The best chest exercises for mass

Our chest muscles are some of the largest and most powerful muscles in our bodies. Unfortunately, our pecs are also notoriously difficult to grow. In fact, if you’re a naturally skinny guy with either narrow shoulders or a shallow ribcage, building a bigger chest may seem downright impossible.

Fortunately, there are some lifts that can reliably stimulate even the most stubborn chest. And there are other lifts that are good for bringing up a lagging upper, middle, or lower chest. Some are heavy compound lifts; others are light isolation lifts. If you want the best results, we recommend using a mix of all of them.

By the end of this article, you should know exactly how to grow your lagging chest.

Illustration of a man building a bigger chest.

Why is Your Chest Lagging Behind?

In order to build a big chest, we need to choose exercises that stimulate the muscle fibres in our pecs. In addition to that, though, we also need to choose exercises that bring our pecs close enough to muscle failure to provoke muscle growth. For example, everyone’s chest will activate when doing the barbell bench press. But for some of us, our shoulders will dominate the lift. Our shoulders will bear the load, and our shoulders will reach failure long before our chest has been challenged enough to produce a growth stimulus. And so the bench press will stimulate growth in our shoulders but not in our chests.

Illustration of a man doing a barbell bench press.

The good news is that there are a few different ways to determine which exercises are the best at stimulating and growing our chests, all of which dovetail together beautifully:

  • Mechanistic research, which focuses on the principles of muscle growth. For example, Dr Brad Schoenfeld’s research has shown that lifting heavy weights through a large range of motion (mechanical tension) is the main driver of muscle growth. Using that principle, we can assume that heavy compound lifts like the barbell bench press would stimulate the most overall chest growth.
  • Electromyography (EMG) research, where people do exercises while covered in electrodes to see which muscle fibres are activated during which lifts (study). For example, while the barbell bench press is indeed the best overall chest exercise, Bret Contreras, PhD, found that the best exercise for the upper chest was the incline dumbbell bench press, as it was better able to activate muscle fibres in the upper chest. However, EMG research is controversial and riddled with limitations (which we’ll cover in a second).
  • Muscle hypertrophy research, the main problem with EMG research is that just because a muscle has a higher degree of activation doesn’t tell us how much actual muscle growth is being stimulated. Thus, the gold standard of research is done by actually measuring muscle growth. Researchers have people do various chest exercises for a period of time and then compare their chest growth against a control group. For example, the research of Jose Antonio, PhD, found that combining various exercises together improves muscle shape and size when compared with doing just more sets of the same exercise.

Okay, so, putting these three branches of research together, things get interesting. For instance, EMG research finds that challenging our muscles in a contracted position causes greater muscle activation, which has been used to support training with resistance bands, doing spider curls, and so on. However, if we look at actual hypertrophy research, we see that challenging our muscles in a stretched position produces far greater amounts of muscle growth (study):

Graph showing the difference in muscle growth when training with long and short muscles lengths.

Then, if we look back at mechanical tension, we can see why that is. The main way that we produce force with our muscles is by actively contracting them. This is called active tension. But when our muscles are stretched, they behave sort of like elastics, pulling themselves back to their resting length. This elastic tension is called passive tension. When our muscles are stretched, then, we have active tension combining with passive tension. If our muscles are stretched during the hardest part of the lift, this results in more overall mechanical tension, stimulating more muscle growth.

Illustration of a man doing a deficit push-up.
The deficit push-up.

Putting this into practice, although we might see higher levels of muscle activation (EMG) with an incline bench press or cable crossover, those lifts challenge our muscles at shorter muscle lengths, and so we’d expect them to stimulate less muscle growth. If we look at the flat bench press, deficit push-up, or dumbbell fly, though, the hardest part of the lift is when our chests are fully stretched, yielding a tremendous amount of muscle growth. The best way to improve our chest growth, then, is to choose lifts that give us a better stretch on our chest at the sticking point of our lifts, less on choosing lifts that give us a better peak contraction.

Illustration of a man doing a dumbbell fly.

So although there are problems with relying on just one type of research, with these three streams of research working together, we know which chest exercises are the best overall, why they’re the best, which exercises are best for our lower and upper pecs, and how to combine them together to build a full chest.

The Best Lifts for Building a Stubborn Chest

The Barbell Bench Press

Why the bench press is such a good chest exercise: Powerlifters, bodybuilders, and the scientific literature all agree that the bench press is the best chest exercise. Not only does it allow you to load up the bar with the heaviest weights, providing the most mechanical tension, it also tops the EMG charts for chest activation (study). To remove all doubt, researchers then confirmed that a stronger bench press directly translates to bigger chest muscles, meaning that every pound you can add to the bar will reliably increase your chest size (study).

The flat barbell bench press chest exercise

In addition to being the best exercise for chest growth, the bench press also does a great job of strengthening your shoulders and triceps (which assist in the push), and a decent job of strengthening your entire back (which stabilizes the weight). In fact, once you’re able to lift heavy enough, the weight of the barbell will even begin to strengthen the bones in your arms. This makes the bench press not only the best chest exercise but also one of the top 5 bodybuilding and strength training exercises overall.

Here’s how to get more chest growth out of your bench press:

  • Use a wide grip and flare your elbows. Grip the bar about twice as wide as your collarbones and flare your elbows to about 80 degrees. This will line up the angle of pull with your biggest and strongest chest fibres (in your mid-chest), improving your strength and getting you better chest gains (study). Dr Norton notes that this wider grip is especially important for lankier lifters.
  • Use a parabolic bar path. When you lift the bar off your sternum, first work to bring it above your nipples, putting the barbell in line with the strong fibres of your mid-chest, and then push it straight up from there (as shown in the illustration above). Again, this will improve both chest growth and bench press strength.
  • Lift heavy. The bench press works best when you use heavy to moderate rep ranges (5–12 reps), which forces your powerful chest muscles to handle more of the load. If you go too light, your smaller triceps and shoulders are more likely to dominate the lift.
  • Arch your back. This sturdy arched position puts your chest in a better position to push from, it makes the range of motion safer for your shoulders, and it keeps your spine locked down and safe. To quote Dr Layne Norton, “many bodybuilders think that arching your back is just a powerlifting move, but arching your lower back will actually help you maintain a neutral spine and keep your back tight and protected as you press.”
  • Vary your bench press routine. You can get great chest gains out of the bench press day after day, month after month, year after year—provided that you vary the rep ranges, the number of sets per workout, and the assistance exercises.

Note for beginners: this is an advanced exercise, requiring that you know how to brace your core and arch your back. You may wish to start with the dumbbell bench press or floor press variations, both of which are explained below.

How to Do the Barbell Bench Press for Chest Growth

  • The setup. Plant your feet firmly on the floor underneath you, arch your back firmly, and retract your shoulder blades down and back, driving them into the bench. Next, take a deep breath of air and brace, then have your spotter help guide the bar into the starting position. (If you don’t have a spotter, see below.)
  • The lower. Lower the weight to your sternum, neither rushing nor dawdling. The goal is to lower the weight with proper technique, but not to waste energy that could be used on the lifting portion of the exercise, which is where most of your chest gains will come from.
  • The lift. When the bar touches your sternum, drive it back up with all of your might. Greg Nuckols, founder of Stronger by Science, recommends the cue “flare and push,” which he finds helps lifters improve their bar path (link).

How to Do the Barbell Bench Press Without a Spotter

When benching without a spotter, most people choose a lighter weight and stay further away from failure. Now, you don’t have to go all way to failure on the bench press (and you probably shouldn’t), but without a spotter, you’d have to play it so safe that you don’t even risk failing.

If you’re training in a home gym, you may never have a chance to test yourself, and you may accidentally be stopping your sets too far away from failure.

Your chest is a big, hearty muscle that benefits from being pushed hard, and this is the heaviest lift in your arsenal. It’s better to find a variation that truly lets you give it your all. That’s where safety bars comes in:

How to Bench Press Without a Spotter

To safely do the barbell bench pressing without a spotter, set the bench up inside a power cage with the safety bars at chest height. That way, no matter how spectacularly you fail, you won’t crush your chest, decapitate yourself or, worst of all, trap yourself under the barbell in the middle of a crowded gym.

How to Do the Bench Press if Your Chest Won’t Grow

Guys with stubborn chests often find that their shoulders and triceps take over when they do the bench press. The easiest way to emphasize your chest is simply to bench with a wider grip, more elbow flare, and to touch the barbell a bit higher on your chest (instead of your sternum), like so:

Diagram showing how to prioritize chest over shoulder growth when doing the bench press.

This increases the moment arms on your chest while decreasing them for your shoulders. This makes the lift heavier on your chest (worse leverage) and lighter on your shoulders (better leverage), and so your chest is more likely to be your limiting factor. When your chest is your limiting factor, it will get the greatest growth stimulus.

Mind you, even with a wide grip, the fronts of our shoulders have nearly the same line of pull as our pecs do. We can’t remove our shoulders from the bench press, but we can force our pecs to activate alongside them by lifting in heavier rep ranges and/or taking our sets closer to failure. That way our pecs will need to fully active alongside our shoulders to move the weight.

If you lift fairly heavy—perhaps in the 6–10 rep range—and you take your sets within a rep or two of failure, then your chest will have no choice but to work alongside your shoulders. You’ll stimulate growth in both your chest and your shoulders.

Our triceps aren’t able to “take over,” per se. They don’t have the same function as our pecs. However, when doing the barbell bench press, the barbell is preventing the weights from falling away to the side, which makes the lift much easier for our chests and much harder for our triceps. As a result, it’s possible for your triceps to fail long before your pecs, which will prevent them from being challenged enough to provoke growth. The solution for this is to ditch the barbell and choose dumbbells instead.

With a dumbbell bench press, your chest will need to fight to keep the weights from falling away to the sides. That’s going to make the lift much harder on your chest muscles. Now, your shoulders can still bear much of that burden, but if you’re lifting heavy and going close enough to failure, that won’t matter—you’ll be stimulating growth in both your shoulders and your pecs.

Benching deeper and adding a pause can make the bench press more challenging for your pecs, too. Your chest is most active at the very bottom of the bench press, when it’s fully stretched out under load. This is when its moment arms are the greatest, when passive tension is the highest, and when we can stimulate the most overall mechanical tension.

If you aren’t bringing the barbell all the way down to your chest when doing the bench press, it makes sense that your chest would lag behind. The same is true if you’re using an extreme arch that limits the range of motion on your chest. Ideally, we want a full stretch on the chest at the bottom of the bench press. That’s not always possible, especially if you have a shallow ribcage and lanky arms (as I do), but it’s something to work towards. (And in the meantime, you can include the deficit push-up and/or dumbbell fly in your routine.)

By that same token, if you bounce the barbell off your chest at the bottom of every rep, it makes the bottom of the lift easier, and so it makes the bench press easier on your chest muscles. If you want to emphasize your chest, do the opposite: bring the barbell down to your chest and hold it there for a second (keeping tension on your chest in that stretched position) before lifting the barbell back up.

The Best Bench Press Variations for Stubborn Chests

Dumbbell, beginner and at-home variations for the barbell bench press
  • Dumbbell bench press. The downside of the dumbbell bench press is that you’ll have to lift lighter. Your chest will need to do more work to stabilize the weights, meaning you’ll need to choose lighter weights. And because it can be hard to get heavy weights into the starting position, you’ll need to choose weights further away from your 1-rep max, forcing you to use higher rep ranges. On the other hand, because the weights aren’t held together by a barbell, your chest needs to fight to bring the weights together, which is the main function of your chest muscles. As a result, electromyography (EMG) research shows that the dumbbell bench press is just as effective as the barbell variation (study). And for guys with stubborn chests, it may, in fact, be better!
  • Dumbbell floor press. If you have cranky shoulders or you’ve misplaced your bench, the floor press is a great exercise to build chest size and strength. With the floor press, your range of motion is limited, keeping your shoulders in a safe position.
  • Dumbbell bench press hold. To do this variation, lower the dumbbells into the bottom position and hold them there for 20–45 seconds. As Dr Israetel explains, the blood won’t be able to leave your muscles during the hold, which will fill your muscles with metabolites and local growth factors, boosting your chest growth. (This lift is best done near the end of your workout after you’ve already done your heavy chest exercises.)

The Push-Up

Why push-ups are such a good chest exercise: Even though they’re often relegated to bodyweight and general fitness programs, push-ups remain one of the best exercises for gaining chest strength and size. In fact, any strength gains made while doing push-ups will translate perfectly to your bench press strength (study), making them the perfect accessory lift.

The push-up bodyweight chest exercise

However, one of the best things about the push-up is how different they are from the bench press. To quote Dr Schoenfeld:

Maximal muscular adaptation can only be achieved by fully working all aspects of all the major muscles, and this can only be accomplished by training with a variety of exercises.

Brad Schoenfeld, PhD

So, oddly enough, one reason why push-ups are so great is that they’re a powerful compound chest exercise that’s different from the bench press—different range of motion, different arm angles, different line of push.

Push-ups have a couple of other notable benefits:

  • Greater range of motion. You don’t need to keep your shoulder blades retracted while doing push-ups, giving you a larger range of motion at the top of the push, which bulks up your serratus anterior muscles (the muscles on top of your ribcage). This also helps you develop more versatile push strength.
  • Push-ups are easy to do at home. Easygoing sets of push-ups on rest days will pump blood into your chest muscles, speeding up recovery. Harder sets of push-ups on rest days can count as a light chest workout. To get optimal chest growth, you’ll want to be stimulating your chest about three times per week, but one of those workouts could be as simple as an at-home push-up workout.

How to Do Push-ups to Emphasize Chest Growth

  • The setup. Start in a plank position with your hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart, facing forward (as shown in the illustration). Put your body into a plank position by flexing your butt and abs, and tucking your chin.
  • The lower. Lower yourself down as far as you can go, flaring your elbows no more than 45 degrees. You may even be able to touch your chest to the ground. (If your nose hits the ground first, remember to tuck your chin.)
  • The lift. Push the floor away, and keep pushing until your chest is fully contracted and your back is fully expanded. That extra range of motion, where you expand your back, is great for bulking up your serratus anterior muscles… which aren’t part of your chest, but they’ll add some nice size and strength to that same area.

Note for the strong: Once you can do more than around 30 push-ups in a row, they stop being good for gaining chest size and strength, becoming more of an endurance exercise. At this point, you’ll need to switch to a harder variation. The very best variation is the deficit push-up, but there are a number of effective push-up variations.

The Best Push-Up Variations for Your Chest

Weighted Push-Up & Clap Push-Up Chest Exercises
  • Weighted push-ups / band push-ups: If you’re interested in gaining chest size and strength, these variations are the best, allowing you to make your push-ups progressively heavier as your chest gets bigger and stronger.
  • Clap push-ups: If you can’t add weight to your push-up, make it more explosive instead. The principle here is simple: force=mass x acceleration, so if you can’t increase the mass you’re lifting, accelerate that mass faster. To do this exercise, start in the bottom position and push off from the ground explosively, trying to propel your upper body as far off the ground as possible. When your upper body leaves the ground, clap your hands, and then catch yourself before you break your nose.
  • Deficit push-ups: the very best way to get more chest growth out of your push-ups is to enhance the stretch on your chest by raising your hands on push-up handles, weight plates, or speculative fiction novels.

There are a million other push-up variations, but they aren’t very good at stimulating your chest. Yes, you could raise up your feet, but that only makes the exercise harder because it shifts the stimulus from the big muscles in mid and lower chest to your smaller upper chest muscles. Similarly, you could use a close-grip bench press, but again that just makes the exercise harder by shifting the stimulus away from your bigger chest muscles to your smaller triceps. Same thing with the one-handed push-up, which transforms the exercise into an anti-rotation and shoulder exercise. So stick with push-ups, deficit push-ups, and weighted push-ups.

The Dumbbell Chest Fly

The dumbbell pec fly is a classic chest exercise, and one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s all-time favourite bodybuilding exercises. It’s less popular in strength training programs, which is a shame because to quote Dr Schoenfeld:

If you’re training for maximum size, just doing “the big lifts” won’t get you very far. Isolation exercises are a must.

Brad Schoenfeld, PhD
The Dumbbell Fly Chest Exercise

The dumbbell pec fly is great for isolating your chest muscles, it pairs perfectly with the bench press, and all you need are a pair of dumbbells, making it a great addition to any chest routine.

How to Do the Dumbbell Chest Fly

  • The setup. Start by pressing the dumbbells into the starting position, and just like with the bench press, set your back with a small arch and drive your shoulder blades down into the bench behind you.
  • The lower. Lower the weight down slowly and under control (2–3 seconds), letting your elbows bend freely, and feeling the tension on your chest as it stretches out. If you have good mobility in your shoulders, your elbows will finish slightly below your torso.
  • The lift. Hug the weight back up until the weights are back in the starting position, focusing on squeezing your pecs.

While the dumbbell pec fly is a fantastic chest exercise, it isn’t perfect, with the main downside being that the tension on your chest isn’t steady throughout the exercise. The dumbbells put plenty of tension on your pecs at the bottom of the exercise, but by the time you lift them to the top, they’re just resting on your outstretched arms. This isn’t an issue if you have other exercises that work your chest through its entire range of motion—that’s why we recommend plenty of exercise variety—but there are some other ways of doing the chest fly that solve this problem:

The Machine Fly / Pec Deck Fly

The machine chest fly is arguably the best isolation lift for guys with stubborn chests. The benefits of the machine fly are that they put constant tension on your pecs throughout the entire range of motion and you have good leverage to use heavy weights, making this a great exercise for building up the size of your chest.

The machine fly isolation exercise for the mid chest

I’m tempted to say that this is the best isolation exercise for your chest, but some argue that because the bar path is fixed, your stabilizer muscles won’t be stimulated, and as a result, your chest muscles won’t gain as much functional strength. On the other hand, it’s your shoulder muscles that do most of the stabilization work, so when you do a fly with a fixed bar path, it allows you to better isolate your pecs (study). Furthermore, because the lift is so incredibly simple, you can focus purely on squeezing your pecs.

To quote Dr Schoenfeld again:

From a hypertrophy standpoint, the benefits of machines counteract the disadvantages of free weights, and vice versa. By taking out the need for muscle stabilizers in free weight exercises you can put more focus on a given aspect of a muscle and enhance the hypertrophic response.

Brad Schoenfeld, PhD

How to Do the Machine Chest Fly Exercise

  • The setup. Set up the machine so that the starting position fully stretches out your pecs. If you have good mobility in your shoulders, your elbows will be slightly behind your torso. Just like with the dumbbell fly, use a small back arch and drive your shoulders into the bench behind you.
  • The lift. With your chest fully stretched, start the lift by squeezing the bars together with your chest (1–2 seconds).
  • The pause. Pause for a second with your pecs fully contracted.
  • The lower. Lower the weight slowly and under control (2–3 seconds).

The Cable Fly

The cable fly also puts constant tension on your chest muscles throughout the entire range of motion. The difference is that the path isn’t fixed. The benefit is that it builds more versatile strength, but the downside is that it can be harder to isolate your chest.

The Cable Fly Chest Exercise

The cable fly isn’t a better or worse chest exercise than the machine fly, just different. If your chest routine has other machine exercises in it, this could be a good way to balance it out.

How to Do the Cable Chest Fly Exercise

  • The setup. Set yourself up between two cable stacks and make sure that your chest is fully stretched in the starting position.
  • The lift. Bring your hands all the way together, focusing on feeling the contraction in your chest (1–2 seconds). You can let your hands rotate as you do this, either keeping them facing one another or rotating your palms down towards the floor—whichever feels better and allows you to lift more weight.
  • The pause. Pause for a second with your chest fully contracted.
  • The lower. Lower the weight slowly and under control (2–3 seconds).

The Best Lifts for a Lagging Upper Chest

Low-Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

The incline dumbbell bench press is the best exercise for building a lagging upper chest. Although the barbell incline bench press is the heaviest compound lift for your upper chest, the electromyography research of Dr Contreras found that it’s the dumbbell incline bench press that’s the best exercise for stimulating the upper chest in particular. This is likely because, with the barbell variation, the barbell prevents your arms from drifting apart as you lift. With the dumbbell variation, your upper chest needs to not only lift the weights up but also hug them together, adding in a bit of a fly movement.

The Incline Dumbbell Bench Press Upper Chest Exercise

How to Do the Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

  • The Setup. There are two tricks to ensuring that the incline bench press targets your upper chest. First, set the angle of your bench to 30–45 degrees. The steeper the angle, the more you’ll transform the incline bench press from a chest exercise into a shoulder exercise (study). Second, if you tuck your elbows to around 45 degrees, the range of motion will line up better with the line of pull of your upper chest muscles (study). Other than that, use the same setup as with the regular bench press: feet firmly planted, back firmly arched, and shoulder blades driven down into the bench.
  • The lift. Lift explosively, trying to accelerate the dumbbells.
  • The lower. Lower the weight under control, neither rushing nor dawdling, until your chest is fully stretched out.

Incline Bench Press Variations:

The barbell incline bench press: this barbell variation is similarly effective, and can be a better choice if you’re using lower rep ranges, as it’s easier to get heavy weights safely into the starting position. If you’re trying to bring up a lagging upper chest, starting your workout with a heavy low-incline barbell bench press is a good choice. You could then follow it up with a lighter dumbbell bench press for your mid-chest.

The incline barbell bench press upper chest exercise

Also, keep in mind that you can vary the incline. Spend a few weeks training at 30 degrees, then another few weeks training at 37.5 degrees, and then another few weeks training at 45 degrees, stimulating your upper chest in slightly different ways.

The Low-to-High Cable Fly

The best isolation exercise for your upper chest is the low-to-high cable fly. With this exercise, you’re lifting perfectly in line with your upper chest muscle fibres, with the cable stacks putting constant tension on them throughout.

The low-to-high upper chest isolation exercise

This exercise works best with higher rep ranges and lighter weights. Practice developing a mind-muscle connection, and use this as the pump exercise for your upper chest, lifting more slowly and keeping constant tension on your upper chest muscles.

How to Do the Low-to-High Cable Fly for Upper Chest Growth

  • The setup. Set up a cable stack on either side of you, putting them in their lowest positions. Use a staggered stance for extra stability. Stand in front of the cable stacks with your arms drifting slightly behind your body, stretching out your upper pecs.
  • The lift. Squeeze your upper chest muscles to bring your hands up over your head. As you do this, rotate your hands freely. You may be able to get more power out of your upper chest by rotating your hands to face downwards at the top of the lift.
  • The lower. Lower the weight down slowly while keeping tension on your upper chest. To get an even fuller stretch on your pecs, you can rotate your hands outwards at the bottom of the lift.

The Best Exercises for a Stubborn Lower Chest

Weighted Dips

Weighted dips are a heavy compound exercise where the line of pull lines up perfectly with the muscle fibres in your lower chest, and the EMG research of Dr Contreras confirmed that they were the most effective exercise for stimulating your lower chest. More importantly, dips allow us to challenge our chests in a fully stretched position, making them great for stimulating muscle growth.

The weighted dip lower chest exercise

An extra benefit is that, similar to with push-ups, your shoulder blades aren’t retracted during the lift, giving you some extra range of motion at the top of the push—great for your chest as well as your serratus anterior muscles.

Note for beginners: Dips require quite a lot of shoulder strength and stability in order to do safely, making them a fairly advanced lift. If you’re new to lifting or you’ve got cranky shoulders, save these until you can comfortably do all of the other exercises on this list.

How to Do Weighted Dips

  • The setup: To put more emphasis on your chest, lean forward a little bit and bend your knees, letting your feet drift back. This little bit of a lean over the bar will ease the load on the triceps and bring more of your lower chest into the lift.
  • The lower: To put more emphasis on your chest, let your elbows flare out to the sides a little bit as you go down, and lean forward instead of keeping a totally upright torso. Lower yourself until you’ve got a full stretch on your lower chest (or until your shoulders get cranky), keeping your forearms as vertical as possible.
  • The lift: Push yourself back up to the starting position, flexing both your chest and your armpits at the top of the lift. This slightly increases the range of motion for your pecs and stimulates your serratus anterior muscles.

Dumbbell Pullovers

The Dumbbell Pullover Chest Exercise

Pullovers are the only exercise on this list where you’re pulling your arms back towards your torso instead of pressing them out. That gives you an opportunity to stimulate your chest muscles in a new way, which should help you build rounder and fuller pecs. This makes them a popular chest exercise among bodybuilders (and they’re another favourite of Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Dr Bret Contreras’ EMG research has confirmed that pullovers do indeed stimulate your pecs quite well, although it depends what kind of pullover you do. While straight-arm cable pulldowns primarily work the lats, the dumbbell pullover is a chest exercise. It does stretch your lats out at the bottom of the lift, but then the tension quickly dissipates, shifting the majority of the load to your chest. So while these aren’t a mandatory chest exercise, they do offer you a novel way to stimulate muscle fibres in your chest, which should help improve your chest size and appearance.

Pullovers also help strengthen your chest, shoulders and back in a broad range of motion, which is a great boon for your physique overall.

How to Do Dumbbell Pullovers for Chest Size

  • The setup. Put a dumbbell at the top of the bench to grab later, then rest your back sideways on the bench, forming a cross. This cross position gives you the option of either dropping your hips for a greater stretch or keeping your butt and abs tight for a better core workout. We recommend bracing your core, as shown above, as it translates better to your other lifts—bench press, deadlifts, squats, etc. Grab the dumbbell from beside you with both hands, as shown in the illustration. (If you want a crooked Owen Wilson nose, use dumbbells with loose plates.)
  • The lower. Slowly lower the weight back behind you until both your pecs and lats are fully stretched (or until your shoulders protest).
  • The lift. Bring the weight up by focusing on squeezing your pecs. It’s okay if your lats or triceps chip in, but try to get your chest doing most of the work.

Okay, now to sum it all up:

The Best Chest Exercises (Summary)

An illustrated chart of the best chest exercises

The best exercises for building a stubborn or lagging chest are:

  1. The Bench Press (entire chest): The best exercise for overall chest strength and size, as it allows you to lift the heaviest weights. This exercise should be the foundation of your chest workout.
  2. The Push-Up (entire chest): A great secondary exercise for your overall chest. Low-intensity sets can be done on rest days to boost chest recovery (a feeder workout), and intense sets can be done on rest days to boost chest growth (a light chest workout).
  3. The Pec Fly (mid chest). The best chest isolation exercise to pair with the bench press, either as a follow-up exercise or even as a superset. You can do this with dumbbells, a pec fly machine, a pec deck machine, or a pair of cable stacks—all will be effective.
  4. The Incline Bench Press (upper chest). The best compound exercise for your upper chest, as it allows you to lift heavy weights through a large range of motion.
  5. The Low-to-High Cable Fly (upper chest). The best isolation exercise for your upper chest, allowing you to focus on your pecs without any triceps involvement.
  6. The Weighted Dip (lower chest). The best compound exercise for your lower chest, allowing you to lift a massive amount of weight through a huge range of motion.
  7. The dumbbell Pullover (lower chest). A great exercise for working your chest through a novel range of motion, helping you to build a bigger, fuller chest.

War Chest: How to Build a Bigger Chest

If you’re still new to lifting weights and you haven’t gained your first twenty pounds of muscle yet, our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program will be perfect for you. It’s a 5-month program made up of three full-body workouts per week, each of them containing a couple of chest exercises. It’s designed to be perfect for building a strong, full chest.

Illustration showing a man building a bigger chest.

If you’re a more advanced lifter, if you’ve already gained at least twenty pounds, or if your chest is stubbornly lagging behind the rest of your muscles, then we recommend our chest specialization program: War Chest.

War Chest: The chest workout program for stubborn or lagging pecs

It’s a full 50-page guide, including an 18-week periodized chest workout program—all of it designed to get you as much chest growth as physically possible. Every muscle group will be worked, but there’s a huge emphasis on helping you build up a truly massive, powerful pair of pecs.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping nearly ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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  1. Ricky May on November 1, 2018 at 2:49 pm

    Love this! What do ya’ll think of the reverse-grip bench press? I have found that it’s super helpful for getting my upper chest to activate–I think more so than the incline bench? Maybe? (I have HUGE problems with mind-muscle connection with pecs.)

    • Shane Duquette on November 1, 2018 at 4:02 pm

      Heya, Ricky, glad to hear from you, man!

      Mm, that’s a great question. You know, let me draw that variation and add it to the upper chest list, actually. We don’t normally program that exercise because it’s easier to drop the barbell on yourself. Mind you, with a good spotter or a good safety bar setup, that shouldn’t be a problem.

      To quote Greg Nuckols, a true master at both the bench press and reverse-grip bench press, “The clavicular fibers of your pecs (upper chest) are oriented in a way that allows them to aid quite a bit in shoulder flexion. With the reverse grip bench, you’ll generally touch the bar quite a bit lower on your chest/stomach, getting your upper pecs a bit more involved in the lift. Research has shown that reverse grip bench with a wide grip produces roughly 25-30% more upper pec muscle activation than bench with a pronated grip.”

      I’m not sure if it’s better than the incline bench—the dumbbell incline bench press might still beat it—but it’s definitely a great upper chest exercise 🙂

      • Ricky May on November 1, 2018 at 9:57 pm

        Shaaaaane! Good stuff man thanks for the quick reply! And Congrats on the baby! Awesome info, great job in this post. I will try incline DB and see how it compares, I’m alllll about that activation. What’s your favorite? Or do your favs just coincide perfectly with the article?

        • Shane Duquette on November 2, 2018 at 10:20 am

          Thanks, man! My favourite chest exercise, by far, is the barbell bench press. I’m also a big fan of the machine fly, push-ups, and weighted dips. For my upper chest, my favourite is an incline bench press machine. I get a deep stretch at the bottom and each arm moves independently. However, it’s not the ideal exercise, and with the release of War Chest, I’ve made the switch to the incline dumbbell bench press.

          As for my preferences lining up with the article, mostly, yes. However I’m a huge fan of machine flyes and the pec deck, not a big fan of the cable stuff.

          (When my chest was stubbornly small, I was able to get it activating properly by doing the barbell bench press supersetted with dumbbell flyes. I’d do a set of barbell bench press, spin around, grab some dumbbells, and immediately do the flyes. That was huge for me, making my chest one of my easiest muscle groups forever after.)

          • Ricky May on November 3, 2018 at 1:40 pm

            MMMM. I love that. Definitely gonna try your bb bench/db fly superset next time. My chest is definitely stubbornly small haha.

      • Killa drone on December 19, 2018 at 6:21 pm

        What food should I eat to gain muscle for ectomorphs

  2. Doc G on November 1, 2018 at 5:37 pm

    Fantastic read. Love the illustrations!!

    So here’s a question/frustration: for really long-armed people like me (also with relatively shallow chests) is it necessary to bring the bar all the way to contact the sternum? This puts my shoulders under a lot of stress, so except for lighter weights I’ve been stopping the downward motion about 1.5 or 2 inches above the sternum. It is amazing what a difference this makes in lifting capacity and overall comfort — but maybe I’m unintentionally short circuiting some valuable aspect of the training? When should or shouldn’t a lifter do this?

    Here’s a plug for War Chest, by the way; it was a really well-designed and educational program.

    • Shane Duquette on November 1, 2018 at 6:05 pm

      Thank you so much for the War Chest plug, Doc G 😀

      We always try to write with long-armed guys in mind since it’s such a ubiquitous problem among us naturally skinny guys, but I was saving some of those ectomorph benching tips for one of the follow-up articles.

      To answer your question, there’s nothing wrong with stopping a couple inches short if it better suits your build. However, there are some solutions that you might find even better.

      First, when Marco taught Jared and I how to bench press, he put a small wooden board on our chests and had us bring the barbell down to the board, then press it back up. Instead of just stopping with the barbell in mid air, that gave us something to press it down into, making it easier to change the direction of the barbell, and also helping us keep our form more consistent. In your case, you’d want to choose a board that’s 1.5–2 inches thick. Even if you keep your form the exact same, this might still help you get more gains out of the bench press.

      Second, in the longer term, you could work on bench pressing with a bit more of an arch. You’re only a couple inches away from touching the barbell down against your chest, so you wouldn’t even need to make your arch all that extreme. The added benefit to this is that because you’re changing the angle of your torso, you’re also changing the angle of your shoulder joint—it becomes a bit more of a decline bench press. That tends to be easier on the shoulders while allowing you to press more weight.

      You’re a very tall guy, though (6’6?), though, so don’t feel any pressure to bring the barbell all the way down. You aren’t a competitive powerlifter, so there’s need to lift in a way that doesn’t suit you 🙂

      I hope that helps!

      (I have a feeling this isn’t your problem, but for other readers, it’s also important to make sure that you’re gripping the barbell wide enough and making sure to retract your shoulder blades—driving them down and back into the bench.)

      • Doc G on November 2, 2018 at 9:29 am

        Awesome, thanks man! Right — the issue isn’t shoulder retraction or wide grip (those both got careful attention during War Chest). However, you bring up a really good point about the back arch, which I have not tried/learned yet. Appreciate the excellent comments.

  3. Michael on November 2, 2018 at 10:12 pm

    Are you guys writing another program similar to War Chest for another body parts! If not, back would be great!


    • Shane Duquette on November 3, 2018 at 11:07 am

      Hey Michael, yeah, we’ve got more coming 🙂

      We’ve already developed a program for arm size, and we’ve already finished beta testing it in the Beastly community. We’ll be releasing that program soon, probably under the name “Call to Arms.” We’re just finishing up beta testing two more programs as well: one for overall aesthetics and the other for cutting.

      As for a back specialization program, that hasn’t been as common request among our members. We’ll eventually get to it, but it might be a little while.

      • Ben Larcombe on December 1, 2018 at 11:55 am

        I found this article really helpful for my chest workouts. Quite similar to what I was doing anyway, but great to get the science behind it. I would love to see a ‘back version’ too. It would be amazing to know which back exercise is the bench press equivalent and which are the other 3 or 4 that are best to do. Personally, I think a big/strong back is the key to a good looking upper body.

  4. Krsiak Daniel on November 15, 2018 at 3:12 am

    Great article Shane 🙂

    • Shane Duquette on November 15, 2018 at 4:21 pm

      Thanks, Daniel! Can’t wait to catch up with you in the community. Just finishing up a couple final things that I fell behind on while on paternity leave. Super stoked to get back in there 😀

      • Krsiak Daniel on November 16, 2018 at 5:29 pm

        It will be great to have you back online there more often! I cannot workout due to injury for some 6 to 9 months at least so I am not posting that much (interesting) stuff as in the past.

  5. […] Let’s look at another example: the bench press. If you’re doing the bench press properly, you’re going to be stressing your bones, your tendons, your forearms, your triceps, the fronts of your shoulders, and most of all, your chest. (If the bench press isn’t stimulating your chest, check out our chest exercise article). […]

  6. […] Even with push-ups, which are one of the best bulking exercises of all time, there’s going to come a point where you’ll benefit from switching to the bench press. If you can do 30 push-ups in a row, you’re too strong from them. Grab some dumbbells or a barbell and start going heavier. (Speaking of which, here’s how to build a bigger chest.) […]

  7. […] The Best Chest Exercises for Building a Stubborn Chest […]

  8. […] he can make it up to around 100 pounds of overall muscle mass. That means that he only needs to bulk up his chest muscles a tiny bit in order to have the horsepower he needs to bench 235 […]

  9. What's the Best Type of Lifting for Skinny Guys? on September 6, 2019 at 1:03 pm

    […] Chest flyes to help bulk up the chest. […]

  10. […] Is there an advantage to getting dumbbells and cables? Having access to more equipment can certainly help, but not significantly. For example, there are distinct advantages to both the barbell and dumbbell bench press, but both are quite similar. You can build your chest with either one. Besides, even with just a barbell, you still have access to plenty of different exercises for your chest: […]

  11. […] In addition to bulking up our shoulders, we can also change the shape of our bodies by building up bigger chests and upper backs, and also making sure that our waists are […]

  12. […] and then finish the workouts with some lighter accessory lifts for your abs, arms, shoulders, chest, and upper […]

  13. […] can make it up to around 100 pounds of overall muscle mass. That means that he only needs to bulk up his chest muscles a tiny bit in order to have the horsepower he needs to bench 235 […]

  14. […] Caveats: there are other ways to progress to the bench press. You don’t have to begin with push-ups. Another approach that we use is starting with the dumbbell bench press, which works especially well for guys with stubborn chests. […]

  15. […] your bone structure so much as your degree of muscularity, making this more about how big your chest, upper back, and shoulders […]

  16. […] shoulders give out, others fail because their chests give out. That’s often why guys have stubborn or lagging chests. They expect the bench press to bring their chests close to failure, but it doesn’t, and they […]

  17. […] if our pecs are especially stubborn, perhaps we aren’t bringing them close to failure on the bench press. In that case, if we […]

  18. […] throughout the entire set (by avoiding a full lockout), then we see why it’s so good for building a bigger chest. The same is true with deficit push-ups and dumbbell flyes. They’re hardest when our chests […]

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