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The Best Chest Workout Program to Build Mass
Big and perky, that’s how we like ‘em. Someone new walks in and it’s the first place our eyes snap to. No, I’m not talking about a bar scene, but actually, the gym and finding the best chest workout for a bigger pair is a seemingly never-ending journey.
A balanced physique is important, but every man out there hopes for a particularly impressive pair of pecs to show off to his bros and impress the ladies. Luckily, we share your passion for a nice pair, so we’ve created a guide with the best chest workout tips to help you maximize your efforts!
Incorporate the below principles in your training, and use tools like the IIFYM macro calculator to begin taking control of your diet, and fuel your way to the best chest workouts for a bigger, perkier pair!
Progressive Overload is a Pec Priority
There are a lot of factors that contribute to the best chest workout strategies for strength and size. Of the multitude of important factors, none is likely as important as progressive overload is in resistance training. Now, of course, we first need to make sure we’re executing the exercise properly to avoid injury and ensure full muscle activation.
This is crucial, as we want to make sure that our readers and clients are mindful of preventative measures.
Once that’s taken care of though, it’s extremely vital to consistently focus on lifting a given weight for more repetitions, or lifting a heavier weight each workout.
Our bodies, but especially our muscular systems, are extremely adaptive. Past the minimum necessary for daily activities, our bodies aren’t that interested in gaining slabs of muscles. It’s metabolically expensive to build and maintain, and especially with the relatively sedentary life most of us live, extra muscle isn’t really all that important to survival.
This makes it vital for us to have the best chest workout possible each session if we want to create sufficient stimulus for our bodies to then adapt by further developing muscle tissue.
Moving Past Adaptations
Too often, trainees hit the gym consistently yet use the same weight and repetitions each and every workout. 6 months later, they have nothing to show for their efforts. This is because as our neuromuscular system adapts to a training stimulus, it improves its ability to lift a given weight using less total muscle fibers and more efficient neurological signaling to the muscle.
As we get better at lifting, let’s say 200lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps, we eventually use less total muscle fibers to lift that weight.
What this means for athletes is not only a lack of strength and size progression but an actual regression in size over time. We not only don’t improve, but we actually begin to look worse without constantly pushing ourselves to lift more weight for more reps over time. (1) The best chest workout isn’t one particular rep scheme or list of exercises.
The best chest workout is one that that continually challenges us through more reps, more weight or more overall sets completed over time. This is a point we drive home with our clients that are looking to build muscle consistently.
Rep Your Set
Anyone that’s followed my content here on IIFYM.com knows I pretty much have to insert a reference to rap music somewhere in my articles. Well, Future isn’t the only one that “gotta rep the set.” When I program athletes’ training, there are three factors, in particular, I always keep in mind: Progressive overload, rep range manipulation, and training frequency.
The best chest workouts available are those that keep these as top priorities. Other factors are important, but these three, in particular, can vastly benefit athletes.
Once you’re consistently focusing on lifting more weight for more reps, it can be very beneficial to training a career for athletes to also manipulate their rep ranges each training block.
… as training experience is gained, incorporating higher rep ranges in the neighborhood of 12-20 reps can add additional benefits through increased cellular swelling and metabolic stress within muscle tissue.
Without getting too technical, the best chest workouts incorporate a variety of rep ranges, all of which help promote muscular strength and size gains through different mechanisms. Varying rep ranges also helps promote sufficient central nervous system recovery, which encourages better long-term training performance.
Although a larger variety of rep ranges and training techniques can offer benefits, a very effective, general rule of thumb is to train exercises between a range of at least 1-12 rep sets, differing training load based on your one repetition max (1RM) and the percentage of that 1RM that coincides with the rep range we’re using for compound exercises. (2)
1RM% Initial Loading Chart
|Rep Range||1RM Percentage|
For isolation exercises, training load should be self-determined through warm up or “acclimation sets” which can help the athlete find the proper weight to use with exercises such as chest flies which don’t have a 1RM to base initial training load off of.
At this point, it’s important to make a concerted effort to complete your programmed rep range with the initial training load, then add more weight to the bar as often as possible (while making sure to keep safety the top priority).
Extremely high rep ranges (upwards of 20 reps) can also offer unique benefits to muscle growth such as cellular swelling and metabolic stress adaptions. For athletes just getting into a structured program, the best chest workout first focuses on 1-12 rep ranges, which can offer plenty of benefits. (3)
Then as training experience is gained, incorporating higher rep ranges in the neighborhood of 12-20 reps can add additional benefits through increased cellular swelling and metabolic stress within muscle tissue.
The best chest workouts include at least (2) of the below rep ranges to train in each training program. Compound exercises like presses can safely be executed anywhere between 1-12 repetition ranges. On the other hand, isolation exercise and exercises that can place a lot of stress on the shoulders such as dips are likely safer to perform between 6-12+ repetitions per set. (4)
If training chest twice per week, try programming a different rep range focus on both days. This will allow you to more effectively maximize the best chest workouts and the muscular adaptions they can promote.
For example, your training programming may look something like this:
Training Block 1 (Week 1-12)
Day 1 Rep Range Focus: 4-6 Reps
Day 2 Rep Range Focus: 10-12 Reps
Training Block 1 (Week 13-24)
Day 1 Rep Range Focus: 2-4 Reps
Day 2 Rep Range Focus: 8-10 Reps
Training Block 1 (Week 25-36)
Day 1 Rep Range Focus: 5-7 Reps
Day 2 Rep Range Focus: 10-12 Reps
By this point, you likely get the idea. Every 8-16 weeks, shifting the rep ranges you emphasize in your training can help you continually get the best chest workout possible.
Tune into the Right Frequency
The third major factor in creating the best chest workout program, and really the best training program in general, is determining the most appropriate training frequency for your goals. As the below chart helps reflect, for those just beginning a structured training program, hitting each major muscle group just 1x/week can provide a lot of benefits early on and allow for athletes to better adapt and recover sufficiently to the new training stimuli.
Then, as our bodies positively adapt to training, largely through a mechanism commonly termed the “repeated bout effect” we gradually improve our ability to sufficiently handle greater training frequencies. (5,6)
A safe rule of thumb is 6 months of more of consistent training, athletes can then begin incorporating increased training frequency by hitting each major muscle group twice each week.
This increased training frequency benefits resistance-training athletes by more effectively taking advantage of training induced muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS is the recovery and growth mechanism responsible for muscle tissue getting bigger and stronger.
Research has helped show that MPS is heightened for approximately 36-48 hours after a resistance training session. So if you train chest on Monday, MPS will be increased and muscle tissue will be repairing and growing until around Wednesday evening.
Keep in mind that as frequency increases, volume should be adjusted accordingly does allow sufficient recovery from week to week.
The Best Chest Workout Frequencies by Experience Level
Beginner (training less than 6 months)
– Each major muscle group 1x/week
Intermediate (6+ months)
– Each major muscle group 2x/week
Advanced (12 months+)
– Each major muscle group 2x/week
– Increase frequency of weak muscle groups to 3 or even 4x/week periodically
This is important because, as we’re able to, training chest again later in the week can help us maximize the “spikes” in MPS we can achieve each week.
(Weight training is crucial for building mass, but without a proper calorie surplus, it will not occur consistently. Have one of our coaches build your Custom Macro Blueprint for muscle building.
If we continued only training chest on Mondays, then Thursday-Sunday of that week we’re missing out on time we can produce more stimulus for growth. Even though Monday is typically “national chest day” in most gyms, the trainees hitting chest again on Thursday or Friday will achieve the best chest workout benefits than those following an old school bodybuilding split and only training each muscle group once.
In most cases, training each major muscle group twice each week, separated by at least 48 hours, can be a great spot for athletes.
The exception being competitive weightlifters or those with noticeable weak areas they are determined to bring up. If competing in powerlifting meets, increasing the frequency of barbell squats, deadlifts, and bench press greater than twice each week is common as the skill of each lift is better perfected leading into the competition.
The Advanced Require More Frequency
For the rest of us, increasing training frequency of a weak area to 3 or even 4 times each week in some capacity can provide benefits.
In the case of a weak chest which many of us deal with, this may mean having two designated chest workouts each week, then incorporating a third day of a bench press or fly variation in order to increase the frequency we’re able to stimulate our chest muscles.
This can help us maximize MPS stimulation while also improving the motor pattern of chest exercises, allowing us to get better at the skill of the exercise, and more effectively gain strength through it.
As a side note, it’s important not to overdo our training frequency. Sometimes increasing weak point training frequency has its benefit. At the same time though, the best chest workout program can quickly become a bad program if frequency or volume reaches a point in which recovery begins taking a major hit and we begin feeling too run down to perform effectively.
Work Your Angles
You don’t have to be a model to appreciate the importance of working your best angles. In resistance training in general, but especially when focusing on getting a bigger chest, the best chest workouts will take advantage of the variations in muscle activation that training in multiple movement patterns can produce.
A study in 2010 helped support the benefit of training in multiple angles by comparing activation in flat, 28°, 44° and 56° chest press to determine the best chest workout exercises. Results of the study showed that activation of the clavicular head of the pectoralis major was highest in 44° and 56° incline presses.
…a simple rule of thumb can be to include at least 1 variation of chest exercise in each of the major angles offered in the average gym- 0° (flat), 30-45° (incline) and -15° (decline) in each training program.
On the other hand, activation of the sternocostal head of the pectoralis major was higher at angles closest to 0° presses.(7)
Another study in 2016 resulted in similar findings, with the addition of -15° decline bench press activation measurements. In this study, not very surprisingly, flat and decline bench presses activate more lower pec musculature. 30° and 45° bench press activated more upper pec.
Each angle incorporated differing proportions of the measured pectoral recruitment, suggesting that each angle likely provides unique benefits to muscle growth.(8,9)
Simple Rule of Thumb For the Best Chest Workout
With this said, multiple training sessions each week, with progressive overload in mind will provide large benefits regardless of exercise selection. However, logical exercise selections in each training program can help trainees further maximize results. This can be achieved in a variety of programming methods.
However, a simple rule of thumb can be to include at least 1 variation of chest exercise in each of the major angles offered in the average gym- 0° (flat), 30-45° (incline) and -15° (decline) in each training program.
Then, periodically adjust the portion each training block is focused on a given angle. For example, 8 weeks of 85% flat and incline and just 15% decline.
Then the following 8 weeks shift focus to 60% of sets in flat and incline, and the remaining 40% of chest volume toward decline. The exact percentages of training volume don’t exactly matter. The point is varying the amount of training dedicated to a given angle can help provide the best chest workout balance over time.
Inclined to get a Bigger Chest?
A quick note on incline presses and fly movements. Be careful to err on the side of caution when adjusting your incline movements. In an effort to maximize angles for total chest activation, you may be tempted to raise your incline very high to maximize angle variation.
Doing so, as you may imagine, can lead to overstressing the shoulder joint and inferior chest activation. A good rule of thumb (chest in this case) is to work between -15° decline up to 45° incline movements. Doing so can help keep your shoulders healthy and chest activation high. When in doubt, flatten it out.
Decline the Invitation to Small Pecs
Walk into a gym and flat & incline movements are being performed all over. Decline movements, on the other hand, seem to be a bit rarer. Granted, decline movements do typically require more set up time.
However, both anecdotal and scientific evidence help highlight the great benefit trainees can reap from consistently performing them.
Although decline fly movements or dumbbell work can be a logistical pain in the pec to set up. Taking advantages of a decline barbell and smith machine bench press can be a great asset to trainees focused betting the best chest workout possible.
It’s a great movement to really overload the muscle, offers a great stimulus to both the lower and middle portions of the chest muscles, and some studies have even shown similar activation in the upper chest compared to a 30° incline bench press.
Needless to say, data like this helps make the decline bench press a big hitter for getting a bigger chest. (10)
Devil’s in the Details
We can give exercise suggestions and workout plans to help you grow your chest. Without ironing out the details though, the best chest workout is still likely to leave a lot to be desired in the growth department. To get a bigger chest, we first need to stay healthy enough to train consistently in the first place.
Not to mention, details such as bench press form and preventative exercises can help us better activate the muscles we’re focused on growing in the first place. Below are some of the best chest workout primers to help you do just that.
Mind your Bench
A gym is a respectable place, so we can’t have benches going wild every time things get a little exciting. We’re all pumped to get bigger, but taking time to mind the details that can form a better bench foundation. A foundation that will support better muscle activation and go a long way in ensuring more consistent progression.
If you haven’t already, the mind-muscle connection is something I’ve touched on previously in my The Best Back Exercises to Increase Pull Up Volume article here on IIFYM.com. After reading this, check out that section for a thorough explanation of why an efficient mind-muscle connection for physique development is so beneficial.
In brief, in order to really achieve the best chest workout, it’s vital to make sure your pecs, not your pipes, are doing the majority of the work during your chest exercises.
As with any training session, making sure to warm up prior to hitting your working sets can greatly reduce risks of injury. As well as improve the elasticity and contractile force of muscle tissue and better nutrient transport to working muscles prior to getting into the heavy lifting.
That being said, performing some exercise specific warm ups just prior to starting your actual session can help you get better contractions. In turn, better activate your chest and perform your exercise more efficiently for more consistent growth.
The main goal with these primers are simply getting a better feel for activating your pec muscles and getting in the mindset of using your pecs to do the majority of the work- not your shoulders and arms.
Performing a few sets of cable or pec deck flies, along with some isolated pec contractions can help you get into that mindset before getting into your warm up sets of your first actual exercise.
The Best Chest Workout Primers
|Pec Deck Fly||1-2||8-10|
The key to each of these is to go light on all three. These aren’t meant to be pre-exhausting exercises, but purely to help you gain better activation by focusing on contracting your pec muscles to finish off your warm up.
Pec deck flies and push-ups are self-explanatory. Pec Contractions are a bit more obscure though.
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Although it may sound odd, I’ve found that simply concentrating on getting a full contraction in my pecs several times before getting in my working sets really helps me activate my pecs during movements like bench press.
Simply sit on a bench or stand up somewhere, and fully squeeze your pecs and hold for ~1 second, relax and repeat as need. You’ll notice more blood coming into your pec muscles, and a generally better ability to really activate your pecs as you move into your working sets.
Fine Tune your Form
As this section highlights, building and refining our base can be huge in progressing more consistently in your pec pursuits. This holds especially true when it comes to your bench press form. It may be a boring topic, but keeping a constant eye on proper form can help us all make sure we’re training effectively and safely throughout our careers.
After all, it’s hard to see results from even the best chest workout if we’re constantly nursing nagging shoulder or wrist pain, or heaven forbid a torn pec. Each person’s form will vary a bit based on differences in body structure.
However, there are some general pointers that can help you make sure your bench press is allowing you to better grow your chest and prevent being sidelined by injuries.
Each person’s form will vary a bit based on differences in body structure, however, there are some general pointers that can help you make sure your bench press is allowing you to better grow your chest and prevent being sidelined by injuries.
Bench Press Tips
- Retract shoulders to form a solid base
- “Pull apart” bar with your hands to increase stability and pressing power
- Plant feet fully on the floor to maximize force output and low back safety
- Try to keep elbows at around 45°, not 90° to your torso to maintain shoulder health
- Keep wrists in line with forearms to take stress of wrist and forearm
Prehab Your Pecs
Another less sexy, but incredibly significant factor in consistently having the best chest workout is to consider performing some “prehab” work to keep your shoulder complex healthy and able to support your chest training.
The extent of which prehab work is necessary for a trainee will depend on factors such as current shoulder health and overall pressing volume focus.
However, if you’re noticing frequent tweaks and pains in your shoulders, along with taking necessary rest to prevent any major injury, it could be prudent to add in some rotator cuff work to your programming.
A generally balanced proportion of movement angles, some prehab work for longevity, and a moderate rep range variation to comprise the best chest workout to base your training off of.
Doing some brief rotator cuff work at the end of 1-2 training sessions per week can help strengthen and maintain ideal rotator cuff strength.
Although this may not directly grow your pecs, it can go a long way in keeping you healthy and more capable of giving maximal effort in your chest training.
After all, the best chest workout is a healthy chest workout. Focusing on going light and executing a full range of motion, try periodically adding the below exercises at the end of 1-2 of your training sessions to ensure healthy rotator cuffs and more chest training.
|Standing, Rotator Cuff External Rotations*||1-2||12-20|
|Standing, Rotator Cuff Internal Rotations*||1-2||12-20|
|Band Pull Aparts||1-2||12-20|
*Can use a physical therapy band, exercise band or cable station
Putting it All Together
At this point, it is pretty clear that a lot of considerations play into creating the best chest workout, with the details of the plan personalized to each individual. Each person will have differing needs in terms of total training volume, frequency, and exercise selection.
As you apply these principles though, you can personalize them to benefit your personal progression. To highlight how all these factors may come together in an actual training program, below is a full workout template reflecting the best chest workout principles.
This template is based on a relatively lower training volume block for someone just starting to hit chest twice each week, without any one portion of his or her chest being much weaker than another.
A generally balanced proportion of movement angles, some prehab work for longevity, and a moderate rep range variation to comprise the best chest workout to base your training off of. If hitting all body parts twice each week, the other muscle group in each session should be performed after finishing the chest exercises if chest growth is a major focus in your training.
The “Best Chest Workout” Template
Monday (Day 1: 4-6 Rep Focus)
|Flat Barbell Bench Press||4||4-6|
|30° Smith Machine Incline Chest Press||3||4-6|
|Bodyweight or Weighted Dips||3||10-12|
|Standing, Rotator Cuff External Rotations*||2||12-15|
|Standing, Rotator Cuff Internal Rotations*||2||12-15|
Thursday (Day 2: 10-12 Rep Focus)
|Flat Dumbbell Bench Press||4||4-6|
|15° Decline Barbell Bench Press||4||10-12|
|Standing Incline Cable Fly||3||10-12|
|Band Pull Aparts||2||16-18|
*5-10 minute general warm up and chest specific warm ups performed before each training session.
At the end of the day, there’s honestly isn’t one best chest workout. The exact workout an athlete needs and choose can vary quite considerably. There are some very important principles that should apply to every athlete, and help them design the best chest workout for their personal needs and preferences.
Place these pec-building principles in your program and start having your best chest workout, every workout!
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- Fry, A. C. (2004). The Role of Resistance Exercise Intensity on Muscle Fibre Adaptations. Sports Medicine, 34(10), 663-679. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165/00007256-200434100-00004.
- Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181e840f3
- Campos, G., Luecke, T., Wendeln, H., Toma, K., Hagerman, F., Murray, T., . . . Staron, R. (2002). Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 88(1-2), 50-60. doi:10.1007/s00421-002-0681-6
- Chen, T. C., Nosaka, K., & Sacco, P. (2007). Intensity of eccentric exercise, shift of optimum angle, and the magnitude of repeated-bout effect. Journal of Applied Physiology, 102(3), 992-999. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00425.2006
- McHugh, M. (2003). Recent advances in the understanding of the repeated bout effect: the protective effect against muscle damage from a single bout of eccentric exercise. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 13(2), 88-97. doi:10.1034/j.1600-0838.2003.02477.x
- Trebs, A. A., Brandenburg, J. P., & Pitney, W. A. (2010). An Electromyography Analysis of 3 Muscles Surrounding the Shoulder Joint During the Performance of a Chest Press Exercise at Several Angles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(7), 1925-1930. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181ddfae7
- Lauver, J. D., Cayot, T. E., & Scheuermann, B. W. (2015). Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(3), 309-316. doi:10.1080/17461391.2015.1022605
- Barnett, C., Kippers, V., & Turner, P. (1995). Http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/1995/11000/Effects_of_Variations_of_the_Bench_Press_Exercise.3.aspx. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Retrieved from http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/1995/11000/Effects_of_Variations_of_the_Bench_Press_Exercise.3.aspx
- Glass, S. C., & Armstrong, T. (1997). Electromyographical Activity of the Pectoralis Muscle During Incline and Decline Bench Presses. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 11(3), 163-167. doi:10.1519/00124278-199708000-00006