A Lean Life

Top 5 Best Chest Exercises to Build a Lean, Muscular Chest

Listed below are the Top 5 best chest exercises to build a strong and muscular chest, based on my humble experience and a whole lot of research.

A muscular chest (commonly referred to as “pecs”) is very important if your goal is to build a great body.  You just can’t have a great build (or even a good build) with a flabby, undeveloped chest.

Whether you have a shirt on and are living your normal life, or you’re at the beach wanting to look buff, a lean and muscular chest is a must-have and will make all the difference in your physical appearance.

Arnold-ChestIf you work these best chest exercises with consistency and focus, you may not ever catch Arnold, but you will definitely build a lean and muscular chest.

The good news is that it is not hard to develop your pecs…just takes a little work and performing the best chest exercises to maximize your gains.

Some of the exercises can be performed at home – like push-ups – as an Army Ranger it seemed like all we did sometimes were push-ups…tons and tons of ’em.  It did help to build my chest, and it will do the same for you.

And both men and women will benefit from working your pecs.  More and more women are seeing the benefits of resistance training, and hardening the pecs is a great first step to achieve a firm and desired look.  A lean and toned body has become the desired look for most women.

By the way, no offense to Arnold, but I do not think that the “Arnold” look is the preferred body for most men and women today. This site is tailored to help you achieve a lean, sharp, angular build, not the massive, muscle head look.

More and more often today, men and women alike are realizing that the most attractive physique is lean and muscular, but not overbuilt.

The exercises below are my Top 5 Best Chest Exercises, but first let’s understand the basics of the chest.

Chest Structure and Function

The pectoralis major (commonly called “pecs”) is located at the chest, and over the top portion of the rib cage.  Women’s pecs are under their breasts.

The pecs are a thick, fan-shaped muscle.

They have 2 points of origin:

  • The middle half of the clavicle (collar bone)
  • The front, top portion of the sternum (chest bone)

The point of insertion of the pectoralis major is the humerus (long bone in the upper arm).

The pectoralis minor lies underneath the pectoralis major, is triangular in shape, and spans from the 3rd, 4th, and 5th ribs up to the scapula (shoulder blade).

The function of the pectoralis major is to control the movement of the shoulder and upper arm (the humerus).

Top 5 Best Chest Exercises

Incline Bench Press

First, remember these basics when performing the Top 5 best chest exercises:

Prior to working out, always…

  • Do some light cardio (2-3 min) to warm the muscles (jog in place, jumping, etc.)
  • Do some dynamic stretching to prepare muscles for resistance.

This is the best way to avoid injury, and an injury is something you just don’t want…I’ve had more than I care to remember because of improper warm-up.

  • Keep the reps smooth and controlled.  Yes, you do want to lift heavy to build mass and density, but just don’t swing and jerk weights without control.
  • Do some static stretching when your best chest exercises are complete. This is the best time to do static stretching, which will elongate the muscles and improve your range of motion.

For more info on Sets / Reps / Rest, see the full workout plan at…30on3 Workout S simple, proven, powerful

#1  Incline Dumbbell Press

I have listed this first, because incline work (press and flyes) is a low priority for most people.  The focus for most people is on flat exercises (flat bench, flat flyes), and this results in poor balance of the pecs.  Flat exercises build the middle and lower of your pecs, whereas incline exercises work the upper pecs.

If you focus first on the upper pecs in your routines, you will be ahead of most in the gym.  This will help you build mass in the upper and the middle pecs, resulting in good overall proportion.

  • Start Position:  Using an Olympic bench, set the upper bench at a 30 deg angle.  Sitting on the bench holding your dumbbells, slowly lift the dumbbells as you rock back into position.  Your elbows should be at a ~ 45 deg angle as shown in the start position.  Keep your feet solidly on the ground.
  • Technique:  Extend the arms straight up until your arms are extended, feeling a contraction and squeeze in your pecs.  Return the dumbbells to the start position.  Keep the motion fluid, and do not jerk the weights.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 4 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Caution:  You will be lifting less weight with incline presses than flat presses, so make sure you lift proper weight so that you can control the dumbbells

#2  Barbell Bench Press

This is considered the top dog when it comes to pec work in the gym.  When alpha males want to size up their peers, one of the first questions might be “Yah, what’s your bench?”  It is a common measuring stick used to assess success in the gym.

Not something I agree with at all…I am not trying to bench 400 pounds – I am trying to build a lean, hard, muscular physique that looks good in a suit as well as at the beach.  I am also trying to increase strength without creating the overbuilt, musclehead look.

  • Start Position:  Lying flat on an Olympic bench, extend the arms up and grip the barbell slightly wider than shoulder width.  3 points of contact on the bench – butt, upper back, and your head.  Feet flat on the ground.  Position your body so that when you lift the 45# barbell off the rack, it will be directly above your chest.
  • Technique:  Lift the barbell off the rack, and lower down until the barbell just touches the middle of the chest, then press barbell up until the arms are fully extended.  Make sure you do not bounce the bar off of your chest, as this is not the best way to fatigue the pecs.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 4 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  You can narrow your grip, which will bring the triceps more into the action.  Wider grips will primarily work the chest.
  • Caution:  There is some obvious danger related to a flat bench press on an Olympic bench.  It is always best to have a spotter, especially lifting at or near your max weight.
  • To bench without a spot, you must stay well under your max weight to make sure you maintain control of the barbell.  There are plenty of video horrors when this simple rule goes awry…do not be that guy or gal!

#3  Cable Crossovers

This is one of my favorites…do it right and you will feel the pecs burn – a great workout and one of the best chest exercises.  I usually do this 2nd in my pec routine, like after flat bench, machine press, or incline dumbbell press.

  • Start Position:  Stand facing away from a cable machine.  Grab the handles attached to the cables in each hand, and lean out away from the machine.  Put your feet in a staggered stance, right foot forward.  To support the resistance, your body will likely lean forward at a 45 deg angle.  Your arms should be extended to your sides at shoulder height.
  • Technique:  Pull the cables in front of you in a flye-like motion, so your hands move to the front and slightly down.  Feel the contraction of the pec as you perform the crossover.  Return your arms to the start position.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 4 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  You can vary the angles slightly to work different parts of your pecs.
  • Caution:  Cable crossovers put a lot of strain on your shoulders.  I injured my left shoulder in Ranger school, and of all the best chest exercises, this one puts more strain on my shoulder than any exercise I do.  Just make sure your shoulders are nice and loose prior to crossovers.

#4  Push-ups

This is on the list because they are very simple and very practical…you can do them anywhere with no equipment or prep.  And before I ever lifted a weight, we used to do these constantly when I was at West Point, and they did build solid muscle on my chest – so I know they are very effective and one of the best chest exercises to build your chest.

  • Start Position:  Palms on the ground slightly wider than shoulder width, body straight and aligned, toes supporting the lower body off the floor.
  • Technique:  Lower the body by bending the elbows until your chest slightly touches the floor, or is just off the floor.  Return to the start position without ever stopping the motion.  Your arms should return to a straight position prior to the next rep.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / To Failure / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / Just short of Failure / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  Great when doing a bi-set with another exercise first, and doing the push-ups on a bench.  Example would  be to do incline bench followed immediately by bench push-ups.  Do this is succession for each set.
  • Caution:  This is a pretty safe exercise, just make sure your pecs are properly warmed.

#5  Dumbbell Flyes

  • Start Position:  From a flat bench or incline position, hold the dumbbells straight up above your chest, palms facing each other.  Flat flyes will work the middle and lower pecs, incline flyes will work the upper pecs. Keep your feet solidly on the ground, and as with press motions, 3 points of contact on the bench – butt, mid/upper back, and head.
  • Technique:  From the start position, slowly lower the dumbbells down to the same plane as your shoulders, or maybe slightly lower.  A good full range of motion is key to the exercise.  Contracting the pecs, then return the dumbbells to the start position directly above your chest.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 4 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  The angle of the bench can be varied to work the pecs at different angles, thus working different parts of the muscle.
  • Caution:  Just make sure you keep the dumbbells under control.  It’s a long range of motion, and you want to make sure you have the right weight in your hand.

Close Seconds

Actually, these are every bit as good as the above list of best chest exercises, and the variety is key to a well-rounded approach:

Chest Dips – Done from parallel dip bars – hunch the shoulders and upper body over as shown, to isolate the pecs.  If you’re a true stud, you can add a weight belt to increase resistance.  This will also work the triceps.

Avoiding Injury

Chest InjuryChest injuries from resistance training are pretty rare when compared to back strains, or elbow and wrist strains, but it’s always good to be safe when performing these best chest exercises:

  • Make sure you don’t overload your muscles by lifting too much weight.  You definitely want to go heavy to build mass, but always maintain control of the weight.
  • Proper warm-up is must – light cardio to warm your muscles, and dynamic stretching to prepare them for the lift.  Jumping into a routine with ice cold muscles is a sure way to get injured.
  • Do some static stretching at the end of your workout to elongate the pecs.  This will also improve your range of motion.
  • Always use good technique – don’t use jerky motions where your cheating with your whole body as leverage.  You want the resistance to be a heavy load, but not so much that it requires back-breaking thrusts to perform a rep.  The best chest exercises rely on good technique.


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