Great Chest Muscles; Aspirational but Challenging
To produce results, our team prioritise accuracy and objectivity to establish what works and what doesn’t. There are many articles, blogs and workout programmes online based solely on opinions and anecdotes. Our articles aim to establish facts about which exercises can be considered the most effective. If seeking to develop your chest muscles (pectoralis major), the information will help you understand how to identify an effective workout programme.
In order to narrow the huge number of different of chest exercises to only those with the greatest return on investment, one of our newest personal Trainers (Harry) highlights research by Brett Contreras. Contreras’ research used MCG (magnetocardiography) to analyse the electrical activity of the pectorals during a given exercise.
An MCG gives two readings;
1) Your muscle’s ‘peak activation’ (the maximum number of fibres recruited at any single point during the movement).
2) Your muscle’s ‘mean activation’ (the average number of fibres recruited throughout the entire movement).
We will focus on the mean activation scores only. With regards to building muscle, creating tension (maximal fibre recruitment) across the entire exercise is the more valuable measure.
The following chest exercises are listed in order of their mean fibre activation score (high-to-low). The greater tension we can create using an exercise, the more significant the stimulus to catalyse growth! If building and developing a muscle is your goal, finding novel and impactful ways to maximise tension should be a top priority when selecting exercises.
#1 Mid-height Cable Cross Overs.
The highest mean activation score for the upper chest muscles belongs to mid-height Cable Cross-overs. Whilst it may seem counterintuitive, this isolated exercise is the most effective in activating your upper pecs. If you were to use a search engine and type “effective chest exercises”, most opinions and blogs would identify the Bench Press as the exercise with the biggest impact. Depending on how you use this information, or who writes your workout programme, research suggests that this is unlikely to be the case.
#2 Banded Push Ups
Band-resisted Push Ups were a close second, showing you don’t need to complicate things for effective recruitment. Further, perfectly performed Push Ups are far more challenging than people give them credit! When performed with a controlled tempo and absolute focus, Push Ups can be a brutal exercise that effectively targets the upper chest. As you become stronger, adding a resistance band to your Push Ups allows you to progressively overload the pectorals long-term.
#3 Incline Barbell Press
Our third-place exercise is an inclined Bench Press. More specifically, Contreras’ research reveals a 45-degree incline bench press had an extremely high MCG score. Perhaps the exercise most gym users would immediately assume is the first choice (when prioritising the upper pecs) is actually our third. As always, your execution impacts results. Harry (our coach) notes that controlled lifting speeds and appropriate pauses will maximise tension and produce visibly impressive results.
#1 Dumbbell Bench Press.
As the king of chest exercises, a Bench Press using dumbbells secures the top spot for targeting your mid-pec and the fibres that many of our male clients prioritise. Make sure to choose this movement above the standard Barbell Bench Press. Whilst the weight you are able to lift will not be as impressive, the impact is worth it! Effectiveness is dictated by your elbow position. Ensure your elbows remain at 45-80 degrees from your torso and use your elbows as internal cues to drive through your lifting (concentric) phase exercise.
#2 Dumbbell Floor Press.
Perhaps surprising, due to it’s limited range of motion, Floor Presses rank second in Contreras’ MCG research. Using dumbbells with a strong, deliberate chest contraction at the top of the press, you can engage your mid-pecs a tremendous amount using this simple movement. Many gym users may never have tried this exercise. If not, we strongly suggest implementing and noting the result!
#3 Dumbbell Chest Flyes
Chest Flyes are difficult to perform as they often challenge your flexibility and understanding of shoulder joint alignment. Ensure you keep a controlled range of motion throughout each set and never over-stretch in the lengthened position of the exercise. As with the Floor Press, consciously squeezing the pecs together as you bring the dumbbells above you will maximise pectoral activation.
No list of great chest exercises would be complete without Dips. This old fashioned exercise has the top-spot when targeting your lower-pec. A controlled speed is important here to ensure you don’t over-stretch at the end of the lowering phase. Effectiveness is often reduced (and occasionally damage caused) by lowering too far in to the bottom position of a Dip. If in doubt, lower yourself until your elbow is at 90-degrees only, then drive back up to full extension at your elbow.
Our team agree that greater detail can be added in using Dips effectively. If you lean your torso forward as you descend through the exercise, you will engage the lower chest muscles far more effectively. By maintaining a more upright position, your triceps will be preferentially recruited.
#2 Barbell Guillotine Press
This particular press is another exercise you may be unfamiliar with. As the name suggests, we are using a barbell to imitate the path of a guillotine (towards your neck), instead of lowering the barbell to the typical position on your chest (as with a regular Bench Press). This specific bar path results in a significantly higher activation score for the lower chest muscles. A word of caution; you need great shoulder mobility and good coaching to begin to implement this movement in to your workout programme.
#3 Dumbbell Floor Press
The Floor Press is the only exercise to appear twice on our list! This exercise not only activates the mid-chest with efficiency but also the lower pecs. When our coaches train outside our facility in Bank, we rarely see this exercise performed in commercial gyms. This (too often overlooked) movement is a worthy addition to most chest muscle focused workout programmes.
How to Spot a Great Workout for Your Chest Muscles
It is important to understand that, in spite of this (exhaustive) list, there is still no single “best” pectoral exercise. Meaning, there is no single exercise that will deliver optimal results in muscularity for any muscle group. Whether you are training for functionality, strength or aesthetics it is important to methodically implement a range of exercises. For larger muscles, variety and novelty of stimulus will always remain necessary for optimal development.
However, our goal is for you to finish reading this article with a better understanding of what constitutes a great from a not-so-great chest workout. Even if you do not have the luxury of a personal trainer, you can use this information to guide your own workout programme selection.
If looking for a simple but effective chest workout that you intend to perform once each week, we have put together a set of ‘Beginner’s Guidelines’ to help you find those of greatest benefit.
1. Total number of sets should be between 12-20 approximately.
2. Your workout should use exercises that targets all three primary fibre locations (upper-, mid- and lower-chest).
3. Your workout should prioritise use of exercises that recruit the greatest number of muscles fibres, thereby generating maximum tension.
4. Your workout should show methodical progression through each exercise. It should be clear why each exercise is where it is, aligning with your goals.
Thank you for reading.
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