If you’re like me, you got into lifting weights because you wanted to build chest mass, bulging biceps, and washboard abs.
(Our motivations may have matured since, but hey, there’s no shame in our not-so-humble beginnings.)
And since you’re reading this article, you probably need some help with chest hypertrophy.
Maybe you’re new to lifting weights, maybe you’ve been doing chest workouts for months or years with little to show for it, or maybe you’re a seasoned gym rat looking for chest training tips.
Regardless, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, you’re going to learn my top chest workout tips, the best chest workouts for men and women, and how to do effective chest workouts with dumbbells, exercise bands, and just your body weight.
Let’s jump right in.
Table of Contents
Before we get into the workout routines themselves, here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your chest training.
Your primary aims in your chest workouts are to lift heavy weights and progressively overload your pecs.
Unsurprisingly, the best exercises for achieving these are compound exercises like barbell and dumbbell bench press, flat and incline bench press, and dips.
Machine, cable, and dumbbell flyes can have a place in your program, but heavy pressing should be your bread and butter.
As a natural weightlifter, your number one goal should be getting stronger.
So long as you make that your primary focus in your training, you’ll have no trouble with chest hypertrophy.
What’s the best way to get stronger?
And by “heavy,” I mean working primarily with weights in the range of 75 to 85% of your one-rep max (1RM), or in the range of 8 to 10 (~75%) to 4 to 6 (~85%) reps.
High-rep sets also have a place in your training, but the majority of your time should be spent training in these rep ranges.
If you stop getting stronger, you’ll eventually stop getting bigger.
That’s why you must make progressive overload the key focus of your training.
You can do all the fancy training techniques you want, but if you’re not adding weight to the bar over time, you’re going to struggle to gain muscle effectively.
If you want to build a powerful and proportionate pair of pecs, you need to target both “heads” of the pectoralis major: the sternocostal head, or the mid- and lower chest, and the clavicular head, or upper chest.
While all exercises that involve one do, to some degree, involve the other, research shows that the incline and reverse-grip bench press are fantastic exercises for emphasizing the upper portion of the chest, whereas the flat bench press and dip are better for targeting the mid- and lower portions.
In order to maximize muscle and strength gain, you need to maintain a mild calorie surplus.
That is, you need to eat about 110% of your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) every day.
The reason for this is a calorie surplus optimizes your body’s “muscle-building machinery,” so to speak, greatly enhancing your body’s ability to recover from and positively adapt to your training.
That’s not all, though—you need to eat enough protein to allow your muscles to recover, repair, and grow effectively, too.
If you want to learn exactly how much protein you need to eat to build mass, check out this article:
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I hope by now it’s clear that building a big, strong, proportionate chest doesn’t have to be complicated.
It more or less comes down to getting as strong as possible on a handful of effective pressing exercises, and that’s exactly what you’ll be doing in these workouts.
Why: The barbell bench press is one of the single best exercises for building almost every major muscle in your upper body, including your pecs, triceps, and deltoids. This is why almost all well-designed chest workouts are built around heavy benching.
How: Lie on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor, directly under your knees. Pull your shoulder blades together and down, and without lifting your butt or shoulders off the bench, slightly arch your back. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart, take a deep breath, brace your core, and unrack the barbell.
Bring the barbell to the middle of your chest, making sure to keep your elbows tucked at about a 45-degree angle relative to your body. When the bar touches your chest, explosively press the bar back to the starting position.
Why: Like other bench press variations, the incline barbell bench press trains your chest, triceps, and shoulders, but it’s also one of the best exercises for training your “upper chest.” Including it in your chest workouts ensures you build proportionate chest mass—“filling out” your entire pecs.
How: Lie on a bench that’s angled at 30 to 45 degrees and place your feet flat on the floor. Pull your shoulder blades together and down, and without lifting your butt or shoulders off the bench, slightly arch your back. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, take a deep breath, brace your core, and unrack the barbell.
Bring the barbell to your upper chest, making sure to keep your elbows tucked at about a 45-degree angle relative to your body. When the bar touches your chest, explosively press the bar back to the starting position.
Why: The close-grip bench press emphasizes your triceps while still training your chest (and your upper chest in particular), making it a great exercise for building your arms and chest at the same time. Since it’s less effective for training the chest than the flat and incline bench press, though, it’s best performed after these other exercises.
How: Lie on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor, directly under your knees. Pull your shoulder blades together and down, and without lifting your butt or shoulders off the bench, slightly arch your back. Grip the barbell with a shoulder-width grip or slightly narrower, take a deep breath, brace your core, and unrack the barbell.
Bring the barbell to your lower chest, making sure to keep your elbows tucked at a 30-degree angle relative to your body. When the bar touches your chest, explosively press the bar back to the starting position.
Why: Dips are often thought of as a triceps exercise, but depending on how you do them, they’re also excellent for training the chest. When you first start doing dips you can make great progress with just your body weight. As you get stronger, though, you’ll want to add weight by hanging weights from a dip belt around your waist or by pinching a dumbbell between your legs.
How: If you’re using a dip belt, start by wrapping the chain around your waist, adding the desired amount of weight to the chain, and fastening the carabiner. Grab hold of both handles of a dip bar or dip station, then press yourself up by straightening your arms and gently jumping off the ground so that your arms are supporting your entire body weight. Lean slightly forward, bend your knees, and lower your body by bending your elbows until your upper arms are roughly parallel to the floor. Press hard into the handles to drive your body back up to the starting position.
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Not having access to a barbell won’t stop you building an awesome chest—grab a set of dumbbells and crank out the following workout, resting 2 minutes between sets.
- Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps
- Dumbbell Chest Fly: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
- Dumbbell Pullover: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Not having a bench is no excuse—the “inventor” of the bench press, George Hackenschmidt, did all of his pressing from the floor, and he had a chest any natural bodybuilder would be proud of. Work through this routine as it’s laid out below, resting 2 minutes between sets.
- Dumbbell Floor Press: 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
- Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
- Dumbbell Chest Fly: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps
- Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps
- Seated Dumbbell Triceps Extension: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps
There are plenty of chest exercises you can do with a set of bands that will help you gain or maintain muscle and strength. Here’s a simple workout routine that doesn’t require barbells or dumbbells. (Once again, rest 2 minutes between sets.)
- Banded Push-up: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
- Banded Chest Press: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
- Banded Overhead Press: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
- Banded Side Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
- Banded Triceps Pressdown: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
This workout hits all the upper-body “pushing” muscles hard without the need for any equipment. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because this is a body weight workout that it’s easy—you still want to rest at least two minutes between sets to perform at your best.
- Feet-Elevated Push-up: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
- Diamond Push-up: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
- Push-up: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
- Triceps “Bench” Dip: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
- Dive-Bomber Push-up: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
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It depends on your training experience, preferences, and equipment, but most people will see the fastest results from training their chest once or twice per week.
Here are some more specific recommendations:
- If you’re new to weightlifting (you’ve been following a proper strength training and diet plan for two years or less) and you’re doing barbell or dumbbell chest workouts, one workout per week is enough.
- If you’re new to weightlifting and you’re doing exercise band or bodyweight chest workouts, shoot for two workouts per week to get the best results.
- If you’re an intermediate or advanced trainee (you’ve been following a proper strength training and diet plan for more than two years) and you’re doing barbell or dumbbell chest workouts, two chest workouts per week is usually better than one.
- If you’re an intermediate or advanced trainee and you’re doing exercise band or bodyweight chest workouts, aim to train your chest three times per week if you want to gain muscle, or once or twice per week if you just want to maintain muscle.
If you’re using exercise bands or your bodyweight for your workouts, wait at least one day between workouts.
If you’re using barbells and dumbbells for your workouts, wait two to three days between workouts.
It is possible to do chest workouts every day, but if you do this, make sure you’re following a proper full-body training program to avoid injury or overtraining.
If you are new to lifting weights, it’ll take 8 to 12 weeks of consistent chest training to build a noticeable amount of chest mass. After this initial wave of newbie gains, expect to spend at least another 6 to 12 months training before seeing significant results.
To build a truly impressive chest takes even more time and dedication—you probably won’t have the chest development you want until you’ve been training consistently for 2 to 3 years.
But trust me, it’s worth it. 🙂
+ Scientific References
- Calatayud, J., Borreani, S., Colado, J. C., Martin, F., Tella, V., & Andersen, L. L. (2015). Bench press and push-up at comparable levels of muscle activity results in similar strength gains. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(1), 246–253. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000589
- Kikuchi, N., & Nakazato, K. (2017). Low-load bench press and push-up induce similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gain. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, 15(1), 37–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesf.2017.06.003
- Barnett, C., Kippers, V., & Turner, P. (1995). Effects of variations of the bench press exercise on the EMG activity of five shoulder muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 9(4), 222–227. https://doi.org/10.1519/00124278-199511000-00003
- Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: Nutrition and supplementation. In Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Vol. 11, Issue 1, p. 20). BioMed Central Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-20
- Rodríguez-Ridao, D., Antequera-Vique, J. A., Martín-Fuentes, I., & Muyor, J. M. (2020). Effect of five bench inclinations on the electromyographic activity of the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, and triceps brachii during the bench press exercise. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(19), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17197339
- Trebs, A. A., Brandenburg, J. P., & Pitney, W. A. (2010). An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(7), 1925–1930. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181ddfae7