The Best Science-Based Chest Workout for Mass and Symmetry (11 Studies)

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If you want to learn the most effective and science-based way to build a well-developed chest, then you need to do these chest exercises and workouts.

 

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

In addition, there’s a tendency for the majority of people to overly focus on flat pressing movements (e.g. barbell bench press). Overtime, with inadequate volume in other planes of motion (incline or decline for example), this can lead to an “imbalanced chest”.

Thus, when it comes to developing an attractive chest, symmetry becomes more important than sheer size which is something I go over in my backshoulder, 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 chest training as a natural lifter, and here’s where it’s gotten me today:

chest workout progress

But in order to learn how to best workout the chest, we need to first understand their anatomy.

The Anatomy of the Chest Muscles

Anatomically, the chest is divided into two main regions. These are the clavicular head of the pec major, also known as the “upper chest”, and the sternal head of the pec major which divides into both the middle chest and the lower chest based on the way the fibres run.

Although it should be noted that all portions will be activated during all chest exercises, certain portions can be emphasized as made evident in the literature.

Since the upper chest fibres run upward, they are maximally activated with chest exercises where the arms move upward (exercises involving shoulder flexion, like the incline press).

Since the middle chest fibres run horizontally, they are best activated with chest exercises where the arms perform horizontally (like the flat bench press).

Since the lower chest fibres run downwards, they are maximally activated with chest exercises that involve the arms moving downwards (exercises involving shoulder extension, like dips).

Chest Muscle Activation Cues (Mind-Muscle Connection):

Before we get started it’s important that you establish a solid mind-muscle connection with your chest, otherwise you’ll be working secondary muscles and your chest won’t grow as much as it could.

In fact, one study by Snyder & Fry actually 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 are to depress your traps and squeeze your shoulder blades back into the bench before starting any pressing movement.

And think less about pushing the weight, and more about moving the weight by squeezing your biceps together and back out again during every rep, as 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.

best chest exercise 1 - incline dumbbell press

The main reason for starting with this exercise is to prioritize the upper chest, which is often the lagging portion of the chest 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:

1) It allows a more full range of motion for the pecs which leads to more hypertrophy – something has been supported by many range of motion studies.

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

3) It more effectively prevents muscle imbalances from forming since each hand is responsible for an equal amount of weight.

As for the best bench angle to perform these with, 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, and showed higher anterior delt activation as the angle higher.

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 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.

chest workout for mass

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

It has been shown in several studies to be the best exercise at activating the chest and additionally 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, however 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, since 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 regardless of their form and various use of activation cues, which I personally think comes down to their individual anatomy (for example how far down the pec inserts onto the humerus).

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

And in fact, the dumbbell bench press was actually shown by Brett Contreras’ study to elicit the best activation for the middle chest, and another plus is the greater range of motion with dumbbells since your range of motion isn’t limited by the bar.

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, which makes sense given that your shoulder is put in an extended position.

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

dips for best 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, and you want to eventually start adding weight to keep progressing it.

Exercise 4: Banded Push-Ups

This exercise is kind of a finishing movement but 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, and compared how their bench press strength changed after the 5 weeks were complete.

The researchers found that not only did banded push-ups exhibit nearly identical chest activation when compared to the bench press, but both groups resulted in very similar bench press strength gains over the 5 weeks.

The fact that this exercise has the potential to improve your upper body strength as much as the bench does, and the fact that it has been shown in studies to activate the chest very well, especially the upper chest, is why I chose to include this is exercise.

And 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 chest 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

High to low cable crossovers has been shown in a few studies, like this one by Schanke et al., 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 to allow 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 chest exercises I previously discussed.

Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets of 6-10 reps

Barbell OR 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

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 chest workout in the order above.

If your mid chest and overall thickness is lagging, then perform the chest workout in this order:

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

If your lower chest is lagging, then perform the workout in this order:

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)

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 split).

And that’s basically it. I hope this helps you guys out. Let me know if you have any questions. I’ll be doing the same in-depth analysis for all the other major muscle groups. Cheers!

If you guys want to watch the Youtube video that summarizes the article, check it out below:

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16 thoughts on “The Best Science-Based Chest Workout for Mass and Symmetry (11 Studies)”

  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!

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