The Key To Chest Developing
Chest development is so often high on the priority list for many bodybuilders, powerlifters and gym regulars. There are a number of exercises that we can perform to place significant demand on the muscles of the chest and increase muscular size and strength. In order to develop the chest to its full potential, we must think about incorporating a number of chest strengthening exercises which place an adequate tensity on all muscles of the chest.
The pectorals are the muscle group of the chest which consists of 4 individual muscles that drive and control movement around the shoulder. The two major pectoral muscles are the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. The pec major muscle originates from the sternum (front of the ribcage) and clavicle (collarbone) and inserts directly on the humerus of the upper arm. The role of the pec major is to cause flexion, extension and rotation of the humerus (1). The pec minor, meanwhile, lies beneath the pec major, originates from the ribs and inserts on the scapula (shoulder blade). The pec minors role is different from it’s bigger brother as it works to stabilize the scapula.
There are two small muscles of the pecs which are often overlooked – the subclavius and the serratus anterior. As the name suggests, the subclavius can be found underneath the clavicle where it’s role is to depress or “pull” the clavicle down. The serratus anterior originates from the ribs and inserts on the scapula which allows it to pull the shoulder blade forward and around the side of the body.
If we are looking to add mass to the chest, the primary emphasis should be on exercises that challenge the pectoral major – considering it is the biggest muscle of the 4 and therefore has the greatest growth potential. With that being said, if we are looking for comprehensive chest development it’s important to select exercises which target the smaller pectoral muscles too.
The following exercises have been selected simply because they are supreme mass building exercises. However, a further reason for their inclusion is that they all effectively place a high demand on all 4 muscles of the pectorals and contribute to overall chest growth.
The Best Mass Building Chest Exercises
By reading through these 10 chest building exercises, you may quickly notice some similarities and trends. Many of the exercises do replicate the same or similar movement patterns. However, we will use different equipment or a change in the angle of application (i.e adding an incline) to effectively load the pectorals.
You will also find that the vast majority of the exercises are compound or “multi-joint” exercises. Since the goal is mass orientated, it would be appropriate to perform a number of compound lifts considering the substantial impact they have on the body (2). There are a couple of useful isolation or “single-joint” exercises listed, however, their purpose is to facilitate improvement with the compound exercises and iron out any weaknesses.
As stated, a wide range of equipment is utilized – machines, cables, dumbbells, barbells, and body weight. Each piece of equipment will provide a slightly different challenge and training stimulus for the pectorals.
1. Barbell Bench Press
The undisputed king of chest building exercises for a number of reasons. With free weight exercises, you will find that you can lift the heaviest loads when using the barbell, therefore, you can reasonably expect to lift a substantial weight with the barbell bench press. By lifting heavy, we increase the amount of mechanical load that the muscles are exposed to which will drive muscular hypertrophy (growth).
To execute the bench press, lie back on the bench and align your eyes with the barbell. Keeping feet flat on the floor, bring them under the hips to create a slight arch in the lower back. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width to place maximal demand on the pecs. Having a narrower grip will involve the triceps more heavily, taking some demand away from the pecs. Drive hard through the heels and brace the core muscles before removing the bar from the rack and bringing it over the chest. Drop the bar down until it makes contact with the chest and then drive upward to return to the starting position. It is essential to ensure that the elbows are slightly down from the line of the shoulders throughout the duration of the movement. This is done to reduce any risk of shoulder impingement or injury.
If you are new to bench pressing, always start light and practice form first. As you become more competent you can gradually begin to increase the load lifted. Regardless of your experience in lifting, always prioritize safety when benching with the barbell. This means, setting up the rack appropriately to catch the bar in the case of failure or using a spotter to prevent becoming trapped under the bar.
2. Incline Barbell Bench Press
The flat bench press places the body in a position that is parallel with the floor. With the incline bench press, this angle is altered so that the body is placed at incline angle (typically anywhere between 15° and 50°. The purpose of this is to shift the demand to the upper portion of the pectoralis major however, be aware that if the angle is too steep, we will begin to involve the deltoids (shoulders) to a greater extent rather than the pecs (3). Therefore, it would be wise to keep the bench at a low angle in order to hit the upper chest most effectively.
The form for the incline press is identical to the flat press with the only difference between the two being the bench angle. However, don’t expect to bench the same kind of weight with the incline press as you do with the flat press. Because we are utilizing =the upper portion of the pec rather the entirety of the the muscle, you will find the incline press to be more challenging than a flat press.
The standard approach to “chest day”, is often to perform flat bench first before moving onto incline press later in the session. The problem with this approach is that you approach the incline press already in a fatigue state and therefore cannot lift as heavy as you could if you were fresh. With this in mind, I would recommend alternating the variation you start with on a regular basis so that you can perform at an optimal level for both exercises.
3. Dumbbell Bench Press
The dumbbell bench press is an excellent variation of the barbell version. While you will be capable of driving heavier loads with the barbell, there may come a time where you hit a plateau with your benching. At this point, it may be a good idea to switch to the dumbbell bench press which will provide a slightly different stimulus to the pectorals and recommence progress (4).
One of the biggest benefits to dumbbells is the fact that both sides have to work independently which challenges joint stability to large degree. As a result of this instability, a number of stabilizing muscles are recruited in order to control the movement. A further advantage with the dumbbell press is the fact that range of motion is increased. With the barbell press, as soon as the bar touches the chest you must drive back up – there is no physical way to drop any further. With the dumbbells, there is no restriction to stop you from dropping the weights down to the side of the body thus increasing the distance the weight travels and engaging the muscle to an even greater extent.
Finally, the dumbbell bench press may be a good option for beginners or those who are concerned about heavy barbell benching. With the dumbbell press, there is no concern about getting trapped under the bar or failing, as there is with the barbell variation. If you were to reach muscular failure with the dumbbells, you can simply drop them to the floor – no spotter or rack required.
4. Incline Dumbbell Press
As with the barbell press, the dumbbell press can also be completed on an incline bench. Feel free to play around with the angle of the bench which will allow you to target the muscle from a variety of angles and lead to a more comprehensive development.
One variation that can performed with dumbbells that cannot be before with barbells, is the usage of rotation. With a fixed bar, it is impossible to rotate through the shoulder, however, the individual dumbbells allow for a medial rotation of the humerus which causes considerable activation in the pectoralis major.
5. Incline Dumbbell Pullover
The dumbbell pullover is not only an impressive pec developer, but it actually activates a vast number of upper body muscles – including the lats and the delts. The intention with the pullover is to extend maximally through the shoulders, over the top of the head all while maintaining straight arms. This motion demands a great deal of stabilization, control and drive from the pectorals.
To complete the pullover, set a bench up with a slight incline, lie down, start with the dumbbell above the chest and gradually drop the dumbbell over the top of the head without bending at the elbows before returning to the starting position. Remember, this is a single-joint exercise which should be treated as accessory work and therefore be performed towards the end of your session.
6. Machine Chest Press
The primary benefit of using the chest press machine is the fact that the machine requires no stabilization work from the muscles. Because it is a machine, the handles only move in a fixed range, negating the need for muscular stabilization. This, in turn, removes demand from stabilizing musculature, places it all on the pecs and therefore may enhance hypertrophy. If you are looking to gain mass, it would be wise to complete sets on the machine chest press at the end of the session.
7. Machine Decline Press
The machine decline press is another machine based exercise that will hit the pecs from a different angle. The back support is slightly angled backward which places your upper body in a decline position. In the same way in which the incline targets the upper pecs, the decline will hit the lower portion of the pecs.
8. Machine Pec Deck
As with all machine-based exercise, the primary benefit of the pec deck is the fact that it will only follow one path removing the need for muscular stabilization. The machine starts with the handles out to the side of the body. Grasping the handles with straight arms, the pecs must powerfully contract and drive the arms together until they are approximately in line with the shoulders. Despite the different movement patterns, studies have suggested similar muscular activation of the pectorals with both the bench press and pec deck (5).
9. Incline Cable Fly
The incline cable fly is the next stage up from the pec deck machine. Simply, the chest fly is one of best single-joint exercises for isolating the muscles of the chest. The benefits of using cables for the fly is the fact that, unlike with free weights, the cable maintains tension on the pectorals throughout the entirety of the movement which will apply a large amount of stress to the muscle and enhance muscle growth.
10. Chest Dips
The only bodyweight exercise that makes the cut is the chest dip. This can be performed grounded or suspended; having the feet on the ground simplifies the exercise while holding the entire body of the floor presents a greater challenge. In order to target the chest, ensure you go with a wide grip as a narrow grip will place too much stress on the triceps rather than the pecs. The idea is to flex at the elbow and drop the body down towards the floor until the upper arm is parallel with floor. From there, the pecs and triceps must powerfully contract to drive the body back up to the starting position.
Understandably, it will be challenging, if not impossible, to program in all 10 exercises into your training. Instead, adopt a small number of these exercises, integrate them into your strength program and be consistent with your training to bring about significant changes in chest size and strength.
1- Solari, Francesca; Burns, Bracken (2019), “Anatomy, Thorax, Pectoralis Major Major”, StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, PMID 30252247,
2-Paoli, Antonio; Gentil, Paulo; Moro, Tatiana; Marcolin, Giuseppe; Bianco, Antonino (December 22, 2017). “Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength”. Frontiers in Physiology. 8. doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.01105. ISSN 1664-042X. PMC PMCPMC5744434. PMID 29312007.
3-Travi, Alexandre. “Effects of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise on the EMG Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles”.
4-Welsch, Elizabeth A.; Bird, Michael; Mayhew, Jerry L. (2005-5). “Electromyographic activity of the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid muscles during three upper-body lifts”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 19 (2): 449–452. doi:10.1519/14513.1. ISSN 1064-8011. PMID 15903389.
5-Stastny, Petr; Gołaś, Artur; Blazek, Dusan; Maszczyk, Adam; Wilk, Michał; Pietraszewski, Przemysław; Petr, Miroslav; Uhlir, Petr; Zając, Adam (February 7, 2017). “A systematic review of surface electromyography analyses of the bench press movement task”. PLoS ONE. 12 (2). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0171632. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC PMCPMC5295722. PMID 28170449.