The Science-Based Workout For Optimal Chest Development

Just like most of you, I love chest day! It was the first thing that got me hooked on weightlifting years ago. I can remember it like it was yesterday, a pyramid set in my high school gym. With my 115 pound frame and 200-pound ego, I was quickly put in my place. After experiencing that struggle and pain I knew weightlifting was always going to be part of my life.

When looking at the best exercises to develop my chest (pectoralis major), I sourced academic studies like the one from Whitnee Schanke, M.S., and John P. Porcari, Ph.D., of the University’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science. The study below was completed on 14 healthy males ages 19 to 30. In the study, researchers evaluated the top nine chest exercises and determined the ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) on the pectoralis major. Additionally electromyography (EMG) electrodes were placed on the chest to determine the level of motor unit requirement of muscle activation.

Average EMG and RPE for Each Exercise as compared to the Barbell Bench Press
Exercise Avg. EMG % RPE
Barbell Bench Press 100 6.5 ± 1.98
Pec Deck Machine 98 ± 26.4 5.4 ± 2.13
Bent-Forward Cable Crossovers 93 ± 22.0 5.1 ± 1.60
Chest Press Machine 79 ± 22.4* 4.3 ± 2.30*
Inclined Dumbbell Flyes  69 ± 30.5* 5.0 ± 1.50
Dips 69 ± 15.8* 2.9 ± 2.06*
Suspended Push-ups 63 ± 18.5* 3.6 ± 2.22*
Stability Ball Push-ups 61 ± 20.7*  2.3 ± 1.72*
Standard Push-ups 61 ± 20.6* 1.5 ± 1.15*
*Significantly lower than barbell bench press (p < .05)
Values represent the percent (%) of muscle activation compared to the barbell bench press.

As shown, the bench press is far and away the best exercise for activating the chest muscles, followed by the pec deck machine and bent-forward cable crossover. All exhibited high muscle activation. Surprisingly push-ups, in various forms, provided the least activation.

Over the years I’ve adjusted my technique to incorporate more of the upper pectoralis by changing my hand positioning during the exercises to limit the amount of stress placed on the wrists. I’ve noticed that most chest exercises focus on the middle and lower parts of the muscle and neglect the upper. Neglecting the upper part of the chest will result in a muscular imbalance a less desirable physique. In order to build a full, round chest, muscle fibers in the clavicular head of the pectoralis major and the sternal head (middle and lower chest) must be activated. The clavicular head is located in the upper chest and spans from the collarbone to the humerus or upper arm bone.

To effectively target the upper chest I’ve incorporated angles on the flat bench (as little as 15 degrees) and dumbbell presses, and my cable crossovers tend to have an upward motion. These tweaks help produce greater muscle activation by recruiting more muscle fibers in that area though increased muscle activity.

To avoid wrist strain that can lead to tendonitis and arthritis, I limit my time under a straight barbell. You never want to experience numbness or tingling in your fingers. This means too much strain is being put on the median nerve, which increases your risk of developing the conditions mentioned. The slight angle in the wrists that cables, dumbbells, and preacher bars provide are easier on this nerve and help prevent strained wrists.

After several years of time under the iron, following the techniques of pros, and academic studies on physiology I’ve made several adjustments to my technique, timing, and lifts which resulted in the workout provided. This workout will ensure that the chest area is developed properly which means both the clavicular and sternal head of the pectoralis major are involved in every lift.

Chest Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Decline Push-Up (warm up) 1 50
15° Angle Smith Machine Bench Press 4, light first set 8 – 10
Incline Dumbbell Press 3 12-15
Low-To-High Cable Crossover 3 12-15
*Decline Hammer Press 3 8 – 10
*If no Hammer Press machine is available use a decline bench w/ dumbbells.

DECLINE PUSH-UP (warm up)

DECLINE PUSH-UP (warm up)

15° ANGLE SMITH MACHINE BENCH PRESS

15° ANGLE SMITH MACHINE BENCH PRESS

INCLINE DUMBBELL PRESS

INCLINE DUMBBELL PRESS

LOW-TO HIGH CABLE CROSSOVER

LOW-TO HIGH CABLE CROSSOVER

References:

http://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/2884/

Brian Rellihan

Brian Rellihan is a physique athlete and personal trainer in Phoenix, AZ. He has a B.A. in Biomedical Science and is currently pursuing a medical degree. As an avid reader and fan of the sport Brian not only stays abreast of recent advancements in exercise physiology but applies them to his own workouts and delivers them to his readers and clients. Currently he has teamed up with Fierce Workouts to bring his training to the masses so be ready this summer!

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