Fitness

Chest Workouts 101: Why Your Chest Doesn’t Look As Good As It Should

Chest Workouts 101: Why Your Chest Doesn’t Look As Good As It Should
Written by Michael Garrico

Today we discuss a topic that is literally very close to a man’s heart; there are many, many memorable moments spanning across the average life of a human male. Most of them involve personal bests on chest day.

We’re not here to reminisce on the past though; we’re here now to look at the future and consider why it is that, for whatever reason, your pecs just aren’t displaying the volume detail and / or general mass you want them to be.

There’s very little doubt that the effort has gone in (unless it hasn’t, in which case you already have your answer) so why is it that you’re still struggling to develop either one or several areas of the much coveted chest area?

Our first step is to properly understand the structure of the pectorals and the areas contained therein; only then can you start to grasp where some lack of judgement may have been made in regards to capitalizing on your progression.

What Does A Chest Actually Look Like Underneath The Skin?

There are three primary muscles that all integrate to form the foundations of the chest as a whole (there are a few more too, but they play less of a role in chest workouts so we’re sticking with the basics for now.)

We’re now going to look at them and discuss why they’re important; understanding their relevance in relation to chest workouts is going to give you a deeper understanding of some of the movements involved further down the line.

Pectoralis Major

This is the big one; the most prominent feature of the chest is the pectoralis major.

This muscle covers the widest surface area, and it’s the one that you need to fully develop and “round off” in order to get that huge, voluminous chest appearance that many a gym goer has been seeking for years.

Pectoralis major muscle

The pectoralis major muscle is a large muscle in the upper chest, fanning across the chest from the shoulder to the breastbone.

Theoretically any exercise that targets the pectoralis major is going to help develop the kind of chest appearance mentioned above; only it’s not quite as simple as that.

There are actually two sections of the pec major; one is the sternal head, and one is the clavicular head. The clavicular head attaches to just below the neck line (onto the clavicle it self) and the sternal head attaches to the sternum.

Roughly three quarters of the way up the pec major it self, there is a horizontal split line separating the two.

Without going into intricate detail in regards to their movement responsibilities and functionality; all you really need to know is that both of these areas are important and vital to the development of a fully rounded pec major muscle.

As such, both areas need to be fully targeted in order to achieve the maximum beneficial effect for your chest.

This is where it’s fairly easy to start going astray; many popular exercises involve the sternal head of the pec major very prominently, as such, the clavicular head can often suffer a lack of direct attention as a result and often gets resigned to being purely a supplementary element of chest exercises when used as part of an unbalanced routine.

Pectoralis Minor

You wouldn’t actually be able to see the pec minor if you did a cross section of the human body from the front; it’s placed underneath the pec major it self and directly attaches onto the rib cage.

An important muscle when it comes to the stabilisation of the scapula (your shoulder blades) this muscle is also a vital ingredient for a well-rounded chest.

Should you fail to correctly target the pectoral minor, and then your pectoralis major muscle will suffer directly as a result.

Try to picture it as a layer underneath the giant pec major muscle itself, almost serving as a foundation or a major supporting strut for it to attach to.

Pectoralis minor muscle

The pectoralis minor is a thin, triangular muscle, situated at the upper part of the chest.

Imagine if that supporting strut didn’t develop at all, but the structure attached to it did; eventually something would give. We’re not talking so much about injury potential (though that is a possibility) more about the growth potential of the pec major it self.

Should the stabilisation muscle underneath not be adequate enough in size or strength to assist with the kind of weight / techniques needed to develop the pec major, then it will simply not be able to advance.

In a very simple way; consider this too. Should the pec minor underneath grow and further volumize, then it’s going to push the pectoralis major forwards and out as well. In short, this just means more size for the chest as a whole.

Serratus Anterior

Serratus anterior muscle

It’s responsible for allowing you to raise your arms above 90 degrees.

Just to clear something up before we advance further; posterior means “rear” and anterior means “front”.

You may have been wondering what the two phrases meant; in which case, you now know that the serratus “anterior” is the serratus muscle running across the front of the body.

Now that we’ve cleared that up…

This is another muscle that you’d be very hard pressed to see should you look at the chest area with the underlying muscle exposed after the removal of the skin.

Whilst it is placed at the front of the body, it is tucked away, running down the side of the rib cage and starting from directly underneath the pectoralis minor.

You might be wondering how this is actually a part of your chest; but it is. It’s responsible for allowing you to raise your arms above 90 degrees.

What that essentially means is that, should your serratus anterior be underdeveloped, then your incline barbell or dumbbell chest pressing is going to suffer majorly.

This should be viewed as the necessary foundation for incline movements; with no serratus anterior development, you’ll be resigned to a life of flat bench pressing forever.

That probably doesn’t sound too bad either, but you need to consider something hugely critical to the development of your chest at this point.

Your chest volume and size probably has less to do with flat movements than it does incline movements and in fact a very good balance and integration of every chest angle within your workouts. If you’ve been slacking on incline, that’s probably why you’re lacking in volume.

As with the pec minor, this major foundational element of the chest will actually help to enhance the size of your pec major muscle.

Should it grow, it will push the pec minor forwards, and in turn push the pec major forwards too thus enhancing the overall volume and depth of the chest it self.

Keeping these primary elements in mind, you should now have a good idea (or a further idea) as to how the chest is formed.

This is going to help massively going forwards as you can now plan your chest sessions more strategically; it’s this strategy implementation that ultimately forms the cornerstone of every great physique you’ve ever witnessed.

Nothing in the world of aesthetics happens by accident. You could say the only element that is entirely accidental is an individual's genetic capacity, but that person would still need to train sensibly, eat sensibly and become a tactician themselves in order to achieve their physiques full potential.

No one gets away with being slack in any of the major areas involved in the evolution of any one of the muscle groups within the body; the chest is no different.

Which Factors Will Affect My Growth Potential The Most?

Lots of them.

If you truly want to maximize your training results and get the chest you’ve been dreaming about for years, then it’s time to start isolating precisely how we’re going to do that.

Bodybuilding transformation

It has nothing to do with magic - just a hard work.

We all know that you’ve got to eat excess, well structured calories to gain muscle; we also know that your training sessions need to be well balanced and muscle groups need to be spread over the week to fully maximise the growth potential of every individual area.

What we don’t often know is how we’re going to achieve that as effectively as possible in the real world; and that’s largely where the sticking points set in.

Nutrition

As previously mentioned, you’re going to need to eat excess calories in order to gain muscle. It could be said that the body sees extra muscle as an “inhibition” of sorts; the body’s natural inclination certainly isn’t to prioritize muscle growth.

What the body will typically do is whatever it believes will lead to the sustenance of life the most; usually this would involve excess storage of body fat or allocating calories to internal functions vital to survival.

When we weight train, we stimulate the muscle fibres in such a way that an almost “shock” like effect is created; this is when we need to hammer in well balanced calories as the body will see this shock as something that needs to be immediately addressed.

Fit woman drinking water at the gym

You’ll also need to drink at least 2.5 litres of water per day.

As a result, it will allocate those calories towards the evolution of the target area; believing the area will be too weak to cope should a similar onslaught take place again in the future.

Those calories have to be well balanced; if you simply throw junk down your neck after a training session there will be no useful nutrients for your body to use as tools for growth.

You’ll need to ensure you’re taking in roughly 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight (there’s no scientific evidence in existence to prove any claims that any amount surplus to that is needed) as well as some complex carbs for slow release energy and healthy fat for the release of growth hormone and testosterone.

You’ll also need to drink at least 2.5 litres of water per day; water forms the base of every chemical reaction in the human body. If you don’t drink it, you simply won’t maximise your growth potential or make your muscle cells fill up and volumize. Why rob yourself of extra size?

Supplements

In terms of what you do need when it comes to supplements; it’s safe to say that the answer depends entirely on your personal circumstances.

In truth, you don’t need any; but it’s highly recommended that you incorporate at the very least:

  • High quality whey protein isolate powder
  • High quality high strength vitamin C
  • ​High quality high strength vitamin D
  • ​High quality high strength vitamin B complex

The rest is entirely optional.

With that said; let’s explore scenarios where supplements will make your life much, much easier and maximise your growth potential.

  • At work; access to microwaves and other utensils isn’t always possible
  • If you need to take in a calorie excess that’s simply very difficult to take in with whole food alone
  • ​If you genuinely struggle to eat whole food at certain times of the day
  • ​If you struggle with energy and fatigue due to a hectic schedule
  • If you’d like to save money on individual supplements by buying a high quality “all in one” pre workout / mass gaining product

These are just a few examples of situations where supplements could really help you a great deal. If any of the above points resonate with you, then you have an entirely valid reason to add in extra supplementation.

Supplements comic

You need to keep in mind that any supplements you add in should be used with a view to reach the calorie count or nutrient macros you need to reach daily.

Nutrient macros are simply the manner in which your fat, carbohydrate and protein intake are split as part of your total daily calorie intake.

One of the best places to get your individual calculations is a site called Freedieting.

Provided you use the supplements to adhere to your daily calorie structure; you’ve got it nailed.

"I Always Train Really Hard And Heavy, I’ve Made Some Good Progress"

There’s a huge difference between training hard and training smart.

This is actually one of the many reasons that so many people sign up to a gym, train like mad for several months then simply quit. Something that’s very difficult to come to terms with, but is absolutely vital for any gym goers progression is to understand that maximum effort isn’t always conducive to maximum benefit.

Man training chest in the gym

You need to train chest every week as part of your routine.

With the different sections of the chest we mentioned earlier in mind; it’s very easy to neglect some key points in your efforts to create the most impressive chest possible.

Not only do you need to train chest every week as part of your routine; you have to adequately cover all of the necessary facets in order to fully “mature” the aesthetics of the area.

You probably have been training your chest in quite a well-balanced manner already; but to be blunt, there has to be a reason why you’re reading this article today. You want to make an improvement in at least one area.

Common Pitfalls

It’s time for some genuine honesty at this point; not to try and upset or annoy, but rather to help you progress.

What’s important to understand is that without a little discomfort, none of us have any reason to change.

With that in mind; we ask that you loosen yourself up and allow us to ever so slightly stick the pin in a little...

just as much as is necessary of course, but still firmly enough for you to feel it.

Are you ready? O.K, here it goes…

You don’t know as much as you think you do. In fact, none of us do.

Oh Really?

Think back to when you first started training (if you’re new to this already then that’s perfect; it’s likely that you’re in the perfect position to absorb the information contained here) and the progress you initially made.

When someone first undertakes a training regime, provided they are following a sensible eating plan and well balanced exercise program; the first two years of their training will lead to the most noticeable difference.

Even though this is in part due to the shock effect created within the system, it is also because you listened. You were mouldable; you had no preconceptions.

As a result, you applied yourself diligently to every gym task you undertook, you gave it the best effort you could, and rarely did you question or refuse to do anything. You believed it worked, and as a result; you made it work.

Cartoon mouse doing workout

Gym rat

After a couple of years of doing this; most people will have seen some very significant results.

These won’t just be every day results either, they’re usually the kind of results that establish you as the “gym rat” amongst your social peers, immediately turning you into a fountain of knowledge overnight and the receiver of compliments from friends, family and everyone in between.

This is hands down the riskiest time for any training enthusiast; it’s the crucial fork in the road that leads to you either fulfilling your true potential, or believing you already have.

At this point, those who end up with truly astounding, well-balanced physiques continue to learn, adapt and mould themselves according to the various needs and weaknesses of their body composition. They don’t resign themselves to preconceptions and are instead willing to continue being moulded.

On the other hand, those who believe they have already fulfilled their potential simply make slow progress and remain a cut above the “everyday man”. You don’t want to be above normal though, you want to be above excellent.

How Do I Avoid Becoming That Person?

What it’s incredibly important to do at any point, is never to allow yourself to fall into the latter category. If you apply yourself and become a true journeyman, you’re going to get to a point that sits you high above most of the typical gym goers you’ll see in the free weight area. Despite the compliments, or the progress; you’re never fully there though.

It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you’ve achieved to date; you’ll want to achieve more. You won’t be able to do that if you don’t open your mind up to the possibility that you need to learn more, or do things differently to advance further past the point you’re currently residing at.

This is why even Mr Olympia or the world’s strongest man has a coach; they may have won yesterday’s event by yesterdays standards; but those standards won’t exist in a mere few weeks time. They’ll have been raised, and if they can’t match or beat them; then it’s game over.

You’ll only raise your own standards by leaving your ego at the door. Ignorance is the most catabolic aspect of any training regimen, even above cortisol.

Important Things To Know Before You Get Started

Before we go at your chest like a raging bull; let’s first slow down a little and briefly cover what we already know about the chest it self:

  • There are three main components to the chest
  • Without the maximal advancement of all three areas, other areas will suffer
  • ​Chest sessions should be well balanced and cover all areas
  • In a nutshell, it could be said that those principles are all we need to adhere to when training chest. How we actually achieve the above points varies massively though as there are several methods we can adopt to successfully fulfill any of the above needs.

I Don’t Use Dumbbells / Barbells, I Think You Get More Out Of Using The Other One…

You might. Equally, there are just as many people who believe the opposite.

Mirror image of man doing chest workouts

Get rid of any extremist mind set you might have.

Who’s actually right though? Well, unless you aren’t performing an exercise due to genuine medical inhibitions, the first thing you need to do is get rid of any extremist mind set you may have in regards to what’s the “best”.

In truth, they’re both very, very beneficial and they can both certainly help you advance further at this stage.

What’s The Difference?

What you’ll find is that barbell exercises will allow you to lift more weight per load; whereas dumbbell exercises will yield a smaller weight load but will offer the totally independent use of each limb and their subsequent stabilizer muscles.

You’ll certainly be able to stimulate growth in a highly effective manner by performing the barbell bench press due to the sheer amount of intensity being placed on all three (if you’re benching correctly) of the primary pectoral muscles at once when lifting heavier loads with control.

On the other hand, you will not engage as many of the stabiliser muscles associated with the area without using dumbbells, nor will you develop full balance between the arms. You may think you don’t need to because you’re only training for size and not functionality, but there are some important points to consider:

  • Weight volume isn’t always conducive to mass gain
  • With inhibited functionality, you would not be able to maximise weight volume
  • Without targeting the more intricate stabilisers, there are areas of the chest you won’t fully access

There’s also another interesting point; depending on your personal physicality, some believe that dumbbells can provide a greater range of motion.

This is perhaps less true at the bottom of the negative part of the motion, being that lowering the dumbbells past the nipple line would actually involve the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder) more than the pectoralis major, however, the real benefit comes at the top of the positive part of the movement.

When performing a dumbbell press; you can literally squeeze the pectoral muscles together (whilst still leaving a gap in between the dumbbells themselves) to fully integrate the inside middle section of the pecs. This is a benefit that can’t be fully simulated by a flat (or any other) barbell bench press.

To fully differentiate between the two; one could be viewed as delivering maximum “intensity”, whereas the other could be viewed as delivering maximum “intricacy”.

Some Of The Most Effective Chest Exercises

Before listing some of the most effective chest exercises; we need first to briefly touch on the whole “angle” debate.

You’ll see a great deal of controversy regarding which angle is best to use, and which one is going to deliver the best results as part of your chest routine.

So Which Angle Is Best?

As with the dumbbell and barbell scenario; the best angle to use is every angle.

One of the main reasons for lack of results and stagnation is that people use the exercises they prefer to use or are most comfortable with. Another reason is because people can lift a lot of weight with certain exercises too, as such, they don’t like to stray too far from it, believing it’ll be of huge benefit to them.

Gym comic

As with any other training type, if you continue to do what you’ve always done then you’ll always stay put. Your body isn’t going to change if you don’t create some change.

It’s actually true that the flat barbell bench press probably does recruit more muscle fibres in the chest than any other press type from a different angle; but that doesn’t then mean that it’s the only exercise you need to perform.

If you do, your body will simply adapt to the exercise and you’ll struggle immensely to stimulate the muscles in the area enough to sustain future growth.

How future growth will be sustained is through the integration of an ever changing series of exercises to target all three of the primary areas; never once focusing for too long on any singular one of them.

Really, it’s a good idea to ensure no two workouts are ever the same. This may go against the progressive overload (where you stick with a series of exercises and progressively increase the weight on a weekly basis) principle many gym goers are used to, but you don’t have to perform any exercise at exactly the same point every workout, though you can still apply the weekly weight increase. In fact, this will challenge the body greatly and perhaps stimulate growth further.

General Chest Exercises

Here are some of the most effective exercises for general mass gain covering the entire surface area of the chest evenly.

Barbell Bench Press

Perhaps the best known, and perhaps the most effective chest exercise in terms of “bang for your buck.” What’s so great about the flat barbell bench press is that it really does recruit a spectacular amount of muscle fibers within the chest area at once (including all three of the main areas in fact) whilst promoting growth hormone release due to the sheer intensity and “size” of the movement.

When you perform the exercise, ensure that the hands are placed just outside of shoulder width; no wider, no closer (unless a medical condition of some kind inhibits this stance.)

Tuck the elbows in and lower the bar down with control to touch the nipple line, then flare the lats (back muscles) and pinch the shoulder blades together, before driving the bar back up. Ensure the arms do not fully lock out.

Be wary of flaring the elbows too wide or having too wide a grip; in the first instance this will vastly reduce stability as the triceps won’t be able to fully assist the chest (meaning you may fail the rep) and in the second instance you’ll simply target your shoulders more than your chest.

Dumbbell Chest Press

Similar in nature to the barbell press variant, this version will allow each arm to load bear independently thus promoting even balance between the limbs in terms of strength capacity and muscular symmetry.

Man doing dumbell chest workout

Many consider the dumbbell chest press a superior exercise for building size and strength in the pectoral muscles.

When performing this exercise, again start with the hands placed just outside of the shoulder girdles before lowering the dumbbells until the base falls in line with the nipples.

As with the barbell bench press, pinch the shoulder blades together, flare the back muscles and keep the elbows tucked in to the side (at a 45 degree angle) before driving the dumbbells up.

Ensure the elbows never fully lock out, and leave a slight gap at the top of the movement between the dumbbells.

Flat Dumbbell Flyes

A popular isolation exercise (isolation simply means that only one muscle group is being targeted at once) used to effectively cover all aspects of the pectoral muscle, with a particular emphasis on the pec minor.

When performing this exercise, lay flat on the back holding two dumbbells in a neutral position (facing each other) extended above the body in line with the shoulders.

Whilst leaving a slight bend in the arm at all times (nothing too drastic, just enough to ensure the elbow joint is not fully locked out) lower the dumbbells downwards and outwards (in a crucifix position) until the dumbbells fall just below the middle of the shoulder.

Raise the dumbbells upwards again until they fall in line with the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder.) Ensure there is at least one ruler length gap in between the dumbbells at the top of the movement.

Seated Chest Press Machine (Neutral Position, Neither Inclined Nor Declined)

Machine chest presses are a fantastic way to really isolate the chest and evenly cover every area of the pec major muscle with some effective integration of the middle inside of the pecs too.

This movement simply involves being sat perfectly upright, with the handles position at armpit height.

Either using a neutral or overhand grip, proceed to push the bar forwards whilst ensuring there is a slight bend in the elbow at the top of the movement, before returning the bar to the nipple line (where the elbows should lie at a 45 degree angle by the side of the body.)

When performing this movement you should be careful not to hyperextend (fully straighten) the elbows at any point or rush the exercise in any way. Slow and steady control is always more effective.

Pec Deck

Pec decks come in many shapes and sizes but they’re ultimately a fantastic way to hit the pec minor muscles with some great recruitment of the inner side of the pec major at the top of the positive part of the movement when performed with control and a little “squeeze” added.

Man doing upper chest exercises

Pec decks come in many shapes and sizes.

Ensure both handles are at armpit height before starting, then with a slight bend left in the elbows (as with dumbbell flyes) proceed to squeeze the handles inwards towards each other, until they are both facing each other directly in line with the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder.

Upper Chest Exercises

Incline movements are incredibly important; they target the clavicular section of the pec major, thus “raising” the muscle upwards and creating a very prominent appearance.

Arnold Schwarzenegger swore by incline pressing for chest development, as do many of the top bodybuilders still competing today.

What’s important to remember with incline pressing is that the incline it self should never be too steep; a 25-30 degree angle at the most is all that’s needed to create the desired effect on the top of the chest.

Any angle greater than this will simply integrate the anterior deltoids too much and become more akin to a shoulder press in nature.

Incline Barbell Bench Press

You can perform this movement either using a smith machine or a free weight barbell. This movement will hit the clavicular aspect of the pec major very well whilst also integrating the sternocostal section and the serratus anterior very effectively too.

You can effectively bear a large weight volume with this exercise for enhanced intensity.

Ensure your hands are positioned in the exact same place as they are on the flat barbell bench press, albeit with the seat angled as mentioned above.

You should aim to raise the bar so that it is still in line with the nipples, however the final resting point at the positive end of the movement will be directly over the anterior deltoids (front of the shoulders.) Keep the elbows tucked in at a 45 degree angle, before lowering the bar with control until it again reaches nipple height.

Incline Dumbbell Chest Press

Very similar in nature to the barbell variant albeit with more recruitment of stabilization muscles. Again, this variant is fantastic for creating a squeeze at the top of the movement and targeting the insides of the pec major muscle, thus leading to the development of the separating line in the middle of the pecs that many desire.

Man doing incline dumbbell chest workout

Many people do incline dumbbell press but few get its full benefit.

Arm and hand positions should be the same as the barbell variant; however, you should ensure particularly with this movement that you don’t hyperextend the elbow as this could lead to the dumbbells falling backwards, behind the head.

Incline Dumbbell Flyes

Incline dumbbell flyes are very similar to their flat dumbbell flye counterparts, though they target the clavicular aspect of the pec major whilst simultaneously engaging the pec minor effectively. They also involve the serratus anterior but to a lesser extent than incline pressing movements.

Always be conscious not to bend the arms too drastically with a flye as this will ultimately turn the movement into a hybrid between a compound movement involving several muscle groups at once as opposed to the isolation exercise it is supposed to be.

Perform the movement in the exact same manner as the flat dumbbell flye; although the final resting position will be directly above the anterior deltoid as with incline pressing movements as opposed to directly above the nipple line.

Cables Flyes (Upper Position)

Whilst it’s true that many people integrate cable flyes into their routine to aid in their central chest development; the cable fly is really more of an upper chest isolation movement with some added extra benefits; these include some great pec minor integration as well as some inner pec major. A good all rounder.

Perform the movement by setting the cable pulleys at the very top of either side of the cable machine; once there, take a cable handle in each hand, then ensure the arms are extended outwards in a crucifix pose (think about the bottom aspect of a dumbbell flye.)

Proceed to squeeze the handles together until they face each other in front of the body at hip height; leave roughly a ruler length gap between them. Return to the starting position.

Generally speaking, the cable fly could be described as not only a very overused exercise, but also an ineffectively used exercise.

The art of performing a cable flye effectively really lies in ensuring a full range of motion on the negative aspect of the exercise to fully extend the pec major and minor muscles, followed by a successful positive element whereas the cable handles never stray more than a couple of inches within the shoulder girdles at the front of the body.

Should they stray within this range, the exercise gets “hijacked” by the deltoids as any pec involvement is taken out of the equation. This is a very common mistake made by millions of gym goers. Should it be performed effectively though, the upper cable flye is a highly effective isolation exercise.

Lower Chest Exercises

As mentioned previously, decline pressing is perhaps the most controversial of all of the chest angles due to its heavy integration of the anterior deltoids.

Man doing lower chest workout in the gym

Every chest exercise is going to involve the anterior deltoids.

In truth, every chest exercise is going to involve the anterior deltoids; should you begin to rule out exercises based on this premise then you’d simply be left with no effective exercises to target the chest save for a few isolation movements.

This would not be enough to stimulate the relevant change and muscular balance needed to achieve the look you desire.

There are huge positives to decline movements; they are arguably more effective at targeting the sternocostal aspect of the pec major than any other exercise variety.

It’s absolutely true that flat movements also target this area, but so precise in nature is the pressure placed on this aspect of the chest by decline movements that it’s fair to say that what it lacks in the integration of other areas of the chest it more than makes up for with its integration of this largest of the pec muscles.

As with incline movements, the decline angle shouldn’t be too exaggerated as this will make it a hybrid anterior / scapula and core exercise all at once. -25 or -30 degrees is really enough to hit the spot.

Decline Barbell Bench Press

Just to throw in some variety; you can perform any of the barbell movements on a smith machine too.

Some of the reasons you should include decline pressing movements include the maximal recruitment of fibres within the sternocostal region of the pec major, and the potential to develop the “base” of the pectorals more effectively due to the loading angle of the weight being lifted.

Man doing decline bench press workout

Throw in some variety!

Something else to consider is that, similarly to the incline press, you’re able to produce a very effective squeeze at the top of the positive aspect of the movement due to the extended range the muscle must go through in comparison to simply expanding upwards and away from the body as with flat exercises.

To put it bluntly; the muscle is being pulled in a direction it isn’t used to accommodating. That’s a good thing.

Perform the movement in exactly the same manner as a flat bench press; though this time the bench must be set at a slight decline to emphasize the angle being prioritised. When finishing the positive aspect of the movement; the bar will hover above the base of the anterior deltoid.

Decline Dumbbell Chest Press

Decline dumbbell chest presses provide the exact same benefits as any other dumbbell pressing movement, though the decline position does prioritise the pec major muscles more than the flat or incline variants as well as targeting a different set of stabilization muscles.

What’s interesting to note with all decline movements is that the serratus anterior is heavily involved as a stabilizer on the negative aspect of the movement; the same can be said for flat and incline movements too, although the loading angle here arguably places more pressure on this area potentially leading to further development.

Perform the exercise in exactly the same manner as the decline barbell press, though with this movement you will need to be particularly careful not to hyperextend the arm.

This is due to the risk involved with destabilization as the weights could easily damage the skull if dropped as opposed to simply falling onto the floor.

Decline Dumbbell Flyes

As with any flye variant, you’re going to effectively target the pec minor muscle when you perform this exercise as well as the pec major at the very bottom and top of the movement, provided you add in a squeeze / leave a gap when finishing the positive element.

Man doing decline dumbbell flyes workout in the gym

The primary muscle targeted by decline dumbbell flyes is your sternal pectoralis major.

It is to be performed in exactly the same manner as any other dumbbell flye, though again the weights will finish in a parallel position to the base of the anterior deltoid.

Be wary not to take the negative aspect of the movement too far backwards as perhaps on this exercise more than any other, pec tears are a very real possibility.

Cable Flyes (Lower Position)

These flye variants are a great addition to any well balanced chest routine; they’re a great way to emphasize the pec major muscle as well as the pec minor whilst simultaneously accessing the middle of the chest when a successful squeeze is integrated at the end of the positive aspect of the movement.

This is performed in the exact same manner as the incline cable flye, although the cable handles must be at the lowest point possible on the cable machine before the movement begins.

Simple grasp the handles in a neutral position, and proceed to squeeze them together, upwards and towards the middle of the sternum whilst leaving a ruler length gap and squeezing to emphasize the inner wall of the sternocostal aspect of the pec major.

Be incredibly careful not to overlap the cable handles, as again this will result in the deltoids being targeted more than the chest.

Middle Chest Specific Exercises

This is where things start to get a little confusing.

What’s confusing about the middle chest? Well, the middle chest you thought existed probably isn’t the middle chest that exists in human biology.

This is a point of serious confusion and much heated debate.

Hulk cartoon character showing his muscles

Many people speak of the “middle” of the chest as being a horizontal line, travelling across the middle of the chest from the far left of the outer edge of the pec major, going across in a straight line to the right hand outer edge of the pec major on the opposite side.

There’s only one slight problem; such a division of the sternocostal aspect of the pectoralis major simply doesn’t exist.

What does exist is actually a vertical line; the true middle chest division takes place between the middle of the pec major muscles, directly across the sternum area it self.

The furthest extent of the inner edge of both the right and left hand sides of the pec major is where this separation takes place (though it should be said that what fills that space isn’t a cavity, you still have intertwining muscle fibres directly interweaving the left and right pecs there.)

Ever seen that wonderful, perfectly carved line running down the middle of the left and right pecs? That’s the middle chest we’re going for.

Close Grip Bench Press

Yes, this is absolutely a triceps exercise (so too is any compound chest pressing movement) and it’s a great addition to your tricep arsenal. It’s also an absolutely fantastic way to target your inner chest walls due to the hand position and the manner in which the weight load is placed on the body.

Man doing bench press workout in the gym

Fantastic way to target your inner chest walls.

Perform this movement in exactly the same manner as the flat barbell press; this time however ensure that your hands are positioned inside of the shoulder girdles.

You will also have to bring the elbows closer into the body; a 15 degree angle away from the sides of the body is a good rule of thumb to follow. This will ensure maximum tricep drive and emphasise the integration of the inner walls of the pec major muscles at the top of the movement.

Wide Stance Dips

Again, dips are a great triceps exercise but they’re also utterly fantastic at integrating the inner walls of your chest. You’ve got to ensure that to maximise the inclusion of the pec major muscles, the stance must be wide as opposed to the more tricep reliant narrow stance dips.

Lean slightly forwards, and lower the body until the arms reach a 90-degree angle before returning to the starting position and leaving a slight bend at the elbows.

One of the many reasons this exercise really hits the inner pec walls is due to the “crushing” pressure placed on them at the top of the movement creating a very strong and effective contraction.

Be careful not to lower the body too much, as you risk tearing the anterior deltoids.

Aren’t You Missing Something?

Yes, potentially you are; the serratus anterior.

Serratus Anterior muscle scheme

Got chicken legs? Don't forget about your chicken wings.

You’ll actually integrate this area successfully as part of a well-balanced chest routine including incline movements, but there’s one exercise that integrates it as a stabilization muscle perhaps more successfully than any other.

This exercise is known as the dumbbell pullover; though here’s something you may not know.

Dumbbell pullovers are primarily a lat (back) isolation exercise. They’re not very effective for the chest save for this one crucial element where they are heavily relied upon.

Provided you are at least 48 hours out from back day, it’s a good idea to include pullovers performed on a 30 degree incline to really emphasise the integration of the serratus anterior.

Lying with the back flat against a bench, position a dumbbell base end up in an elevated position above the face. Proceed to lower the arms until the dumbbell handle is parallel to the top of the skull with the arms almost fully outstretched (leave a slight bend at the elbows.) Return to the starting position.

It’s a good idea to ensure you add this exercise into your arsenal; it’s going to help fully round off your chest (though quite indirectly) due to the development of the serratus anterior.

Chest Workout Routines

Now that you know some of the most effective exercises; let’s piece it all together.

Before we proceed onto the workouts themselves; let’s discuss rep ranges and rest periods.

Which Rep Range Is Best For Size?

All of them.

Another series of common statements you’re likely to hear on the gym floor typically go along the lines of “x amount of reps, every time is best for x goal”, and it’s often being voiced by someone of a respectable, even near olympia size standard on occasion.

What This Typically Means Is Two Things:

  • This person has fairly recently (maybe over the past year or so) been primarily using this rep range or set count
  • This person has seen some positive development using this set or rep count

In both instances; this does not mean in any way that they either A haven’t used other rep ranges before (the rep range they actually built their foundation with and what they’re currently telling you they’re using are often worlds apart), or B they can’t develop further themselves by changing their own training variables.

Bearing in mind everything we discussed earlier; one ingredient vital for progression is change. This is why every few weeks it’s a good idea to completely change your rep ranges and set numbers / rest periods.

In fact, most people don’t even adhere to rest periods, and this is an issue in itself; if stimulating growth is the result of intensity then a 5 minute gap in between sets isn’t going to lead to that stimulation in any way.

Rest periods are your friend; stick to them concisely.

Mass Building Chest Routine

All exercises to be performed for between 5-8 reps unless stated otherwise.

Focus on a 2 second negative, and 2 second positive count whilst lifting and ensure that you pause for 1 second at the bottom of every movement.

Three sets per exercise, with a strict 60-90 second rest period in between sets.

  • Flat barbell bench press (increase the weight immediately on the second set to ensure that you either hit or get close to your 5 rep max)
  • Incline dumbbell chest press
  • ​Decline barbell smith machine press
  • Flat dumbbell flyes (stick within the 8-10 rep range for this one)
  • Upper cable flyes
  • Lower cable flyes
  • Body weight or weighted wide stance dips

Definition Oriented Chest Routine

Four sets per exercise with a 30-60 second rest in between sets.

Perform all exercises for 10-12 reps unless stated otherwise.

Adhere to the same 2 second up, 2 second down count when performing reps.

  • Incline dumbbell chest press
  • Seated machine chest press (neutral)
  • ​Pec deck
  • Lower cable flyes
  • ​Incline dumbbell flyes
  • Close grip bench press

A Routine To Prioritize The Upper Chest

Three sets per exercise with a 60-90 second gap in between sets.

Perform all exercises for 5-8 reps unless stated otherwise.

2 seconds up, 2 seconds down and a 1 second hold on every exercise.

  • Incline barbell bench press.
  • Incline dumbbell flyes (perform this exercise for 8-10 reps)
  • ​Upper cable flyes (perform this exercise for 8-10 reps)
  • Dumbbell pullovers
  • High volume incline dumbbell chest press (12-15 reps on every set)
  • High volume seated incline chest press machine (if you can find one in your local gym, these machines are a great variant to the neutral version and simply come out at an inclined angle when you lift as opposed to straight forwards - 12-15 reps on every set)
Arnold Schwarzenegger doing exercise

Legendary body builder - Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A Routine To Prioritize The Lower Chest

Three sets per exercise with a 60-90 second gap in between sets.

Perform all exercises for 5-8 reps unless stated otherwise.

2 seconds up, 2 seconds down and a 1 second hold on every exercise.

  • Decline barbell bench press
  • Decline dumbbell flyes (perform this exercise for 8-10 reps)
  • ​Lower cable flyes (perform this exercise for 8-10 reps)
  • ​Decline dumbbell chest press high volume set (perform this exercise for 12-15 reps per set)
  • ​Wide stance dips
  • Decline press ups, ideally on a suspension unit to finish (aim for between 12-15 reps per set)

A Routine To Prioritize The Middle Chest

Three sets per exercise with a 60-90 second gap in between sets.

Perform all exercises for 5-8 reps unless stated otherwise.

2 seconds up, 2 seconds down and a 1 second hold on every exercise.

  • Close grip bench press
  • Weighted wide stance dips
  • ​Pec deck (perform this exercise for between 8-10 reps)
  • ​Upper cable flyes (perform this exercise for between 8-10 reps)
  • ​Flat dumbbell chest press
  • Flat dumbbell flyes (perform this exercise for between 8-10 reps)

Please note that any of the flat or neutral position exercises listed will only work should you leave a ruler length gap at the top of the movement and ensure you squeeze the muscles at the end of the contraction to fully integrate the inner walls of the pec major.

Chest Workouts At Home

Luckily, there are a few highly effective exercises you can perform at home that will greatly emphasize every area of your chest similarly to the exercises listed previously.

Press-Ups

Press ups are the body weight equivalent of the flat barbell bench press and will target the pec major (and minor provided your depth is great enough) muscle in a highly effective manner; simply lie down in a prone position, place the hands directly in front of the anterior deltoids and balance the weight of your body across the hands and tiptoes.

Athlete man showing his muscles

No Touching Allowed!

Proceed to lower your body down whilst keeping the elbows bent at a 45 degree angle; at the bottom of the movement the face should be a mere inch or two away from the ground.

Whilst keeping the spine perfectly straight, proceed to press down against the ground and lift the body back up to the starting position.

Be very careful when performing this exercise not to twist the wrists diagonally outwards from the shoulder girdle position or contort the spine.

Diamond Press Ups

This one is great for the middle chest; place the hands in a diamond position on the inside of the shoulder girdles and proceed to perform a press up. Your elbows will need to be at roughly a 15-degree angle away from the body as with the close grip bench press.

Incline Press-Ups

You might be wondering how this one works; it’s probably not in the way you think either.

Place your feet on a bench and suspend the body with the hands placed directly underneath the anterior deltoids.

All you need to do now is elevate the body and perform a normal press up; this time however, the emphasis is on the clavicular aspect of the pec major. Serratus anterior involvement is also an aspect of this exercise as a stabilizer.

Decline Press Ups

In exactly the same manner as you placed your feet on a flat bench for incline press-ups; you’re instead going to place your hands on a bench to replicate a decline pressing movement.

Man doing decline push ups

Elevate your nipple line above the bench and proceed to perform a press up.

With this one, simply elevate your nipple line above the bench and proceed to perform a press up. Lower the body until it is only an inch or two away from the bench then return to the starting position again.

Flyes

Yes, you can perform flyes believe it or not. All you’ll need to perform a flye from any angle is a suspension-training strap. This will allow you to suspend the body from any anchor point and perform anything from a press up, to an incline flye.

When you perform the movement, instead of holding dumbbells, this time you’ll be using your own body weight to apply stimulus to the muscles. Simply expand and close the hands (like an exaggerated clap) when you have chosen the relevant position for your exercise.

All positions for flyes are exactly the same as they are for press-ups.

Be very wary not to hyperextend.

Dips

Similar to fly’s, wide angle dips can be performed on either a suspension strap or a set of home dipping bars. In terms of ease, this is a very easy addition to include in your home-based exercise arsenal.

When performing any exercise at home always be very careful not to try and perform any movement that you cannot handle without assistance.

Anything Else To Add?

We’ve adequately covered a wide array of chest exercises and important points within this article.

What’s important now is that you approach every training session with an open mind. Here are some great ways to keep your chest workouts fresh and ensure the area continues to progress:

  • Save your structure from the previous week and ensure you run through every exercise in a totally different order next time
  • Train chest on its own; many people pair it with other groups, but if you want to fully mature your chest then it might be a good idea to devote one full day to covering it from every possible angle
  • ​If you’re using the progressive overload principle (gradually increasing the weight lifted for a chosen series of exercises on a weekly basis) you can still change whereabouts in your routine you perform the exercises, but you should always ensure compound movements are performed towards the first half of your sessions
  • Always leave at the very least 72 hours in between chest workouts, ideally a full week
  • ​Don’t be afraid to throw in body weight exercises; they’ll still challenge the chest fibres adequately and add variety as part of a well structured routine
  • Include every angle, every week
  • ​Never primarily use free weights over machines or vice versa; as with angles, include a mix every week
  • Use an even mix of compound and isolation movement
  • ​Ensure you are 85% strict with your nutrition 85% of the time
  • Aim for 8 hours of sleep per night if you want to achieve maximum growth hormone release

These simple tips will help you to create dramatic changes.

It’s Time To Grow

Now that you’ve read stringently through this guide; you are very well equipped to successfully train your chest from any angle. It’s time to create the change needed to skyrocket your results and develop the set of pecs you’ve always wanted.

Man showing his muscles

Keep your daily routine strong and the results will come.

As you can see, chest training isn’t particularly complicated when you look at it as a formula; it’s just methodical. You really do have to ensure that no one aspect is overlooked in the pursuit of a well rounded chest or any other muscle group.

There’s simply never any good reason to not cover any aspect of your body in the pursuit of well-balanced aesthetics.

You may have learned a great deal when reading this article; you’d be forgiven for thinking originally that the chest is a simple group to target, however, it is more intricate than one can accurately discern by simply glancing at a flexing set of pecs in the local gym mirror.

There is a great deal of strategy involved in creating a truly well rounded chest.

Follow the principles in this guide; eat well, sleep well and spread the word amongst your training buddies so that they too can benefit.

Lets hit the gym.

About the author

Michael Garrico

I’m a 29-year-old personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Miami, FL. I’ve spent the last 10 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry.

In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

Leave a Comment