I love chest day at the gym. As a personal trainer I need to keep in shape to look the part for my London clients, but I view this as a pleasure rather than a chore. Here are some of my favourite chest exercises:
(Warning: before performing any of these exercises make sure you are thoroughly warmed up, and make sure you use good technique to avoid injury)
Lie back on a weights bench, and push the dumbbells (in a palms forward position) above your head, then lower slowly with your elbows wide out to your sides, not tucked in towards your torso. This 90 degree angle of your upper arms in relation to your torso at the bottom of the movement is the key to good technique in this exercise.
The beauty of this exercise is that you can target different portions of your chest with different angles of bench. A flat bench chest press targets the centre of the pecs, whereas an incline press targets the upper pecs. The higher the incline, the more the shoulders become involved, so around 30 degrees from horizontal is optimum for the upper chest.
To target the lower chest, use a decline bench press, with your head lower than your legs. If you’re not used to this angle it will seem strange and wobbly, so go light until you’ve mastered the movement.
Try varying your tempo. For instance, raise the dumbbells for a count of two, and lower for a count of three. This is called increasing ‘time under tension’ which engages the muscles for longer and really boosts the effectiveness of your workout.
Another variation is to perform one-arm presses. This activates your core as well as your chest, by forcing your body to stabilize with an uneven load.
Personally I much prefer dumbbell bench press than barbell bench press, as dumbbells allow a greater range of motion, and both sides have to work independently. With a barbell press, the stronger side can compensate for the weaker side, so the weaker side never gets a chance to catch up.
A note on technique in the incline press: Don’t arch your back in the push phase, or you’ll turn the exercise into more of a flat bench press. In the words of bodybuilder Dorian Yates: “Keep your back pinned to the bench, adhering to the biomechanical groove of a true incline press.”
Use a light weight for your first set, and count it as a warm-up set. This is a good rule for all chest exercises. Lie supine (face up) on a flat bench and raise the dumbbells vertically up, palms facing each other, then lower slowly out to the side, keeping your arms relatively straight but not locked out at the elbow joint. This really isolates the sternal portion of your chest muscles. Locking out the elbow joint is dangerous because it puts strain on the ligaments and tendons, and sets you up for injury.
Don’t ever use a much heavier weight than you’re accustomed to. The chest flyes are a ‘long lever’ movement, so even a small weight seems heavy at the bottom of the lowering phase of the exercise. Emphasise slow reps with good form, rather than heavy weights. Ensure you get a full stretch in a full arc of constant resistance.
At the bottom of the movement, don’t let the elbows dip too low, or you risk injuring your shoulder joint and particularly your rotator cuff muscles.
The advantage of this exercise over the standard chest press, is that you get a much bigger range of movement. You can also perform this movement on a pec dec machine, or at the cable-crossover machine.
This was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s favourite exercises. He would lie across the side of a bench, resting on his upper back, and grip a dumbbell sideways (palms facing the inner surface of one end of the dumbbell) and arc the dumbbell smoothly overhead and behind for a good stretch. I prefer to lie on an incline bench at 30 degrees.
Pullovers not only impact your chest, but your serratus anterior, your intercostal muscles, and your lats. It’s a complete upper body workout.
This is more of an isolation movement, so do it towards the end of your chest workout. You can vary the angle of the movement to hit different parts of your chest. Fix the cable high and sweep down to the front of your belly button to target your lower/inner pecs, and bring the cables together on a more horizontal plane to hit the mid-chest.
Chest press machine and Smith machine
Machines isolate muscles and lock you into a sometimes unnatural position. I much prefer free-weights which allow a more natural plane of movement, and activate all the stabilising muscles around the chest. Machines are not mass-builders, heavy free-weights (dumbbells and barbells) are.
Many people who use chest machines complain of shoulder or elbow pain. This is because the machine locks you into a potentially unnatural position.
A purely body-weight exercise, the push-up requires no equipment and you can do it anywhere. No excuses! It’s also one of the most under-rated chest exercises.
There are literally dozens of variations of the push-up, ranging from easy versions from the knees, to advanced versions with a really wide or narrow position of the hands, or with feet raised to target the upper chest (decline push-up). To target the lower pecs, perform the movement with your hands on the side of a weights bench, and your feet on the floor, keeping your body straight throughout the movement. This is called the incline push-up.
The close hands version is known as diamond push-ups, because your thumbs and forefingers spread and join to make a diamond shape. This targets the inner pecs and triceps, and should not be attempted until you can do at least 20 regular push-ups in one set.
To add more explosive force to the push-up, try plyometric push-ups.
Plyometric means explosive force and power produced by muscles which are rapidly contracted and stretched. It’s a useful version for sports-people who need explosive speed in a movement, such as boxers.
The starting position is exactly the same as regular push-ups. Descend fast, and explode up so fast that your hands come off the ground at the top of the movement. This trains your nervous system for rapid movements. Don’t attempt the full movement from scratch, but rather build up to it incrementally to avoid injury.
Even more advanced are one-arm push-ups. Before you even attempt these, you should be able to perform one set of 40 regular push-ups without a pause between reps. You should also be free of shoulder problems, as the one-arm version puts a lot of pressure on the shoulder joint. Begin with partial reps (ie not all the way down) for a few weeks, to gradually build up your strength and technique, to avoid the risk of injury which comes with doing full range one-arm push-ups for the very first time.
Don’t forget to cool-down and stretch at the end of your chest workout. A good chest stretch should last for at least 6 minutes, holding each stretch for 60 seconds. Vary the angle of each stretch to make sure that all your chest muscle fibres get a good stretch. If you fail to stretch, your chest muscles will get progressively tighter, your range of motion will get smaller, and you’ll increase your risk of injury.
How you breathe during each rep makes a difference to the effectiveness of your workout. According to Michael Yessis PhD, “exhale as you pass the most difficult point, not on initial exertion.” If you start to breathe out too early, “the chest tends to collapse, weakening the working muscles and risking injury to the spine or shoulders.”
I inhale on the down phase (eccentric phase), hold my breath for the first half of the push phase, and breathe out explosively in the tougher second half of the push phase (concentric phase). Holding the inhalation in the first half of the ‘push’ gives volume and stability to your chest cavity.
Frequency, Intensity, and Time
Exercise your chest once a week, which is sufficient as long as the intensity of your workout is…. intense! You can combine chest with biceps, or triceps, or core. The famous bodybuilder Dorian Yates always combined chest and biceps.
What makes your workout more intense? Reduce your rest periods between sets, increase time under tension in each rep, use progressive overload (steadily increasing the weights over time to keep your muscles challenged), and ensure good form at all times. To squeeze out those last few reps, you can use a training partner to ‘spot’ you on some final ‘forced reps’.
How long should your chest workout be? I never stay in the gym more than 1 hour: 5 minutes for a warm-up, 45 minutes for the main session, 5 minutes cool-down, then 10 minutes of stretching at the end. A good chest stretch includes lying supine on a flat bench, and stretching your arms out to the side and let them hang for 1 minute. Repeat with your arms stretched behind you. Then repeat these two stretches on a 30 degrees incline bench.
Remember, the more intense your workout, the better your rest and recovery should be. The two crucial ingredients are sleep and good nutrition.
Don’t bounce at the bottom
One of the biggest technical mistakes people make is to bounce the weight at the bottom of the movement, in an attempt to produce momentum for the next rep. This can damage your shoulder tendons and ligaments, and increase the risk of a chest muscle tear.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London with over 12 years’ experience.