For most, muscular pectorals are a symbol of strength, built mainly with a basic movement, the bench press. Which has served as a primal proving ground ever since someone had the keen sense to craft iron into handy circles that could slide onto each end of a long metal pole.
The Bench still rules when it comes to pec development. But let’s look at five other exercises that make the grade, plus a bonus one that may surprise you.
1. Reverse-Grip Bench Press
Main Areas Targeted: middle and upper pecs
Strengths: Ready for this? Research has revealed that a reverse grip increases upper-pec involvement by 30 per cent compared to the standard overhand-grip bench press. That means that with this press, you are capturing most of the benefit of the Bench Press while engaging more of that harder to develop upper chest.
How-To: Lie on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor. Using the usual overhand grip, you’d use for a regular bench press, unrack the bar, but then rest it on your abs and switch your grip, grasping the bar with a wider-than-shoulder-width underhand grip. Press the bar up, driving the weight away from you until you almost lock out your elbows. Bend your elbows to bring the bar back down, allowing it to touch your upper abs before pressing it again gently.
2. Incline Bench Press
Main Area Targeted: upper pecs
Strengths: Trying to build a massive chest without pressing is like trying to hit a Fast Pace cricket ball with a fly swat. Sure, you can attempt it, but your chances of success are pretty poor. It is without equal among chest exercises for its combination of direct engagement of the upper pecs and the total resistance you can place on those muscles.
How-To: Lie on an incline bench set at 30 to 45 degrees and place your feet flat on the floor for support. Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip just outside shoulder width and unrack it, holding it directly over your upper pecs. Slowly lower the bar to your upper chest, touching down for a brief count before powerfully pressing it back to full elbow extension.
3. Incline Dumbbell Flye
Main Area Targeted: upper pecs
Strengths: The press is more effective overall to build your pectorals, but it involves a concerted effort between pecs, delts and triceps. On the other hand, the flye (in all its variations) isolates the pecs by having them do exactly what they were designed to — bring your arms forward to the front of your body, forcing them to handle the load without assistance. So in the incline flye, you have a motion that directly engages the intended muscles, and by performing it on an incline, you’re further pinpointing all the right places.
How-To: Lie on a bench set to a 30- to a 45-degree angle with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip, and extend your arms above your chest, maintaining a slight bend in your elbows. Slowly lower the dumbbells in a wide arc down to your sides. Stop when your elbows reach shoulder level and reverse the motion.
4. Dumbbell Bench Press
Main Area Targeted: middle pecs
Strengths: It offers a full range of motion and a direct line of resistance for the pecs, and it does not let a weaker pec compensate for a stronger one during the push phase. The dumbbell press boasts another vital advantage: It allows for varied hand positions, anything from palms facing away to facing each other and any degree in between. If your wrists give you fits on barbell presses, dumbbells are your salvation.
How-To: Lie on a bench with your feet flat on the floor, holding a dumbbell in each hand just outside your shoulders. Powerfully press the dumbbells upward toward the ceiling. Stopping when they come to a couple of cm or so away from each other above your upper-middle chest. Then slowly bend your elbows to lower the weights back down to a point even with your torso.
5. Cable Crossover
Main Areas Targeted: inner pecs, lower pecs
Strengths: Cables offer a direct line of pull against resistance, and that resistance remains constant throughout the entire range of motion of the flye. When you do flyes with dumbbells, the force of gravity lessens at the top, meaning it gets easier at just the point you want to squeeze the hardest.
How-To: Stand in the direct centre of a cable-cross station with your feet staggered, knees slightly bent and your focus forward, and grasp D-handles attached to the upper pulleys. Starting with your palms facing downward and elbows slightly bent, flex your pecs to draw the handles down and together, meeting below your waist. Try to keep your elbows up throughout the movement. Pause a moment for a peak contraction, then slowly allow the handles to return to the start position. Don’t let the weight stacks touch down between reps.
6. Bonus - Dumbbell Pullover
You could argue that this exercise doesn’t belong on a top X list for the chest. You’ll swear till you’re blue in the face that it trains the back, or you’ll belittle it as a relic once revered but now relegated to the training scrap heap because of its potential danger to the shoulders.
The first argument would be correct — it doubles as an excellent back exercise. But for those who claim shoulder-impingement concerns, well, I’d argue that the problem isn’t the pullover; it’s the lack of flexibility prevalent in today’s gyms. If you don’t have full mobility in your upper back and delts, the pullover will always be uncomfortable. You probably need to work on your mobility anyway.
Main Areas Targeted: pectorals, latissimus dorsi, serratus
Strengths: Most chest exercises fall into one of two categories: They involve pressing a weight (bending and extending at the elbows) or making a flye motion (keeping your elbows fixed and closing and opening your arms in front of your body). The pullover is one of the few options that work the chest at a completely different angle, in a top-to-bottom contraction.
How-To: Lie on a bench with your upper back, head and neck supported and your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell with your arms extended above your face. Maintaining just a slight bend in your elbow throughout, slowly lower the dumbbell backward, allowing your elbows to come to a point at which they align with your ears. When you’ve stretched as far as you can without bending your elbows, flex through your chest and lats to reverse direction to bring the dumbbell back overhead.