For many lifters, chest day is a Monday ritual. For others, creating the perfect upper-body blend of strength, hypertrophy, mobility, and pec definition can be classified as an art form.
Which of the wide range of chest exercises work the absolute best? Usually, when we think of heavy chest workouts, most peoples’ minds automatically turn to the bench press. But there are a host of heavy-hitting options besides this old-school classic—most of which fall into a pair of categories, presses and flys—that will allow your to hit all the right angles and give you a solid chest contraction and pec squeeze.
Here, Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. and celebrity trainer and MH Advisory Board member Don Saladino break down their top five must-do moves that you should include in your chest training.
The 5 Must-Do Chest Building Exercises
Once thought of as a training day last resort or afterthought, chest machines have improved drastically over the years (one in particular being the Hammer Strength incline press machine). Samuel and Saladino say that machine presses now provide plenty of pectoral punch to include them in your chest training, especially if the rest of your training is focused on free weights and ‘functional’ movements.
What makes machine presses beneficial? One reason, according to Saladino, is that the machine’s fixed motion allows you to push a heavier load past your normal limit in a more stable environment, creating a safer exercise during those fatigue-plagued supersets. Machines also make for a better and safer option to incorporate rest-pause sets.
Alternating Incline Dumbbell Press
Sometimes this exercise might feel too easy during the first few reps that you forget how effective it can be—until you build up the time under tension to create a fantastic chest challenge. Unlike the traditional incline dumbbell press, in which both arms move simultaneously, this variation’s staggered movement allows you to double the time under tension each set. If building muscle is your goal, that’s a good thing.
There’s really no right or wrong way to do this exercise—high cable, low cable, medium height—each cable fly variation targets a whole set of different muscle fibers. Pro tip from Samuel: Look down at your chest to watch the squeeze.
This isolation movement allows you to maintain constant tension throughout the entire range of motion. Cables are also a more joint-friendly alternative to traditional dumbbell flys, which can be tough on your shoulders.
The most basic and universal exercise for your chest is quite possibly the move most often performed incorrectly.
Think of pushups as a moving plank—you want your glutes tight, lats activated while you externally rotate your hands to create as much tension throughout your body as possible. One rep should look like one fluid pressing move. After you’ve done one perfect rep, make sure you don’t flag and drop your hips.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The most effective of all exercises, according to Samuel and Saladino, remains this basic chest classic. What makes the dumbbell press more effective for most general exercisers than the barbell variation is that you’re able to focus on the unique aspects of your anatomy, which makes it a safer option to push heavier weight without compromising your shoulder safety. You also don’t have to worry about the fixed position of your hands, and since your goal is building muscle, not pressing weight, you can more safely fail on a rep without a spotter.
However, according to Saladino, keep your feet flat on the floor when doing these if you’re ultimate goal is building chest muscle. Even though you may think you’re activating your core, you’re instead creating instability that will only hurt your goals.
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