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The best science-based chest training program for building impressive chest muscles (basics)

Das beste wissenschaftlich basierte Brusttrainingsprogramm für den Aufbau einer beeindruckenden Brustmuskulatur (Grundlagen)

After looking at the anatomy of the pectoral muscles and the most common mistakes in pec training in the first part of this article series, in this second part we will look at the science behind effective chest training and take a look at the first of the 10 most effective chest exercises.

The simple science of effective chest muscle training

After the first part of this article, you know what not to do. Now let's look at what science says you should do to build amazing chest muscles. The whole thing is less complicated than many would have you believe. You just need to do a few simple things right.

1. target the "upper" and "lower" part of the chest

As you learned in the first part of this article series, you should emphasize the upper and lower parts of your chest muscles during your chest training sessions. Fortunately, this doesn't require endless supersets, muscle confusion or other fancy training techniques.

The three most effective ways to target the upper pecs are as follows:

  1. Include close grip bench presses and reverse grip (underhand grip) in your chest workouts, as scientific research shows that these exercises activate the upper chest 20 to 30% more than regular flat bench presses (1, 2).
  2. Include incline bench presses in your chest workouts because scientific research shows that they activate the upper chest more than regular flat bench presses (1).
  3. Train with heavy weights because scientific research shows that this increases the activation of the entire pectoralis major, including the upper chest (3).

The training program that I will present in the last part of this article series includes all of these tips.

2. perform multi-joint exercises and move heavy weights

I used to think that heavy training with lower repetitions was for building strength and not for building muscle mass, but I was wrong.

One of the most important lessons I've learned over the past decade of research, study, and activity as a trainer is this:

As a steroid-free exerciser, your most important long-term goal should be to increase your total body strength.

I know I'm repeating myself, but this point is so important that it can't be repeated often enough. As long as you make this the primary focus of your training, you will have no problem improving muscle mass and definition.

While you can build a useful amount of muscle during your first few years of training without building too much strength, once you get a little more advanced, there is a strong correlation between strength and muscle mass.

In other words, the best way to continue building muscle after your hyper-responsive beginner phase of training is complete is to continually build strength.

How do you best achieve this?

While the science of training is complex and there are more questions than answers, the evidence is clear: heavy multi-joint exercises are the most effective way to get stronger (4).

And that's why we steroid-free exercisers need to do a lot of multi-joint exercises if we want to build significant amounts of muscle and strength.

This is not a specific rule for the pecs. It applies to every primary muscle group in the body including smaller, more stubborn muscles like arms, calves and shoulders, as well as larger, more responsive muscle groups like legs and back.

So if you want to build big and defined chest muscles as quickly as possible, then you should build a strong chest as quickly as possible, which means a lot of heavy chest muscle training - and in most cases, that means a lot of heavy pressing.

You might be wondering what I mean by "heavy". I primarily mean working with weights in the range of 70 to 80% of your 1RM weight or in a repetition range of 8 to 10 repetitions (70%) to 4 to 6 repetitions (80%).

In practical terms, this means performing each set up to one or two repetitions before reaching technical failure (the point at which you can no longer perform another repetition without losing form). Scientists also refer to this as performing the set with one repetition "in reserve".

In other words, your muscle building sets should be damn hard. What do I mean by multi-joint exercises?

Well, these are exercises that involve multiple joints and muscles, as opposed to isolation exercises that focus on one joint and a limited number of muscles.

Isolation exercises such as dumbbell flyes, for example, primarily involve the shoulder joint and pectorals, whereas multi-joint exercises such as bench presses involve the shoulder and elbow joints, pectorals, shoulders, triceps, biceps, back and to a lesser extent even the legs.

Now you may hear the argument that professional xy does countless repetitions in his chest training and still has one of the most muscular chests on the planet.

Unfortunately, this is where steroids and other performance-enhancing compounds are often used, allowing the user to complete repetition after repetition, set after set and exercise after exercise for hours every day. This, of course, will ultimately lead to bigger muscles.

For example, a study conducted by scientists at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science showed that a relatively low dose of 600 mg of testosterone per week resulted in average muscle gains of 13.4 pounds and a 50-pound increase in bench press maximum weight within 10 weeks, while the control group was only able to build 4.4 pounds of muscle and increase their bench press maximum weight by only 22 pounds (5).

But don't worry. You can build impressive chest muscles without chemical assistance. All it takes is a little know-how, hard work and patience.

3. perform one to three chest training sessions per week

You may have heard that you need to train each muscle group at least two to three times a week to maximize gains in strength and muscle mass. This advice goes in the right direction, but you can't see the wood for the trees.

Scientific research shows that training frequency or how often you train a particular muscle group per week is not that important per se when it comes to building strength and muscle (6). More important is the total weekly training volume or the number of hard work sets you complete per week.

You might be wondering what I mean by "hard work sets". Well, a set is a fixed number of repetitions performed of an exercise and a "hard set" is a heavy, muscle and strength building set performed to near the point of technical muscle failure (the point at which you can no longer perform another repetition with correct form).

So, going back to the point above, as long as you perform enough hard sets for a given muscle group per week, it doesn't matter how you split these sets between different workouts.

So you can expect more or less the same results in terms of strength and muscle gains if you do 12 hard sets of chest training on Mondays or 4 hard sets of chest training on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Now that we've got that out of the way, it's time to get to the obvious question: How many hard sets of chest workouts should you do per week to build impressive chest muscles.

I've tried many different training splits and volume/frequency schemes and the one that worked best is consistent with two extensive studies on the subject (7, 8).

If you emphasize heavy weights in your training - 70 to 80+% of your 1RM weight - then optimal volume seems to be in the range of 9 to 15 sets every 5 to 7 days.

This is true for chest as well as any other primary muscle group in the body.

Before increasing your training volume or frequency beyond these levels, you should ensure that you are striving for progressive overload in your training, that you are getting enough sleep and that you are eating enough.

In many cases, exercisers who consider themselves hardgainers who need high volume to make progress are simply exercisers who need to train harder, sleep more or eat more.

That being said, there are also exercisers (mainly men) who seem to be doing everything right but still can't make significant gains in strength and muscle mass. I like to recommend the following to these exercisers:

  1. Train your pecs on 2 or 3 non-consecutive days per week.
  2. Increase the number of your weekly hard sets for the pecs to 18 to 27.

For example, if you currently train your chest muscles on Mondays, you should do additional chest muscle training on Thursdays.

Slightly increasing your weekly training volume is not a magic formula, but it can help you break through stubborn muscle-building plateaus.

Now that we've got the basic theory out of the way, it's time to move on to the 10 best chest exercises.

The 10 best chest exercises

As with most muscle groups, there are tons of exercises to choose from for your pecs, but only a handful of these exercises are really necessary.

In fact, the list of the best chest exercises is quite short:

  1. Flat band back
  2. Incline bench press
  3. Close bench press
  4. Bench press with reverse grip / underhand grip
  5. Dumbbell flat bench press
  6. Dumbbell incline bench press
  7. Dips
  8. Crossover cable pulls
  9. Flying movements with dumbbells
  10. Push-ups

If you've just started training, then you can forget every other chest exercise and just focus on these 10 without getting disappointed.

And unless you're an advanced bodybuilder doing everything you can to get the last bit out of your body, you don't need to worry about fancy training techniques, periodization plans or exercises.

Instead, you should focus on the basic exercises I recommend in this series of articles.

1. barbell flat bench press

There's a good reason that any well put together weight training program includes bench presses as one of the core exercises.

Bench presses are one of the best all-round upper body exercises you can do. It works the pecs, latissimus, shoulders, triceps and, to a lesser extent, even the legs.

Studies conducted by scientists at California State University (9), the Institute of Human Performance (10) and the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (11) show that using heavy weights in the bench press allows you to activate almost all the muscle fibers of the pectoral muscles.

And more muscle activation generally leads to greater gains in strength and muscle mass over time. This is the reason why studies show that the stronger exercisers get on the bench press, the more their pecs grow (13).

However, even though the bench press looks quite simple, it is a very technical exercise. If you don't know what you're doing, you'll eventually plateau... and if you're lucky, avoid injury.

For this reason, it is crucial to learn how to perform this exercise correctly. This will ensure that you can progress with the bench press in a safe manner.

Because barbell bench presses activate so much muscle mass, this exercise is also extremely exhausting, which is why I recommend performing bench presses at the beginning of your training sessions when you are mentally and physically at your freshest.

If you can't do barbell band presses, dumbbell band presses are a good alternative. Bench presses on the multi press can also work, although I prefer dumbbell band presses.

As bench presses are the foundation of an effective chest training session, it makes sense to look at this exercise in a little more detail - starting with the correct body position.

There are three steps that make up a correct bench press:

  1. The setup
  2. The lowering
  3. The press

Let's start at the top:

The bench press setup

Lie on your back on the bench and position yourself so that your eyes are under the bar.

Then lift your chest up and pull your shoulder blades down and together. Imagine that you are pulling your shoulder blades into your lower back. This should provide sufficient stability and tension in the upper back.

Then grip the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, which corresponds to 55 to 72 centimetres for men and 35 to 56 centimetres for women, depending on their build.

If you grip the bar too tightly, you will shift the load more towards the triceps and away from the chest muscles and if you grip too wide, you will reduce your range of motion and the effectiveness of the exercise while increasing the risk of shoulder irritation.

Hold the bar in your hands so that it is closer to your wrist than your fingers and grip it as tightly as you can. Your wrists should be bent just far enough to allow the bar to rest in the center of your palm. However, they should not be bent back towards your head.

A good way to control your grip is to have a training partner stand behind you and control the position of your forearms at the lowest point of the movement. Your forearms should point as vertically upwards as possible in this position.

Do not use a 'thumbless' grip, where your thumbs are next to your index fingers instead of gripping around the bar. If you are using heavy weights, this grip can make it surprisingly easy for the barbell to slip out of your hands and fall on your chest or - even worse - your neck.

Next, make a slight hollow back and place your feet firmly on the floor directly under your knees, shoulder-width apart.

Your back should neither lie flat on the bench nor be bent so far that your bottom floats in the air. Instead, you should maintain a natural curve that is created when you push your chest up.

The upper part of your legs should be parallel to the floor and the lower part should form a 90 degree angle with your thighs. This will allow you to push over your heels as you lift the weight and generate a push from your legs that will increase your strength.

Next, take the weight out of the rack by hyperextending your elbows and move the weight horizontally upwards until it is directly over your shoulders. Do not try to move the weight directly from the rack to your chest and do not let your chest sink down or relax your shoulder blades as you lift it out of the rack.

Once the bar is in the correct position, take a deep breath, push your knees apart and grip the bar firmly.

Now you are ready to lower the bar.

The downward movement in the bench press

The first thing you should know about the downward movement is how to position your elbows. Many exercisers make the mistake of keeping their elbows wide apart, which can lead to shoulder injuries. A less common mistake is to pull your elbows too far towards your torso, which robs you of stability and strength and can overload your elbows.

Instead, your elbows should form a 30 to 60 degree angle with your torso throughout the movement. This protects your shoulders from injury and provides a stable and strong position from which to press.

While keeping your elbows in the correct position, lower the weight to the lower part of your chest above the nipples. The bar should move downwards in a straight line.

Once the bar has touched your chest (touched and not bounced off your chest), you are ready for the upward movement

The upward movement in the bench press

Imagine that you are pushing your torso away from the bar into the bench instead of pushing the bar away from your body. This will help you maintain proper form in the exercise and maximize your strength.

While keeping your shoulder blades down and contracted, your elbows at the correct angle to your torso, your lower back slightly rounded and your feet firmly on the floor, push against the bar to move it away from your chest.

As you begin to push the bar up, you can use the leg thrust I mentioned earlier by pushing your heels into the floor and spreading your knees.

This transfers force through your hips and back, which helps maintain proper form of the movement and increases the amount of force you can generate.

The bar should move upwards in a slightly diagonal path, moving towards your shoulders and ending where the movement began - directly above your shoulders.

Overextend your elbows at the highest point of the movement and do not keep them slightly bent. Now you are ready for the next repetition.

After you have completed your last repetition, you are ready to move the bar back to the rack. Don't try to push the bar directly into the rack, because if you miss, the bar will move directly towards your face.

Instead, finish your last repetition with the bar directly over your shoulders and elbows hyperextended and then move the bar horizontally into the rack.

In the final part of this article series, I will look at the remaining 9 best chest exercises and give you a template for a chest training session.




By Michael Matthews

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