If you want to maximize chest workouts, start by tossing out the traditional bench press. This barbell exercise is great for general upper body strength, but to isolate the pecs for faster development, there are superior moves. First, it’s important to know exactly what you’re working. The pectoralis muscles are divided into two sections: The clavicular pectorals, or the area just below the collarbone, and the sternal pectorals, located in the mid and lower chest. You can use high presses and fly patterns to attack the former, and traditional chest exercises like push-ups to tap into the muscle fibers of the latter. For the chest workout of your life, cue up these four moves.
Low Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
The reason to use dumbbells is simple: Your hands aren’t prisoner to the position a straight bar keeps them in. With free weights, you can get a larger range of motion and also adjust your hand and elbow position as the rep progresses. That can be a big-time shoulder saver and also increase muscle activation (and can also make up for what you may lack in total resistance). Plus, the slight incline is just enough to hit a portion of the upper chest as well as the entire sternal pectoralis.
Focus on sets of 8 to 12 reps. There’s more risk associated with heavy sets of fewer reps, and you shouldn’t attempt them without a spotter.
Incline Cable Fly
The difference between using dumbbells and using cables when performing a chest fly is profound. Cables provide constant tension that opposes the chest muscles throughout the entire force curve (length of the rep). Approaching the top of a rep, a dumbbell fly recruits minimal muscle fiber. Setting up in a pulley system (placing the pulleys at the bottom position, and positioning the bench in the middle between the two pulleys) prevents this from happening, due to an outward force angle instead of a purely downward one.
Fly patterns aren’t useful for low, heavy reps — they’re an accessory movement to target weak links, and they put the shoulder in a vulnerable position. Perform sets of 12 to 20 lower-weight reps; the chest muscles respond well to these high-volume sets. Use them as a secondary or finishing exercise for 3 to 4 sets.
Decline Barbell Bench Press
To expose the body to some heavy lifting, I recommend using a decline bench. This movement will isolate the sterna pectoralis and triceps, and in most cases will result in a stronger max effort than a standard flat barbell bench. Plus, this position avoids shoulder-muscle recruitment, protecting those vulnerable muscles from injury.
Here’s your opportunity to take on heavy loads. Perform 5 to 6 sets of 4 to 6 reps. Be sure to begin workouts with this big movement, as it taxes the whole body.
They’re the simplest movement on the list, but because they don’t call for heavy barbells or weights, they’re often the most neglected chest-building exercise. But push-ups are a great way to trigger chest stimulation, and they’re the only exercise here that helps promote a healthier, stronger shoulder. (They allow the scapulae to move as the rep progresses, training the development of the serratus muscles located alongside the ribcage, and keeping the mechanics of a healthy shoulder intact.) For more, and for instructions on a proper push up, watch this video.
Push-ups are versatile and fit anywhere in your workout: Do them as burnout sets for the end of your training, or add them to the end of a lifting set. Sets of 10 reps should be a minimum target.
The Ultimate Chest Day Workout
1) Decline Bench Press: 5 x 4–6 reps. Rest 2–3 minutes between sets.
2) Low Incline Dumbbell Press: 5 x 10 reps. Rest 2 minutes between sets.
3A) Cable Incline Fly: 15 reps. Perform 3A and 3B as a superset and rest 90 seconds between rounds. Complete 4 rounds.
3B) Push-Ups: Max reps to failure.
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