THE ULTIMATE CHEST WORKOUT GUIDE
Most people think that if their chest training includes exercises for the upper, middle and lower pecs they are covering all their bases for chest strength and chest size.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg for making your chest workout repertoire complete!
There is a LOT more to chest training than you may think, especially if you’ve found your pecs are slow to grow.
In this complete guide to chest workouts, I’ll give you an overview of chest muscle anatomy, and show you the best chest exercises and workouts for every region of the pec muscles regardless of what equipment you have at your disposal.
This step-by-step guide is broken down into sections to help you find exactly the information you’re looking for on chest day. I’ll also be answering some commonly asked questions related to pecs and chest workouts including how to get rid of man boobs and whether it’s possible to build your chest with minimal or no equipment. Plus I’ll direct you to a resistance training plan to help you get a strong chest regardless of what equipment you have available.
Here are some of the topics that I’ll cover in this chest training guide:
Before we begin looking at some of the best chest exercises, let’s take a look at the different areas of the pec major one by one so that you’ll be well oriented to the primary muscles of the chest muscle anatomy as we discuss exercises to hit each of these areas. This way you can achieve a better mind to muscle connection as you perform the exercises.
1) CHEST MUSCLES ANATOMY
The pectoralis major muscle is made up of 3 parts whose fibers run in different directions.
That’s because they originate from different areas on the clavicle and sternum.
The Upper Chest muscle fibres (clavicular head) originate from the clavicle and run toward the humerus. They go upward in a diagonal toward the center of the chest.
UPPER CHEST FIBERS (CLAVICULAR HEAD)
The Mid Chest fibers that come off the sternum are oriented in a horizontal direction almost straight across the chest.
MID CHEST FIBERS (STERNAL HEAD)
The Lower Chest fibers originate from the bottom of the sternum and travel diagonally down toward the center of the chest.
LOWER CHEST FIBERS (ABDOMINAL HEAD)
We can use the fibers running in different directions to our advantage when it comes to choosing chest exercises to hit different areas of the pecs. We’ll talk about that more in the sections that follow.
Before we start looking at exercises, I want to cover an important issue… chest fat.
2) WILL CHEST WORKOUTS GET RID OF MOOBS (CHEST FAT)?
This is one of the most common questions I get when it comes to chest training.
Unfortunately, the answer may not be what you were hoping to hear.
If you’ve got man boobs or excess chest fat, you probably hate it and are dying to get rid of it. But first it’s important to differentiate between two types of chest fat.
There are only two possible causes for chest fat:
- One is gynecomastia, which is a medical condition caused by a hormonal imbalance in the levels of testosterone and estrogen. It can be a genetic issue, but it is also a common side effect of anabolic steroid use. Thankfully, gynecomastia is not a very common issue.
- A much more common cause of excess chest fat is nutrition and lifestyle factors. Since men tend to store most of their excess bodyfat in the chest and stomach, it is common for overweight men to have moobs.
Below is a chart showing you how to determine whether you are dealing with gynecomastia or excess weight.
If you fall into the ‘excess weight’ camp, I’ve got good news and bad news for you.
The good news is that you CAN get rid of your man boobs.
The bad news I that you CAN’T get rid of moobs with chest sessions.
You’ll need to work to reduce overall bodyfat in order to lose your chest fat because there is no way to spot reduce fat in just one specific area of the body.
The most important factor in losing body fat is nutrition, and that’s definitely the right place to start. However, I’m not talking about dieting. Diets are temporary, and I’m sure you want to lose your chest fat for good.
Instead, you need a sustainable nutrition plan… one that you can stick with over time and that doesn’t feel restrictive. A lot of people aren’t sure what a plan like that would look like. That’s why I’ve designed the X-Factor Meal Plan that accompanies every one of our ATHLEAN-X programs to be chock full of foods you’ll love so that you’ll never feel deprived. The plan supports both building muscle mass and losing body fat and is customizable to your tastes, goals and dietary restrictions.
3) WHAT IS THE BEST CHEST WORKOUT?
The best chest workout plan should hit all three areas of the pectoralis major: upper chest, middle chest and lower chest.
We can do this by making sure we choose exercises that follow the varying orientations of the upper, mid and lower chest fibers.
But we can’t stop there!
If you want to build a huge chest, we also need to choose exercises for our balanced strength training workout plan that provide overload for each of these three areas, as well as allow us to work across midline, which is a key part of the chest muscles’ larger ranges of motion.
Let’s take a look a series of exercises for each of these.
BARBELL BENCH PRESS – MID CHEST OVERLOAD
HOW TO DO THE BARBELL BENCH PRESS:
- Starting position for the standard bench press is lying on a flat bench holding the barbell in overhand grip with a few inches wider grip than shoulder width apart and shoulder blades tucked under on the flat exercise bench. Use as heavy barbell plates as you can to induce failure within rep ranges of 6-8 reps.
- Lower the barbell to your chest and push explosively upward before lowering again. As you lower the barbell, your upper arms should go slightly below the bench to put the pecs in a stretched position.
- Keep the core tight throughout the entire movement.
- Take a few minutes rest intervals between sets and be sure you are using perfect form for your bench press programs to ensure safer workouts and avoid injury.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Barbell presses are one of the best compound movements for overloading the mid chest because you can continue to increase the weight on the bar as you get stronger at this flat pressing movement.
HORIZONTAL CABLE CROSSOVER – MID CHEST ACROSS MIDLINE
HOW TO DO THE HORIZONTAL CABLE CROSSOVER:
- Starting position is using the cable crossover machine with the pair of handles in each hand, palms facing forward away from you.
- To maintain proper form, keep a slight bend in the elbows as you push forward across the rib cage and inward, allowing your hands to cross over your forearms.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This horizontal chest cable exercise gives us the opportunity to work the middle chest fibers across midline, which is one of the most important parts of the pectoralis major’s range of motion.
INCLINE BENCH PRESS – UPPER CHEST OVERLOAD
HOW TO DO THE INCLINE BENCH PRESS:
- For this dumbbell variation of chest presses, start out lying on a weight bench on an incline with a pair of dumbbells in each hand with an overhand grip, and feet flat on the floor.
- Push through your upper chest as you push the arms upward.
- Then lower the pair of dumbbells down to the chest.
- Keep your core tight the entire time and maintain proper form. Take rest intervals of a couple minutes between sets of the incline presses.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The incline position allows us to get more muscle activation in the upper chest.
LOW TO HIGH CABLE CROSSOVER – UPPER CHEST ACROSS MIDLINE
HOW TO DO THE LOW TO HIGH CABLE CROSSOVER:
- Starting position is using the cable crossover machine with the arms of the machine at a low angle.
- Grab a handle in each hand and maintain a slight bend in the elbows as you raise the arms upward and inward, allowing the wrists to cross at the top of the movement until the handles reach head height.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The crossing over and upward portion of this cable chest movement works the upper chest across midline.
WEIGHTED DIP – LOWER CHEST OVERLOAD
HOW TO DO THE WEIGHTED DIP:
- Using a dip station, get into dip position, supporting the weight of your body by grabbing the handles of the station and bringing your feet off the floor, calves crossed.
- Angle your upper body slightly forward as you bend the elbows and lower your body down, and then push up again.
- Maintain proper form and take a couple minutes rest between sets.
- You can use weight plates tied around your waist using a dog leash to add weight to this effective movement.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is the best resistance exercise for creating overload in the lower chest. You’ll also be working the arms and shoulder muscles at the same time.
HIGH TO LOW CABLE CROSSOVER – LOWER CHEST ACROSS MIDLINE
HOW TO DO THE HIGH TO LOW CABLE CROSSOVER:
- Starting position is using the cable crossover machine with the arms of the machine at a high angle near head height.
- Grab the pair of handles in each hand and maintain a slight bend in the elbows as you lower the arms downward and inward, allowing the wrists to cross at the top of the movement.
- Take 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The crossing and downward portion of this movement is ideal for working the lower chest fibers across midline.
4) WHAT ARE THE BEST CHEST EXERCISES?
In the previous section I showed you some of the most important elements of a great chest workout routine and some exercises for each.
But if you’re looking for even more of the best chest exercises for middle, upper and lower pecs, I’ve got you covered there too!
Let’s take a look at a couple more of my favorites for each area and I’ll also give you some great resources chock full of more great chest exercises.
BEST EXERCISES FOR MID CHEST
In addition to the Barbell Flat Bench Press and the Horizontal Cable Crossover I showed you above, I’ve got a couple more favorite exercises for mid chest.
ONE ARM DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS
HOW TO DO THE ONE ARM DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS:
- Starting position for this bench press variation is lying on a flat bench with a dumbbell in one hand with an overhand grip.
- Angle your body to the same side as the dumbbell, placing more weight on the glute on that side.
- Drive your arm up and across the body to get horizontal adduction.
- Maintain the core tight throughout the exercise.
- Rest 1-2 minute between sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: By using a single dumbbell and angling your body on the flat exercise bench toward the dumbbell side, you are able to get the adduction that is required to really hit the mid chest.
HOW TO DO THE DUMBBELL PULLOVER:
- Start position is lying on your back across a flat bench with feet planted firmly on the ground, holding a dumbbell with both hands.
- Bring the dumbbell over and back behind your head, squeezing the pair of dumbbells together as you return to start.
- Keep your core engaged, maintain proper form and rest 1-2 minutes between sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Squeezing the hands together as you pull the weight overhead creates a great adduction from the top down.
These are two great exercises to target the mid chest fibers for you to include in your quick chest workout routine.
BEST EXERCISES FOR UPPER CHEST
The Barbell Incline Bench Press and the Low to High Cable Crossover are some of the best upper chest exercises, but I want to give you a couple more you can add to your chest workout regime to help you build a well-developed chest.
If you have access to a cable machine, there are two great exercises I’d recommend, the Upper Chest Upper Cut and Lean Back Cable Presses.
UPPER CHEST UPPER CUT
HOW TO DO THE UPPER CHEST UPPER CUT:
- Stand sideways to a cable machine with the arm of the machine set to about waist level.
- Grab the handle with the hand closest to the machine and move in a punching movement up, in and across midline taking the handle just up past shoulder height.
- You should feel a strong contraction in the upper chest.
- Be sure to keep your core tight throughout the exercise.
- Rest 1-2 minutes between sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This effective movement allows us to use cables to shorten the range of motion and the moment arm so we can hit the upper chest more effectively.
LEAN BACK CABLE PRESSES
HOW TO DO IT LEAN BACK CABLE PRESSES:
- Starting position is sitting on a bench in front of a cable machine with the arms of the machine set low.
- Lean back slightly to 20 or 30 degrees to place your arms in the correct position to hit the upper chest.
- Drive your arms from chest level upward as the cables provide extra resistance.
- Keep core engaged throughout and take 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The leaning back makes this cable machine bench exercise more of an upper chest movement instead of a shoulder movement. While with dumbbells your arms are only being acted upon by gravity, this cable movement also provides forward resistance, making this a very effective upper chest move.
BEST EXERCISES FOR LOWER CHEST
The Weighted Dip and the High to Low Cable Crossover are a great combo of the best lower chest exercises, but there’s a couple more chest resistance training moves I wanted to share with you.
If you have access to a complete gym including a cable machine, the Jackhammer Pushdown and the Standing Cable LC Press are excellent exercises for lower chest.
HOW TO DO THE JACKHAMMER PUSHDOWN:
- Starting position is standing in front of a cable machine with a short straight handle attachment with the bar below chest level.
- Grab the ends of the attachment with both hands, open the elbows out to the side, angle your chest just slightly forward over the top of the bar and push downward.
- Let the elbows ride upward along your sides as you return to start. The elbows should go up and down the entire time.
- Take 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: By placing the elbows out to the side you are working the lower chest instead of triceps.
STANDING CABLE LC PRESS
HOW TO DO THE STANDING CABLE LC PRESS:
- Stand with your back facing a cable machine and grab just one of the handles for this unilateral exercise.
- As you press forward and down, focus on the elbow going low and riding high on the way back, trying to make contact with the sternum at the end point of this resistance exercise.
- Twist to open up a little at the top of the exercise to get the shoulder into external rotation, and when you push down there will be a bit of internal rotation as the elbow drives toward the lower chest.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise does a great job of following the fibers of the lower chest in exactly the direction they move in.
5) HOW TO DO CHEST WORKOUTS AT HOME?
Some people think that to build a huge chest you need a complete gym with barbells, cable machines and other machines to get a great chest workout, but that just isn’t the case!
It’s absolutely possible to build your chest using home upper-body workouts regardless of what equipment you’ve got available, whether we’re talking about just a set of dumbbells, a simple resistance band or no equipment at all.
In the sections that follow, I’ll show you the best chest exercises with dumbbells, resistance bands and body weight.
And when you give them a try, you’ll see just how effective home workouts can be!
6) WHAT IS THE BEST DUMBBELL CHEST WORKOUT?
If you have access to a set of dumbbells but not a complete gym, it’s still possible to get a great chest workout, and even build chest size and strength!
In fact, you can train the chest with dumbbells for any goal including natural strength, power, hypertrophy, metabolic overload, or even total body.
Let’s look at an example exercise for each of these goals.
DUMBBELL WEIGHTED DIP – STRENGTH
HOW TO DO THE DUMBBELL WEIGHTED DIP:
- Tie a dumbbell around your waist using a dog leash and get into dip position in the apparatus.
- Lift your legs up and then lower your body down and then back up, keeping the elbows at a 90-degree angle or greater.
- Take 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise doesn’t sacrifice shoulder stability and allows you to achieve progressive overload by increasing the weight of the dumbbell as you get stronger.
PLYO TAP – POWER
HOW TO DO THE PLYO TAP:
- Start in pushup position with two dumbbells in front of you on the floor placed about shoulder width apart.
- Perform a pushup, but on the way up, explosively push your body upward and tap the tops of the dumbbells with your hands.
- Take 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise allows you to express your power by accelerating through the repetition. The length of your arms is not a stopping point as it is in the bench press because you can choose to push yourself as high as you can go through these reps.
ECCENTRIC FLOOR FLY – HYPERTROPHY
HOW TO DO THE ECCENTRIC FLOOR FLY:
- Starting position is lying on the floor with dumbbells in each hand, held directly overhead shoulder width apart and angled at about a 45 degree angle to the chest.
- Press to the top as in a normal flat bench press, and lower the weight slowly with a slight bend in the elbows as in a dumbbell fly.
- Take 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The slow eccentric lowering of the weights puts stress on the pectoral muscle. You can use heavier loads than normal in this exercise to increase the pec muscle growth effect.
LADDER STYLE DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS – METABOLIC OVERLOAD
HOW TO DO THE LADDER STYLE DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS:
- Start by lying on an incline bench holding dumbbells in each hand with an overhand grip and shoulder blades tucked in beneath you.
- Press the weights up and then lower them, pausing for one second at the bottom of the rep.
- On the next rep pause for two seconds, and continue to add one additional second of pause to each rep.
- Maintain proper form throughout the exercise being sure those shoulder blades stay tucked back. Take 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: In metabolic training, we feel the burn and push through it to create muscle gain. Doing this exercise in ladder form will definitely get you to feel a strong burn very quickly!
BENCH PRESS UP – TOTAL BODY
HOW TO DO THE BENCH PRESS UP:
- Lie on an incline bench with dumbbells in each hand.
- Press the dumbbells up and then explosively sit up and forward into press-up position before lowering your body back to the bench and then lowering the dumbbells down.
- Take 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Similar to the Turkish getup, in this exercise you have to perform incline bench presses, but also keep the dumbbells up overhead as you push the rest of your body up and forward. If you want to take this exercise to the next level, you can add a standing component after the sit up.
7) HOW TO DO CHEST WORKOUTS WITH RESISTANCE BANDS
Resistance band training is another very useful tool when it comes to chest exercises and building a well-developed chest.
One of the best things about them is their portability. You can use them at home, at the gym, or anywhere on the road you happen to be.
While you may think that to build chest muscle definition you need heavy weight, you’ll be pretty surprised what you can accomplish with resistance bands.
Let me show you three of my favorite resistance band chest exercises.
HOW TO DO THE SAW:
- Start by anchoring the band to a piece of furniture or gym equipment at about chest height.
- Grab the inside of the band with the heel of your hand and keep the elbow locked as you drive the arm into adduction across the chest.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: In this band crossover movement we are able to isolate the chest by keeping the arm in close rather than far away from the chest. This should make you feel a very powerful chest contraction.
HOW TO DO THE CROSSOVER PUSH-UP:
- Anchor a band to the side and behind you.
- Get into a strong plank position with hands stacked under shoulders and the palm of your hand inside the band.
- Perform a regular push-up and then as you come back to the top, reach across with the band to crossover the opposite palm.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This band crossover movement is a simple way to get more adduction out of a standard pushup by using a band. Adduction is one of the most important functions of the chest, and the best way to ensure you’re hitting the mid chest.
RESISTED PUSH-UP / BENCH PRESS
HOW TO DO THE RESISTED PUSH-UP / BENCH PRESS:
- Wrap a band around your back and place the palms of your hands into it in pushup position.
- Perform a pushup, feeling the resistance of the band as you push back upward.
- Be sure to drive upward powerfully and with full elbow extension during all your banded push-up sets.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is essentially a regular push-up with resistance, but it is made more effective by pressing quickly and powerfully upward.
8) WHAT ARE THE BEST BODYWEIGHT CHEST EXERCISES?
Think it’s impossible to build your chest muscles at home with no equipment? Think again.
I’ll show you a series of bodyweight movements (3 pushup variations and a chest dips variation) that hit all three areas of the pectoral muscle fibers: mid chest, upper chest and lower chest. None of these require access to weights.
You can use these exercises together in a home workout that uses metabolic overload to create the necessary microtears in the chest muscle fibers to spark new growth potential.
You will see me using a bench and a dip station to do these bodyweight staples, but they can be adapted to the home environment by using any piece of furniture in lieu of the bench and the corner of a kitchen counter instead of the dip station.
STANDARD DECLINE PUSHUPS
HOW TO DO STANDARD DECLINE PUSHUPS:
- Elevate your feet on a bench or a piece of furniture similar in height with your upper body angled toward the floor, hands shoulder width apart on the floor.
- Perform decline pushups with your legs straight behind you.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This feet-elevated position is ideal for hitting the upper portion of the chest fibers.
STANDARD FLAT PUSHUPS
HOW TO DO STANDARD FLAT PUSHUPS:
- Start in high plank position with hands shoulder width apart and feet on the floor.
- Lower yourself down as far as you can without letting the upper body touch the floor.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Standard pushups are the quintessential bodyweight chest exercise to hit the mid chest.
STANDARD INCLINE PUSHUPS
HOW TO DO STANDARD INCLINE PUSHUPS:
- Elevate your hands on a bench or a piece of furniture similar in height and perform incline angle pushups with your legs straight behind you, toes on the floor.
- In the top position, your body should be at about a 45-degree angle to the floor.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The elevated hands position in the pushup is the ideal position for hitting lower chest.
TRIPLE PULSE AND ECCENTRIC DIPS
HOW TO DO TRIPLE PULSE AND ECCENTRIC DIPS:
- Perform 3 dip pulses with elbows bent at 45 degrees, lowering slowly in the eccentric of the third rep.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The slow lowering of the eccentric portion of every third rep of these chest dips helps create that intense metabolic burn.
Regardless of what equipment you have available to you, and even if you don’t have access to weights, I’ve given you some of the best exercises for lower, middle and upper portion of the chest to add to your action plan for a stronger chest.
Remember, building a big defined chest isn’t only about hitting the three areas of the pectoral muscle fibers. You also must be sure to overload each area, and work the chest across midline, which is one of the most important parts of its range of motion.
Give the exercises in this guide a try, and you’ll be on your way to a bigger, stronger chest!
If you’re looking for a complete strength training plan to build lean muscle definition and strength in every muscle group in the body, find out which of our ATHLEAN-X programs best suits your goals and equipment possibilities.
CHEST WORKOUTS FAQ
To build your chest fast, the key to growth is making sure you are hitting all of the upper, middle and lower chest fibers and providing overload for each of these areas in your chest workouts. It’s also important to make sure you are working across midline in your chest exercises because this is one of the main functions of the pectoral muscles. It's recommended to train the chest 1-2 times per week to see size and strength gains quicker. In order to build muscle definition you also need to be sure your protein intake is sufficient. It's recommended that for every pound of bodyweight you consume 1 grams of protein per day, with protein taking priority in your nutrition plan.
If you're looking to create major chest gains, you need to choose chest exercises that work all three heads of the pectoralis major and work the chest across midline. If you're looking to create major chest gains, you need to choose chest exercises that work all three heads of the pectoralis major and work the chest across midline. Some of the best exercises to do on chest day for maximum growth potential are:
- Barbell Bench Press
- Horizontal Cable Crossover
- Low to High Cable Crossover
- High to Low Cable Crossover
- Incline Bench Press
- Weighted Dip
It's recommended to train the chest 1-2 times per week to see size and strength gains quicker. In order to build muscle you also need to be sure your protein intake is sufficient. It's recommended that for every pound of bodyweight you consume 1 grams of protein per day, with protein taking priority in your nutrition plan.
If you're looking to create major chest gains, the key to growth is choosing chest exercises that work all three heads of the pectoralis major and work the chest across midline. The best chest exercises for advanced lifters are:
Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS
Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.