By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
Contributing Director of Strength and Conditioning
It’s the anchor of the ship. Without it, the vessel simply drifts. As a beginner, your chest will set the course for your entire bodybuilding life. Sure, we tout legs and back as paramount to navigating long-term success, but without a well-formed, full chest, your goal of symmetry will be lost at sea. For that reason, we’ve set some simple rules for you to abide by each time you hit chest day. We’ve also assembled a basic yet thorough chest routine for you to navigate. In fact, if you want your body — your vessel — to make waves, you have to be master and commander of every aspect of it, and that begins with a treasured chest.
Basic Training Chest Workout
Incline Barbell Press 3 Sets x 8–10 Reps
Flat-Bench Dumbbell 3 Sets x 8–10 Reps
Parallel-Bar Dip 3 Sets x 10–12 Reps
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Flye 3 Sets x 10–12 Reps
Cable Crossover 3 Sets x 12–15 Reps
- Doesn’t include warm-up sets; do as many as you need but never take warm-up sets to muscle failure.
- Choose a weight so that you reach muscle failure by the target rep.
- If you can do more reps than the target with your bodyweight, you’ll need to do weighted dips.
3 Critical Keys for Pec Growth
1. Press First
The best way to ensure complete pec development is to start your training session with multijoint (compound) moves. Multijoint exercises are best at building size because you can use more weight to ignite the most fibers. For that reason, you want to incorporate those kinds of moves first when your strength levels are highest, early in your workout. We call them multijoint because more than a single set of joints is working to perform the action (elbows and shoulders). In fact, the triceps and delts get worked quite substantially during chest pressing exercises. The sample chest workout begins with a barbell move because barbell moves allow you to press fairly heavy without as much contribution from stabilizer (balancing) muscles.
2. Press From All Angles
To completely exhaust your pecs, you need to do exercises from multiple angles. The Basic Training Chest Workout starts with an incline. For that reason, the next 1–2 exercises should be from different angles, such as the flat bench or decline. It’s also important to follow up the first move with another multijoint exercise so you can recruit as many fibers as possible. Here, we’ve chosen dumbbells because they allow you to work each side of your chest individually, which will help you attain better symmetry and actually allow for a longer range of motion. (Incidentally, dumbbells require more stabilizer muscles to balance the weights, meaning you typically have to go a little lighter than with a barbell.) You’ll follow that with a machine move. Machines are great to follow dumbbells because they don’t require much in the way of balance at all, so you can simply focus on pressing weight to further fatigue the pecs.
3. Time to Isolate
After you’ve completed your presses from multiple angles, it’s time to transition to single-joint moves such as flyes and crossovers. Those are the exercises that work around only one joint and they’re best at isolating the target muscle (minimizing the contribution from the delts and triceps), so for that reason we often refer to them as “isolation moves.” Whether you’re using cables, dumbbells or machines for isolation moves, keep your elbows locked in a slightly bent position throughout the rep. Read that sentence again because it’s the single biggest mistake trainers of all levels make when doing flye-type exercises. Here, too, bench angle (technically, the angle of your arms relative to your torso) can help you focus on different sections of your chest. For example, the flat-bench dumbbell flye will help focus on your inner, middle and outer pecs, while the standing cable crossover will transfer much of the work to those lower chest fibers.
Incline Barbell Press
For most lifters who always start on the flat bench first, the upper pecs inevitably become a weakness, so this workout starts on the incline. That way you won’t have to play catch-up with your upper chest down the road.
DO IT RIGHT:
Lie squarely on an incline bench (ideally the bench angle should be no more than about 40 degrees). Spread your legs slightly with your feet flat on the floor. Grasp the barbell with a pronated (overhand) grip with a wider than shoulder-width grip. Unrack the bar and hold it directly above you. Slowly lower the bar to your upper chest; smoothly reverse direction without bouncing the bar off your chest and powerfully press the bar back up to full arm extension. Pause momentarily in the top position before repeating.
Unlike the flat-bench press, the bar should come down very high on the pecs both for leverage and to keep the musculature tension on the upper-chest fibers. The bar should just clear your chin on the way down.
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press
While the barbell bench press is considered a staple for chest, this move is actually harder because each side is independent and the range of motion is slightly longer. Both are multijoint exercises from a similar angle, so they can be used interchangeably.
DO IT RIGHT:
Lie faceup on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand just outside your shoulders. In a smooth but strong motion, press the dumbbells directly above you until your arms are fully extended, pushing the weights toward each other but just short of them touching. Slowly lower the weights along the same arc until you feel a good stretch.
If the dumbbells touch at the top, it allows the pecs to momentarily relax, a habit you don’t want to develop. Stop short of the weights touching each other so your middle pecs never have a chance to relax.
This exercise, which can be done with bodyweight or by attaching a weighted belt so you can work in a lower rep range, is a multijoint exercise that targets the lower pecs, similar to a decline press.
DO IT RIGHT:
Hold yourself at arms length above a set of parallel bars, using a palms-in grip and keeping your elbows unlocked. Cross your feet and lift them up behind you, causing you to lean forward slightly. Slowly lower yourself by bending your arms — don’t go too fast or you can overstretch your shoulders. Your elbows should be flared out in the bottom position and bent about 90 degrees. Reverse direction and press back upward to a full arm extension without locking out.
To more effectively target the pecs, keep your feet elevated behind you (shifting your center of gravity forward) and allow your elbows to flare out as you execute the move. Keeping your body in a straight up-and-down position and your elbows close to your sides more effectively targets your triceps
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Flye
After doing multijoint moves from various angles, it’s time for single-joint exercises. The basic dumbbell flye, this one done on a flat bench, is a staple isolation move. It’s absolutely critical you don’t turn your flyes into presses – the key is in the elbow joints.
DO IT RIGHT:
Lie faceup on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with a neutral (palms-in) grip and extend your arms above your chest. Bend your elbows slightly and lock them in this position for the duration of the set. Slowly lower the weights in a wide arc down to your sides. Stop when your elbows reach shoulder level — don’t overstretch your shoulders — before reversing the motion, contracting your pecs to bring your hands back together.
The top position of the flye and press are fairly similar (the only differences are that the flye has a slight bend in the elbows and the weights are facing each other), but the bottom position is crucial. If your bottom position looks like a press, you’re not doing the movement correctly. The degree of bend in the elbows must remain the same throughout the move.
Cables provide for continuous tension from the bottom to the top of the range of motion, an element that’s missing with free weights. From the first rep to the last, the cables force your chest to work. From the upper pulleys, the emphasis is on the middle and lower-pec region.
DO IT RIGHT:
Attach D-handles to the upper pulleys and stand in the direct center of the unit using a split stance, knees unlocked. Grasp the handles with your palms facing downward and bend your elbows slightly. Bring the handles down and below your waist close to your body, maintaining the slightly bent arm position. Squeeze in the peak-contracted position before slowly allowing the handles to pull your arms back to the start position.
As with dumbbell flyes, the most common error associated with this exercise is pressing the handles, which turns an isolation exercise in a multijoint one. Make sure the degree of bend in your elbows is the same from beginning to end.