For many, the workout week is never complete without hitting the pecs.
That usually means joining the cattle call lineup, and occupying the bench press station every Monday for international chest day.
In reality, most lifters are in the dark when it comes to realizing there are more effective ways of adding size to the chest, and the rest ignore such advice for the sake of the comfort zone they’ve so neatly created over the past few years of training.
If you’re going to train the chest for results, make sure you approach it the right way. Make use of smarter exercises to get the job done – and start with my top choices.
Exercise 1: Low Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
Most people are surprised that the barbell flat bench press doesn’t earn the top spot whenever I talk about most effective chest movements. The truth is, having your hands tethered to one spot on a bar with no movement at the wrists and elbows can cause joint stress and an incomplete hit for the chest muscles.
Related: Boyce's Choices - Top 3 Exercises for Arms
In many cases, the typical barbell flat bench is a lift that is performed at the expense of another area of health (like a lifter’s shoulder health). It’s also worth mentioning that there are two parts to the chest musculature; the sterna pectoralis (lower chest) and the clavicular pectoralis (upper chest).
The slight incline used when peforming low incline dumbbell bench press ensures that both parts of the pecs get the chance to be worked.
It may not be the easiest setup in the world to test your 3 rep max using a low incline and dumbbells, but using this variation for hypertrophy would generally mean using higher rep ranges anyway. Focusing on sets of 6 or more repetitions and applying volume to this approach will be a golden ticket to chest size and shoulder health.
Exercise 2: Suspended Push Ups
Using a TRX or gymnastic rings to perform push-ups seems simple enough and not “worthy” of being a top chest exercise, but don’t be fooled. Especially when performed as part of a superset or compound set (or even just second on the list of chest exercises for your isolation workout), these also bring plenty of health benefits to the table.
Truthfully, the shoulder blades (scaplulae) are always referenced when it comes to stability, but just as important is their need for mobility during exercise, and that’s a characteristic that is never trained when performing dumbbell and barbell presses, even when using the right technique.
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In a bench press, good form asks a lifter to keep the shoulder blades pinned to the bench, pulled back tight. Though this keeps a lifter’s shoulders safe for the task at hand, it’s not enforcing good bodily biomechanics; in general, as the upper arm moves, the shoulder blade should also move congruently.
It’s a reason too much bench pressing can be the spawn of shoulder discomfort or dysfunction. It’s also the reason push up variations can be so important to incorporate into your lifting program. If the suspended push up is easy as pie, add a weight vest or elevate your feet. Or just plain do more reps while modifying your tempo. If you try hard enough, you can make it challenging.
For a visual explanation of the importance of push-ups and scapular mobility, check out the video below.
Exercise 3: Cable Pec Fly
For this one, it’s important to remember how the pec fibers run. They travel on a horizontal pattern from the sternum to the upper arm. In other words, they don’t run vertically or on a slant.
Press movements and pushups are definitely going to affect them as prime movers, but some of the best direct isolation will be found when you choose a movement that directly opposes that fibrous path. That would be any fly variation.
Setting up a bench between two low pulleys beats using dumbbells for fly movements simply based on the force angle used, and the consistency of that force being applied against the chest. See, at the top of any dumbbell fly, the load of the weights starts coming down on the shoulder due to gravity, and tension in the chest is lost. That’s because the force is always travelling downward rather than outward.
With a cable setup, the weight is constantly trying to “pull the hands apart” which means the chest is engaged and stimulated for 100 percent of the lift, with no drop-off in force. In general, it shouldn’t take too much weight to fully hit the pecs using a fly variation, and feel free to play around with multiple angles (high pulley standing fly, low pulley standing rips, bench cable fly).
One More Thing: So you Think you can Bench?
I do think they’re overrated, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include some instruction on the classic barbell bench press in this chest training article, ‘cause let’s be honest – you’re probably still going to find a way to do them anyway. It’s the pinnacle ego exercise for any adult male.
Related: Bench Press Calculator - Calculate Your 1 REP MAX (1RM)
Most people take pride in how much weight they can push away from their chest, but the sad truth is, their setup to even perform the lift is something that needs plenty of improvement. Having a safe and strong bench press requires tightness, timing, and technique, and the video below explains the importance of the setup.
Moreover, your chest will not only have more strength, but it will also appear more prominent if the cornerstone to any such work comes from developing the muscles of the upper back. It will improve the stability of your rotator cuff muscles and help fix your posture for greater aesthetic appeal.
Chest training should probably pale in significance compared to the other stuff, but when you do train it, make sure you’re doing the right thing. I’m happy to help.