First, it’s worth saying that I love Jim Stoppani’s answer to people questions “what’s the best exercise for X“. His answer, is the “the best exercise for X, is the one you aren’t doing“.
What does he mean by this? That our body’s are bound by SAIDs: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. What the F does that mean? It means that your ask your body to do something, you train at that, it adapts ad then it’s easier. To get it to need to adapt again, you must change the exercise.
To relate this to Jim’s answer, different people use different exercises, so the answer to “what’s the best exercise for X“, is different for each person as it depends what you are doing right now. With that in mind, look at the list below and utilise the ones you don’t often do!
Nope, I’m not starting this list with bench press. The reason is two fold:
- Everyone does bench press
- I think unilateral exercises are better than bilateral, but (again) that is dependent on what you are currently doing
The dumbbell press is a great exercise when performed correctly. It forces each arm/pec (and triceps and deltoid) to work independently and thus doesn’t allow for any weakness/imbalance from one side to the other.
The ability for the arms to move independently also allow the wrist to travel in a more natural plane, this not only helps avoid injury and helps those already inured train, it is also more helpful if you are training for ring work or other unstable exercises.
Bodyweight exercises will always be king for me. I don’t care how much someone can Pendlay row or Lat Pull Down, if they can’t bang out 10 or more slow, controlled long arm pull-ups they’ve lost a little respect from me.
Dips fall into this category. I slow, full range set of dips is something to marvel at and will help shape the chest, delts and triceps in no time.
To hit the chest a little more, allow a wider grip, tuck the chin into the upper chest and tilt/lean forward. Don’t be afraid to dip low and beyond 90 degrees. Think about the transition for a ring muscle up where the hands are pretty much in contact with the chest before pressing up. Your dips should be trained in this large range of motion too if you really want to gain true strength and add some size to your chest.
If you can dip well already, with full range of motion and can even do so with some added weight, then move onto the rings. The extra instability is a real eye opener. Plus, like the DB press as opposed to the bench press, it’s far more of a unilateral than bilateral exercise compared to regular dips. Ensure you squeeze the chest at the top by turning the hands out. Again, lower deeply to really feel the benefit.
I usually prefer to keep these lists packed with compound exercises that will affect more muscles and therefore have greater effect on a physique whether fatloss or muscle gain is the goal. However, as most people will be bench pressing anyway, and all the other choices are compounds, it makes sense to include a fly and a cable exercise.
Cable exercises are interesting due to the change in the eccentric movement compared to a regular resistance exercise. The cable adds a little something different. You don’t need to go heavy, you just need to utilise a good tempo.
Some form of incline exercise is good to include as a lot of body builders complain about the upper pec not getting enough work from flat pressing. The bottom of the pec is naturally worked from flat work, press-ups and certainly from dips. The top however can miss out, so hence the cable incline addition.
Put both cables to the bottom, place the bench between the cables and fly away. Wait, that sounds odd… perform the flys. Lower slowly and concentrate of squeezing the upper chest on the concentric movement and at the top position.
I’m not usually one for choosing machines over free weights or calisthenic movements. However, there’s always a benefit to including a barbell. dumbbells, cable, machine and bodyweight exercise for each body part (if your aim is bodybuilding of course). Hence the inclusion.
What I do like about machines is that you can work hard on your own without the need for a spotter. Utilised in conjunction with DB press and dips, a machine can allow heavier work and protocols you might not do with DBs or can’t do with dips easily. For example, drop sets. Unless you train at a very quiet time, or are one of those annoying blokes who takes up 3 or 4 sets of dumbbells when training, drops sets with DB press isn’t really fair to others. However, drop sets on a machine press is a given. Perform 8-12reps to failure, then drop the weight by 20% and perform a set to failure again. Drop by another 20% and perform a set to failure again. Rest for 60-90 seconds and do it again. Perform 3-4 rounds like that.
5. Press-up variations
The press-up. Who hasn’t started a fitness journey with the press-up. It is THE exercise isn’t it? Even if you just tag a set of press-ups with a slow tempo to the end of a bench press or DB bench press set, they should be in your session somehow.
There are so many variations to mention, so I’m going to pick three than I think can really take the chest/pec building forward. Use them at the end of a session when you’re pre-fatigued so the lack of weight from this bodyweight exercise doesn’t mean it’s a waste.
1. Pause press-ups
Everything about this is the same as a normal press-up, except you pause at the low position (without then chest touching the floor obviously). This is essentially just a press-up with a horrible tempo. Try a Tempo of 3510 for 3 sets to failure.
2. Archer press-ups
To perform an archer press-up, set up for a very wide arm press-up. Lower and then take your shoulder on one side over to the hand on that side. Now, keeping the chest close to the floor, slide the opposite shoulder over to the opposite hand. Slide back. Continue to do that to failure. That’s one set. Perform 3-4 sets to failure. Don’t rush them, utilise a controlled 1 or 2 count from side to side with a 1 count pause at each side.
3. Dead stop press-ups
Much like pause press-ups, but this time the chest is rested on the floor, the hands are taken away, put back and the press-up completed. Don’t pause at the top, drop straight into the next dead stop press-up. Like the others, perform to failure for 3 or 4sets. Use a Tempo or 31×0 but remember the 1 is a dead stop, hands away, chest rested.
If you don’t understand the tempo after each exercise then have a look here for an explanation.
The best exercises for building the chest
There you have it, my top five for pec gains. However, like I said, the best exercises are the ones you aren’t doing. If you are already doing 3 or 4 of those, you may need to find alternates to include in your next programme so as to mix things up and keep your body adapting.
For a great programme to follow to build your chest/pecs, grab a copy of my GVT programme.
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Back to the gym. – After a couple of weeks away filming with @newzealandsonfilms we are finally wrapped and back in London. – I’ve spent the last few weeks utilising bodyweight resistance training, so it’ll be great to get back to the gym and switch things up with some weights. – I’ve said it many times on here: alongside intensity and progression, I think variation is really important. Too many people find a training programme or training style or couple of exercises they like and just repeat them. Just as progression/intensity requires you to VARY the weights or rest times or reps/sets. Variation requires you to VARY the exercises and style of training. – Photo: @surbs Shorts: @maximuscle @underarmouruk