Working your upper body, and especially your chest muscles, in the gym can be tough work, generating a lot of stress before moving on to the next muscle group. But our chest muscles are designed to work in more ways than one, so sticking to the same exercise isn’t your best option.
If you take a step back and focus on how the muscles are designed to function, you can opt for a few different, focused chest exercises to get a good quality workout with variety and challenges to keep it interesting. Not only will you escape the boredom of a monotonous routine, but you’ll also get more out of it overall with long-term strength and increased mobility.
Best chest workout
How can we train muscles in varied and challenging ways to ensure we maintain our posture, strength and mobility throughout our lives? David Birtwistle, co-founder and head coach at Trying to Live (opens in a new tab)has rounded up his top three workouts for strength, control and muscle building for you to try the next time you’re at the gym.
Some of these exercises only require a simple pair of dumbbells and a bench—you can browse through our collection of exercises best adjustable dumbbells (opens in a new tab) here. If you don’t have one, head to your local gym to find the best equipment out there.
David Birstwistle is a movement and nutrition consultant and founder of Endeavor Life, a training company. Since completing his degree in Strength & Conditioning Science at St Mary’s University of London, he has worked with a variety of different clients over the past decade and has been featured in Men’s Health & Men’s Fitness magazine.
Barbell bench press
“This bilateral movement uses a stable base and a closed relationship between the arms to maximally engage the chest muscles and produce the most available force. This is a move that allows you to lift as much weight as possible using your chest muscles.
“Because the bar is freestanding, it can move in multiple directions, requiring the user to stabilize through the shoulders and core creating a more functional exercise than using machine alternatives. One of the reasons I like this move is that when viewed properly, the risk of injury is minimal. The movements are simple, controlled, and repetitive.”
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Here’s how to do it:
1) Start by fixing the back and core – creating stiffness in the spine, pulling and pressing the shoulder blades, slightly arching the middle of the back and placing your feet on the floor. Your upper back is the main point of contact during this exercise, which means it is the foundation of your stability. If you fail to create stiffness in your core before lifting, then you will become unstable during the lift.
2) Lift the weight off the rack and bring it to a comfortable position above your chest so that your arms are in a vertical position and the bar feels stable, not falling forward or backward.
3) Slowly, under control, lower the bar down and touch the chest roughly parallel to the nipple. After this, quickly press the bar away from the chest back to the starting position.
TIP: The last thing you want on the bench press, is the protrusion (rounding) of the shoulder blades as this prevents the chest muscles from being maximally active and instead activates the anterior shoulder muscles.
Tilt dumbbell press
This unilateral movement requires increased shoulder stability to control the dumbbells and develop the upper chest. Since the hands are not connected (as with a barbell), the dumbbell is free to move in any direction and is independent of any other movement. This means that novice athletes need to increase their concentration to control the load. If done correctly, this exercise is one of the best ways to increase upper chest strength and size, as well as increase shoulder stability.
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Here’s how to do it:
1) Set the bench to an angle of 30°/40° depending on what feels best to you. As with the bench press, start by pulling and pressing your shoulder blades, activating your mid-back and slightly arching it to create a stable base. The more you arch your back while doing this move, the higher the angle the bench should set. It is important that there is a sufficient angle to target the upper chest, and too much arch will prevent this.
2) Once the weight is securely over your head with your arms straight, slowly start lowering the weight toward your chest. If you imagine that the dumbbells are attached to a piece of string, the string should touch just below your collarbone.
3) From this position, quickly, with control, push the weight away from the body and focus on trying to bring the elbows together and squeeze the chest.
TIP: The mistake that many people make is making the touch point too low on the chest, this puts the shoulders at a disadvantage and will reduce upper chest activation.
Alternating flat dumbbell bench press
This alternating one-sided movement is great for creating control through the chest and shoulders, while stabilizing the spine while resisting rotation. It’s more of a functional movement because we use one hand to push, while controlling the body, explains Birtwistle.
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Here’s how to do it:
1) As with the previous two exercises, start by pulling and pressing the shoulder blades, then lift the weights to a stable position above the chest.
2) From this point, begin to lower one side down toward your chest, keeping your wrists above your elbows. Once the weight is roughly in line with your nipples, press back to the starting position. Repeat this on the other side.
TIP: It is important with this movement that you resist the forces of rotation and keep your body still. The only movement should be the arm that is supposed to be moving. Making sure you have a stable base is very important and that you listen to how your body feels during the lift, so that you do the lift correctly over and over again.
What do the chest muscles do?
Jo Snell is a hired physiotherapist at PureForm Clinic (opens in a new tab) in Beckenham, England. He says, “There are a number of muscles in the chest area that are responsible for moving the arms up, down and across the body, in addition to shoulder rotation. No single muscle performs any of these movements, as other areas of the body work synergistically.
The dominant muscle in the upper chest is the pectoralis major. This large fan-shaped muscle stretches from the armpit to the collarbone and down across the lower chest area on either side of the chest. This muscle moves each shoulder joint in four directions (flexion, extension, abduction, and adduction), and also keeps the arm attached to the body.
“The pectoralis minor is below the pectoralis major and runs up and down along the upper ribs. Without a chest, the shoulder will be unstable and struggle to achieve full, pain-free movement.”
Joanna Snell is a chartered physiotherapist, currently working with the Pureform Clinic in the UK. His clinical interests include postoperative and functional knee rehabilitation, along with recovery for injured skiers.
So, chest muscles are important, and many people who work out in the gym already know this, but like all muscles in our bodies, they don’t work alone.
“Muscles throughout the body work interactively to produce movement and force. The chest muscles work very closely with the shoulder rotator cuff muscles and the upper back muscles,” says Snell. “For example, the deltoid muscle is the muscle that makes your shoulders round and works closely with your chest muscles to turn your arms inward. Pecs also work the trapezius muscles, which extend in the neck, shoulders and back and produce shoulder and shoulder blade movement.
It is not only important to have strong chest muscles for movement, but also for posture and mobility in life.
“Having strong chest muscles contributes to your ability to throw, swing and push. In conjunction with a strong upper back, they are important for posture and prevent a rounded upper back,” says Snell.
And anyone who has a job sitting at a computer all day, note: “It is important that you maintain the length of your chest muscles with regular mobility and stretching exercises. The longer we sit at a table or bend over, the more the upper back muscles have to resist the pull of gravity. Over time, these muscles weaken and stiffen. By making sure you keep your chest muscles strong with appropriate weights on a regular basis, they will help support the overloaded ribs from the front,” he says.
This article is not intended to offer medical advice and readers should consult their doctor or healthcare professional before adopting any diet or exercise.