Be honest. Like, brutally so. Are you solely relying on the barbell bench press to build your chest? And then… Wondering why you don't see any visible growth in the upper torso region despite all your hard work? 😢
If you’re furiously nodding your head, you need to read this article.
As hard as this may be to hear, the truth is that building an impressive pair of pecs requires you to select a variety of chest exercises that hit each portion of your chest (yes, your chest is made up of different muscle groups!)
As great as the flat barbell bench press is as a chest exercise, an over-reliance on it in the gym will never give you the strength, size, and definition you're looking for.
So, without further ado, let’s explore how you can build your chest muscles in the most time-efficient way possible.
Let's talk about the chest muscles
First things first, the chest muscles. Your chest muscles can be divided into 2 main regions:
• Clavicular head of the pec major – This is also known as your ‘upper chest’
• Sternal head of the pec major – Consists of both the middle and lower chest
Of course, it's impossible to only activate one region of the chest with any single exercise–but it's definitely possible to emphasize an area over the others.
And you can do so by taking note of the direction each region's muscle fibers run in. Here's a quick run-down:
• Upper chest fibers – Run upward; thus, best activated where the arms move upward (i.e. any action that involves shoulder flexion)
• Middle chest fibers – Run horizontally; best activated where the arms move horizontally (as with any flat benching motion)
• Lower chest fibers – Run downward; best activated with exercises where the arms move downward (i.e. any action that involves shoulder extension)
Hopefully, with this brief lesson on your chest anatomy out of the way, you can see the importance of mixing up your chest exercises.
Doing so will help you hit your chest from more angles than possible with the flat barbell bench press – and build you a massive, 3D chest.
Okay… So the advice here is that you should pick a variety of chest exercises.
But how? There are at least 84 different chest exercises you could do. Should you do every single one of them? Does that mean every day will be Chest Day from now on? Well, no (thankfully).
You’ll find that just alternating between the 3 chest exercises covered below is going to get you right on the path to bigger pecs.
Now lets talk exercises to build chest.
Incline dumbbell press (upper chest)
There are no doubts about it: if you've only been doing flat pressing motions in the gym, your upper chest is going to be severely underdeveloped.
Luckily, there's a quick fix.
All you have to do is adjust your bench up a few notches. You're going to incorporate incline dumbbell presses into your chest workouts.
Now, you might be wondering, “Why should I use the dumbbells with my chest exercises instead of the barbell?” Good question. It’s because using dumbbells brings about 2 unique benefits:
• Greater range of motion – Using dumbbells allows you to experience a greater range of motion than you would with the barbell. And you know what that means: more muscle growth in general!
• Prevents and corrects muscle imbalances – Since each hand (or rather, chest) is responsible for an equal amount of weight, using dumbbells circumvents the event where you're over-relying on your stronger side to get the majority of the weight up. This way, you can be sure that both your pecs will look great (this also helps prevent injuries).
Another undisputed reason you should use the dumbbells with your chest exercises is that it allows you to work out at home (how many people have access to a barbell at home?)
As for the optimal bench degree, research shows that you should aim for anywhere between 30 to 56 degrees. Of course, you’ll want to experiment with this in the gym and see what works best for you.
Dumbbell press (middle chest)
What’s a flat pressing motion doing here–given all the bashing done on it previously? Don’t be mistaken; I’m not saying that you should avoid all kinds of flat pressing in the gym. It’s just that you shouldn’t rely on it as your only chest-building exercise.
Ultimately, the dumbbell bench press still seems to be among the top exercises to activate the chest.
As for why you should opt for dumbbells? The reasons are similar to that of the previous exercise: the incline dumbbell press. Doing so allows you to have a greater range of motion (and is thus beneficial for muscle hypertrophy), prevents/corrects any muscle imbalances, and is more accessible for those who need to work out from home.
But there is an additional benefit to be had with the flat dumbbell press.
And that is: this exercise has been shown to elicit the highest activation for the middle chest.
Oh, and not forgetting… It also results in less triceps activation than in the barbell alternative (helpful if you find that your triceps are always trying to take over the load when benching).
Dips (lower chest)
Chances are, if you have trouble developing your upper chest, you'd also face difficulties developing your lower chest. Thankfully, there is a powerful exercise that'll directly aim at those shallow lower pecs.
And it’s none other than the dips, which has been shown to be the most effective exercise at eliciting activity in the region.
Wondering why this is so?
Well, refer back to the anatomy of your chest muscles. Remember how your lower pecs' muscle fibers run in a downward motion? Yep. Because dips put your shoulder in an extended position, the exercise directly emphasizes the lower chest region.
Oh, here’s a tip if you don’t feel your lower chest firing during the regular dips: give the straight-bar dips a go. The added internal rotation of your shoulders–another function of your lower chest–can help shift more load to your target chest area.
Don't know how you should program exercises to build chest?
Admittedly, you're still far from optimizing your chest development if you only know which exercises activate the pecs–you still have to learn how to best structure the workout per your training goals.
You’d also need to learn how to perform the exercises with proper form, such that you’re reaping the most chest gains possible with them.
Before you hang your head and despair… Here’s some good news.
If you have no idea how to perform these exercises (or fit them into your training program), we’ve got an easy solution for you.
Just download GymStreak, the AI-powered personal trainer app that not only demonstrates proper exercise form but also customizes workouts to your fitness goals. Let's get that massive chest!Get GymStreak
Luczak, J., Bosak, A., & Riemann, B. L. (2013, May 15). Shoulder Muscle Activation of Novice and Resistance Trained Women during Variations of Dumbbell Press Exercises [Research Article]. Journal of Sports Medicine; Hindawi. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/612650
Nation, B. C., T. (n.d.). Inside the Muscles: Best Chest and Triceps Exercises. T NATION. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.t-nation.com/training/inside-the-muscles-best-chest-and-triceps-exercises
Saeterbakken, A. H., van den Tillaar, R., & Fimland, M. S. (2011). A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(5), 533–538. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2010.543916
Schoenfeld, B. J., & Grgic, J. (2020). Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: A systematic review. SAGE Open Medicine, 8. https://doi.org/10.1177/2050312120901559
SuppVersity EMG Series - Musculus Pectoralis Major: The Very Best Exercises for a Chiseled Chest - SuppVersity: Nutrition and Exercise Science for Everyone. (2011, July 7). SuppVersity EMG Series - Musculus Pectoralis Major. https://suppversity.blogspot.com/2011/07/suppversity-emg-series-musculus.html