7 Best Chest Exercises, According To Fitness Experts


Expert Reviewed

Sabrena Jo is the senior director of science and research at the American Council on Exercise based in Lawrence, Kansas.
Sabrena Jo, Ph.D. Exercise and Sports Science / Fitness
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Chest strength is about more than physical definition—strong pectoral muscles can help improve posture, benefit breathing and support the surrounding muscles and joints. While building muscle can take time, developing a strong chest doesn’t have to be time-consuming: The key is knowing which exercises to prioritize. Read on to learn more about the importance of chest muscles and discover seven different chest exercises recommended by personal trainers.

What Are Chest Muscles?

Before learning exercises to strengthen chest muscles, it’s important to know what (and where) those muscles are. “The chest muscles are made up of the pectoralis major and minor, as well as the serratus anterior, subclavius and intercostals,” says Corinne Croce, co-founder of Body Evolved, a physical therapy and personal training studio in New York City.

Each of these muscles is located in a different area of the chest and is distinct in shape and size.

7 Best Chest Exercises, According To Fitness Experts

  • Pectoralis major: The largest muscle of the anterior chest wall, the pectoralis major
    is located under the breast tissue and forms the anterior chest wall of the space below
    the shoulders.
  • Pectoralis minor: The pectoralis minor is a triangular-shaped muscle located under the pectoralis major.
  • Serratus anterior: This muscle stretches from the first rib to the eighth or ninth rib at the lateral wall of the thorax (located between the neck and abdomen) and along the scapula (a triangular-shaped bone in the upper back).
  • Subclavius: This small, triangular muscle is located across the shoulders and elevates the first rib.
  • Intercostals: These muscles make up different groups of muscles that are located between the ribs and form the chest wall.

Why Are Chest Muscles Important?

Chest muscles play several important roles, says Tatiana Lampa, a corrective exercise specialist and certified personal trainer. “The chest muscles are responsible for pushing the arms away from the body or the body away from the arms,” she says. Throwing a ball, placing a child in their crib, pulling yourself off the floor or grabbing something off a high shelf are all actions that engage your chest muscles.

Additionally, appropriately balanced chest muscles are key for maintaining good posture because they support shoulder and spine function, which, in turn, helps keep the body upright. Having a strong chest also increases lung function, as developed chest muscles improve breathing.

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How to Develop Strong Chest Muscles

When it comes to developing strong chest muscles, it’s all about consistency, says Lampa. It’s also important to work the muscles around the chest. “You still need to build strength and stability in other muscle groups to support the chest, especially the shoulders, back and core,” adds Croce.

Diaphragmatic breathing and other breathing exercises are an important part of developing strong chest muscles, too—by strengthening the diaphragm, they make it easier to perform the chest exercises themselves.

7 Best Chest Exercises, Recommended By Fitness Experts

1. Traditional Pushups

Equipment needed: none

7 Best Chest Exercises, According To Fitness Experts

Start on your hands and knees, with your knees spread a few inches apart and your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Straighten your arms and legs so your knees are no longer on the floor, bringing you into a high plank position. Slowly lower your body, keeping your head, neck, shoulders, back and legs in a straight line, until your chest is hovering a few inches off the floor. Use your chest and arms to push yourself back to the starting position. Repeat this motion eight to 10 times for two or three sets.

To modify a pushup, place your knees on the floor and navigate the same movement in the upper body.

“Pushups are one of the best bodyweight exercises, and you don’t need any equipment,” says Lampa. Pushups not only engage the chest muscles, but also the core, upper back and shoulders, which is key.

2. Scapular Pushups

Equipment needed: none

7 Best Chest Exercises, According To Fitness Experts

For this pushup variation, start in a high plank position, with your hands shoulder-width apart and your feet a few inches apart. While keeping your back and arms straight, squeeze your shoulder blades slowly toward one another and then release them. The body should only move up and down slightly—less than during a traditional pushup. Do two to three sets of eight to 10 scapular pushups.

You can modify this exercise by placing your knees on the floor.

“Scapular pushups are great for hitting the serratus anterior (muscle),” says Croce.

3. Wide Grip Chest Press

Equipment needed: Dumbbells, weight bench (optional)

7 Best Chest Exercises, According To Fitness Experts

Lie with your back flat on the floor or on a weight bench. Place your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Place your arms in a cactus formation, so each arm is at a 90-degree angle with your hands about 3 inches wider than your shoulders. Start with your elbows bent. As you exhale, press the dumbbells straight above your chest. Inhale as you bring both dumbbells down in a controlled motion to the starting position. Complete two to three sets of 10 reps.

To modify this exercise, alternate lifting the dumbbells instead of lifting them simultaneously.

A wide-grip chest press engages the pectoralis major, shoulders and triceps muscles. It can be done using a barbell, but Croce recommends starting with dumbbells that are a comfortable weight for your fitness level and strength.

4. Narrow Grip Chest Press

Equipment needed: Dumbbells, weight bench (optional)

7 Best Chest Exercises, According To Fitness Experts

A narrow-grip chest press engages slightly different muscles than the wide-grip chest press by targeting the lower chest and shoulders. It’s performed the same way as a wide-grip chest press, except the hands should be shoulder-width apart and no further.

Similar to the wide-grip chest press, lie with your back flat on the floor or on a weight bench with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand. This time, instead of holding your hands wider than your shoulders, keep them shoulder-width apart. Hold the weights just above your chest. Start with your elbows bent, and exhale as you push the dumbbells up above your chest. Inhale as you bring both dumbbells down in a controlled motion, holding them directly over the chest. Complete two to three sets of 10 reps.

As with the wide-grip chest press, you can modify this move by alternating lifting the dumbbells instead of lifting them simultaneously.

5. Incline Bench Press

Equipment needed: Weight bench, barbell (or dumbbells, to modify the move)

7 Best Chest Exercises, According To Fitness Experts

Lie back on a weight bench at a 30-degree incline. Place your hands on the barbell with your palms facing up. Extend your arms, lifting the bar until it’s above your shoulders. Slowly bring the bar back to your chest. Complete 10 to 15 reps of this exercise for two to three sets.

To modify this exercise, use dumbbells of a weight you can lift comfortably, placing one dumbbell in each hand and moving through the exercise in the same way.

“This exercise works the pectoralis major,” says Lampa. “It’s another great exercise for strengthening your upper chest.”

6. Cable Chest Flys

Equipment needed: Cable machine (or a weight bench and dumbbells, to modify the move)

7 Best Chest Exercises, According To Fitness Experts

Stand with your back to the cable machine and grip the cable handles. Place one foot in front of the other, leaning forward slightly. Keep your back straight. While maintaining a slight bend in your arms, pull the handles in front of your chest toward each other until your hands meet, then release slowly, allowing both arms to return to their starting position at the same time. Keep your core engaged throughout the exercise. After 10 to 15 reps, alternate the position of your feet, and repeat the exercise for a second set.

If cable chest flys using a cable machine feel too strenuous, use a flat bench and dumbbells instead, says Lampa. Lie flat on the bench with your feet firmly on the ground and a dumbbell in each hand. Start with both arms outstretched on either side with your elbows bent slightly. Your palms should be facing the ceiling. As you exhale, bring both arms above your chest so that your hands meet in the center. Inhale as you slowly lower your arms back down to the starting position. Repeat 10 to 15 times for two to three sets.

Lampa recommends this exercise to work the pectoralis major and minor. “Using the cable is a great way to hold tension of weight,” she says.

7. Triceps Dips

Equipment needed: A flat raised surface, such as a chair, couch or weight bench

7 Best Chest Exercises, According To Fitness Experts

Press your palms into a chair, couch, weight bench or another flat, raised, stable surface. Place your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent so your thighs are parallel to the floor. Your bottom should be hovering just off the chair or couch. Starting with your arms straight, bend at the elbows and lower your body until your arms are bent in a 90-degree angle, keeping them tight to the body. Use your pectoralis major muscles, triceps and shoulders to press back up to the starting position, keeping the core engaged. Complete 10 to 15 reps for two to three sets.

The triceps dip can also be done on the floor instead of using a raised flat surface, says Lampa. “It’s a smaller range of motion, but it still targets the [same muscles],” she says. To do this modification, place your feet and hands on the floor with your fingers facing toward your body. Bend your elbows and lift your toes so that only your heels are on the floor. Extend your arms, straighten your elbows and press through your heels at the same time, bringing your bottom away from the floor. Slowly bend your elbows and lower back to the starting position, hovering slightly above the floor. Repeat for 10 to 15 reps, and complete two to three sets.

“Triceps dips are another great bodyweight exercise to incorporate because they work your chest, shoulders and triceps,” says Lampa.

The Bottom Line

Chest exercises don’t need to be complicated, and some don’t even require equipment. With consistent practice and repetition, your chest will get stronger, and you’ll likely notice improvements in your posture and breathing as well.

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