Chest Workout for Mass and Symmetry (11 Studies)

best science-based chest workout thumbnail

Want to learn the most effective and science-based way to build a well-developed chest? You need to do these chest exercises and workouts.

The chest is one of the most frequently trained muscles by most people. But it’s unfortunately also the muscle group that people tend to have the most trouble developing.

There’s also a tendency for the majority of people to overly focus on flat pressing movements. Like the barbell bench press, for example. Over time, the inadequate volume in other planes of motion (incline or decline for example), can lead to an “imbalanced chest”.

Thus, when it comes to developing an attractive chest, symmetry becomes more important than sheer size. And this is something I go over in my back, shoulder workout, legs, and arms articles as well.

Meaning it’s vital that you target and train each portion of your chest appropriately.

This is the exact methodology I’ve used when it comes to my own training as a natural lifter. And here’s where it’s gotten me today:

chest workout progress

To learn how to best workout the chest for mass, we need to understand their anatomy.

The Anatomy of the Chest Muscles

Anatomically, the chest is divided into two main regions. These are:

  1. The clavicular head of the pec majorAlso known as the “upper chest”
  2. The sternal head of the pec major – Which divides into both the middle and the lower chest based on the way the fibres run

barbell bench press

Do note that all portions will be activated during all chest exercises. But certain portions can be emphasized as made evident in the literature.

  • The upper chest fibres run upward – They are maximally activated with exercises where the arms move upward. These include exercises involving shoulder flexion, like the incline press.
  • The middle chest fibres run horizontally – They are best activated with exercises where the arms perform horizontally. Such as the flat bench press.
  • The lower chest fibres run downwards – They are maximally activated with exercises that involve the arms moving downwards. These include exercises involving shoulder extension, like the dips.

Chest Muscle Activation Cues (Mind-Muscle Connection):

Before we get started, it’s crucial for you to establish a solid mind-muscle connection with your chest. Otherwise, you’ll be working secondary muscles. Then, your chest won’t grow as much as it could.

One study by Snyder & Fry showed that verbal cues helped boost chest activation by 22% during bench press in trained athletes, compared to when no cues were used.

Some helpful cues you can use include:

  1. Depress your traps and squeeze your shoulder blades back into the bench. You need to do so before starting any pressing movement.
  2. Think less about pushing the weight, and more about moving the weight. You can so so by squeezing your biceps together and back out again during every rep. Why? Because the main function of the pecs is this exact movement: horizontal adduction and resisting against horizontal abduction.

The Best Science-Based Chest Exercises

Exercise 1: Incline Dumbbell Press

Through the added shoulder flexion of this movement, incline dumbbell presses:

  • Put more emphasis on the clavicular head of the pecs
  • And work several other secondary muscles as well

incline dumbbell press

The main reason for starting with this exercise is to prioritize the upper chest. Which is often the lagging portion in most people. However, I’ll further discuss exercise order and the research behind it later in this article.

The great things about this exercise are it:

1) Allows a more full range of motion for the pecs which leads to more hypertrophy. This is something that has been supported by many range of motion studies.

2)  Is very effective at activating the upper chest. For example, an extensive EMG study by Brett Contreras analyzed chest activity with 15 different exercises. And incline dumbbell presses were found to be the most effective compound movement for the upper chest.

3) More effectively prevents muscle imbalances from forming. That’s because each hand is responsible for an equal amount of weight.

Incline dumbbell exercise advantage-min

What about the best bench angle to perform these with? Well, this is something that will vary based on your anatomy. EMG studies have shown that an optimal bench angle is:

  • Between 30 degrees to 56 degrees; where:
  • Higher anterior delt activation as the angle increases

Optimal bench angle-min

I personally find that a 30 degree and 45 degree angle best activates my chest. Which also seems to be the case for most people.

So I’d suggest performing a couple of sets at both angles in order to hit your chest most effectively.

Exercise 2: Barbell Bench Press (Option #1)

The bench press is going to put the most emphasis on the middle chest and help with building overall chest thickness.

barbell bench press

I had to include this exercise in this workout because of the overwhelming evidence supporting its effectiveness at building the chest.

Several studies have shown it to be the best exercise at activating the chest. And also the exercise that you can lift the most weight with.

Also, studies like this one by Akagi et al., show a positive correlation between 1 rep max bench press with the size of the pectoralis major. Now, of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation. But this does suggest that a strong bench does equate to a big chest in many cases.

And regarding form, you definitely want to come down to your chest for a full range of motion. As I mentioned earlier, this is more effective for hypertrophy than shorter ranges of motion.

Exercise 2 Option #2: Dumbbell Bench Press

The main problem I find with bench press is that some people respond very well to it yet others tend to overcompensate with the delts. This happens regardless of their form and various use of activation cues. And I personally think this comes down to their individual anatomy. How far down the pec inserts onto the humerus, for example.

If this is the case for you, consider using an alternative exercise like the dumbbell bench press. The dumbbell bench press has been shown to have similar chest activation to the barbell bench press, only with less triceps activation. This may be a plus if your triceps are overactive when benching.

And in fact, the dumbbell bench press was shown by Brett Contreras’ study to elicit the best activation for the middle chest. There’s another plus too. Since your range of motion isn’t limited by the bar, you can get a greater range of motion with dumbbells.

But as you can see, even in the literature there’s a lot of individual variation. So try them both out and see which works best for you.

Exercise 3: Dips (Straight Bar or Regular Dips)

The next exercise is going to be dips. Which was shown in Brett Contreras’ study to be the most effective exercise for hitting the lower chest. And given that your shoulder is put in an extended position, this makes sense.

I personally prefer this variation called straight-bar dips. Why? Well, as I feel it a lot more in my lower chest. And that’s probably due to to the added internal rotation during the movement, which is another main function of the lower chest. Plus, it also gives my core a good workout.

dips for chest workout

You can do these on a smith machine bar. Or any barbell set up on a rack. You want to lean your upper body slightly over the bar and bring your legs forward under the bar as you descend to stay balanced.

dips for best chest exercise for mass

And then using your lower chest and triceps, push back up. And try to keep your elbows from flaring out too much. Make sure the bar doesn’t drag against your body throughout the movement.

It is a pretty tough exercise for most people. But I guarantee if you perform them properly with progression, you will see huge improvements in your lower chest.

If you’re struggling with that, then stick to regular dips for now with a slight lean forward to hit your chest more as opposed to the triceps. You’ll also want to eventually start adding weight to keep progressing it.

Exercise 4: Banded Push-Ups

This exercise is kind of a finishing movement. But it is something I highly recommend you include in your routine.

Simply put a band around your back and hold each end with your hands. Then, perform regular push ups with the added resistance.

banded push-ups chest exercise

A study by Andersen et al. compared banded push ups with the bench press, they had:

  • One group perform only banded pushups for 5 weeks, and
  • Another group perform only bench press for 5 weeks

The researchers then compared how their bench press strength changed after the 5 weeks were complete.

They found that banded push-ups exhibited nearly identical activation when compared to the bench press. But it’s not just that. Both groups also resulted in very similar bench press strength gains over the 5 weeks!

Banded pushup advantage-min

So, as you can see, I chose to include this exercise because:

  1. It has the potential to improve your strength as much as the bench does
  2. Studies show it to activate the chest very well, especially the upper chest

An easy way to progress this exercise is just by using bands with higher resistance as you get stronger.

Exercise 5: High to Low Cable Crossovers

The last exercise is going to put more emphasis on the sternal head of the pecs, so both the middle and lower chest will be emphasized.

lower chest flies chest workout anatomy

A few studies, like this one by Schanke et al., have shown the high to low cable crossovers to be just as effective as the bench press at activating the pecs. So it’s definitely a great finishing movement that you can perform to failure.

cable crossovers lower chest workout

Another bonus with this chest exercise and something you can’t do in most other exercises is it enables you to cross your hands over at the bottom position. This allows for greater horizontal adduction at the shoulder, which will better activate the chest.

Sample Science-Based Chest Workout

So to conclude, here’s a sample chest workout you can perform using the exercises I previously discussed.

Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets of 6-10 reps

Barbell OR Dumbbell (Benefits of using a barbell vs dumbbell) Bench Press: 3 sets of 6-10 reps

Dips: 3 sets of 8-12 reps

Banded Push-ups: 3 sets of 6-12 reps (or to failure)

High to Low Cable Crossovers: 3 sets of 10+ reps

Sample workout overall-min

Exercise Order for Your Chest Routine

But one thing to keep in mind is the order that you perform the exercises in. Several studies have shown a trend where lifters get better gains in hypertrophy and strength for exercises that are done early in a session, meaning you want to order exercises based on what your strengths and weaknesses are.

If your upper chest is lagging, then perform the workout in the order above.

Sample workout lagging upper chest-min

If your mid chest and overall thickness is lagging:

Barbell OR Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 6-10 reps

Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets of 6-10 reps

Dips: 3 sets of 8-12 reps

Banded Push-ups: 3 sets of 6-12 reps (or to failure)

High to Low Cable Crossovers: 3 sets of 10+ reps

Sample workout lagging middle chest-min If your lower chest is lagging:

Dips: 3 sets of 8-12 reps

Barbell OR Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 6-10 reps

Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets of 6-10 reps

High to Low Cable Crossovers: 3 sets of 10+ reps

Banded Push-ups: 3 sets of 6-12 reps (or to failure)

Sample workout lagging lower chest-min

This will help prioritize weaknesses and help balance out your chest more.

Be Mindful of Individual Variation!

Another thing to note is that in my personal experience and in my review of the literature, I noticed there is a lot of individual variation when it comes to the best exercises for the chest.

For example, anatomical variations like how far down your pecs insert on your humerus can determine if things like bench press are a good option for you or not (future topic to look into!).

So although results from studies will apply to most people, they don’t account for every individual which is why I recommend you do a lot of experimentation and feel free to swap out exercises for others that you feel better activation with, and also feel free to split the chest workout in half and fit them in with other workout days (e.g. PPL workout split).

And for a step-by-step program designed to accommodate your schedule and show you exactly how to build chest muscle most effectively through the use of science, then:

Click the button below to take my analysis quiz to discover the best program for you:

That’s it. I hope you enjoyed this article! Don’t forget to give me a follow and connect with me on InstagramFacebook, and Youtube as well, in order to stay up to date with my content.

By the way, here’s the article summed up into a YouTube video:

43 thoughts on “Chest Workout for Mass and Symmetry (11 Studies)”

      1. I’m wondering, how many times do you do this workout a week? I’m also wondering if you think a workout like this would work or if it’s too much volume. – Chest training 2 days a week- Day 1- flat bench (8-10 reps, 3sets), decline bench, (8-10 reps, 3sets), incline dumbbell bench press (10-12 reps, 3 sets). Day 2- decline bench (8-10 reps, 3 sets), incline dumbbell bench press (10-12 reps, 3 sets), pec dec machine (10-12 reps, 3 sets)

  1. Thanks Jeremy. Awesome complement to the youtube videos. Downloaded the shoulder pdf and it was great, hope you can find the time to put it together for chest as well

  2. Really loving the way you’ve put the science behind your workouts!! Please let me know when your chest and back PDF workouts are done. Keep smashing it bro 👊🏼

  3. These are amazing. Jeremy…so good. Thank you for bringing science into the equation. Work SMARTER and HARDER not just harder!
    😀
    Really really good stuff. Thank you so much!

  4. In the lower jest exercise routine;
    Should I go down on the weight after I have done dumbell pushups to incline pushup with dumbells??

  5. Jeremy do you have a push workout ( chest, shoulder, triceps ) and a pull workout ( back, biceps ) Thank you in advance Art

  6. Thanks a lot for the information.
    I am kind of confused after I read your upper and lower body workout plan and this other article. In the upper and lower body workout plan you listed one or two chest workout exercises,but here you listed 4 to 5 chest exercises. Therefore I don’t know which plan should I stick to? And how many exercises should I do in order to train the muscles?

    1. Jeremy Ethier

      My videos for each muscle group were geared towards those who workout one muscle a day, and I wanted to focus the research on each muscle. My upper/lower split applies this research but for a different workout split which is a better program for most people!

  7. Are high>low cable crossovers more effective at building the pecs than dumbbell fly variations? I typically include db flys due to the awesome feeling I get from the stretch in the eccentric movement, but I’m wondering if you research has anything to say about their overall effectiveness at building bigger stronger pecs.

  8. BRANDON GALLE

    Great information. I workout at home and I don’t have a bench at the moment. Would weighted decline pushups be a good alternative for the incline press? Also what is your opinion on the floor press? Thanks, Keep up the good work.

  9. Great info and content jeremy, just have one question, can i utilize decline bench presses for my lower chest or will a flat bench already target most of the lower pecs already? I’m asking because I don’t have the strength to perform dips yet.

  10. I mostly feel my shoulders working when trying to work on my upper chest which is clearly my weakest part. Any suggestions, Jeremy?

    Thanks!

    1. When I do Incline Dumbbell Press I only feel my delta working.

      That’s also why I’m doing dumbbell presses instead of barbell presses.

    2. Jeremy Ethier

      Try utilizing a lower inline on the bench. I personally have the same problem and stick to the lowest incline possible to help out with this – a long with keeping the chest up and shoulderblades back to prevent the shoulders from taking over.

  11. Hi JEREMY ETHIER,
    How are you? Thanks for all youtube video, As per your message on Jan 2018, you were working on Pdf of other parts of Body, I am looking forward complete pdf, Arms, chest, back, Legs
    Do help to get that PDf as on Net I find your way and presentation is simple and clear in rest of Pdf you get for exercise, Its simple and clear on steps of exercise, waiting forward of your PDF
    Regards
    Aaryan

  12. Hi Jeremy,

    I have just downloaded the PDF’s for Back and Shoulder workouts, do you have links to anymore as I’m sure these will be a great help.

    Thanks,
    Callum

  13. Hello Jeremy,

    I just found your Youtube and Website and I’m very impressed by how much work you put into everything. I’ll definitely follow your plans and tips for a couple months and will show you guys the results. Thank you very much.

  14. Hello, Jeremy!

    I do not have the equipment to perform High to Low Cable Crossovers and Dips. What are good alternatives for High To Low Cable Crossovers? Also, are Bench Dips good alternatives for normal Dips, if not, what are?

    Thank you!

  15. Hello, Jeremy.

    Just been wondering, what are good alternatives for High to Low Cable Crossovers and dips? Are Bench Dips good alternatives for regular ones? Thank you so much for your response. 🙂

  16. For working the Upper chest, instead of doing an incline DB press would an incline BB bench press target this portion of the chest, will it target other portions too? any suggestions for lower chest exercises that don’t require cable machine? Thanks.

  17. Hey! I would just like to thank you for all the helpful advice. Iw as wondering if you were going to make a guide like this for push/pull workouts.

  18. Pingback: The Best Science-Based Trap Workout for Growth (10 Studies)

  19. Pingback: Barbells vs Dumbbells: Which is Better to MAXIMIZE Muscle growth? (6 Studies)

  20. Pingback: The Best Science-Based Back Workout for Growth (12 Studies)

  21. Pingback: Light Weights vs Heavy Weights for Muscle Growth (6 studies)

  22. Pingback: High Reps vs Low Reps For Muscle Growth: What Does Research Say?

  23. Pingback: How To Build Muscle Faster: 3 Science-Based Training Tips

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *