When deciding the 10 best-ever chest exercises a few years ago, we stumbled into a host of complications. The pectorals, after all, can be distilled into two different types of movements — a press, in which you push a resistance away from your body while extending your elbows, and a flye, in which you lock your elbows into an open position and bring the resistance together in front of your chest. On the whole, presses tend to trump flyes since you can move more weight and thus stimulate more overall muscle fibers, but that’s not an absolute truism.
But it gets trickier: Does the incline press outrank the flat bench because more people struggle with upper-pec development and thus need it more? And which one gets the nod: barbell or dumbbell presses? In-house arguments we had on the subject resulted in our original Top 10 list (see sidebar), and those debates — though heated, nitpicky and sometimes outlandish — were also enlightening and a lot of fun.
So now we’re back with the next best chest exercises that rank 11 through 20 in our books. You’ll agree with some of our choices and perhaps hate others, but we are confident these 10 will be a powerful addition to your chest-training arsenal.
The Original 10 Best Chest Exercises
These were our picks for the best chest moves, as featured in the March 2014 issue:
10. Dumbbell Pullover 9. Push-Up 8. Pec-Deck Flye 7. Decline Bench Press 6. Cable Crossover 5. Dumbbell Bench Press 4. Incline Dumbbell Flye 3. Incline Bench Press 2. Reverse-Grip Bench Press 1. Bench Press
10. Lower-Pulley Cable Crossover
Muscles Targeted: upper and inner pecs
The cable crossover done using the upper pulleys came in at No. 6 in our original rankings — but this variation deserves recognition as well. Though the upper pulleys target the lower chest, the lower pulleys emphasize the harder-to-develop upper chest.
As with all cable movements, the application of continuous tension on the muscle throughout the range of motion is valuable here — especially at the point of maximum contraction, where you can really squeeze the inner pecs. Another benefit, depending on the machine available to you, is that you can adjust your angle of pull by using various vertical adjustment points for the disc terminus. Even an inch or two difference can slightly change the muscle-fiber recruitment pattern in the pectorals, so switch it up every once in a while, if not every workout.
How-To: Stand in the direct center of a cable-cross station with your knees slightly bent, and your focus forward. Grasp the D-handles attached to the lower pulleys, palms inward, facing your body, and bend your elbows a bit, as if giving a hug. Draw the handles inward and upward to a point in front of your upper chest. Pause a moment at peak contraction, then slowly return to the start. For a little extra work, don’t let the weight stack touch down between reps.
9. Lying One-Arm Landmine Press
Muscles Targeted: upper and middle pecs
To properly develop your chest, dumbbell presses are essential, balancing the strength and size of your two sides while still allowing you to handle a fairly heavy load. But there’s a limit here for more advanced lifters, especially those who train alone: Getting a set of massive dumbbells into place overhead then down to the floor safely after your set can be cumbersome.
The landmine press exercise is similar to a dumbbell press, but without the same positioning or safety concerns. It may feel awkward at first, but could actually become one of your new favorites.
How-To: Secure one end of a barbell in a landmine and load the opposite end. Lie faceup on the floor with your legs extended away from the landmine, and align the right side of your head with the sleeve of the barbell. Bend your knees and plant your feet. Grasp the end of the barbell sleeve with your right hand, wrapping your thumb for safety. Then press the bar upward to full extension of your arm. Slowly lower the bar, stopping just short of your elbow touching down and repeat.
8. Incline Cable Flye
Muscles Targeted: upper, inner and outer pecs
“For a straight-out pec burn, the incline cable flye is hard to beat,” says Dan Roberts, CSCS, and founder of the Dan Roberts Group, in London, England. “While no strength coach or bodybuilder would argue that benching isn’t the foundation for a strong chest, to sculpt it, close-grip work and flyes are also important.”
As with all cable movements, the key here is continuous tension — resistance felt throughout the entire range of motion, from the stretch at the bottom to the peak contraction at the top. “This exercise gets very challenging very quickly, so I find doing it as a drop set or as part of tri-set helps you get the most of out of it,” Roberts adds.
How-To: Set the pulleys on the lowest setting and position an incline bench set in the center of a cable machine. Adjust the bench incline to roughly 20 to 30 degrees. “Higher than that and your shoulders will take on too much of the load,” Roberts notes. Sit with your feet flat on the floor and hold a D-handle in each hand with a neutral grip, arms extended to the sides, elbows slightly bent. Keep your elbows locked in position as you bring your arms together in an arc over your chest. “As you close your arms, do a slight inward rotation,” Roberts instructs. “When your hands meet, hold for two seconds and maintain retracted scapulae as you lower back to the start.”
7. Hammer Strength Decline Press
Muscles Targeted: lower pecs
Decline barbell and dumbbell presses are valuable components of a complete chest routine, and the decline press weighed in at No. 7 on our original list. They both directly emphasize the lower chest region, which needs to be muscular and defined for perfect pectorals.
Doing decline presses in a Hammer Strength machine (not shown) hits the same area, but with a critical advantage: By sitting more upright, you avoid the blood rush to the head you can get on a decline bench.
How-To: Adjust the machine so your back rests comfortably against the pad and your feet are flat on the floor. The handles should hit you just below shoulder level when you sit down. Hold the handles firmly as you press them away from you to full extension. Slowly return to the start without allowing the weight carriage to touch down, and repeat.
6. Alternating Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press
Muscles Targeted: middle pecs
“When it comes to strength, working the individual limbs unilaterally can reduce bilateral deficit — that is, the difference in strength between the two sides, which can be as much as 25 percent in untrained individuals,” explains Erik Pence, MS, CSCS, PES, director of athletic performance at Scottsdale Combine in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Regarding this move, Dan Roberts adds, “Although the old-fashioned barbell bench press is my go-to mass-building exercise for chest, I like challenging the body and brain via more complex movements such as the alternating dumbbell press. A variation with the feet on the bench is a real favorite of mine, since the internal obliques and transverse abdominis
work harder to keep me from falling
to one side.”
How-To: Lie on a flat bench with your feet on the floor (or knees bent and lifted over your hips), and hold a set of dumbbells just outside your shoulders, even with your torso. Keeping the scapulae retracted, powerfully press one dumbbell straight up over your upper-middle chest to full extension. Lower that dumbbell to the start as you press the other dumbbell upward and continue, alternating arms. Alternately, hold both dumbbells over your chest and lower one at a time instead. “This is far harder than the typical version, since when one arm is doing the movement, the opposing shoulder stabilizers also get a workout,” says Roberts.
5. Gliding Disc Flye
Muscles Targeted: middle, outer and inner pecs
Gliding discs provide an unstable training surface, engaging your muscles in a way that a more traditional exercise cannot. You need to exert a high degree of muscular control and to concentrate equally on both the concentric and eccentric portion of every rep or risk an embarrassing face-plant.
How-To: Assume a push-up position with a gliding disc under each palm with your hands directly under your shoulders and your head, hips and heels in line. Lower yourself by slowly sliding your hands outward until your chest hovers just above the floor. Then reverse the motion and bring your arms toward each other as much as you can, ideally lowering you to the start.
4. Smith-Machine Incline Press
Muscles Targeted: upper and inner pecs
With all the venom spit at the Smith machine over the years, you’d think it was a monster that mangled and dismembered anyone who dared venture too close. Although the Smith has some drawbacks when it comes to exercises such as squats — locking you into a rigid up-and-down motion — the Smith’s gliding, counterbalanced track can be a blessing when you want to go heavier and blast a target bodypart, as in an incline press (not shown). Moreover, in a traditional pressing machine, the adjustments might not quite align with your body frame, leaving you to push at an awkward angle, risking injury. But with the Smith, you have more control over your own body placement, since you can maneuver the bench with no restrictions.
Truth is, the Smith is a solid ancillary to barbell and dumbbell pressing. And keep in mind, it comes in at 14th overall on our ranking of the all-time best, a more-than-fair spot for a potent, if not slightly flawed, machine exercise.
How-To: Position an incline bench inside a Smith machine and set it at 30 to 45 degrees. Lie faceup with your feet placed wide and flat, and take an overhand grip on the bar outside shoulder width. Rotate and unhook the bar and hold it directly above your upper chest. Maintain control as you lower the bar, allowing it to touch down lightly before powerfully pressing it back to the start.
3. Floor Press
Muscles Targeted: middle pecs
This powerlifting favorite helps increase bench press strength through the upper half of the lift, removing momentum and the ability to “bounce” the bar off the chest. Although it doesn’t offer a complete range of motion, that limitation doesn’t make the move any easier.
“The barbell floor press takes advantage of two mechanical phenomena,” Pence says. “First, it does not allow your arms to go below parallel, limiting the stress on the biceps tendons and musculature of the rotator cuffs. Second, it ‘turns off’ the stretch reflex. Thus, the individual has to power the bar off the floor with no neurological assistance.”
How-To: Set a barbell in a power rack at a level where you can unrack it easily when lying on the floor, or have a partner hand you the loaded bar and spot you throughout. Lie faceup, positioning your forehead under the bar, with your back flat, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grasp the bar outside shoulder width — as you would with a standard bench press — and move the bar into position over your chest, arms straight. Think about “pulling the bar apart” as you bend your elbows to lower the bar toward your lower pecs, stopping when your upper arms come flush with the floor. Pause, then explosively press up to the start.
2. TRX Push-Up
Muscles Targeted: upper and middle pecs
Infomercial-style fitness fads come and go faster than social media apps — oh, Vine, you were so six seconds ago — but don’t count the TRX Suspension Trainer among that failed bunch. This adjustable strap with handle loops at each end and a carabiner to anchor it, the TRX can work any major bodypart while also developing intensive core body strength.
The TRX push-up fires a lot of upper-body stabilizers to control your torso and arms, while the motion itself engages the pectorals throughout the positive and negative portions of the repetitions.
How-To: Secure the TRX to an overhead anchor. Take an overhand grip on the handles, arms straight and spread about shoulder-width apart. Step your feet back until your body is at about a 45-degree angle to the floor with your head, hips and heels aligned. Bend your elbows and lower your torso between your hands until your elbows make 90-degree angles, then extend to the start.
1. Angled Parallel-Bar Dip
Muscles Targeted: upper, middle and outer pecs
The weighted triceps dip on a parallel bar came in No. 3 on our list of top-10 triceps exercises, which appeared in our August 2015 issue. So what’s the dip doing first on this chest list (and No. 11 overall)? A minor tweak transfers the emphasis from the triceps directly onto the pectorals: When you do a dip with your torso upright, the angle engages the triceps as the prime movers; to target the chest, angle your torso forward, which puts the pecs under stretch at the bottom of the rep and allows them to take the brunt of the lift on the ascent.
How-To: Hang inside the bars with a palm on each bar, arms straight,legs together, core tight. Angle your upper body forward as much as possible and keep your elbows tight to your sides as you bend them slowly until they make 90-degree angles. Press through your palms to extend your arms and raise yourself to the start. <
If you can handle your own bodyweight with relative ease, add resistance by wearing a dipping belt with attached weight plates.