Sometimes, weightlifting can seem to get a little too technical. What once seemed like a simple exercise—picking up weights and putting them down—can transform into a Byzantine discussion of techniques, tempos, time under tension, or muscle origins, insertions, genetics and hormonal manipulations. Whew.
Let’s get back to basics. Here are 10 top pec-punishers, with a little explanation why they should be a part of your chest building program.
1. Barbell Bench Press
Known as the “king” of upper body exercises, the barbell bench press has likely been part of more massive-pec programs than any other movement. From Schwarzenegger to Haney, Columbo to Coleman, the bench press is a classic overall chest builder.
Tips: Use the bench press for muscle-building and not showing off. Use strict form, a full range of motion, a controlled pace and reps in a range of 8-12 for most sets.
2. Barbell Incline Press
Since it’s generally more difficult to thicken the upper portion of the pecs—just under your clavicles—the barbell incline press needs to have a place in every serious trainees chest routine. It’s a terrific, basic movement in which heavy loads can be lifted. I know of very few massive chests that have been created without this exercise in the mix.
Tips: Make sure to bring the bar down close to, and just under, the chin to best activate the clavicular pec fibers. If you notice that your lower chest is developing much more quickly than the upper, then try leading off your pec workouts with this movement.
3. Dumbbell Press
Although quite similar to barbell presses, dumbbells give you an increased range of motion at the bottom of the rep. Furthermore, dumbbells presses are generally performed on multi-angular, adjustable benches that will allow inclines of several different levels, each hitting the chest in a slightly different way.
Tips: Definitely take advantage of the increased stretch that DB’s allow for by lowering them to the sides of the chest. Press from a variety of angles to tap into every muscle fiber.
4. Weighted Dip
The weighted dip may rival the bench press for best overall chest movement. Exercises that require your body to physically move through space (rather than move a weight while stationary) have been shown to better stimulate the central nervous system and activate more muscle fibers. It’s great for targeting the lower/outer pecs.
Tips: Lean the torso forward throughout the set to maximally recruit the chest rather than triceps. Lower yourself slowly to full stretch as the greatest pec-fiber-activation takes place when “pushing out of the hole.”
5. Dumbbell Flye
While pressing movements are vitally important for building a big chest, you can’t underestimate the value of the dumbbell fyle! Because flyes isolate the pecs without also taxing the triceps, flyes allows for a much greater stretch of the pec fibers than any press, and studies prove that when a muscle is stretched under tension, several anabolic (growth-producing) pathways are vigorously stimulated.
Tips: Move the dumbbells slowly in a relatively wide arc until you feel a deep stretch in the pecs from armpit to sternum. Try holding the stretch for 2-3 seconds on some of your reps. Experiment by performing this exercise from various angles – all the way from a slight decline to as high as a 60-degree incline.
6. Cable Crossover
The cable crossover shouldn’t necessarily be the “cornerstone” of any pec-pumping program, but it is certainly a valuable move include. While pressing movements are ideal for handling max weights and flyes are better for their ability to stretch the pecs, crossovers are better for creating a strong “peak contraction” effect, which can act as another strong stimulus for growth.
Tips: Some people try to use too much weight on this movement and turn it into some kind of standing press. Don’t be one of them. Use moderate weights, maintain good form, and shoot for 10-15 reps per set. If your gym has a multi-angle cable station, try doing this exercise from different points to stimulate unique sets of muscle fibers. Use the cable crossover for what it’s truly good for, and squeeze hard on every rep.
The pullover is unique among chest exercises since it is neither a form press or flye. It provides a unique stretch for the pecs from bottom to top, and also helps stretch the muscles in your rib cage (known as the intercostals). The pullover was a mainstay movement for lifters in the early days of bodybuilding.
Tips: Do this exercise in “cross bench” style, where you lie perpendicular to the bench and just set your upper back and shoulders resting on the bench. Drop your hips low and keep them there throughout the set. Take a deep breath as you stretch the weight back and down behind you. Keep a slight bend in the elbows at all times.
8. Smith Machine Press to Neck
Yeah, we know, the Smith machine is to be avoided at all costs, right? Wrong. It’s great for attacking the upper pecs and just feels totally different from the basic incline press. The stretch that this movement provides is intense.
Tips: This exercise should only be performed by people with healthy shoulders. Make sure your shoulder joints are fully warm before doing this exercise; it’s not a bad idea to try it as a second or even third movement in my routine. Do not go under 8 reps in any work set, and lower the bar only as far as your shoulders will comfortably allow. Take at least 2-3 seconds on each negative contraction.
9. Seated Machine Flye
This exercise allows for a maximum stretch and a peak contraction against resistance. Furthermore, you can adjust the seat up or down to change the plane of motion and target different portions of the chest.
Tips: Keep your elbows high and in line with the forearms throughout the set. Take full advantage of both the stretch and contraction by holding each for a second or two on every rep.
10. Hammer Strength Machine Press
Hammer Strength machines are built so they feel almost like you’re using free weights—like something between a barbell and dumbbells. They generally allow for a “squeeze” at the top of the rep.
Tips: Don’t make Hammer Strength presses the foundation of your workout; rather, use them as an adjunct to basic barbell or dumbbell presses. If your gym has a variety of these machines for the chest, try them all to see which ones give you the best pump and burn.