growth.
For a stable exercise, like you find in Workout No. 1 demonstrated by Dr. Zaino, perform a 3-1-3 tempo. That means you take three seconds to lower the load, pause for one second at the bottom, and then take three seconds to bring the weight back up. This delivers constant tension to the chest muscles.
For many of the exercises in Workout No. 2 and Workout No. 3, a 2-0-2 tempo will be more appropriate.
Reps: Studies have shown that the best range of reps for muscle hypertrophy is roughly 8 to 12. May experts now feel that even going up to 20 or 25 can elicit profound gains. Using relatively high reps, and thus lighter weight, also decreases risk of injury. But wait: When do you test your one-rep max and see how strong you are?
“You never do a one-rep max,” says Richardson. “Instead, do a five-rep max and calculate it. I understand that people like to do it, but don’t do it too often. For instance, you can test it, and then test it again eight weeks later.”
Rest: For your best chest workout, rest at least 60 seconds between each set, and as long as two minutes. This gives your muscles enough time to recover and perform some quality contractions during the next set.
More Advanced Chest Workouts
As your body get stronger and your neuromuscular system gets accustomed to the exercises in Workout No. 1, you can start to introduce new exercises that present novel challenges. Some of these multi-joint exercises will call for greater core muscle activation and slightly less stimulus to the pectoral muscles. Introducing a fresh stimulus and ultimately creating a stronger kinetic chain, will help boost the results of your chest workout over the long haul.
Chest Workout No. 2
Chest workout No. 2 training protocol:
- T Push-Up — 3 sets of 10 reps
- Swiss Ball Dumbbell Press— 4 sets 10–12 reps
- Hammer Strength Incline Press —4 sets 10–12 reps
- Three-Way Pulley Flye — 2 sets of 10 reps
- Dips — 3 sets of 8–12 reps
(See all chest exercises below.)
Chest Workout No. 3
Chest workout No. 2 training protocol:
- Spider-Man Crawl — 2 sets of 20 yards
- Incline Swiss Ball Dumbbell Press — 4 sets of 10–12 reps
- Decline Bench Press — 4 sets of 10–12 reps
- Machine Press — 4 sets of 10–12 reps
- One-Arm Pec-Dec — 3 sets of 12 reps
(See all chest exercises below.)
The Best Chest Exercises
Incline Barbell Press: Lay on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width. Unrack the bar, take a deep breath and slowly lower the weight until it’s about three inches from your clavicles. Contract your pectorals and focus on pushing through the meaty part of the thumb and index finger as you press the bar back to the top.
Flat Barbell Bench Press: Lay on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width. Unrack the bar and slowly lower it until it’s about three inches from your chest. At the bottom of the rep, your elbows should from a 90-degree angle. Squeeze the muscles in your chest and press the bar back to the top, pushing with the web of your hand.
Slight Incline Dumbbell Press: Set a bench to about a 30-degree incline. Hold a dumbbell in each hand just outside your shoulders. Press the dumbbells up, but don’t let them touch each other, which releases the tension on the muscles. Slowly return and repeat.
Cable Flye to Cable Chest Press: With pulleys set to just higher than shoulder height, grasp a D-handle in each hand. Bend your elbows slightly bent slightly — you’ll want to lock them in this position— and flex your pecs to pull the handles together in front of you. Keep your chest up and think about touching the inside of your elbows together. Pause a moment for a peak contraction, then slowly allow the handles to return to the start position. When you hit failure, turn the move into a standing chest press until you can no longer continue.
T Push-Up: Perform a traditional push-up. As you come to the top, bring your left hand off the ground and bring it to your chest. Place it back on the ground and repeat, this time bringing your right hand off the ground.
Swiss Ball Dumbbell Press: With a dumbbell in each hand, sit on a stability ball with your feet flat on floor. Walk your feet forward and allow the ball to travel up your body until it is under your upper back and your torso is parallel to the floor. Contract your car and press the dumbbells upward. Pause at the top and then slowly lower the weights until your elbows form a 90-degree angle. Press back to the top and repeat.
Hammer Strength Incline Press: Adjust the machine so your back rests against the pad and your feet are flat on the floor. The handles should be aligned at about shoulder level when you sit down. Press the handles away from you until your arms are fully extended, but without locking out your elbows. Slowly bring the handles back down, but don’t let the weight touch down between reps.
Three-Way Pulley Flye: In a cable crossover station, set both pulleys to their highest point. Grasp a handle in each hand and place your feet in a staggered stance with the back heel off the ground (switch the forward foot every set). Contract your core, tilt your torso forward and forcefully bring your hands together in an arc until they are within one inch of each other, keeping the palms facing in. Keep a slight bend in your elbows at all times. After 10 reps, slide the pulleys down to about sternum height and repeat for 10 more reps. Lastly, drop the pulleys to their lowest point and perform 10 more reps with the palms facing up. Rest only for as long as it takes you to change the height of the pulley.
Dips: Get into the starting position on a set of parallel bars, with your arms locked out and supporting your weight above the bars. Slowly lower yourself down with your upper body leaning forward and your elbows flared out slightly. Descend until you feel a stretch in your chest, but don’t go farther than a 90-degree bend in your elbows. Slowly return to the starting position.
Spider-Man Crawl: Get into the top of a push-up position and then drop down to about four inches above the floor. Your elbows should be close to forming a right angle. Push with one arm as you reach with the other arm. When you reach forward, bring the opposite knee as close to its same-side elbow as possible. Repeat this pattern until you travel 20 yards. Keep your hips at the same distance from ground for the entire length of the crawl. Don’t let them get sloppy and rotate back and forth.
Incline Swiss Ball Dumbbell Press: Hold a pair of dumbbells and sit on a stability ball with your feet flat on floor. Walk your feet forward and drop your hips so the ball is on your mid-back so your torso is at a 45-degree angle to the floor. Tighten your torso and press the dumbbells upward. Pause at the top and then slowly lower the weights until your elbows form a 90-degree angle. Press back to the top and repeat.
Decline Bench Press: Grasp the bar with your hands just wider than your shoulders. Unrack the bar and slowly bring it down to our lower chest. Do not let the bar drift too far forward over your face. Extend the elbows and bring the bar back to the top.
Machine Press: Set the height of the machine so the handles are about shoulder-height. Tighten your core, squeeze your pecs and slowly press the handle forward. Concentrate on contracting your pecs at the top of the movement. Slowly return and repeat.
One-Arm Pec-Deck: Sit on a pec-deck machine and set the height of the seat so the handles are about shoulder-height. Grasp the right handle, placing your left hand on your hip. Maintaining a slight bend in your right elbow, bring your hand just past the centerline of your chest. Slowly and with control, being the hand back to the start. Keep tension on the arm for the whole set. When all reps are completed, switch hands.
The key to developing your chest is consistency. Doing the work, eating the right foods, and getting enough rest, day after day, will bring the fastest results with the fewest injuries. If you can stay consistent, you can continue to improve for years to come. “This is a long-term game,” says Zaino. “Longevity is the key.”
Read Next: The Best Shoulder Workouts for Women
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