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March 29, 2021

Best Exercises to Build Chest Muscle

In order to determine the best exercises for each muscle, it is essential to firstly identify the precise primary movement of each muscle of the body. If you have identified the primary movement then it is much easier to determine what type of motion results in the most efficient loading of the target muscle and joint distortion.

For a chest exercise to be optimally productive, efficient and as safe as possible, it has to meet a few crucial criteria:

  • The exercise should precisely mimic the primary motion of the muscle. Allow a generally full range of motion and not cause any joint strain or distortion.
  • The direction of resistance must be aligned with the direction of motion, and also be aligned with the insertion and origin of the chest muscles.
  • The exercises need to provide a productive resistance curve, which means taking into account “mechanical disadvantage” and “early phase loading.”
  • The resistance has to come from a direction that is directly opposite of the origin of the target muscle. In the case of the pectorals, it is the sternum.
  • The interaction of the limb being operated and the targeted muscle has to be from a generally perpendicular angle.
  • The exercise must not load the non-target muscle more than the targeted muscle. For example, using an exercise that targets the deltoids more than the chest muscles.

Those exercises that meet all of those aforementioned criteria are considered excellent exercises for the pectorals. Exercises that miss a couple of those criteria are considered less than ideal exercises but still fairly effective. Exercises that fail to meet most of these criteria are considered to be poor exercises.

It is important to understand that every exercise has their own specific set of anatomical and mechanical factors, which determine the efficiency, injury risk and productivity of each exercise. If you are a gym instructor, competitive bodybuilder, or simply an avid gym enthusiast then you should be able to differentiate between exercises that are considered to be “dangerous”, “inefficient” and “excellent”.

A muscle fiber pulls from its insertion towards its origin, just like a rope. The pectoralis major takes part in many daily activities you participate in like driving a car or washing dishes. But there are some very specific motions of the pectoralis major that are considered to be “ideal” or “pure.” And there are motions of the pectoralis major which are considered to be “less than ideal.”

Why incline press is a poor chest exercise

The incline barbell and dumbbell press is considered to be a great exercise for the upper chest. But is it really? The reality is that there are no pectoral fibers that originate above the shoulder joint and above the clavicles. This means that the pectoral muscles are unable to fully participate in the pulling of the humerus (upper arm) in a direction that is above the clavicle line or shoulder joint. Despite this obvious fact, the incline press is one of the most popular exercises for the chest. But it simply can not be a great pectoral exercise because the arm is pulled in a direction where there are no pectoral fibers.

Best way to build chest muscle effectively

It is generally considered that the best exercises for the chest are incline press for the “upper pectorals,” a flat barbell or dumbbell press for the middle pectorals, and decline press for the lower pectoral muscles. This recommendation seems to be solid but when looking at the biomechanics, it is not completely right.

The humerus must move towards the origin of the pectorals, for a chest exercise to be most productive. There are no origins of the pectoral muscles above the arm line for incline movements to be very effective, as already mentioned. Only the decline and flat angled pressing movements move the humerus towards the origin of the pectoral muscle fiber.

1. Decline dumbbell press

Decline dumbbell press

When performing a decline dumbbell press at an angle of about 30 degrees, you will activate the most amount of pectoral fibers. The reason being that you are moving the humerus towards the area where there most amount of pectoral fibers are located at.

When the arms are moved towards the middle of the sternum, all 3 parts of the pectoral muscles (the sternal, costal and clavicular fibers) contract. This decline angle is the best direction of the motion of the humerus that engaged the highest number of pectoral fibers.

If you had to pick out one single exercise for building up your chest muscles then the decline dumbbell press at a 30-degree angle would certainly be an excellent choice.

2. Cable crossover with double-adjustable pulley

Doug Brignole training chest using double adjustable pulley

The cable crossover is a very popular chest exercise but there are a few problems with the standard cable crossover. Since the pullies are too far apart and also too much to the side, the direction of resistance is not very good. This creates a motion that provides too little resistance at the beginning and too much resistance at the end of the motion.

The double-adjustable pulley solves this problem because it allows you to create the ideal angle of resistance, as well as the ideal resistance curve for the chest muscles.

The angled used with the double adjustable pulley is similar to the angle used when during parallel bar dips.

When using cables like with the double adjustable pulley, you can choose the exact weight you need to perform the number of reps you want, which the parallel bar dips don’t allow you to do.

The cables allow you to bring your arms out laterally and stretch your chest muscles, then bring your arms inward towards the midline of your body and contract your pecs. This can not be done when using the parallel bar dips since the bars don’t move.

When doing dips the direction of resistance is vertical, which is not ideal. The direction of resistance, when doing decline cable press is upward, with a distinct outward angle. This allows you to apply more resistance to the pectorals when they are contracted. If you keep the forearms parallel to the cables throughout the movement, you are able to maintain your forearms in a neutral position, which in turn allows you to focus more on the loading of the pectoral muscles.

3. Flat bench dumbbell press

A flat bench dumbbell press is actually the highest angle you should use when training your chest muscles. A incline angle would be less effective than the flat press and decline press would be slightly more effective than the flat press.

The flat angle moves the upper arm (humerus) towards the highest fibers on the pecs, which are the clavicular and sternum fibers. Basically, it does load a large number of pectoral fibers but not a huge amount.

Ideally, you should be focusing on the decline dumbbell press and the flat dumbbell press for building your chest. The double adjustable pulley machine would be even better but it is not available in most commercial gyms.

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