If you’ve ever wondered how to build chest mass, this guide is for you.
Specifically, we’ll go over:
- Chest anatomy and function
- The best chest exercises
- My thoughts on decline pressing
- Optimal training frequency
And much, much more. Let’s dive in.
Chest Anatomy and Function
The chest is made up of two heads: the clavicular and sternal head. The clavicular head is located in the upper part of the chest and is attached to the clavicle. The sternal head is the bigger part of the chest - the middle and lower region. It attaches to the sternum. Both heads insert onto the upper arm.
The fibers of the chest muscles differ in the direction they run, meaning that different portions of the chest activate more or less, depending on the type of movement you do.
The common myth that you can’t target the upper or lower chest more with different exercises holds no water.
The fibers comprising the upper chest run downward, whereas the fibers of the middle portion run straight across(or horizontally). The fibers of the lower portion, however, run upward.
For example, contraction(or shortening) of the sternal head leads to transverse shoulder abduction(or horizontal abduction). Examples are the bench press and fly exercises.
Also, because the upper chest fibers run downward, the head also aids in shoulder flexion(such as during a front dumbbell raise).
This is why movements like the low cable flys and incline press emphasize the upper chest so well.
Where Most People go Wrong With Chest Training
As with other muscles, the chest also needs progressive overload to grow over time. No amount of benching or doing dips is going to develop your chest further if you’re not getting stronger.
It’s straightforward, right? If you reach 1.25-1.5x BW bench press strength, your chest is going to look quite good. There’s no way around it.
Yes, but a lot of people have it backward. They assume that the big bench press comes with the big pecs when it’s the other way around.
For example, this study found a tight correlation between pectoral size and bench press strength.
I’ve seen countless guys doing high-repetition, volume training for their chest 1-2-3 times/week with no much results after months of hammering. At the same time, others with a more minimalistic style of training who focus on getting stronger at a reasonable pace over time, get much better results.
And there is a third type of guys who lift moderate weights on the bench because they don’t want to injure their shoulders, yet have no problem loading up a ton of weight on the cable crossover and screwing their shoulders up.
There is a good middle ground, and we’ll take a look at it below.
The Best Chest Exercises for Mass
As with most other muscle groups, there are tons of exercises for the chest, but only a few worth mentioning. In fact, the list is quite short:
1. Flat barbell and dumbbell bench press
The barbell bench press gets criticism as a dangerous and ineffective exercise, but as you already saw, there is a tight correlation between 1 RM strength and chest development.
As for dangerous, unless you bench press with bad form, there is no real danger of getting hurt. Of course, having a pre-existing shoulder or pec injury complicates things, and you should consult a physical therapist.
But the majority of people don’t have them and just need to be smart about it.
As far as the dumbbell bench press is concerned, this study looked at the level of pec activation comparing the smith machine, dumbbell, and barbell press with similar loads.
And although this might be the case, the dumbbell press is still a very good exercise for people with muscle imbalances and those looking to switch things up.
2. Incline barbell and dumbbell press
A well-developed upper chest is very important if you’re looking to achieve the ‘armor plate’ full look and we can’t go on without discussing the incline press.
This study looked at different angles of pressing on upper pec activation. They found the most significant activation on a 44-degree incline compared to 0 degrees (flat) and 56 degrees.
Of course, you are the one who has to experiment and find the best angle for upper chest pressing, because we are all different to some degree.
As far as dumbbells against barbells go, this is up to you. If you find that a barbell activates your upper chest better, go for it. I prefer using dumbbells for incline pressing because it works best for me.
3. Reverse-grip bench press
Probably the least know exercise of all, but one that is actually effective.
This movement has been shown to target your upper chest and biceps much better compared to regular bench pressing, and some people find it more comfortable.
If you are having trouble doing the regular bench due to shoulder or elbow pain, the reverse-grip bench is something you should try.
It’s worth noting that, for some people, this exercise won’t feel natural and this is because of the position of your wrists.
In any case, the first time you try this movement should be with an empty bar. After that, gradually add weight and use a spotter since the movement won’t be as familiar to you.
4. Close-grip bench press
A more narrow grip has been shown to target the tricep better and involve the chest muscles less. And while this movement puts less emphasis on the chest, it still is a very good exercise for tricep development.
Stronger triceps directly contribute to a stronger bench press.
As for grip width, you’ll commonly see guys using a very narrow grip (almost to the point where their thumbs touch together).
This is a bad idea because it puts your elbows and shoulders in a weaker position for pressing and also puts too much strain on your wrists.
A shoulder-wide grip (or slightly closer) is just enough to perform this exercise. However, if you feel discomfort in your shoulders or wrists at the bottom, widen your grip just slightly and try again.
5. Chest Dips
The dip, specifically the chest variation, is a good optional movement you can consider for your chest training.
Well, I do have some caveats with this exercise I’d like to talk about:
For one, if you’re looking to overload your chest, shoulders, and triceps at the same time, there’s already the flat bench and close-grip bench press. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Secondly, there are people who start experiencing sternum pain from doing dips, and I obviously don’t recommend doing an exercise that causes you pain.
Third and final, you can overload the dip movement with a weight belt if bodyweight dips are too easy, but if you try to ego lift, you can seriously screw up your shoulders fast.
Other than that, dips are a good and safe movement. I recommend them as a chest and tricep builder exercise, especially in situations where you don’t have access to a bench(being in a small hotel gym, for example).
There are also various angles you can use to prioritize the upper, middle, and lower chest.
These movements have proven themselves to activate the chest as much as any pressing movement, with one distinct difference:
They are isolation movements and target only the chest, where your standard press and dips involve your shoulders and triceps into the movement.
Still, isolation exercises have their place in any balanced hypertrophy program, and you shouldn’t overlook them.
How About the Decline Bench Press?
Some of you might be thinking “Well, who the hell even does decline benching? My gym doesn’t even have one.”
The criticism this exercise gets is somewhat justified because the movement doesn’t seem to be very viable.
First off, the angle of your torso reduces the range of motion the bar can travel, meaning that most people can handle a bit more weight on the decline compared to the flat or incline bench press.
However, this often makes the decline press an ego lift.
Secondly, because of the limited range of motion, the decline press can be a great substitute to the regular bench press for people with shoulder problems.
However, for most people, I don’t recommend this exercise. There is no real payoff for doing it. Muscle activation is not better when compared to the flat bench press. Simply combining the flat and incline press is enough to develop your chest evenly.
A much better substitute for lower pec work is the bodyweight dip:
The range of motion is better, you can still overload the movement with a weight belt, and you can even use it as a finisher at the end of your chest workout.
How About the Smith Machine?
I get this question (somewhat) often, and the conversation usually goes like this:
Reader: Hey, should I bench press on the smith machine or with a barbell?
Me: Does your gym have a regular bench?
Reader: Yes, in fact, there are several.
Me: Check out this video about the smith machine.
Or like this:
Reader: Hey, can I bench press on the smith machine?
Me: Does your gym have a regular bench?
Reader: Actually, no. That’s why I’m asking.
Me: Switch gyms, like yesterday.
You can probably tell that I’m firmly against using the smith machine for the bench press.
First off, the smith machine has a fixed bar path. This alone is a big problem because the barbell bench press has a curved path. Read this great post on bench press bar path.
Also, because of the fixed bar path the smith machine offers, you’re not required to stabilize the bar from rocking side-to-side or swaying back and forth. All you need to do is push it straight up.
Not the best way to get strong.
Secondly, research shows that muscle activation is greater in the free weight bench press compared to the smith machine. This alone should be enough to discourage you from using the smith machine.
But, there are those people who pull the safety card saying:
“The smith machine is safe because if I fail to push the bar up, I can pin it straight away and not get hurt.”
Those of you, I’d like to introduce to the power rack. The safety arms can be set right about chest level. If you fail to push, the bar won’t fall on your chest.
You can also always use a spotter for peace of mind when taking a set near failure or trying to set a new personal record.
Trust me, most people will happily spot you if you ask them nicely. Nobody wants to see you struggling to get a heavy barbell off your chest if you fail to press it.
Optimize Training Frequency for Greater Growth
Training each muscle group more often has been considered to be more effective in the last few years, especially after a controversial study saw the light of day - the Norwegian experiment.If you are interested in an in-depth breakdown of the study, I highly recommend this article by Martijn Koevoets. Here are some cliff notes:
This study sparked quite a bit of controversy, even though it was never published in a peer-reviewed journal. The prevalent notion is that more frequent training results in faster progress.
However, a recent meta-analysis from Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues concluded that a higher training frequency doesn’t lead to more hypertrophy, as long as training volume is equated. It’s worth pointing out that this is not the case for strength gains.
But before you throw high frequency training aside, understand that you can (and probably should) use it as a tool to spread your weekly training volume more evenly. Allow me to elaborate:
For example, if you are doing 14-16 sets for your chest each week, instead of doing all of that work in a single session, spread it out to two or three workouts. Why?
If you do so much work for your chest at once, you would fatigue it quite a bit and once you’ve done half or so, you would have to start using lighter weights for fewer repetitions.
On other other hand, if you split the total volume into two sessions, you would do all of your sets in a more recovered state, you would be able to use more weight, your repetitions would be of higher quality (better form, longer range of motion, etc.), and that, over the weeks and months can lead to more muscle growth.
So even though the volume is technically the same, each workout is more productive and less fatiguing.
That is why I recommend training your chest twice or even three times per week, with each session including fewer total sets, instead of cramming all your chest work within a single workout.
Progression and Growth
Progression is the most important aspect of growth. No matter what training frequency you use and what exercises. Increasing your total training volume is what’s going to make you grow.
You can’t improve what you’re not tracking, and that is why you should keep track of your workouts.
I recommend using a simple workout journal or a notebook where you write in everything:
Putting Everything Together
To sum it all up, here’s everything you need to do:
1. Choose the Exercises for Your Workout
This is the fun part because you get to put together your actual routine. The main exercise of your routine should be the bench press or a variation of it. Your main focus in each workout is to progress on that one movement.
Once you do your warm-up sets, and you get to your working sets, you should do between 3 and 5 total sets.
After you finish your main lift, you can pick and choose between incline press and reverse-grip bench press. You can even continue with chest dips.
You can customize your routine and see what works best for you. Do 3-4 sets for your second exercise.
The third and fourth exercises are completely optional. You get to pick and choose from a variety of chest movement. I usually do dips as a third movement followed by four sets of slow and controlled flys. A great exercise to finish off the chest and add more training volume.
As for the total sets for the workout, start with 12 to 14 and see how your progress goes. Your focus should be the main movement (the bench press). After you do it, split up your remaining sets into the secondary movements left in your routine.
2. Build Training Volume, Don’t Chase Magic Repetition Ranges
You’ll hear all sorts of advice for rep ranges but what you need to remember is this:
Training volume is a huge factor for muscle growth. You shouldn’t spend your time chasing “the magical repetition range for massive muscle growth” and stupid techniques and tactics that promise results.
What you should focus on instead is putting in enough training volume and enough intensity. After you have a good understanding of what your average volume per workout is, you can then focus on increasing it over time.
This week you might be bench pressing 275 lbs. for four sets and ten repetitions on each set, making your total volume for that one exercise 11 000 lbs (275*10*4=11000).
Next month, you could be doing the same amount of repetitions with 285 or 295 lbs. And while you’re not changing repetitions or sets, the work volume still increases over time.
3. Improve Your Rest Periods and Know When to Train to Failure
Your resting periods should be as long as they need to be so that you can complete the sets you need to do effectively.
If, for example, you’re doing four sets of incline dumbbell presses and you’ve finished doing the first set of 11 repetitions, what you now need to do is rest as long as you need to, to be able to get another 11 repetitions.
There are some general guidelines you can follow, and they are pretty accurate (provided you don’t take your sets to failure):
Again, those are general guidelines, and as you spend more and more time in the gym, you’ll get a much better understanding of your body and how much rest you need to complete all your sets productively.
As far as training to failure goes, read this post I wrote.
Here’s a summary:
Training to failure is a great tool to use occasionally and not all the time. As long as it doesn’t hinder your performance for upcoming sets and thus your total training volume, you can use it on the last set of a given exercise. A great way to add in extra training volume that will, over time, add up for better results.
Say you’re doing sets of incline dumbbell presses. You do three sets with a weight that allows you eight repetitions (without reaching failure), and on the fourth set, you push it to 10-11 reps.
Now you’ve hit failure, and you will most likely need to rest a bit more. But since that was your last set, you’ve productively used failure training and have added more volume to your total.
Another example when you can use training to failure is on AMRAP sets your program includes. They are planned 'all-out' sets, designed to force an overload and positive adaptation.
4. Optimize Your Training Frequency
As we discussed above, it would be more beneficial to you to train your muscles more often. A great split to follow where you train each muscle group 3 times for every two weeks is this one:
Push (Chest, triceps, shoulders)
Pull (Back, traps, biceps)
Push(Chest, triceps, shoulders)
Pull (Back, traps, biceps)
Push (Chest, shoulders, triceps)
Pull (Back, rear delts, biceps)
Main Goal for Each Workout: Progress
As I wrote above, your main focus in each workout should be to make progress on your main lift.
Whether you do a few extra repetitions, rest a bit less, lift more weight or move the weight a bit quicker and more explosively. Progress is progress.
The other thing I stated above is that training volume is a huge factor for muscle growth. To measure it you need to multiply weight lifted * repetitions done * sets done.
So, aside from improving your main lift, you should also strive to increase your total training volume on the accessory lifts, as well.
There are many different ways to track your progress but the best one that has worked great for me over the years is a simple notebook made into a workout log. There, I record each workout - the total training volume and intensity.
When I’m at the gym, I use Evernote to record each set I do. At the end of the week, I copy my notes to my notebook. The next time I’m at the gym, I look at my previous week’s numbers and either use more weight or try to get more repetitions.
As I said, it doesn’t necessarily need to mean you should lift more weight. There are many ways to track progressive overload and small improvements add up over time.
Always keep The Repeated Bout Effect in mind:
If nothing changes, nothing is going to change.
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