best chest exercises for men
The classic theory of “Upper, Middle, and Lower” chest exercises is a good start when putting together a chest workout.
But it’s not enough to get a bigger chest!!
Take a look at the four main exercises that people do in their chest workout routine: incline bench press, barbell bench press, dips and pushups, you’ll see that they have one issue in common.
Each of these exercises is lacking a full adduction of the shoulder.
This is a problem when it comes to developing a bigger and stronger chest!
Just because you are going through a full range of motion on the exercises that you are doing it does not mean that you are taking a muscle through its full range of motion. Let me explain what I mean.
With the hands being fixed on a barbell, dip station or the floor through most common chest exercises and workouts, you are not able to take your shoulder through the full horizontal adduction over the midline of the chest that it is capable of.
The solution to this problem is to not throw the popular mass building chest exercises out of your training plans, but to pair them as drop sets with exercises that do emphasize adduction across midline of the chest. Before I show you how to build more chest definition, I’d like to begin with some anatomy of this major muscle group as we always do, to show you the primary muscles we’ll be targeting with these exercises.
THE 3 PARTS OF THE PECTORAL MUSCLE
You can see when we activate the chest that different parts of the pectoralis major fibers (biggest chest muscle) run in different directions.
This is because they originate from different places on the clavicle and sternum.
UPPER CHEST FIBERS (CLAVICULAR HEADS)
MID CHEST FIBERS (STERNAL HEADS)
LOWER CHEST FIBERS (ABDOMINAL HEADS)
how to train the chest
In order to fully hit the chest, we’ll need to choose exercises that follow the different orientations of the fibers.
This means we’ll need to take the arm through different ranges of motion to better hit and align it with the fibers of the mid, upper and lower pectoralis major as well as the pectoralis minor. Let’s take a look more in depth at the specific ways in which your chest training needs to challenge your pec muscles in order to be considered ‘perfect’. I’ll give you my absolute go-to chest exercises for each part of the pec major and every chest function.
OVERLOAD FOR MID PECS
Our workout needs to include exercises for building muscle mass that allow us to overload the pecs, which often involves chest presses.
The classic Bench Press is the best option for hitting the mid chest with heavy weight.
As I move my arm out in the bench press, the alignment of the arm is moving almost parallel to the mid chest fibers coming off of the middle portion of the sternum.
OVERLOAD FOR UPPER PECS
Just as the flat Bench Press is great for hitting the mid chest, the Incline Bench Press is ideal for targeting the upper chest fibers.
The Incline Dumbbell Bench Press hits the upper portion of the chest originating at the clavicle and running down toward the humerus.
You can see the upper fibers of the chest being activated from low to high in the Incline Bench Press.
OVERLOAD FOR LOWER PECS
Now we need to hit the lower portion of the chest, and it is best hit with a classic Weighted Dip.
It’s not by accident, it’s by anatomy! When you take arm through this position of being extended behind your body, as it travels down you go from a high to low position which allows you to preferentially hit the lower fibers of the chest.
You can see that the lower fibers of the chest are being activated from high to low in the dip movement.
WORKING ACROSS MIDLINE
As you can see, we’ve tried to take the muscle through its entire range of motion from upper to mid to lower chest, but a key function of the chest is missing.
An important part of the chest’s range of motion is also toward and across the midline. The Bench Press, Incline Bench Press and Dip are all limited in their ability to cross the midline of the chest.
The action of the pec at the shoulder can take the arm not just through adduction but across midline.
For this reason we’ll be pairing each of our classic chest overload exercises with a drop set of an exercise that takes chest activation to and through midline.
THE best CHEST WORKOUT: step by step
The best chest exercise regimen should include exercises for your upper chest, middle chest and lower chest. Since the classic exercises for overload don’t even take us to midline, let alone across midline, we’ll be adding dropsets to each that will fill this function. We’ll also be looking to progressively overload the chest to increase both size and strength.
1A.) AND 1B.) MID CHEST
We’ll kick off this chest workout regimen with a flat Barbell Bench Press.
This is the ideal exercise to hit the middle chest and it allow us to truly overload it.
Starting position is lying on the flat bench holding the barbell with hands wider than shoulder width apart and shoulder blades tucked under you flat against the weight bench. Lower the bar down to your chest and then push back up to return to the starting position. As I lower the weight, my upper arm goes slightly below the flat bench bench to put the pecs in a stretched position. Be sure to keep those shoulder blades tucked for best results in this exercise.
Performing a flat dumbbell bench press is an option is you are working out at home and don’t have a bar. However the Barbell Bench Press exercise will allow you to overload more effectively than the dumbbell variation.
BARBELL BENCH PRESS
We’ll proceed immediately from our flat Barbell Bench Press to a Horizontal Cable Crossover using cable machines which will give us the opportunity to work the middle chest fibers across midline.
HORIZONTAL CABLE CROSSOVER
There are some fans of the cable crossover that say it’s an even better chest activator based on EMG studies than a flat bench press. But it’s important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater!
Even though the cable crossover may have a better percentage of activation it’s still not capable of being loaded to the extent that a barbell bench press is.
If the cable crossover (or cable fly) was the only exercise you do, you’ll be limited in your chest development. However if you do it in addition to the bench press, you get the unique benefits of both exercises.
When you do the Horizontal Cable Crossover you can see that unlike a chest fly or a cable crossover, we’re taking our arm all the way to and across midline and getting complete activation of the chest in that plane of motion. Cable machines allow us to achieve this.
This exercise can be done with bands as well, if you are doing a home workout or don’t have access to the cable machine. Regardless of what equipment you’re using, be sure to slightly bend your elbows in this exercise.
EXERCISE NOTES: Perform 4 Barbell Bench Press sets at 6, 8, 10 and 12RM, alternating it as a drop set with the Horizontal Cable Crossover for 15 reps. Take no rest between sets of Bench Press and Cable Crossover, but rest after each drop set. Maintain your core strength throughout the movement.
2A.) AND 2B.) UPPER CHEST
We’re not stopping there. The shoulder is a three-dimensional joint and we can hit any angle we like, moving in different planes of motion.
So now we’re going to focus on the Upper Chest with a bench press variation called the incline dumbbell press.
Starting position is with the weight bench at an incline, and a pair of dumbbells in each hand, feet flat on the floor. Begin by extending your arms upward as you push with the upper chest. Then lower the dumbbells down to the starting position and repeat. Keep your core tight throughout the movement.
INCLINE BENCH PRESS
When we’re done with that we’ll immediately move to the cable crossover changing orientation into the Low to High Cable Crossover.
LOW TO HIGH CABLE CROSSOVER
Starting position for this cable chest exercise is with the cables set to a low angle, standing with feet flat on the ground and hands grabbing each of the handles. Our arms will go through a low to high arc, and we’re not going to stop where we would on an Incline Bench Press. Instead we’ll take the arm to midline and through midline up above our head. You can see the degree of complete contraction we’re getting in the upper chest. Then lower the cables back to the starting position.
EXERCISE NOTES: Perform the 4 Incline Bench Press sets at 6, 8, 10 and 12RM, alternating it as a drop set with the Low to High Cable Crossover for 15 reps. Take no rest between sets of Bench Press and Cable Crossover, but rest after each drop set.
3A.) AND 3B.) LOWER CHEST
The Weighted Dip will be our overload exercise for the lower chest.
Our hands are actually fixed on a Weighted Dip, so it’s impossible to get them to come toward midline because the dip station only allows them to stay in one position. However, the Weighted Dip does allow us to go heavy and overload the low chest.
Weighted chest dips using a weight plate are one of the best compound exercises because in addition to working your chest you will also get muscle activity in several other areas. This move is a chest workout, shoulder workout and arm workout all in one.
As soon as we’re done with the dip position, we’ll change the orientation of the cable cross once again from high to low for the High To Low Cable Crossover.
Starting position is with the cables set at a high angle, standing with feet shoulder width apart, with an overhand grip on the cable handles, palms facing diagonally toward the ground.
HIGH TO LOW CABLE CROSSOVER
This exercise can also be done with resistance bands if you don’t have access to the cable crossover machine.
EXERCISE NOTES: Perform the Weighted Dip for 4 sets at 6, 8, 10 and 12RM, alternating it as a drop set with the High to Low Cable Crossover for 15 reps. Take no rest between sets of the Weighted Dip and Cable Crossover with an overhand grip, but rest after each drop set.
4A.) AND 4B.) BODY COMMAND
I’m going to add one more common chest exercise into workout plan.
It’s the Weighted Pushup variation and it’s going to help us work our upper body command and allow us to overload this bodyweight exercise as well.
However, in push up position, we’re limited once again by the fact that our hands are in contact with the ground and can’t get across our body into adduction. So we’re going to drop set the pushup into a Banded Pushup where we come up to a strong plank position with hands shoulder width apart, feet shoulder width apart, core tight, and drive one hand across midline to create adduction. You’ll want to switch sides so that you work both sides of the chest.
EXERCISE NOTES: Perform the Weighted Pushup for 3 sets to failure, alternating it as a drop set with the Banded Pushup, 15 reps toward the right side and then 15 reps toward the left. Take no rest periods between sets of the Weighted Pushup and Banded Pushup, but rest after each drop set.
So, here is a complete chest training program, step by step, all sets, all reps for you to follow.
CHEST DAY WORKOUT
1A. BARBELL BENCH PRESS – 4 SETS x 6, 8, 10, 12 (PERFORM AS DROP SET WITH 1B.)
1B. HORIZONTAL CABLE OR BAND CROSSOVERS – 4 SETS x 15 REPS
- UPPER CHEST
2A. INCLINE BENCH PRESS – 4 SETS x 6, 8, 10, 12 (PERFORM AS DROP SET WITH 2B.)
2B. LOW TO HIGH CABLE OR BAND CROSSOVERS – 4 SETS x 15 REPS
- LOWER CHEST
3A. WEIGHTED DIP – 4 SETS x 6, 8, 10, 12 (PERFORM AS DROP SET WITH 3B.)
3B. HIGH TO LOW CABLE OR BAND CROSSOVERS – 4 SETS x 15 REPS
- BODY COMMAND
4A. WEIGHTED PUSHUPS – 3 SETS TO FAILURE (PERFORM AS DROP SET WITH 4B.)
4B. BAND CROSSOVER PUSHUPS (R&L) – 3 SETS x 15 REPS
This is how you complete the development of your chest: by including chest exercises for building upper, mid and lower pecs that can be loaded, by including exercises that take the muscle through its full range of motion, and by ensuring that you include drop sets of movements that take the upper, mid and lower chest through midline.
This is just one example of how to train your chest according to science using exercises and workouts that apply the most advanced techniques. If you want to build a bigger and broader chest, and increase muscle and strength throughout your body, you can do that with the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and get started right away on building a ripped, muscular, athletic body.
- The four main exercises that most people do in their chest muscle workouts: bench press, incline bench press, the dip and the basic pushup all have something in common. Each is great for hitting the chest in a specific part of its range of motion, but none of them carries that range of motion to or through midline.
- Effective chest workouts will include all of these classic chest exercises because they are great for overloading upper, mid and lower chest.
- It will also pair these up as drop sets with exercises that allow us to cross midline and challenge this important part of the chest’s range of motion as well.
BEST CHEST EXERCISES FOR MEN FAQS
The best exercise for growing the chest musculature will depend on what your goal is. A Standard Bench Press done on a flat exercise bench is one of the best exercises you can do for the chest, especially for progressive overload, because this compound lift allows you to use increasingly heavier weights to grow the pec major. Of course the bench press can also be done on a flat surface using a pair of dumbbells and a neutral position on the flat exercise bench if you don't have access to a barbell. However, straight bench press programs aren't enough to cover upper body strength or to hit the entire chest muscle anatomy. You'll want to be sure to do upper chest exercises (for the clavicular head of the pecs) and exercises for the lower chest region as well. One of the best upper chest exercises is the Incline Bench Press done using a pair of dumbbells and a 30 degree incline angle on the weight bench (not a 45-degree angle for this bench press variation). To hit the hard-to-reach lower chest area of the pec major, try the High-To-Low Cable Crossover using a cable crossover machine. The cable crossover machine allows you to keep constant tension on the chest muscles and works the chest across midline. This exercise can be done with a heavy band if you don't have access to the cable machine.
To grow the chest muscles, you'll need to choose a chest workout regime that hits the middle, lower and upper chest muscles. You'll want to focus on progressive overload and muscular hypertrophy if you want to see serious chest gains. The best exercises for chest muscle growth are the standard Bench Press for the middle pecs, the Incline Bench Press for the upper chest muscles and the Weighted Dip using heavy barbell plates for the lower chest.
It's not a good idea to do weight training for the chest everyday because in order to increase chest size, your chest muscles need days of rest to be able to rebuild the damaged tissue and grow. It's better to have one chest day or perhaps two chest sessions per week.
To grow the chest muscles, you'll need to work on improved hypertrophy by choosing exercises that overload the middle, lower and upper chest muscles. The best exercises for chest muscle growth are the standard Bench Press for the middle pecs, the Incline Bench Press for the upper chest muscles and the Weighted Dip using heavy barbell plates for the lower chest.
To build a huge chest at home, you'll need complete body weight chest sessions including bodyweight staples like the regular push up as well as band training. The band provides extra resistance as you use it for lower and upper chest exercises like Hi-to-Low Crossovers and Low-to-Hi Crossovers. If you have a set of adjustable dumbbells, you've got a larger range of exercise options to go after those chest gains at home. No need for a weight bench, because you can use an ottoman, a bench or even your bed.
To increase your chest growth potential at home, you'll need a complete body weight chest workout regime. One of the best bodyweight movements is the regular push up position, and you can improve this movement by adding a heavy band to perform the banded pushup from the plank position. For both of these exercises, core stability is of utmost importance. You can also use band training to hit lower and upper chest muscles like Hi-to-Low Crossovers and Low-to-Hi Crossovers. If you have a set of adjustable dumbbells, you've got many more exercise options for home chest exercises. No need for a weight bench, because you can use an ottoman, a bench or even your bed. When training to increase chest size at home, it's important to ensure you're doing exercises to hit the entire chest muscle anatomy.
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.