This is Betty: a $12,000 EMG machine that is going to help us determine what the best chest exercises ACTUALLY are.
How does this all work?
Right. Before we dive into what the best chest exercises are (so you can add them to your workout routine for that covetable mass), let’s talk about why I bought a $12,000 piece of equipment in the first place.
I remember watching the movie “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and seeing Ryan Gosling’s ripped, muscular body on screen.
I imagined just how incredible and confident it would feel to look like that.
So at 15 years old, I joined a gym. But I quickly became confused and overwhelmed. Everyone I asked about how I should train or eat had a different opinion. For years, I tried all sorts of different things, but still, I just felt stuck.
Until one day during my studies at University, I accidentally came across a 2010 study titled “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training”.
This paper dove into the science behind what made muscles grow and how to apply that science to your training.
I was fascinated. I felt like I stumbled upon a gold mine.
I started reading more studies and applying these methods to my own training, and my results skyrocketed. I taught these methods to my friends and family, and the same effect happened there.
Finally! A source of truth I could trust. Then it hit me … if I could blend my love of science with fitness, that would be my dream. And I knew I couldn’t be alone. I couldn’t be the only one who was frustrated with opinions and suggestions that just didn’t work.
That’s when I went all in to pursue a career in fitness. Learning from the experts and dissecting the research in a way that the average joe could understand and apply.
However … I wanted to go a step further … I want to not only communicate research and spread the truth to the world, but I want to be part of that research process.
This brings me back to Betty.
She’s what’s known as an EMG machine (just don’t tell her that, she likes to feel human). EMG stands for electromyography, and it’s a way of measuring the electrical activity produced by muscles when they contract.
Researchers use this to assess how well different exercises (e.g., pecs exercises) are at activating our muscles (e.g., pecs muscle).
Although there are some limitations to this method which I’ll discuss later on, it’s a good way to test the potential effectiveness of different exercises.
But just when I was getting excited about using Betty to find out what the best chest exercises really are ... I ran into a problem.
I haven’t used this machine since back in University. And I want to make sure I run this experiment as best as possible so that we, and you, could actually trust the data on the best chest exercises.
So I called up a few colleagues, and they led me to John, a Master’s student specializing in EMG who taught me everything I needed to know before I actually ran an experiment to find out what the best chest exercises are.
Finally, Betty and I were ready for our first test run—one step closer to discovering what the best chest exercises really are!
After getting the hang of her, it was time to prep the experiment and think about all the variables we had to control.
So, as mentioned earlier, Betty is going to help us determine what the best chest exercises are for the:
Before conducting the experiment, I had each of us (i.e., Raza, Alex, and I) write down on a piece of paper which exercises from the list we think will end up being the top 2 for each chest area (in other words: the best chest exercises in each category).
Once we get the results of the best chest exercises (as determined by Betty), we'll then compare them to each of our lists. The person who gets the fewest exercises correct will be forced to deal with the consequences.
And what "consequences" are we talking about, specifically? Answer: a full-body dunk into a human-body-sized Canadian Tundra Death Trap—guaranteed to shrink whatever manhood you have left.
Here’s a list of all the chest exercises we’ll be testing to determine the best chest exercises.
But, before we tested (and found out, once and for all, the best chest exercises), there were just a few more final things we needed to get done on test day:
Here's what you need to know about the actual test designed to discover the best chest exercises out there:
Before we reveal the best chest exercises within each category, it's important to be mindful of the limitations of this little experiment. Namely, with several variables and just 3 subjects, it's hard to detect any statistical differences.
That said, I did average the data across us 3 (i.e., Raza, Alex, and I)—and found some really interesting findings that align with a lot of other research out there.
Now, without further ado, let's start with the best chest exercises for the upper chest.
Generally, exercises done on an incline bench will better target the upper chest. So, it's no surprise that the top two exercises were both incline dumbbell presses—just at different bench angles.
We tested three angles:
But for all 3 of us, as soon as the bench incline reached 45 degrees, the upper chest activation began to decrease, and the shoulders started to take over.
This is something that I've seen in past EMG studies as well.
As a result, the lower inclines of 15 degrees and 30 degrees, which is usually just 1 to 2 notches up from the bottom position, came out on top. 15 degrees worked best for me, so I’ll be sticking with that, whereas 30 degrees worked best for Raza and Alex.
I’d suggest you try out both and see what feels best for you.
Now, there is, however, one more upper chest exercise I want to highlight. It's called the pinch press, a popular "Instagram influencer" exercise that I thought would be fun to throw in and test.
Guess what? This ended up being Raza's top upper chest exercise. It scored quite well overall for me as well.
But I wouldn't recommend it. In fact, it's far from being one of the best chest exercises around.
Why? Well, this brings me to one of Betty's limitations (I'm sorry, baby, don't take it personally). Although an exercise may activate a muscle really well, it doesn't necessarily mean it's the best option to grow that muscle.
In the case of the pinch press, the chest is activating really hard to keep the weights squeezed together. This type of contraction on the chest is what's called an isometric contraction—which, unfortunately, just isn't very effective for building muscle. It's like trying to grow your legs with wall sits instead of squats.
Luckily, the pinch press ended up being the only "high activation but low muscle building potential" exercise in the list I tested.
Now, the best chest exercises for the middle chest.
The first winner is actually not a very well-known exercise, but it's something we use in our Built With Science programs. And it's a favorite of a few popular bodybuilders, such as John Meadows (RIP).
Psst: we don't just include the best chest exercises in our Built With Science programs. You'll also find the best shoulders, back, hamstrings, quads ... you-name-it-we've-got-it exercises. Interested in "hacking" your way to your ideal physique? Then take the quick analysis quiz below to discover the best program for you and your body:
Click the button below to take my analysis quiz to discover the best program for you:
It's none other than the decline dumbbell press. But it's not the typical version you see at the gym.
Here, we used just a very slight elevation by placing a weight plate underneath the front of the bench.
Usually, this helps emphasize the lower chest the most. But, to my surprise, it did an excellent job of activating the middle chest for all 4 of us.
The other winner was an exercise with a very stable setup—and one that provides constant tension to the chest throughout the whole range of motion. It's the seated cable fly.
In this case, we put the cable handles at chest height, which seemed to be the perfect setting for the middle chest, and, as you'll see, the lower chest as well.
Before we move on to the best chest exercises for the lower chest, I want to highlight one more exercise. Push-ups.
Bodyweight push-ups scored extremely poorly for me.
And for Alex as well:
But, for Raza, because they were more challenging for him to do, it actually ranked the highest for his middle chest.
So, while it can be a great exercise and just as effective as something like the bench press for beginners, it will become less effective as you get stronger and need more of a challenge.
Last but not least, the best chest exercises for the lower chest.
Here I expected high to low cable flyes to win, because tension from the cable aligns well with the lower chest fibers. While it did end up scoring well, seated cable flyes came out on top. This might be because it’s a more stable setup, with the tension from the cable still aligning quite well with the lower chest.
So both are great options, but I would be interested to see if activation would change at all if I placed the sensors a little more on the outer chest, which is where I personally feel high to low cable flyes the most.
The other winner joining the list of the best chest exercises was once again the decline dumbbell press, suggesting that the very slight decline aligns the press very well with both the middle and the lower fibers of the chest.
Psst: want to take a deeper look into the results? I've got you covered. Continue scrolling till the bonus "Nerd Talk" section to view all the data in detail, plus the list of all the winners (i.e., the best chest exercises for each area of the chest).
So, at the end of the test, we all got changed and gathered around for the verdict. At that point, I still had no idea who was going in. Who got the most correct guesses for the best chest exercises?
I got 4 correct.
Alex got 4 correct.
And Raza? He got 3 correct.
This meant Raza had to go in!
Seeing Raza take his ice plunge like an absolute champ inspired me to jump in. And as I sat there freezing in the rain, I started getting a little emotional.
After hitting 100,000 subscribers on YouTube, I founded Built With Science which stemmed from a bigger vision I always had in mind.
To build a legacy that would last long after I'm gone and be much greater and larger than myself.
A legacy that would bring a more scientific and research-backed approach to the fitness industry and weed out the BS and "bro-science" that plagues the industry.
This little science experiment on the best chest exercises was a big step towards realizing that. For the first time ever, rather than just observing the science, I’m, in a way, kind of actually doing the science. I’m excited about where this leads, and I appreciate you joining me on this journey.
One final thing: many of the best chest exercises you'll come across here are the EXACT ones I use in my Built With Science 2.0 (new and improved!) programs. So, if you want to fast-track your results and transformation, definitely take the quick analysis quiz below to discover the best program for you and your body:
Click the button below to take my analysis quiz to discover the best program for you:
Alright, I'll see you next time. And if you're looking for more help with exercise selection, feel free to check out my past articles on some of the best exercises for bigger shoulders:
The data on the best chest exercises out there I reported earlier was based on the averages of the 3 subjects involved in the study (i.e., Raza, Alex, and myself).
|Jeremy exercise||Front delt||Upper chest||Middle chest||Lower chest|
|standing cable fly||25.6||25.4||66.3||44.9|
|high to low cable fly||16.7||20.2||62.3||53.8|
|seated cable fly||35.6||30||79.2||57.2|
|barbell bench press||44||48.3||50.3||53.5|
|incline barbell bench press||46.9||36.8||45.3||30.3|
|flat dumbbell press||46.5||54.3||59.6||63.6|
|incline machine press||54||57.5||53.7||56.4|
|15 degree incline dumbbell press||37.6||64.9||52.2||55.5|
|30 degree incline dumbbell press||42.5||49.5||46.6||39.4|
|45 degree incline dumbbell press||43.8||30.7||43.9||22.8|
|decline dumbbell press||55.3||53||62.8||73.8|
|pec deck machine||34||31.8||84.5||55|
|Alex exercise||Front delt||Upper chest||Middle chest||Lower chest|
|standing cable flyes||23||50.5||45.2||110|
|high to low cable fly||24.1||54.8||59.7||132|
|seated cable fly||35.3||65.5||73.2||173|
|barbell bench press||73.6||81.6||64.5||109|
|incline barbell bench press||77.6||54.8||26.3||29.5|
|flat dumbbell press||54||67.3||65.1||135|
|incline machine press||56.7||65.6||67.1||72.2|
|15 degree incline dumbbell press||58.7||73.7||78.3||107|
|30 degree incline dumbbell press||77.3||82.2||67.1||68.2|
|45 degree incline dumbbell press||78.2||68||40.3||41.2|
|decline dumbbell press||50.8||61||70.2||145|
|pec deck machine||21.2||55.4||51||131|
|Raza exercise||Front delt||Upper chest||Middle chest||Lower chest|
|standing cable fly||35||64.2||47.8||54.4|
|high to low cable fly||14.4||47.6||38.8||54.1|
|seated cable fly||38.4||72.6||55.3||73.4|
|barbell bench press||43||41||37.7||55.9|
|incline barbell bench press||44.5||48.5||37.2||48.2|
|flat dumbbell press||17.2||26||40.8||76|
|incline machine press||44||30.4||35.8||30|
|15 degree incline dumbbell press||36.2||44.3||45.9||33.6|
|30 degree incline dumbbell press||43.3||45.1||36.4||28.8|
|45 degree incline dumbbell press||49||44||45.8||28.4|
|decline dumbbell press||33.3||30||46.7||65.1|
|pec deck machine||19.2||51.4||40||55.6|
However, when you take a look at the data at an individual level, some interesting things appear:
We tested several different exercises, but one thing we didn’t play around with when trying to determine the best chest exercises was grip width.
I’ve seen some EMG papers that found more upper chest activation when using a narrower grip during the bench press. I’d also be interested to see how the other regions of the chest are affected by a narrower vs wider grip.
Also, I placed the electrodes in the middle of the upper, middle, and lower portions of the chest.
But what if I placed them more on the “outer” chest or “inner” chest? Would the activation be different?
Lastly, I tested all exercises by using 5 reps at 70% 1RM (70% of the max weight you could lift for that exercise). But what if I went even heavier or pushed closer (or even all the way) to failure? I’d assume muscle activation would increase, but it would be interesting to try out.