If you’ve been to the gym on a Monday, there’s a good chance you’ve had to wait in line for the bench press. Among avid weightlifters, the first day of the week is widely known as International Chest Day and yields competition for benches and barbells among those looking to start their week strong.
Training chest — one of the body’s bigger muscle groups — early in the week makes a lot of sense, as motivation to hit the gym has a way of declining throughout the week, turning Monday into an opportunity for a high-priority workout. And though arms and abs get all the love during beach season, you’d be hard-pressed (pardon the pun) to find a weight room full of bodybuilders who weren’t touting their personal bench press records or penciling in a chest workout for Mondays.
Beyond the obvious aesthetic benefits of sculpted pecs, chest strength contributes to any activity involving a pushing motion — pushing a shopping cart, closing a door, getting out of a pool. The chest is the foundation of your upper body and should be the foundation of any strength-based workout routine.
Chest Muscle Anatomy
Before we get into the best chest exercises, it’s important to understand the anatomy of the chest. Fortunately, it’s pretty simple — the chest is only made up of two muscles:
Pectoralis major: The thick, fan-shaped muscle you can most easily see on the torsos of buff bodybuilders, the pectoralis major is the biggest muscle in the chest. It’s comprised of two heads — the clavicular head and sternocostal head — which originate at the clavicle and sternum, respectively.
Pectoralis minor: This triangular-shaped muscle sits beneath the pectoralis major and originates at the ribs and connects to the top of your shoulder blade, making it useful for movements that pull down or spread the shoulder blades, like breathing.
If You’re Only Going To Buy One Thing …
Before we get too into the weeds on exercises and gear (both of which you’ll find below), we wanted to highlight a single, dynamite product worth considering. While 2020 was an overall horrendous year, it taught us the value of working out from home, and how little we needed to get a lot done. If you’re going to do nothing else, pick up a pair of 15lb weights from Sporzon!.
Why 15? Easy. For most guys in decent to solid shape, 15s are heavy enough that a few high-rep sets of curls and flys will do serious work to your body, but not so heavy that you can’t get through your normal routines. Likewise, you can double up for squats if you want more weight. Yes, in a world where we can all afford the modular dumbbell sets, those are the best to shoot for. But who are we kidding? Not everyone can easily drop $500 on a set of dumbbells. And if you do the below exercises right, you won’t need to if you’re packing these affordable and sturdy dumbbells from Sporzon!.
Sporzon! Rubber Encased Hex Dumbbell Set
Sporzon! Rubber Encased Hex Dumbbell Set
The Best Chest Exercises for the Gym
If you have access to a gym, you can knock out any of the following exercises. The chest is huge, though, and prone to muscle pulls, so make sure you spend time adequately warming up and easing into heavy lifts. You don’t want to shoot for a bench press record on your first set. We recommend five to 10 minutes of stretching combined with some light resistance bands (more on that later) and simple push-ups to get the blood flowing.
With chest exercises, safety should be a priority. Many of these have you hoisting hundreds of pounds above your head and neck, so always use a spotter when lifting heavier, and know your limits when lifting alone.
1. Bench Press
The be-all-end-all of chest exercises. The foundation of any chest day. The iconic compound lift. We’ll focus on the flat barbell bench press here, though there are tons of variations, like the incline bench press or bench press with dumbbells.
To start, lay flat on your back, with your feet positioned as far back as they’ll go while still remaining flat on the ground. Position yourself under the bar so that your hands sit directly above your elbows when gripping the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Many weightlifters like to position their pinky or ring fingers on the break in the chrome knurling. Unrack the barbell and breath in as you lower it to your chest, keeping your shoulder blades tight and wrists straight. Let the bar touch your chest, then breathe out and activate your chest to push up and your legs to help support the movement. That’s one rep.
As we said, people love to brag about how much they can bench. Consider it a rite of passage in the bodybuilding community. But don’t let that intimidate you, and more importantly, don’t let that pressure you to lift outside your comfort zone. Developing a strong chest takes time, so ensure you’re practicing proper form and gradually increasing the weight during your fitness journey. When you do lift heavier, we highly recommend recruiting a spotter to make sure you can unrack the barbell comfortably, and rescue you in case you gas out during a set.
2. Cable Crossover
Cable machines are a great tool for strength workouts, as they provide constant tension throughout whichever exercise you’re achieving. The cable crossover closely mimics the pushing motion of a bench press, but offers more mobility, and (as the name suggests) allows your arms to cross at the end of the movement.
To start, set the pulleys of a cable machine to their highest possible position. With your feet staggered, stand in the center of the two cables. With your arms extended, grab one handle in each hand, and positioning your body forward so you feel a slight stretch in your arms. Keep your elbows slightly bend, and bring your arms forward, crossing your hands as you complete the movement. Return your hands to the starting position, ensuring you keep them controlled and feel a constant tension.
3. Smith Machine Incline Bench
The Smith machine features a barbell fixed on steel rails, allowing you to comfortably lift more weight than you might be able to on a regular barbell since you don’t have to worry about balancing the weight yourself. This is also a useful tool if you’re working out alone and don’t have a spotter, as the Smith machine also features a set of hooks to re-rack the barbell at any height, requiring only a simple turn to secure. Incline bench exercises help engage the upper chest and shoulders, making them a great addition to a dynamic chest workout.
Sit on an adjustable workout bench positioned at 45 degrees underneath the Smith machine, with the barbell racked so you can reach it with your arms bent. Twist the bar to unrack, breath in and lower it to your chest, breathing out as you push it back up.
4. Dumbbell Fly
As you’ve probably gathered by now, chest exercises mostly follow either a push or fly movement. The variations, then, come in which angles and equipment you use. Dumbbells allow your arms to move independently of one another, helping to develop grip strength as you keep the weights controlled throughout the exercise.
Lay on a flat bench (or at the angle of your choice, for a variation), with your arms extended above your chest and dumbbells parallel with your body. If you’re using heavy weights, you can have a spotter hand you the dumbbells once you’re in position. Keeping your elbows slightly bent, inhale and lower the dumbbells so your arms are parallel with the ground, making sure to not extend the weights past your shoulders. Exhale and bring them back to the starting position.
Form is paramount here. Make sure you use a comfortable weight, keep your elbows fixed throughout the exercise and ensure your shoulders don’t get overextended, as these can all minimize the exercise’s effectiveness and lead to injury.
The Best Exercises for Home Chest Workouts
Not everyone has access to a gym. The good news is that, because the chest is such a large muscle, some basic compound movements can generate a great chest workout with minimal equipment. Many of these exercises are also great to use as warm-ups for the gym-based lifts we listed above. While a couple of the exercises below require only body weight, you’ll need some basic gear for some of them, which we have recommendations for in the final section.
Since the best chest exercises are all centered around the “push” motion, it’s no surprise to see the tried-and-true push-up here. As simple as exercises come, the push-up is great for building chest strength, but it also engages your arms, back and core when done properly.
Position yourself in a high plank to form the top of a pushup position, with your palms flat and hands shoulder-width apart. The key is to keep your body in a straight line, making sure to engage your core throughout the movement. Lower body to the floor, until your chest touches the ground, then press upwards to return to the starting position.
While push-ups are great and simple, all you’ve got is your bodyweight, so it’s easy to plateau if push-ups are your only chest or upper-body exercise. For added difficulty, you can have a friend or roommate place books on your back. Try an angled variation with your feet elevated on a chair or table to really target your upper chest.
2. Floor Press
The floor press is exactly what it sounds like — a bench press on the floor. Not everyone has an adjustable workout bench in their garage, so this is a more primal alternative. You will need a pair of dumbbells, which we’ve sourced above and below.
The motion is almost identical to a regular bench press, but here it’s especially key to keep your feet flat on the ground for added support, particularly if you’re lifting heavier weights. Speaking of which, we recommend having a spotter hand you the dumbbells, or you can use your knees to hoist them into position.
Dips are another equipment-free, bodyweight exercise you can do to strengthen your upper body. Though you might feel it most in your triceps, dips offer a great burn in your chest as well.
To perform dips at home, look for any strong surface that’s elevated from the ground. You can place two sturdy chairs next to each other, a bit wider than your shoulder width apart. Placing your hands on the seat of each chair, extend your arms to suspend your body above them. Bring yourself down by slowing bending your elbows.
This is an exercise better shown than told, so we highly recommend checking out this video and others like it.
4. Band Fly
Like cables, resistance bands offer exactly what their name suggests — resistance and constant tension to keep your muscles engaged throughout an entire movement. But cable machines are pricy, heavy and pretty far down the list of things you’d see in a simple home gym.
Luckily, resistance bands offer many of the same benefits (though not nearly the same weight capabilities). To perform a chest fly, anchor the resistance bands and face away from them. Start with your arms extended at your sides, with a band in each hand so you feel a bit of a stretch. Pull your hands together in front of your chest, making sure to keep your chest muscles engaged and elbow angles consistent, then return to the starting position.
The Best Gear for Chest Workouts at Home
As we mentioned, the best chest exercises to knock out at home don’t all come gear-free. Between the floor presses and band flys, you can make a couple investments to really elevate your home chest workouts. We’ve done deep dives on the best home gym equipment, but the products below should be key to getting a great chest workout at home.
1. Amazon Basics Extra Thick Exercise Mat
Working out on a rug or hardwood floor just doesn’t seem right. Doing so obviously poses a risk — you don’t want to scratch up the floors or sweat all over an expensive rug — but having a dedicated exercise mat can help you get in the fitness mindset as well. Check out this mat from Amazon, which measures six feet long, half an inch thick, and comes with an elastic strap for convenient carrying and storage. If you’re tackling floor presses, we recommend throwing a mat down first.
Amazon Basics Exercise Mat
2. Bowflex 552 Adjustable Dumbbells
We have a lengthy list of the best adjustable dumbbells, and Bowflex unsurprisingly takes the top spot. This should probably be the first purchase for any home gym where strength training is the priority. These adjust from 5 to 52.5 pounds, essentially replacing 15 sets of individual dumbbells into one spatially efficient pair. Snag these with the exercise mat above and you’re ready for floor presses.
Bowflex 552 Adjustable Dumbbells
3. Whatafit Resistance Bands Set
The big benefit of these resistance bands from Whatafit is they roll up into compact travel bag, making it easy to not only store the bands at home but also take on the road. They feature five different resistances, giving you the option to increase the difficulty as you train, and can actually be used simultaneously to really up the weight. These are worth having even if you do have access to a gym, as they offer a great, lightweight way to warm up.
Whatafit Resistance Bands Set
4. Flybird Adjustable Weight Bench
We’ve also sourced a list of the best adjustable weight benches, but this option from Flybird has the best value. Though the four home chest exercises we listed above don’t require a bench, this is the next logical product to snag if you really want to get a gym-quality chest workout at home. It’s called the “bench press” for a reason, after all. But you can also use it for dips, and adjust the angles for incline and decline variations of your favorite chest exercises.