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Ranking Exercises For Chest: Is The Bench Press Number One?

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Want to build a big chest? Dustin Elliott lists the most effective exercises for chest, and helps you to refine your training and maximize muscle gains.

Is bench the best for chest?Here is a ranking of the best exercises for building a better chest based on personal experience and the training articles of top IFBB pro bodybuilders. This is not necessarily a determination of exercise order, but the exercises that are most effective for muscle fiber recruitment and targeting the muscle group itself. Exercise order will always be determined by the stabilization requirement of the secondary muscle groups. Isolation exercises, while they may target muscle groups specifically; should still be performed later in the workout.

#10 Decline Bench Press (Dumbbells and Flyes)

Coming in at #10 are the decline pressing and fly movements. They were popular because many lifters were under the impression that the movement could increase the thickness in their lower chest and make it look like their chest was “hanging” lower. However, if you look at the training regimens of guys like Arnold and top pros today who have great lower pec development; it really had nothing to do with decline movements.

For the most part, the “shape” of your pectorals is determined my genetics, so if you skim through the training articles of competitive bodybuilders this movement won’t be anywhere to be found. It may still be useful for adding fullness to your lower pectorals. Also, in sports specific applications of weightlifting, the decline bench is omitted.

#9 Dumbbell Pullover

The dumbbell pullover is an exercise that had gained much popularity a few years ago with bodybuilders who were being trained by old school gurus. However, today it is a movement which is absent from the routines of many top bodybuilders with a great chest. Their were many theories behind it’s effectiveness which included expanding the rib cage and therefore providing more surface area to add chest muscle; and adding chest fullness.

The area widely considered to be the most important for increasing the appearance of fullness however is that of the upper pectorals. The most effective use of the dumbbell pullover is as a finishing movement for adding fullness to ever part of your lower pectorals, and working your serratus anterior.

#8 Incline Dumbbell Flyes

This is a very popular finishing movement for the upper pectorals with pro bodybuilders but is not seen as much with recreational bodybuilders. It targets the upper chest area which is most responsible for increasing the appearance of fullness in the upper chest. However, it is a “fly” movement that targets a small area of the chest and puts more tension on the rotator cuffs than the flat bench fly.

It is very easy to miss the target area of the upper chest with this movement which is why it falls behind #7 which is the upper pec cable crossovers. It is still a great finishing movement for developing the upper pectoral area all the way across. However, the risk of injury is high and it is very easy to miss the target area.

#7 Upper Pec Cable Crossovers

The upper pec cable crossover is not a movement that can provide as much of a load on your upper pecs as the incline dumbbell fly but it hits the inside of your upper pecs every time and easily provides a pump for that area. This makes it a great finishing movement for those targeting their upper chest and it’s easy to play with the sets and reps because of the almost non-existent injury risk.

The key thing to remember with this movement is to not lift with your biceps. The most common mistake is made by those who end up with a larger pump in their biceps than in their chest. Always remember to extend your arms out in front of you and lock your elbows to keep the focus on your pecs.

#6 Dumbbell Flyes

Dumbbell flyes are coming in at #6 behind the cable crossovers for one major reason; which is the inability to increase the time under tension for this exercise. Time under tension in bodybuilding has become increasingly important because of the increase in IGF-1 associated with it, and the muscle fiber recruitment that comes with it. To decrease the speed with which the dumbbell fly is executed would mean increasing the load on the rotator cuff which would cause you to fatigue before your pectorals have been adequately worked.

#5 Cable Crossovers

The cable crossovers are coming in at #5 because of the ease with which you can slow down the movement speed and directly target the pectorals during exercise. The key with this movement is to keep your pecs under tension and to squeeze everything you can out of every rap. The only real hassle with this movement is waiting on getting both cables to work with if you’re in a crowded gym. Another great thing about this movement is the ability to vary the angle with which you perform your crossovers so that you can hit the outer pecs or the lower pecs.

#4 Dumbbell Bench/Incline

The dumbbell work for your chest is excellent because of the lack of load on the triceps and the ability to balance out your strength on your right and left side. Dumbbell presses are always highly recommended for those who have issues balancing a barbell. You won’t be able to lift as much weight with dumbbells however because of the balancing requirement this movement entails. In the end, the standard bench press is still ideal for increasing upper body strength.

#3 Chest Press Machine/Smith Machine Bench Press

This one may surprise of few people, the reason it’s coming in at number 3 is because of the direct tension on the pectorals and the freedom to control the speed of the movement without putting extra strain on your rotator cuffs or front delts. It lacks the ability to provide the total load on your upper body that leads to an increase in strength like the bench press. However the chest press is a popular finishing movement for many bodybuilders because they can contract and squeeze every last drop from their pecs and illicit an incredible pump like no other chest exercise can.

#2 Barbell Bench Press

That’s right, the most popular movement of all-time for your chest is coming in at number three. As far as sports specific application and building upper body strength, the bench press is still king. Also, because it’s a heavy free weight movement, it will still be one of the first exercises you perform in your chest routine.

The problem with the barbell bench press is that when people use it to supposedly build their chest they end up forcing up heavy weight and distributing much of the load on their triceps and anterior deltoids. Using weight that is easier to control and slowing down the movement is a great way to increase its effectiveness. It will be much easier to reduce the “lift as much weight as possible” mentality behind the bench press if it’s not the first movement in your routine.

#1 Incline Smith Machine/Barbell Press

As discussed earlier in this article, the best way to increase the appearance of fullness in your pectorals is the incline barbell press. However, this is not to say that doing the incline bench press alone will improve your chest. This movement is number one on the list because once you’ve reached a plateau in your chest development; this is the movement that is focused on to continue development.

If you look at the routines of many pro bodybuilders you will see this listed as the first movement in many of their routines. However, that is not to say that great pectorals have all been built by doing the incline movement first. Genetics plays a large role in the development of different muscle groups and there are still bodybuilders who believe in focusing on the chest as a whole and not dividing it into different parts during a routine.

Conclusion

As stated in the opening, this is a ranking of the best movements for chest and it is not necessarily a determination of exercise order (although many bodybuilders use the incline press first, and the fat bench second). It is based on the most popular/effective movements for providing improvements in the pectorals. Every one is different, the best way to find what personally improves your chest development is to start with a routine that incorporates the basics and then experiment with more advanced routines to break plateaus.

When doing free weight pressing movements just remember not to get caught up in the numbers game. Remember, bodybuilding is not about “how much you can lift” it’s about “how much you look like you can lift”. Using proper form and a proper lifting cadence will take your physique much farther than using weight that is too heavy for you just because your lifting partner did it.

Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.

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  • About The Author
    Dustin Elliott has a Bachelors in Exercise Physiology, and is a member of the Betancourt Nutrition team.
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Comments (13)

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Steve T
Posted Wed, 12/15/2010 - 03:47

I appreciate the comment about controlling the weight in the bench press.

Where would dips fit in? It's a nice compound movement and if done with a leaning forward motion, they seem to be similar to decline presses.

On another note, Jim Stoppani recently wrote about research indicating that performing a bench press with a supinated grip activates much more of the upper pectorals than incline presses, which put much more stress on the front deltoids. I'm not sure how heavy one can go with that grip, though, over the long term.

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dusitn elliott ...
Posted Thu, 12/16/2010 - 14:24

the supinated grip is actually pretty heavy on the triceps however, the ideal incline press on the smith machine takes much of the deltoid work and stabilization requirement out of the picture, and these are the only negatives against the incline press making it's smith machine counterpart top notch...

as for the dips, i agree they're a great exercise but i will be posting about them in the future in relation to triceps exercises

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Steve T
Posted Fri, 12/17/2010 - 09:13

Thanks, Dustin. I will make the incline smith press a priority in my next routine, based on your advice.

Take care,

Steve

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mjb
Posted Mon, 12/20/2010 - 14:15

The supernated grip doesn't seem to be too heavy on my triceps as long as I bring the bar to my lower chest and my grip is wide.

With a narrow grip and bringing the bar to the mid or upper chest it's basically a tricep excercise (kind like a JM press) and it the bar might slip out of your hands if your grip fails.

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dustin (author)
Posted Mon, 12/20/2010 - 15:28

this is very true, and if you think about it, this is the pressing version of #7 on the list, the upright cable cross over. your hands are supinated, and you pull upward to hit your upper pecs...both movements are very similar and target the same area. i have always preferred the cable version.

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Terrance
Posted Mon, 12/20/2010 - 20:38

I agree about cables, they are a staple for me. I was wondering why such a targeted exercise like the cable crossover (upper) is ranked so low. I know that it is harder to stack, but that exercise has been pivotal for me. I'd much rather use them than the press machine.

Are you saying that I should be advancing into using these machines along with my incline press or is having the incline press along with several others on the list going to offer the same results?

Thanks

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dustin (author)
Posted Tue, 12/21/2010 - 10:08

free weights do more to increase tension put on your muscles, which is needed for growth, they require stabilization and assistance from secondary muscles as well. the list is set up in order of importance, the higher the exercise is on the list, the more often it should be in your routine...you are always encouraged to mix up your routine, so you would work in the other exercises

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Terrance
Posted Tue, 12/21/2010 - 14:22

I gotcha. That makes sense and I must say that I get into a routine at the gym and should look to switch it up. I was thinking creating two different routines for the pecs.

Right now my I am doing both cables, reg bench press or incline press, and then incline dumbbells flys.

That would leave the other dumbbells like cross overs etc. as well as decline press that I am not doing. Is there a trick to alternating these or would it be fine to write them all down and cycle through each week?

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dustin (author)
Posted Wed, 12/22/2010 - 11:10

i have just the thing for you...check out my 16 week chest training article...
http://muscleandstrength.com/articles/ultimate-chest-training-bigger-pec...

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Terrance
Posted Wed, 12/22/2010 - 15:36

Ahah... thanks bro, this is exactly what I am looking for.

Not only are the exercises separated the building rotation between weeks and then together is genius.

You rock man.

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Beast
Posted Wed, 03/28/2012 - 07:27

Just to make my own list:
1- Dumbbell Incline Press (small incline)
2- Flat DB Press
3-Incline Bench
4-Dips
5-Bench

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Pete
Posted Mon, 04/15/2013 - 07:47

with regard to dumbbell flyes, and time under tension, i've followed Ben Pakulski's reccomendation that you keep a slight bend in the arms on the way down and lock the elbows on the way back up, never allowing the dumbbells to touch, this seems to keep maximum tut on the pec.

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Mitchell
Posted Thu, 10/23/2014 - 20:07

I know I can discount an entire article when the number 1 exercise is smitch machine bench...

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