The bench press is one of the most recognizable exercises as a potent chest builder, but many lifters still struggle to gain size and strength in the chest with that lift alone.
Building a bigger chest isn’t as simple as aimlessly cranking out some bench presses and push ups, and here’s why…
When looking to gain chest mass during a bulking process, it is recommended to include a variety of movements spanning across several rep ranges. Your training should come from a combination of compound movements like flat and incline bench pressing, dips, dumbbell training, and more isolated movements like flyes.
The addition of higher rep training using machines is also helpful as they allow you to train the chest more frequently and at higher intensities without being limited by other muscle groups.
In short, the more you can train your chest (up to 2-3 times per week), and recover from that training properly (smart programming and eating enough food), the more you can repeat this muscle-building process.
To help you on your way to a bigger chest, we asked Stevenson and Keith McNiven, founder of personal training company Right Path Fitness, to recommend their favourite chest exercises for beginner, intermediate and advanced gym-goers, and we’ve thrown in a couple of our favourites as well.
This article describes exercises that help people gain strength and definition in the chest.
A great place to start for complete beginners – pop your hands on an elevated surface and do a press-up.
“This exercise allows you to very easily adapt the difficulty of a press-up. You could perform it against an elevated surface such as a bench, box or on a bar in a squat rack,” says Stevenson.
“It’s one of the most common exercises I use with clients starting out who aren’t quite ready for a press-up on the floor.”
The Chest-Building Exercise
1. Incline push-up
Pushups are a great multifunctional exercise because they work the entire upper body and back. Performing pushups at an incline will put more focus on the lower chest.
- a flat workout bench, jump box, or step platform
- Stand in front of the bench. Place the hands shoulder-width apart on the edge of the bench.
- Adopt a plank position by extending the legs backward until the legs and back form a straight line. Keep the weight on the balls of the feet.
- Slowly bend the arms to lower the chest toward the bench. Remember to keep the elbows and arms close to the body.
- Slowly push the body away from the bench, extending the arms but maintaining a slight bend in the elbow.
- Perform 8–12 reps for one set.
You’ll find several press-up variations in this list, which speaks to how great a chest exercise it is. It’s worth making sure you’ve mastered it before moving on to intermediate exercises, but if it proves too tough then check out the hands-elevated press-up above.
Start in a high plank position, supporting yourself on your hands and your toes with your body forming a straight line from your neck to your ankles. Bend your elbows to lower your chest until it’s just above the floor, then press back up, keeping your elbows close to your sides.
How-To: In a plank position, place your feet together, toes on the floor, with your hands wider than shoulder width and flat on the floor and your elbows extended. Keeping your head neutral and abs tight, lower yourself by bending your elbows until your chest gently touches the ground, then press through your palms until your arms are straight once again.
2. Decline dumbbell press
The instructions for this exercise call for dumbbells, but people can use a barbell instead.
Using a barbell will allow people to lift heavier weights for fewer reps, but dumbbells allow a greater range of motion, which may be a better option for people who want to target their lower chest.
- two dumbbells or one barbell
- one decline bench
- Set the decline bench at a 45-degree angle, and lie down on it with one dumbbell in each hand. Rest the dumbbells on the thighs with the palms facing inward. Remember to keep the back flat.
- Raise the dumbbells over the chest, extending the arms toward the ceiling. The hands should remain facing inward.
- Hold the dumbbells shoulder-width apart and rotate the wrists until the palms are facing away.
- To begin, bend the arms to form a 90-degree angle at the elbow. The dumbbells should be on the outer edges of the chest.
- On the exhale, use the chest muscles to push the dumbbells up. Squeeze at the top of the lift and hold for 1–2 seconds.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells to return to the starting position.
- Do 8–12 reps for one set. Rest in between sets.
A great move to do when the bench is busy, the floor press allows you to work your chest in a similar way to the bench press – but there are some key differences between the exercises. Lying on the floor and pressing the bar above you has a smaller range of movement than the standard bench press, so it puts less stress on your shoulders; it also means you can’t involve your legs in the press, so more work is done by your chest. Another difference is that as your arms touch the ground with each rep you lose the tension in the muscles, so you have to get going again from scratch with each lift, making the start of each press noticeably tougher.
Lie on the floor on your back with your legs either extended or bent at the knee with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a barbell with hands shoulder-width apart above your chest. Lower the bar to your chest slowly, allow your shoulders to meet the ground, then push the bar back up explosively.
4. Cable crossover
Stand in the centre of the cable machine with both ends of the pulleys at the highest level. Bend forwards slightly at the waist and hold the handles with your elbows bent a little. Pull the hands down and across your body, then slowly take them back to the starting position, keeping the bend in your elbows throughout the movement.
“This is easily my second favourite exercise after a bench press,” says Stevenson. “The cable cross-over enables you to work from low to high, across the middle, and high to low on the pulley machine, and ensure you get the chest DOMS that everyone craves. Superset this one with any chest press for maximal gains and a horrendous burn.”
5 – Batwing Fly
To hit a wider range of chest fibres than the bench press, set yourself up with two dumbbells and a flat bench. Lie on your back holding the dumbbells above your chest with arms extended towards the ceiling. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows and your back flat against the bench, lower the dumbbells out to the sides as far as is comfortable. Pause briefly, then bring the dumbbells back together above your chest. Aim for three sets of eight reps and use a weight that makes the final few reps tough to get through.
Kettlebell incline flye
Introducing some incline to your chest workouts is a smart move because it enables you to hit the muscles from different angles. We recommend using kettlebells for this particular flye because it keeps the weight on the outside of your wrists, which means it’s easier to maintain the same bend in your elbows throughout the move. Set up a bench at a 15° angle and lie back, holding a kettlebell in each hand above your shoulders with your palms facing. Lower the weights out to the sides, keeping a slight bend in both elbows, until you feel the stretch across your chest. Then slowly lift the bells back to the start by squeezing your chest.
6. Decline dumbbell bench press with external rotation
This move is a variation of the last exercise. It is slightly more complex than a traditional dumbbell press, so people trying this move for the first time might want to use lighter weights until they feel comfortable with the movement.
- two dumbbells or one barbell
- one decline bench
- Lie down on the decline bench with one dumbbell in each hand. Rest the dumbbells on the thighs with the palms facing inward.
- Raise the dumbbells over the chest with the arms extended toward the ceiling, keeping the hands in the same position.
- Lower the dumbbells into the starting position, but this time, keep the palms facing inward. Do not rotate the palms. The dumbbells should be parallel to the body.
- Inhale slowly.
- On the exhale, use the muscles in the chest to press the dumbbells up while rotating the palms outward to make the thumbs face each. Squeeze and hold for 1–2 seconds.
- Return to the starting position by slowly lowering the dumbbells while rotating the palms inward.
- Each set should consist of 8–12 reps. Rest in between sets.
7 – Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
This is an upper-body push exercise that targets the pectoralis major (upper chest), clavicular, costal, and sternal head, along with the anterior deltoids, triceps, biceps, and serratus anterior
Do it: Lie on a bench with the backrest set at a 45-degree incline. Hold a pair of dumbbells above your chest with your arms straight and your palms turned toward your feet, which should be flat on the floor. Keep your core tight and avoid arching your back, which means your butt should be glued to the seat.
Press the dumbbells up, directly above the shoulders. You might have seen some people in the gym knocking the weights together at the top, but there’s no need to do that here. Lower the dumbbells to chest level—but don’t stress on how deep you go—before you press them back up for the next rep.
8 – Close-Grip Bench Press
You can lift more weight with a barbell than with dumbbells because they’re more stable. That’s why barbell presses generally build more raw strength in your chest. But this variation puts more focus on your triceps, so you’ll get the added bonus of extra work for the biggest muscles in your arms, too.
Do it: Using an overhand grip that’s a bit narrower than shoulder width, hold a barbell above your sternum with your arms straight. Lower the bar to your chest. Hold for 1 second. Press the bar up.
9. Parallel-bar dips (chest)
Parallel-bar dips activate multiple muscle groups in the chest, arms, shoulders, and back. During this exercise, remember to lean slightly forward on the dip to engage the muscles in the lower chest.
- a set of parallel bars
- Grip the bars, using the arms to push the body up above them.
- Slowly inhale while bending the arms and leaning the torso forward. Continue lowering the body until there is a slight stretching sensation in the chest.
- On the exhale, lift the body back up above the bars.
- Repeat as many reps as possible without overexerting the muscles.
Parallel-bar dips require a significant amount of upper body strength. People who do not feel comfortable performing a complete chest dip can try the variation below instead.
10 – Decline Dumbbell Bench Press
Changing the angle on the bench does more than just switch up the scenery. This exercise zeroes in on your lower chest, helping to build serious size, according to Tyler English, C.S.C.S., author of Natural Bodybuilder’s Bible.Do it: Lie on a decline bench with your shins hooked beneath the leg support. Hold a pair of dumbbells above your chest with your arms straight. Your palms should face your feet and the weights should be just outside your shoulders.
Lower the dumbbells to your chest, pause, and then press them back up to the starting position.
11 – Band or Chain Barbell Bench Press
Adding chains or bands to the ends of a barbell changes the load as you move through the different phases of the lift.
Do it: Hang a chain over each end of the barbell, or anchor resistance bands to the bench and place them over each end of the bar. Start without weight, in order to get used to the unstable bar.
Grab the barbell and lie on a bench. Using an overhand grip that’s just beyond shoulder width, hold the bar above your sternum, keeping your arms straight. Lower the bar to your chest, and then push it back to the starting position.
12 – Plyometric Pushup
This explosive pushup nails the fast-twitch muscles in your chest, priming them for growth, said English. The movement also gives you another, more powerful option for at-home chest development.Do it: Get into a pushup position, your hands just outside your chest, your feet shoulder-width apart, and your body forming a straight line from head to heels. Brace your core.
Lower your chest to the floor and then press up explosively so your hands come off the floor. If you can pull it off, clap your hands together before returning to the starting position on the ground.
13 – Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
This exercise hits your chest like any awesome bench variation. But what makes it particularly special is that the other side of your body, specifically your core, has to lock down so the dumbbell doesn’t pull you off the bench, says Dan John, legendary strength coach.
The end result: The exercise sculpts your chest—and abs—to a greater degree.
Do it: Lie with your back flat on a bench holding a dumbbell in your right hand. Press the dumbbell directly over your chest until your arm is straight. Slowly lower the dumbbell to the right side of your chest.
Pause, then press it back up. Do all your reps on your right side, and then repeat on your left.
14 – Suspended Pushup
Performing pushups with your hands in an unstable suspension trainer works your core, chest, and stabilizer muscles harder than doing pushups on the floor, said English. Using the TRX straps makes this another more accessible option for home training.
Do it: Grab the handles of a TRX strap and extend your arms in front of your chest. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and your body anywhere from 45 degrees to parallel from the floor. Your body should form a straight line from head to heels.
Lower your chest toward the floor until your hands are just outside your shoulders. Keep your elbows in and your head in a neutral position as you lower. Brace your core throughout the movement.
15 – Standing One-Arm Landmine Press
Most chest presses stress your shoulders. This exercise nails your chest while improving your shoulder mobility.
Your shoulder blade moves with you as you press, putting less strain on the joint, said Eric Cressey, co-owner of Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA.
And because your core has to lock down to prevent your torso from bending back or twisting, it also rocks your abs.
Do it: Perform this unique exercise by placing one end of a barbell securely into the corner, grabbing the opposite end with one arm. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, bending slightly at the knees while pushing your butt back.
Start with your elbow by your side with your wrist up near your shoulder. Brace your core and press your arm straight up and out toward the ceiling.