Ever since artistic (and admittedly nude-obsessed) Greeks and Romans took chisel to marble, a developed, well-defined chest has been a classic physical ideal.
For men, muscular pectorals are a symbol of strength. The most basic movement, the bench press, has served as a primal proving ground ever since someone had the keen sense to craft iron into handy circles that could slide onto each end of a long metal pole.
That aforementioned exercise (spoiler alert!) still rules when it comes to pec development. But we are about to reveal nine others that comprise the 10 best traditional exercises for this revered bodypart, ranking them from 10 to 1.
10. Dumbbell Pullover
Some people would contend this exercise doesn’t belong on a top-10 list for chest. They’ll either swear up and down that it trains the back, or they’ll belittle it as a relic once revered but now relegated to the training scrap heap because of its potential danger to the shoulders.
The first group is right — it doubles as a fine back exercise. But for those who claim shoulder-impingement concerns, well, we’d instead argue that the problem isn’t the pullover; it’s the lack of flexibility prevalent in today’s gyms. If you don’t have full mobility in your upper back and delts, the pullover simply won’t feel comfortable. You need to work on that, and start doing this staple that served some of the best bodybuilders of all time, from Frank Zane to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Dorian Yates.
Main Areas Targeted: pectorals, latissimus dorsi, serratus
Strengths: Most chest exercises fall into one of two categories: They involve pressing a weight (bending and extending at the elbows) or doing a flye motion (keeping your elbows fixed and closing and opening your arms in front of your body). The pullover is one of a scant few options that work the chest at a completely different angle, in a top-to-bottom contraction.
How-To: Lie on a bench with your upper back, head and neck supported and your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell with your arms extended above your face. Maintaining just a slight bend in your elbow throughout, slowly lower the dumbbell backward, allowing your elbows to come to a point at which they align with your ears. When you’ve stretched as far as you can without bending your elbows, flex through your chest and lats to reverse direction to bring the dumbbell back overhead.
Your drill instructor was a son of a you-know-what, but he was on to something when he screamed, “Drop and give me 20!” The quintessential bodyweight exercise is nearly perfect in its simplicity. “The push-up is a great standard exercise because it requires one piece of equipment — you,” says fitness expert Levi Harrison, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and author of The Art of Fitness: A Journey to Self-Enhancement. “This exercise targets the triceps, pectoralis major, deltoids — especially the anterior portion — and the serratus anterior. When properly done, the push-up also can engage your core muscles effectively.”
Main Area Targeted: pectorals (Note that you can change the emphasis depending on your angle: With feet and hands on the floor, you’ll take aim at the midpecs; elevating your feet on a bench focuses on the upper pecs; and putting your hands on a bench with your feet on the floor hits the lower pecs.)
Strengths: Ever try to pack a set of dumbbells and a bench in a suitcase? (Don’t laugh. Many a gym rat about to go on a trip has contemplated it.) Thing is, most exercise equipment is hard to lug around. Weights are heavy — by design, of course. The answer to staying fit on the road is, in part, using your own body as resistance. Push-ups can be done in hotel rooms, parks, prison cells ... anywhere you have solid ground to work with.
How-To: In a plank position, place your feet together, toes on the floor, with your hands wider than shoulder width and flat on the floor and your elbows extended. Keeping your head neutral and abs tight, lower yourself by bending your elbows until your chest gently touches the ground, then press through your palms until your arms are straight once again.
8. Pec-Deck Flye
First, a clarification: When we say “pec-deck flye,” we are referring specifically to the version in which you bend your arms 90 degrees and put your elbows on pads. The other variant — in which you hold handles and your elbows roam free, which we refer to as a “machine flye” in this magazine — is certainly a fine exercise, but in our opinion, not quite on the same level. Why? The pec-deck places better focus on the all-important squeeze when you bring your arms in front of your body, causing the muscle fibers at the center of your breastplate to spring to full attention.
Main Area Targeted: middle pecs
Strengths: When performed correctly, with arms in constant contact with the pads — a mental trick is to think of leading with your elbows — the pec-deck pits your pectorals directly against resistance while offering a broad range of motion and a reduced risk of injury when compared with free weights.
How-To: Sit with your lower back fully in contact with the pad and your feet flat on the floor. With your elbows at 90-degree angles and forearms flush against the pads, move your arms slightly forward to disengage the weight from the stack. From here, deliberately flex your pecs to bring the handles out in an arc until they meet in front of your body. Squeeze hard, then slowly return to the start, stopping when your upper arms are even with your torso, and repeat.
7. Decline Bench Press
No self-respecting bodybuilder or exercise physiologist would dare suggest the decline bench press is equal to its two more celebrated siblings, the incline and flat bench press. But that doesn’t make it a black sheep. It still targets the pectorals, although the focus is on the lower-pec area rather than the more prominent and more aesthetically critical upper and middle regions.
Main Area Targeted: lower pecs
Strengths: Although the lower pecs are targeted to an appreciable degree by flat bench presses, the decline is a direct way to chip away at them. It’s not all that necessary for beginners, but if you’re fine-tuning a developed physique, it’s undeniably helpful.
How-To: Lie on a decline bench. Your torso should be fully supported from your head to your hips, with your knees bent and feet harnessed behind roller pads. Grasp the bar with a wide, overhand grip. Bend your arms and slowly lower the bar toward your lower chest. When the bar reaches chest level, forcefully extend your arms, elevating the bar back to the starting position.
6. Cable Crossover
Wanna practice your “most muscular” pose? Join all the competitive bodybuilders out there and hit the cable-cross station for some flyes. Thanks to the cables, this single-joint movement allows for constant tension on the pecs. Our only concern? If you bend a little too much at the waist (a constant temptation when trying to squeeze heavy weights at the end of a taxing workout), you’ll shift the focus of the exercise from the lower pecs to the middle pecs. Not a bad thing, necessarily, unless you’re counting on the cable crossover to be the one exercise hitting that lower region.
Main Areas Targeted: inner pecs, lower pecs
Strengths: Cables offer a direct line of pull against resistance, and that resistance remains constant throughout the entire range of motion of the flye. When you do flyes with dumbbells, the pull of gravity wanes at the top, meaning it gets easier at just the point you want to squeeze the hardest.
How-To: Stand in the direct center of a cable-cross station with your feet staggered, knees slightly bent and your focus forward, and grasp D-handles attached to the upper pulleys. Starting with your palms facing downward and elbows bent slightly, flex your pecs to draw the handles down and together, meeting below your waist. Try to keep your elbows up throughout the movement. Pause a moment for a peak contraction, then slowly allow the handles to return to the start position. Don’t let the weight stacks touch down between reps.
5. Dumbbell Bench Press
Fact: You could design a whole chest regimen out of nothing but dumbbells and a bench, and over the course of time build a strong, solid, formidable chest. Fact: Because of that, you could arguably rate the dumbbell bench press a lot higher than fifth. But let’s put the quibbles and contrivances of a “ranking” aside for a second and give this exercise the props it deserves. It offers a full range of motion and a direct line of resistance for the pecs, and it doesn’t let a weaker pec compensate for a stronger one during the push phase.
Main Area Targeted: middle pecs
Strengths: In addition to the benefits already mentioned, the dumbbell press boasts another vital advantage: It allows for varied hand positions, anything from palms facing away to facing each other and any degree in between. If your wrists give you fits on barbell presses, dumbbells are your salvation.
How-To: Lie on a bench with your feet flat on the floor, holding a dumbbell in each hand just outside your shoulders. Powerfully press the dumbbells upward toward the ceiling, stopping when they come to an inch or so away from each other above your upper-middle chest, then slowly bend your elbows to lower the weights back down to a point even with your torso.
4. Incline Dumbbell Flye
Some exercise physiologists would agree with our assessment of the incline flye, considering it a stalwart for targeting the upper pecs, which lag on an inordinate number of bodybuilders. Others would banish it from this list altogether, questioning its effectiveness and citing its injury potential. When it comes to this move, neutrality is rarely an option.
Main Area Targeted: upper pecs
Strengths: The press is more effective overall to build your pectorals, but it involves a concerted effort between pecs, delts and triceps. On the other hand, the flye (in all its variations) isolates the pecs by having them do exactly what they were intended to — bring your arms forward to the front of your body, forcing them to handle the load without assistance. So in the incline flye, you have a motion that directly engages the intended muscles, and by performing it on an incline, you’re further pinpointing the all-important upper-chest region.
How-To: Lie on a bench set to a 30- to 45-degree angle with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip, and extend your arms above your chest, maintaining a slight bend in your elbows. Slowly lower the dumbbells in a wide arc down to your sides. Stop when your elbows reach shoulder level and reverse the motion.
3. Incline Bench Press
It’s not fatal, but if you’ve been diagnosed with meaty middle pecs and flat upper pecs, you’re all too aware how embarrassing a condition it is. However, if you can stomach the medicine, the ever-challenging incline bench is your remedy.
Although you won’t be able to handle as much weight as in the flat and decline versions, the incline press is without equal in its potency for curing sickly upper pecs. MRI research indicates this exercise engages the upper pecs 5 percent more than the bench press.
Main Area Targeted: upper pecs
Strengths: Trying to build a huge chest without pressing is like trying to hit a Justin Verlander fastball with a Wiffle ball bat. Sure, you can attempt it, but your chances of success are slim. It is without equal among chest exercises for its combination of direct engagement of the upper pecs and the total resistance you can place on those muscles.
How-To: Lie on an incline bench set at 30 to 45 degrees and place your feet flat on the floor for support. Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip just outside shoulder width and unrack it, holding it directly over your upper pecs. Slowly lower the bar to your upper chest, touching down for a brief count before powerfully pressing it back to full elbow extension.
2. Reverse-Grip Bench Press
Like Ben Affleck donning the iconic black cape, this is admittedly a bit of stunt casting on our part. However, despite the assumed controversy, the reverse-grip bench does merit this role ... again, similar to the Academy-spurned director of Argo who may just make a very fine Batman, thankyouverymuch. We’ll tell you why in a second.
Main Areas Targeted: middle and upper pecs
Strengths: Ready for this? Research has revealed that a reverse grip increases upper-pec involvement by 30 percent when compared to the standard overhand-grip bench press. That means that with this press, you’re capturing much of the benefit of the bench while engaging more of that harder-to-prod upper chest.
How-To: Lie on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor. Using the usual overhand grip you’d use for a regular bench press, unrack the bar, but then rest it on your abs and switch your grip, grasping the bar with a wider-than-shoulder-width underhand grip. Press the bar up, driving the weight away from you until you almost lock out your elbows. Bend your elbows to bring the bar back down, allowing it to gently touch your upper abs before pressing it again.
1. Bench Press
Sometimes, the most obvious answer is also the right one. The bench press has been the go-to chest move for decades, part of the three-pronged powerlifting pantheon alongside the squat and deadlift. That’s no accident — this gold-standard exercise is one of the purest tests of strength in the weight-training arsenal, and despite imperfections, it earns the No. 1 spot on this list with ease.
Main Area Targeted: middle pecs
Strengths: You’d be hard-pressed (pun intended) to find another weight-bearing movement that so efficiently combines the resistance potential and biomechanical advantages that the bench press delivers. In other words, you can hoist a ton of weight — up to 722 pounds if you happen to be world-record bench presser Eric Spoto, who set that record in 2013 — and fire a ton of muscle fibers.
How-To: You’ll perform this like the reverse-grip bench, with the obvious adjustment: Maintain an overhand grip throughout the movement and track the bar over your lower pecs instead of upper abs.