The Little Black Book of Chest Exercises

Everybody loves chest day, especially if it’s Monday. Break out of the bench-press pack with 6 variations of common chest exercises that’ll help add pounds of new muscle on your pecs.

February 21, 2013

By Bill Geiger, MA

If there’s one universal commonality among gyms worldwide it’s that chest day is on Mondays. No matter the training split, every workout seems to start on the bench press. No wonder there’s typically a line of people waiting to take turns on the bench, rotating in and out between sets. While the crowds congregate around the familiar exercises, one way to get away from the clogged benches and machines is to do exercises no one else is doing. Here are 6 variations of common chest exercises that may be altogether new to you. Avoid the masses while building mass of your own with our Black Book series, which offers insider’s tips and secrets that turns each of these exercises into powerhouse pec-building movements.

Smith-Machine Low-Incline Press


POWER POINTER: The problem with incline barbell presses is that the bench angle is locked at about 45 degrees so the point of emphasis on the upper pecs always remains the same. But an adjustable bench has multiple incline positions. Wheel it over to the Smith machine and you can do your barbell presses from a number of semi-inclined positions, including as low as 15 degrees, all just a little different from the steeper fixed bench.

TARGET AREA: Upper pecs primarily; front delts and triceps secondarily

IN YOUR ROUTINE: Do this movement in the first half of your chest workout. If you do it first, after warm-ups challenge yourself with a heavy weight for three sets of 6–8 reps. Toward the middle of your workout, instead go a bit lighter: three sets of 8–10 reps.

BEST SUBSTITUTE: The barbell version with its fixed bench works the delts too much in our opinion; a better substitute is the low-incline dumbbell press.

INTENSITY BOOSTER: Forced reps with a good spotter are always a good choice. With the Smith machine, it’s easy (well, no, it’s really not easy!) to do negatives in which your partner lifts the bar and you take up to five seconds to lower the weight.

SET-UP: Position the bench centered inside the Smith machine; you’ll want to do a few practice reps with light weight to ensure it’s in the right position; the bar should approach your upper pecs in the down position. Set the bench to a fairly low angle, halfway between flat and the usual incline position you normally do.

POSITION: Lie back squarely on the bench, feet flat and wide on the floor.

FORM: Keep a big chest throughout. As you lower the weight your shoulder blades should retract as your chest expands even further.

GRIP: Grasp the bar out wide; your forearms should be virtually perpendicular to the floor when the bar is in the down position. That grip width gives you the most powerful drive.

EXECUTION: Unhook the bar and lower the weight under control just short of the bar tapping your upper chest. Smoothly reverse direction and drive to full-arm extension without locking out your elbows.

Unilateral Machine Decline Press


POWER POINTER: Just about everyone has tried plate-loaded chest-press machines in which each arm moves independently of the other. But you don’t have to do both arms at once. Turn your body sideways and you get an entirely different angle of stress on the muscle as you push across your body.

TARGET AREA: Lower pecs primarily, triceps secondarily

IN YOUR ROUTINE: Do your free-weight presses first in your routine; a machine press typically comes after that. Do three sets of 8–12 reps.

BEST SUBSTITUTE: Decline one-arm dumbbell press

INTENSITY BOOSTER: Do the two-armed version on the decline first, three sets of 8–10 reps, then strip some weight off each side and alternate the one-arm version to change the angle for three sets of 10–12 reps, each side.

SET-UP: Adjust the seat height so that when you’re pushing across your body, you’re in a strong and comfortable position pushing about mid-chest level.

POSITION: Sit squarely on the side of the bench, using your free hand to grasp the seat or post to brace yourself from sliding off the bench.

FORM: Keep your body tight with your chest out and back flat. From the sideways seated position you don’t get the back support as when you do the bilateral version.

GRIP: Grasp the handle with your inner hand, wrapping your thumb around the handle.

EXECUTION: Smoothly press to full-arm extension without locking out your elbow. Allow the weight to drive your arm back to the start position but don’t let the plates touch down between reps.

Power-Rack Bench Press


POWER POINTER: This is simply a bench press done with a very short range of motion over the top third of the movement. Doing it in the power rack limits the bottom of the range of motion. Because you’re doing the movement above the sticking point, you can actually use heavier weights instead of full range-of-motion benching, which increases the neural stimulus to recruit additional muscle fibers.

TARGET AREA: Mid-chest primarily; front delts and triceps secondarily

IN YOUR ROUTINE: Do this first or second in your workout. You can do full-range benches first, and then do three sets of partials for six reps using a very heavy weight.

BEST SUBSTITUTE: Smith-machine partial flat-bench press

INTENSITY BOOSTER: Try reverse movements, beginning each rep with the bar resting on the safeties. Much like you would do with a deadlift, let the bar settle after the negative rep, resting it for a second to release the built-up negative energy. That makes the concentric portion much harder.

SET-UP: Set the safety bars in the power rack about 2/3 the way up from the bottom of your range of motion so that you’re benching just 4–5 inches. After warming up, load up the bar; you can safely use as much as 20% more than your full-range one-rep max. The next time you use this technique, move the safety bars down one notch on the power rack so that you’re increasing the range of motion slightly each workout.

POSITION: Center a flat bench in the power rack. Lie back squarely on the bench, feet flat and wide on the floor.

FORM: Maintain a big chest throughout. As the bar approaches your chest, your shoulder blades should retract, swelling your pecs.

GRIP: Grasp the bar out wide, well outside shoulder width. You want your forearms to be perpendicular to the floor when the bar’s in the down position.

EXECUTION: Lower the bar under control just a few inches. Without allowing it to touch the safeties, smoothly reverse direction and power to full-arm extension.

Incline Cable Flye


POWER POINTER: You might think this is the same as an incline dumbbell flye, but since the angle of pull comes from the sides, this is actually a more challenging version and it’ll hit your pecs differently as well.

TARGET AREA: Upper pecs (inner and outer regions)

IN YOUR ROUTINE: Do single-joint movements last in your chest routine after your heavy presses. Do three sets of 10–15 reps.

BEST SUBSTITUTE: Low-pulley cable crossover

INTENSITY BOOSTER: Do a drop set: After you reach muscle failure with a given weight, reduce the poundage by about 25% and continue repping to failure.

SET-UP: Wheel an adjustable bench over to the cable apparatus and set it up centered between the posts. Push it forward so that your shoulders (when seated) align with the lower pulleys. Attach D-handles to the lower pulleys.

POSITION: Lie back squarely on the bench, feet flat and wide on the floor for stability. With a D-handle in each hand, slightly bend your elbows and lock them in this position for the duration of the set.

FORM: As you raise and lower the weights, the degree of bend in your elbows shouldn’t change throughout the set. If you’re “pressing” the weights you lose the isolation effect. Think of hugging a big tree; the bend in your elbows should be locked throughout.

GRIP: Your hands should face forward, up and in throughout the range of motion.

EXECUTION: Contract your pecs to bring your arms together above and in front of you, holding the peak contraction for a count. Allow the weight to slowly pull your arms along the same path back to the start position. Don’t overstretch your shoulders in the bottom position.

Machine Flye


POWER POINTER: Everybody knows how to do this exercise, so what’s it doing on this list? Sometimes to break up your training you need to implement change via your approach to reps. Each of the four sets will be completely different from one another for a dramatic finish to your chest workout.

TARGET AREA: Inner pecs

IN YOUR ROUTINE: Do this exercise last in your routine, as you’ll push till there’s no tomorrow. Do four sets; the rep count on each one differs.

BEST SUBSTITUTE: 90-degree upright bench cable flye


  • Set 1: Pick your 12-rep max weight but do just 10 reps.

  • Set 2: With the same weight, do 10–12 reps but hold the fully contracted position for a full second.

  • Set 3: With the same weight do a full rep and then a quarter rep in which you release the handles just a few inches (about shoulder width apart) and bring them together again. The full rep and partial rep equals one rep. Do 10–12.

  • Set 4: Repeat set one for 10 reps to failure but instead of ending the set, do as many short partial reps till utter failure. These can be pulse reps as you flush the muscle. Try for 20–25, even 30.

SET-UP: Adjust the seat so that your shoulders, elbows and hands are all in the same horizontal plane.

POSITION: Sit back erect against the bench, feet flat and wide on the floor for balance.

FORM: Never drop your elbows as you complete the move. This is an efficient and safe position from which the muscle can contract.

GRIP: Grasp the handles with your palms facing inward. Your arms should be level with the floor.

EXECUTION: Contract your pecs to bring the handles together in front of you, holding the peak contraction for a count before releasing. Let the weight pull your arms apart, feeling a stretch in your pecs but don’t overstretch your shoulders by going too far back.

Incline Dumbbell Pullover


POWER POINTER: Arnold made dumbbell pullovers popular, but doing them on a flat bench engages the lats during the lower portion of the movement. Put more emphasis on your pecs by instead using an incline bench. Problem solved.

TARGET AREA: Upper pecs

IN YOUR ROUTINE: Do this last in your workout; three sets of 12 reps.

BEST SUBSTITUTE: Incline cable pullover (straight bar attachment)

INTENSITY BOOSTER: On your very last rep, hold the top position for five counts. You can even do some close-grip presses too, but that hits the triceps as well.

SET-UP: Set an incline bench to about 35–45 degrees and use a moderate weight dumbbell.

POSITION: Lie back squarely on the bench with your arms raised overhead, keeping your elbows unlocked. Keep your butt down on the bench, head back against the pad. Your feet should be flat and wide on the floor for stability.

FORM: If you can’t clear the top of the bench (either it’s too high or you’re too short), just scoot up on the bench a few inches and hold yourself isometrically by pressing your upper torso in place by contracting your quads.

GRIP: Grasp a dumbbell and hold the bar between your thumbs and index fingers, hands pressed flush against the upper inner plate.

EXECUTION: Keeping your butt down, push the weight back overhead to feel a stretch in your pecs, and then smoothly reverse direction, bringing the dumbbell directly over your chest so that your arms are perpendicular to the floor. Hold the peak contraction for a count, and then reverse the movement.