Top 9 Best Chest Exercises To Maximize Muscle Growth

Today, I will show you the best exercises to build the biggest chest possible.

I’ll also cover how to train the different divisions of the chest properly, why barbell benching isn’t that great for pec development, and more.

Let’s get started.

Muscles Of The Chest & Their Different Divisions

The chest has a couple of different muscles in the upper body.

  • Pectoralis Major – This is the biggest muscle of the chest and is the main one you’re going to be targeting when training. It is responsible for horizontal adduction of the arm, or quite simply, pulling the arm across your body. It also helps with flexion of the arm such as throwing a ball underhand like in softball. It also rotates the arm in, such as when you’re arm wrestling. From here, the pec major is broken up into different divisions that allow for other actions.
  • The clavicular division works with pressing or fly movements, from a low to high motion. Pressing in a 45-degree arc will train this division the best.
  • The sternal division assists with horizontal movements that bring the arm from around a 60-degree arc in front of the body.
  • The costal division works best from a high to low position with a 45-60 degree arm path as well. 
  • Pectoralis Minor – This muscle is much smaller and lies deep in relation to the pec major. Even though it’s located in the front of the body, it assists with posterior structures. It assists in spreading and pulling down the shoulder blades, as well as with breathing. It isn’t a prime mover though so just training your chest normally will be plenty.
  • Serratus Anterior – The serratus anterior helps rotate the scapula which allows you to raise your arm over 90 degrees. It helps stabilize the scapula and allows it to move properly. As long as you train your pressing movements without retracting your shoulder blades, you’ll train this muscle properly and build more muscle throughout the chest as well.
  • Subclavius – The subclavius helps stabilize the clavicle but isn’t something you need to focus on building either.

While the chest does have a lot of different muscles that work together, the main one that we’re going to be focusing on is the pec major.

Now that we know all the major muscle groups of the pecs, here are the best chest exercises for each division.

Best Upper Chest Exercises

The upper chest, also known as the clavicular division of the pectorals, is often trained wrong because of one very important factor. 

Their muscle fibers don’t run horizontally like the mid-chest does and yet, most people perform incline variations with their elbows flared out.

If you want to train the clavicular pecs the best way possible, you need to train them with a 45-degree arm path. 

Combine this with a 30-45 degree adjustable bench position, and you’re on your way to building your upper chest up in the most optimal way possible.

Here are the best upper chest exercises.

Incline DB Bench Press

The incline DB bench press should be a staple in everybody’s training. Especially for those that don’t have access to machines, DB pressing is going to allow you to train your chest better than a barbell bench press variation.

Using an incline variation will allow you to train the upper or clavicular division of your chest as long as you use the correct arm path to bias it.

This is going to be around 45 degrees while the best incline position on your bench is going to be around 60 degrees.

Benefits of the Incline DB Bench Press

  • Allows you to train the pecs from a fully lengthened and shortened position unlike a barbell
  • The clavicular head of your chest is best trained with a 45-degree arm path which the incline DB bench allows for
  • Helps prevent muscle imbalances since each arm has to press the dumbbell independently 

How To Do The Incline DB Bench Press

  1. Sit on a bench with your dumbbells resting on your knees
  2. Kick the knees up and lift the dumbbells to your shoulders
  3. Lay back onto the bench and press the dumbbells into the starting position
  4. Hold the dumbbells at a 60-degree angle to align your arms and elbows with your upper pecs
  5. Lower under control at that 60-degree angle until the dumbbells touch your shoulders/chest
  6. Press hard in an arc to fully shorten your pecs
  7. Continue until the set is over
  8. Once you’re complete, drive your knees up and allow the dumbbells to meet them and sit up at the same tim

Seated Incline Cable Press

The seated incline cable press is one of the absolute best exercises you can do for the upper pecs. 

Because the cables allow you to fully press in an arc, you can completely lengthen and shorten the upper chest better than any other movement.

Performing this movement seated also provides a ton of stability and bracing to get the maximum output from the chest.

Benefits of the Incline Cable Press

  • Setting up with a bench and cables will allow you to brace hard and load the chest effectively
  • Cable pressing is superior in that you can press in an arc
  • More stability than dumbbell incline bench and similar variations

How To Do The Incline Cable Press

  1. First, you need to set up two low cable pulleys that allow you to press up at a 60-degree angle.
  2. The bench should be set a little below 90 degrees as well.
  3. Take a seat on the bench and grab both handles.
  4. Your starting position should have your hands just outside shoulder-width.
  5. To start the movement, press up at that 60-degree angle, keeping your arm path around 45 degrees. This will line up the fibers of the upper chest perfectly.
  6. Lower your arms back under control with the proper elbow position to the starting position.
  7. Repeat until your set is complete.

Incline Converging Chest Press

Just like all machines, the incline converging chest press allows you to press from the most stable position possible. 

This plus the increased ability to brace properly makes it superior for training the upper chest.

You can also push to failure safely without the need for a spotter. Which, let’s be honest, not all spotters are created equal.

Benefits of the Incline Converging Chest Press

  • Allows you to go to failure safely
  • The converging handles enable you to fully shorten the chest
  • More stability and bracing equals more muscle

How To Do The Incline Converging Chest Press

  1. Set up the seat so your arms are around your lower chest.
  2. Adjust the handles so you can just barely bring your arms back. This will prevent you from bringing your elbows back past your active range of motion.
  3. Set up in the seat with your elbows at a 60-degree angle.
  4. Press from this position until full extension as hard as you can on each rep.
  5. As you lower the weight, think about controlling it with the same arm path until just before the arms make contact with the machine.
  6. Continue until your set is complete.

Best Middle Chest Exercises

The middle chest, also known as the sternal head of the pectorals, is best trained with a 60-degree arm path.

You don’t want your arms fully flared out as this will put more stress on your shoulder. Ask anybody that says the bench press is bad for your shoulders and I guarantee they bench like this.

This is also why you see guys completely tear and rupture their pecs because of an unsafe joint position with heavy weights.

So to spare your shoulders and build your chest safely, slightly tuck your elbows to line up the sternal head of the chest.

Here are the best middle chest exercises.

DB Bench Press

The dumbbell bench press is a much better exercise for the chest than the flat barbell bench. Sure, you can overload more with a barbell, but the pecs are an arcing muscle.

That means as you’re pressing, your arms need to converge in to get the chest fully shortened. That’s the main reason why DB benching is superior.

Plus, you can lower the dumbbells further than a barbell. As long as you’re in the active range of motion and not just using a greater ROM because you can, you’re set.

After all, if you try to get a longer range of motion past its end range, you’re just compensating your joint position which is a good way to get injured.

Benefits of the DB Bench Press

  • Allows for a better arcing motion to fully shorten the chest
  • A greater ROM than barbell pressing will allow for more lengthened pecs
  • This DB variation allows you to line up your elbow and hand position for a stronger and more comfortable pressing position

How to Do the DB Bench Press

  1. Set up on your flat bench with the dumbbells on your knees. 
  2. Lean back and push the weights up with your legs while also getting them into position near your chest. 
  3. As you lay back on the bench, press the dumbbells up into position. From here, keep your back flat and DON’T arch or pull your shoulder blades together. This is fine for a powerlifting style bench but for training the chest, you need to allow your scapula to work together with your arms for maximal pec recruitment.
  4. Lower the dumbbells at a 60-degree angle under control.
  5. Once you reach the full ROM with the dumbbells touching your chest, press up and in with an arcing motion. 
  6. You want to move the dumbbells as quickly as you can with good control. This will complete the rep.
  7. When you’re done with your set – keep your arms in the top position, kick your knees up, bring the dumbbells to your knees, and allow the weight to pull you up.

Seated Cable Press

The seated cable press is probably the best option if you want to build a bigger chest.

Performing it seated gives you the best bracing and stability possible. Allowing you to recruit more muscle fibers and build your pecs better than less stable options

The cable press allows for complete freedom from the start to end positions, making it the best choice for muscles like the chest.

Benefits of the Seated Cable Press

  • Better stability than dumbbells and barbells
  • Cables fit most people’s structures better due to the freedom of movement they allow for
  • Performing this seated gives you better bracing than a standing variation

How to Do the Seated Cable Press

  1. Set up an adjustable bench so you aren’t sitting completely upright, you want to be able to slightly lean.
  2. The cables should be set up so that your hands are lined up at the bottom of your chest.
  3. From here, set up on the bench with your arms positioned at a 60-degree angle.
  4. Press hard in an arc until your hands are close to touching.
  5. Reverse the motion under control with the same arm path and repeat until your set is complete.

Converging Chest Press

Not all machine presses are created equal.

If your machine doesn’t converge in to fully shorten the pecs, you’re missing out on growth plain and simple.

The biggest benefit of a machine press is you’ll have the highest degree of stability and bracing compared to dumbbells/barbells.

Plus, because you don’t have to focus so much on stabilizing the weight, it’s even easier to control the eccentric and concentric portions of the lift.

Also, because it’s a machine, you can push to complete muscular failure without worrying about getting injured or even needing a spotter.

Benefits of the Converging Chest Press

  • The highest degree of stability allows you to target the pecs more efficiently
  • Converging handles fully shorten the chest to build more muscle
  • The machine allows you to train to failure without fear of injury or needing a spotter

How to Do the Converging Chest Press

  1. Set the seat height up so you’re lined up with the sternal pecs. 
  2. If the handles adjust, set them to a position so you can just barely move your elbows back. This will prevent you from using a larger range of motion that forces your shoulders to compensate past the pecs active range.
  3. From here, set your elbows at a 60-degree angle and press hard. 
  4. Control the weight back to the starting position with your elbows at the same angle. 
  5. Continue until your set is complete.

Best Lower Chest Exercises

The lower chest, or the costal division of the pecs, is best trained with a 30-degree arm path from a high to low position.

The movements I picked allow you to do this perfectly while also offering solid bracing and stability.

Here are the best lower chest exercises.

Dips

Dips are one of the best exercises you can do for training the triceps, but if you adjust your body’s position you can bias the lower chest more.

It’s a much harder bodyweight movement than pushups, but the loading potential is much higher as well.

Making it perfect for building up the triceps and costal pec at the same time.

Benefits of Dips

  • It’s a solid compound movement that allows you to train the triceps, shoulders, and chest together
  • Loading potential is much higher than something like a pushup which is hard to load in the plank position
  • Allows you to train the lower pecs easily without much special equipment

How to Do Dips

  1. First, we want to grab the dip bar and hop up into position.
  2. From here, cross your legs back behind you and lean forward. This will help bias the lower pec more than being upright.
  3. Start the rep by lowering down under control. Allow your elbows to flare out slightly and lower until your upper arms are about 90 degrees.  You don’t want your shoulders to compensate by rolling forward – if they do, you’re too deep.
  4. From the bottom position, press hard through the dip handles into the top position to complete the rep.

High To Low Cable Press

The high to low cable press is one of the best options to train the lower chest through its full ROM.

This exercise allows you to press down and in with complete freedom of movement of your elbows/hand position.

Lining up the costal pecs much better than any exercise.

Plus, using cables will allow for more stability than dumbbells or bodyweight movements.

That makes the high to low cable press a superior movement for the lower chest. It’s so much better than any decline bench variation and much safer too. 

Benefits of the High To Low Cable Press

  • Better stability than decline dumbbell or bodyweight movements such as Dips
  • Works better for most people’s structures compared to decline machine presses
  • Allows you to press in to fully lengthen and shorten the costal pec

How to Do the High To Low Cable Press

  1. Set up the cables at a height that is slightly taller than you.
  2. Get into the starting position by leaning forward slightly with your elbows flared back behind you at a 30-degree angle.
  3. Press down and in close to your body to full extension. Your hands should be close together as you finish the rep.
  4. Reverse the motion under control with the same arm position until your upper arm is around 90 degrees.
  5. Continue until your set is complete.

Decline Machine Press

Compared to the decline bench press which is awkward to set up and potentially dangerous, the decline machine press is an excellent exercise to train the lower pec.

You sit upright similar to other machine press machines so it’s super easy to get into the starting position. Plus, you can push to failure safely without worrying about a bad spotter ending your subscription to life.

The major benefit to this machine is that it allows you to press in an arc. Which, as I’ve mentioned multiple times, is important to train the chest for maximal development.

There aren’t a lot of negatives to this movement but the main one is that this machine is pretty rare. Most gyms have a standard machine and incline machine press variations but this one is harder to come by.

However, if you have one at your gym, use it! It will provide the best muscle-building stimulus with the highest degree of stability and bracing, which is perfect for muscle growth.

Benefits of the Decline Machine Press

  • Much higher stability and bracing compared to things like dips and decline bench movements
  • Super easy to push to failure without injury or spotters
  • Easy to setup and is much safer than decline bench variations

How to Do the Decline Machine Press

  1. Adjust the seat to the right height for you while also adjusting the handles so you can just barely bring your hands back.
  2. From here, grab the handles and set up your elbows at a 45-degree angle.
  3. Press from this position hard to full extension.
  4. Lower under control with the same arm path and finish your set with the same execution.

Best Rep Ranges For Chest Training

Many out there recommend higher rep ranges for certain muscle groups depending on if they’re more slow twitch or fast twitch, etc. 

While it’s true that you can grow any muscle between 5-30 reps, it’s actually going to be harder to recover the more reps you do. 

Sure, you’ll build the same amount of muscle across all rep ranges taken to failure, but the difference is higher reps create more fatigue and are harder to recover from

Since all you need to do to build muscle is create enough mechanical tension, doing a minimum of 5 reps to failure is enough.

Mechanical tension is just the involuntary slowing of your reps. As you push to failure, your reps start slowing down even if you’re trying to move them quickly. You do that and recover, you build muscle. Simple. 

So for chest training and any training in general, 5-10 reps pushed to failure is going to give you the best gains possible. 

What About Barbell Bench And Pushup Variations?

I know everybody says the bench press and push-ups are good for building the chest, and they are! 

However, they don’t allow you to bring your arm in like cables, dumbbells, resistance bands and some machines do.

That’s one of the main functions of the pecs after all. They horizontally adduct or bring your hands in front of your chest. 

The best way to train a muscle to grow is through its primary function after all.  

People that have amazing genetics and the right levels of testosterone don’t have to worry about what’s optimal to grow. 

Guys like Arnold and Ronnie Coleman could do any exercise with the right intensity and build more muscle than 99% of people that ever lived. 

If you’re reading this, you probably aren’t an Olympian-level bodybuilder and want to optimize your training to get the best results possible. 

You can definitely do pushups and bench presses to grow your chest. Tons of people have done it and will continue to make gains doing so. 

However, if you want to maximize your training and get the best results possible with average genetics and lower testosterone like myself, you have better options available.

Cable, Machines, and Dumbbells Are Superior For Building A Bigger Chest

If bench pressing isn’t the best for building the chest then what is?

Cables, machines, and dumbbells – in that order. 

Here’s why. 

  • Cables
    • Cables allow you the best freedom of movement to press in. You can fully lengthen them in the starting position and press the cables in to fully shorten them as well. 
    • They’re much more stable than dumbbells which is important for muscle growth.
    • There’s a better chance your gym has a cable setup than a converging chest machine.  
    • If you train in a home gym, investing in a functional trainer is much more compact and a better bang for your buck than getting different chest machines. 
  • Machines
    • Machines offer the highest stability of all movements. A good converging chest machine that fits your structure is going to be your best option as it allows you to press in a way that trains the chest correctly. 
    • The main problem is not every gym is going to have this type of machine and even if you do, it might not fit your structure that well. This is why cables are going to be better for most people. 
  • Dumbbells
    • While dumbbells aren’t the most stable option, they’re by far the most accessible. Whether you’re in a home or commercial gym, getting some dumbbells is simple. 
    • They also allow for more freedom of movement similar to cables. Making them a great option for most people. 
    • The biggest downside is as you get stronger, the dumbbells get longer and more unwieldy. They require more balance and you can’t press in as far as you can with cables or machines. 

Why You Shouldn’t Retract Your Shoulders & Arch While Training Chest

This is a huge issue that is most likely popularized by Powerlifting. 

I’m sure you’ve all heard some variation of, “you need to retract your shoulders and arch your back to get a big bench!”

Sure, if you’re training for Powerlifting this is fine as you can decrease the ROM and move more weight.

However, for building a bigger chest or actual strength training, aka not Powerlifting – it’s absolutely the opposite of what you should be doing.

Here’s why.

  • Your scapula and humerus are built to work together. Your arm and shoulder should move in a coordinated way as well.
  • If you try to force your shoulder blades into retraction it actually prevents the pecs from producing the most force possible. 
  • When this happens, your serratus anterior can’t stabilize your scapula and creates instability in the joint.

So make sure you allow your shoulders to move naturally whenever you press or perform fly movements if you want to build the biggest chest possible. This is how the body was designed to work and provides the best stability to press from. Bottom line.

Frequently Asked Questions

Conclusion

Now I turn it over to you!

What exercises do you find work best to grow your chest?

Let me know in the comments section below right now. 

Until next time,

-Dante

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