The Real Way to Build a Muscular Chest

by Eric Bach

Top 5 Exercises for Sculpted Pecs

Here are the three strategies and five exercises you need to build big pecs. And the flat barbell bench press isn't one of them.

Many lifters struggle to build their chests for three reasons:

  1. Blind love for the barbell bench press.
  2. Ego-driven lifting: Chasing weight rather than chest growth.
  3. A poor mind-muscle connection.

Here are some key strategies and five pillar exercises to revamp your chest training.

Strategy 1: Improve Your Mind-Muscle Connection

If you can’t feel a muscle contract, you’ll have one hell of a time making it grow. This happens a lot on the barbell bench press. Your anterior delts and triceps take on the brunt of the work, leaving the chest as a weak point.

This is often an issue of focus, exercise technique, and ego. Many focus on lifting the weight instead of contracting the tissue. This results in a lack of eccentric control, a shorter range of motion, and sloppy reps.

This doesn’t mean pushing heavy weight on the bench isn’t important. You just need to switch your focus from lifting as much as possible to recruiting the target muscles. The mind-muscle connection is crucial. Being able to isolate your chest independently helps you integrate your chest into your compound exercises more effectively.

Strategy 2: Hit a Variety of Angles

Don’t just do the flat bench press. To maximize muscular recruitment of your pecs, hit a variety of angles, from a short decline to 15-45 degrees of incline.

Research by Muyor et al. reviewed muscle activation of the pec major, anterior deltoids, and triceps during bench press angles of 0, 15, 30, 45, and 60 degrees with 30 trained adults.

EMG activity of the upper pecs was highest at 30 degrees, with the middle and lower portions being highest at 0 and 15 degrees, respectively. Inclinations greater than 45 degrees produce significantly higher activation of the anterior deltoid and decrease the muscular performance of the pectoralis major.

Strategy 3: Go Beyond the Barbell Bench Press

Continue using the barbell bench variations for strength but with a low-volume approach. That way, you’ll still get your nut every Monday with 3-4 sets of 3-8 reps. Then, hit the majority of your hypertrophy-focused work with classic set and rep schemes for growth using some of the exercises below.

The Top 5 Exercises

1. DIP (FORWARD LEAN)

Dips are a staple exercise for building a powerful chest, not to mention strong arms and shoulders. But how you perform the dip goes a long way in determining how effective it is for chest development.

Some crucial cues:

  • Lean your torso forward, put your legs forward, and then shift more weight onto your pecs.
  • Use a medium to wide elbow position. This puts your chest under a greater stretch.
  • Avoid full lockout at the top of the movement to keep constant tension on your chest. Avoid jerking your head like you’re on a roller coaster. Changing neck position leads to subtle changes in shoulder kinematics and, therefore, muscular recruitment.
  • Treat dips like a primary strength and muscle-building exercise. Aim for 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps with external resistance.

2. LOW INCLINE DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS

Using 15-30 degrees of incline is ideal. (That’s about 30 degrees in the video.) Remember, higher angles tend to shift the resistance to your anterior delts.

When doing dumbbell bench press variations, focus on lowering the dumbbells to the outside of your chest, maximizing the stretch on the eccentric or negative. At the top, imagine touching your nipples together (kinky, I know) and squeeze your chest as hard as you can without clanging the dumbbells together.

Do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.

3. INCLINE BARBELL PRESS

If you’re going to use a barbell bench press variation, make it an incline. The incline angle helps you more effectively target your pecs, particularly the “upper pecs” near your collarbone.

Squeeze the bar and imagine trying to bring your hands together while you press. This isometric action incorporates the adduction role of the pectoralis major for better chest recruitment.

Perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.

4. COSTAL CABLE FLYE

Also known as the high-to-low flye, this hits the costal or lower fibers incredibly well. The constant tension of the cables creates consistent mechanical tension in your chest that dumbbell flyes can’t match.

You can do these at the beginning of your workout and focus on hard muscular contractions. This will teach you to feel your pecs working. Just don’t create excessive fatigue before your compound lift of the day. Remember, better isolation yields improved integration.

Or you can do them toward the end of your workout. In this instance, the goal is to obliterate as many muscle fibers as you can to maximize the growth response.

Do 3 sets of 8-12 reps.

5. CONVERGING RING PUSH-UP

The standard ring push-up is a great exercise. It requires a ton of stability through your core and shoulder girdle, helping you to build a strong and resilient upper body.

The converging ring push-up adds another element. You actively bring your hands together, squeezing your pecs at the end of the movement. This results in a much harder contraction.

To increase difficulty, elevate your feet. To decrease difficulty, get your torso more upright.

Program this exercise toward the end of your workout and do 3 sets of 8-15 reps. Control the tempo. Take 3 seconds on the lowering portion of each rep. Because of the inherent instability of the rings, take your time and focus on feeling each rep. Don’t hurry the reps just because your chest is on fire!

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Reference

Reference

  1. Rodríguez-Ridao, D., Antequera-Vique, J. A., Martín-Fuentes, I., & Muyor, J. M. (2020). Effect of five bench inclinations on the electromyographic activity of the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, and triceps brachii during the bench press exercise.
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The converging ring push-up is a fabulous exercise, especially if you can progress to adding weight at a flat angle. It’s been a staple of my workouts for years because it’s just so good and I’ve seen great results from it, especially when I started treating it as a primary movement. Does anyone else regularly program weighted pushups, either on floor or rings, as a primary movement?

Can also definitely vouch for weighted dips with forward torso and legs, especially on rings. Practicing both of these movements with good mind-muscle connection in the past few years have really helped my chest development.

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The low-incline dumbbell press is such a fantastic exercise I rarely see people do. For me it is better than the flat DB press. Anthropometry will come into it of course, but the stability in the movement, the ease of getting into position, the muscle feel… all of it surpasses the flat version with my body. Not that I feel any problems doing it flat, but it feels like less of an injury risk too.

I still use flat just as much because it’s nice to lift a teeny bit heavier, but despite that the slight incline feels like it’s doing more for my chest specifically.

I swear for so many people the flat dumbbell press almost turns into a decline with the arches I often see. If you’re one of those guys, and if you program dips as well then the slight incline makes more sense from a routine perspective in my opinion (if chest growth is paramount).

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Was interested until I saw the power blocks🙄
Not my thing.

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That’s fine. Use regular dumbbells. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

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Thank you. I’m a huge fan for the same reasons

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No doubt. I’ll use it with my feet elevated and/or a weight vest.

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Same. But for me it was his red T Nation shirt instead of a black T Nation shirt like the one I prefer. Now none of the exercises will work.
:neutral_face:

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EMG activity of the upper pecs was highest at 30 degrees, with the middle and lower portions being highest at 0 and 15 degrees, respectively. Should be “with the middle and lower portions being highest at 15 and 0 degrees, respectively”

I def treat the dip and pushup as primary. They are closed chain exercises and best for building real functional muscle

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Not on the list but I’ve found landmine chest pressing to be a fantastic way to activate my pecs and save my shoulders at the same time, especially when moving heavier weight.

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A solid combo, better than bench press imo (especially if humeral adduction and progressive overload are emphasized).

I agree with this approach, especially as an older lifter that finds a little barbell bench pressing goes a long ways.

I tend to get in most of my volume for chest using:

  1. Good ol’ fashioned push ups. I like Bear Blocks to allow for deficit push ups that are easier on my wrist. I do both bodyweight and weight vested versions of these regularly.
  2. Ring dips. I don’t have a regular dip station at home, but I like these better anyway.
  3. Ring push ups. I’ll try the variation give in the article, but these are just awesome. In addition to feet-elevated, throw on a weight vest for a harder variation.
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…why would this matter?

Ever?

Personal preference. Like Chris said, wrong color shirt was the nail in the coffin.

Assuming I missed the tongue-in-cheek nature of the original comment, carry on sir.

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I’ve got a healthy bit of skepticism for young writers. Tongue in cheek commentary is about all I have. But then I don’t know him. Peace.

How young am I? Feel free to peruse the last ten years of articles I’ve written with T-Nation ;).

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I’ve been a Biotest customer 30 years now. Sorry that I can’t keep up with all the new faces. I’m sure you have a great personality. Best to you and your family. Cheers😎

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:smile::point_right:t2: right

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