Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu sport two of bodybuilding’s best chests.
What are the best chest exercises, and what are the worst?
We have the science. We sifted through the data of three electromyography (EMG) studies to determine precisely which exercises do the best job of activating your pectorals, which do an okay job, and which you should modify or avoid. The results may surprise you—or maybe not. The interesting thing about pecs is, unlike some other muscles, the highest bodybuilding standards haven’t changed much over the past half-century. The chests of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu in the ’70s seen above would still wow on the Mr. Olympia stage today.
That’s because everyone did barbell bench presses then, while too many champs avoid them today. (One big exception from the recent past was 8-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, who typically did nothing but flat, incline, and decline presses for chest—barbells one workout and dumbbells the next.) But the story is more complicated than just “do free-weight basics,” because when it comes to flying, machines are superior. Let’s dive deep into the science of pectoral training to determine the best (and worst) chest exercises.
BEST CHEST EXERCISES
Focusing on the two biggest EMG studies, the clear winner for best chest exercise in both is the BARBELL BENCH PRESS. And in the study that differentiated angles, the BARBELL INCLINE PRESS wins for upper chest, as does the BARBELL DECLINE PRESS for lower chest. A third study also ranked traditional barbell bench presses high but placed the wide-grip guillotine press (a risky variant of the barbell bench press, done to the neck) even higher.
The barbell bench press at any angle has several things going for it:
☑️ Horizontal plane. Because the bar is going up or down in a straight (or nearly straight) line, you’re battling gravity from start to finish.
☑️ Peak tension. Tension is not maximized on the pecs from start to finish (the front delts and triceps do work). However, in the mid-range of reps, the tension is very high in comparison to other chest exercises.
☑️ Maximum resistance. This barbell standard allows you to stress your chest with the greatest free-weight loads. Heavier weights also allow you to more frequently add resistance for the same reps. For example, it’s much easier to go from 300 to 305 than 30 to 35.
As for the angle of the incline or decline press, one of the studies mentioned above determined that 45-degrees was better than 25-degrees for focusing on either the upper pecs (with an incline press) or lower pecs (with a decline press). But yet another study looked at chest activation during flat, 30-degree incline, 45-degree incline, and 15-degree decline barbell presses. It confirmed that incline presses worked upper more and decline presses worked lower more, but upper pec stimulation was virtually identical with either 30 or 45 degrees. However, 30 did a better job of also stressing the middle pecs, making 45-degree inclines more upper-centric but 30 degrees a better overall chest exercise.
CHEST EXERCISE STUDIES
NEXT BEST CHEST EXERCISES
Just barely behind barbell presses are machine fly exercises, specifically the CABLE CROSSOVER and PEC DECK FLY. As we discussed in our biceps exercise article, gravity always rules. Because a weight is always pulling straight down, anytime it’s not traveling straight up (as during a free-weight curl or fly or lateral) tension is lost. So, dumbbell flyes don’t rate high as chest exercises, despite the fact that pulling the arms closer together is a pure pectoral motion. However, when you do a fly with a weight stack or stacks (crossover, pec deck, etc.) the weight travels only horizontal, keeping tension on your pecs from stretch to contraction.
Unlike barbell presses, this is one place where Arnold and company got it wrong. They did a lot of dumbbell flyes and often thought of cable crossovers and pec-deck flyes as “sculpting” exercises to help etch in striations when dieting before a contest. Forget that. Stop thinking of free-weight as hardcore and machines as softcore. Start focusing on maximizing tension on your muscles. For that, mechanical flyes are superior to dumbbells.
WORST CHEST EXERCISES
The bodyweight PUSHUP rated low as a chest exercise. The principal problem is the “bodyweight” part. In fact, it’s not all of your bodyweight. A pushup study demonstrated that you hold 69% of your weight in the up position and 75% in the down position. Average this to 72% and a pushup is the equivalent of a 188-pound person bench pressing 135. For most trained men, pushups are like doing a warmup set of benches. If you can do more than 20 without resting, add resistance with weight on your back and/or elevate your feet (doing the latter will focus this more on your upper pecs). Or just forgo pushups—unless you can’t get to a gym.
Another exercise, the DUMBBELL PULLOVER, rated even lower as a pectoral exercise. It was frequently included in chest routines decades ago because of the erroneous belief it expands the rib cage. It doesn’t. Nothing does. It works primarily the lats and the serratus and, to a secondary degree, the long heads of the triceps. Pullovers belong in your back routine.
OTHER CHEST EXERCISES
So, what to make of all the other chest exercises? First, some weren’t included in any EMG study. We’d love to see how Hammer Strength machine presses, Smith machine presses, and machine incline flyes stack up, to name only three. Others that were included did okay. The MACHINE CHEST PRESS and DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS both activated pecs 79% as well as their barbell equivalents. So, they’re acceptable substitutes.
As for the DUMBBELL FLY, averaging the two studies (one looking at flat flyes, the other looking at incline flyes), we get 66%. In comparison, the cable crossover average is 94% and the pec deck fly is 90%. Again, it comes down to the gravitational pull. Because the dumbbells travel in an arc instead of a horizontal plane, pec tension is lost—especially during the top halves of reps. You can compensate by bringing the dumbbells up in more of a fly-press oval shape (arms straight at the top) instead of a round arc or by doing only the bottom two-thirds of reps. Or just do machine flyes.
The DIP scored 69% for overall pec stimulation in one of the two studies, but the third study rated weighted dips the highest of all exercises for lower pec stimulation. Most people want to focus more on the upper third of their chests than the lower third, but dip away if you want to expand your pec bottoms. A routine with incline presses, dips, and cable crossovers would effectively work all areas.
BEST CHEST EXERCISE ROUTINE
Using the EMG results, what follows is a sample pecs routine that focuses on barbell presses and mechanical flyes. Continuous-tension mechanical flyes compliment peak-tension barbell presses and vice-versa. No matter how you construct your chest routine, we advise you to include at least one free-weight press and one mechanical flye.
Barbell Bench Press 4 sets of 8-12 reps
Barbell Incline Press 4 sets of 8-12 reps
Cable Crossover 3 sets of 10-15 reps
Pec Deck Fly 3 sets of 10-15 reps
Best Chest Exercises EMG Study 1 Schanke, Whitnee, et al, American Council of Exercise and University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, “Top 3 Most Effective Chest Exercises,” ACE CertifiedNews, Oct. 2012.
Best Chest Exercises EMG Study 2 (German book) & analysis (in English) Boeckh-Behrens, Wend-Uwe and Buskies, Wolfgang, Fitness- Krafttraining. Die besten Übungen und Methoden für Sport und Gesundheit, 2000.
Best Chest Exercises EMG Study 3 Contreras, Bret, “Inside the Muscles: Best Chest and Triceps Exercises,” T-Nation, Feb. 22, 2010.
Best Chest Exercises EMG Study 4 Lauver, Jakob D. et al, “Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise,” European Journal of Sport Science, Vol. 16, 2016, 309-316, published March 23, 2015.
Pushup Study Suprak, David N. et al, “The effect of position on the percentage of body mass supported during traditional and modified push-up variants,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Feb. 2011, 497-503.