It would be difficult to call yourself fit and strong without having a well-developed, strong chest section. The chest is amongst the largest muscle groups in the body and contains one of the largest individual sets of muscles. Achieving true upper body strength will require these muscles to be fully trained.
There are also sound aesthetic reasons for training your chest properly. A well-developed chest is fundamental in any physique competition and will help to give you the classic v-taper, chiselled beach body that many people train for.
However, training the chest is no easy feat. It takes a lot of stimulation and a lot of volume to grow.
The answer? Heavy compound exercises.
Compound exercises work several joints and muscle groups at once, making them incredibly efficient at targeting large areas like the chest. They are also incredibly functional in building upper body strength. Using the exercises in my list below will ensure that your full chest – alongside your anterior deltoids and, importantly, your triceps – will receive sufficient stimulus for adaptation.
The Chest Muscles (And What They Do)
When we talk about the chest muscles, we are generally talking about two large muscles that sit on both sides of the chest. These are the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor (hence you will often hear people referring to the chest as ‘the pecs’ in an athletic setting).
It’s well worth considering each of these muscles when looking at how to train the chest for strength, endurance or hypertrophy.
The pectoralis major is perhaps the key player in athletic or aesthetic chest growth and performance. It is comprised of two large, fan-shaped muscles that each covers half of the upper chest. It attaches at multiple points across the sternum (breastbone), ribs, and clavicle (collarbone), and along the humerus (your upper arm).
There are two heads to the pectoralis major, which both attach to your upper arm. They each share many duties, so training one will generally train the other (again, making compounds a strong choice for chest training).
The sternocostal head is the largest, at about 80% of your pectoralis major’s total mass. It is responsible for arm adduction and assists in rotating your humerus internally. It is the major power player in most chest movements. The clavicular head is smaller and makes up the upper portion of the pectoralis major. It originates at the clavicle, helps with everything the sternocostal head does, and also flexes the humerus (it raises your arm forwards).
Most major pressing motions will work the pectoralis major, with large emphasis on the sternocostal head – hence they are fundamental in any regime designed to pack on mass and build strength.
Then we have the pectoralis minor.
The pectoralis minor is smaller than the major, perhaps obviously, and lies beneath it. A small, triangular muscle, it controls parts of your body mechanics associated with your backside. It affixes at the coracoid process – small, hook-shaped protrusions at the tops of your shoulder blades.
Because of this attachment, the pectoralis minor helps to pull the shoulder blades down. Movements like pull ups and scapulae retractions can help you to better train this function, though chest exercises in which your body leans forwards and your shoulder blades draw downwards and together – dips and decline chest presses are best for this.
You will also be working your triceps muscles in pretty much all chest compound exercises. These are three heads that attach along the backs of your upper arms. Keeping your triceps strong will give you plenty of pressing power, making them key in any form of athletic discipline that uses the upper body, and growing them large will form the bulk of a good set of guns.
The triceps originate just below the socket of the scapulae (your shoulder blades) and at two distinct areas of the upper arm. They attach to the upper part of the forearm (the ulna bone). The main use to which they will be put during chest exercises (and, indeed, their main use overall) will be in extending the elbow joint.
Our Three Top Chest Compound Exercises
All three of these exercises will work every aspect of your pectoralis major and minor, alongside your triceps, eliciting a great deal of growth. Each one can be used as the primary exercise in any chest exercise, or as accessory movements, and each can be appropriate for either strength training, endurance or muscle growth.
For strength training, ensure that you are reaching failure (or one rep shy of it) at anywhere between the 1-6 rep mark. For hypertrophy, this should be around the 8-14 mark. For endurance, focus on the 12-20 rep range. There will, of course, be overlap between these (strength gains will bring hypertrophy, and hypertrophy training will improve endurance, for example).
The bench press is both the gold standard for testing upper body strength, and a potent tool in building up strength and size through a wide range of rep targets.
You will typically use a barbell and a bench or power rack to perform a bench press. You can use a flat bench, decline or incline, to target different portions of the chest. You can also modify the bench press to a chest press, using other forms of resistance such as dumbbells, kettlebells and resistance bands.
- Lie on the bench, underneath the racked barbell, with the barbell around your clavicle.
- Breath, brace, and tense your lats, then unrack the barbell with your hands just outside of shoulder-width apart, keeping everything tight.
- Lower the barbell down to your lower chest, keeping your elbows tucked at 45 degrees from your body. Inhale as you lower if going for higher reps. Hold your breath if going for strength.
- Bring the bar to a centimetre or so from your body, or even lightly touching, then press it back up to the beginning, exhaling if going for reps.
- Breath at the top if going for strength. Repeat for your desired rep and set range.
To target the triceps more fully (whilst still engaging the chest), try for closer grip bench presses. Bring your hands to shoulder width and keep your elbows closer to your ribcage through the lower portion of each rep.
Push ups are amongst my favourite exercises. They work your chest and triceps fully, alongside your core stability. You can perform them with your palms flat on the ground, holding a set of handles or dumbbells, or with your hands on a medicine ball or something similar to work more stability (especially for endurance).
To go for strength, especially if you can perform plenty of press ups in a row, consider wearing a weight vest or having a training partner lay plates across your upper back. If you struggle to perform push ups, begin against a wall or with your knees on the ground.
- Get into a plank position, hips slightly raised, core tight, hands shoulder width or slightly wider.
- Keep your shoulder blades pulled back and down.
- From here, lower your chest under control, chin up, bending at the elbows and keeping your upper arms close to your ribcage. Stop a centimetre or so from the ground, hold for a breath, then press back up to the top.
Again, you can place the emphasis more into your triceps by adopting a closer grip.
Dips are my favourite chest building exercise. They are similar to push ups in that they are primarily a bodyweight exercise but can be scaled to make them more or less challenging. You can wear a weight belt or vest, hold a dumbbell between your feet, or alternatively use a resistance band to decrease the load.
- Use a dip pair or set of parallettes (I prefer a dip bar, especially for beginners; these will be more widely available in any commercial gym).
- Hold yourself at the top with your arms straight, elbows not locked out, and bring your feet together, knees wide, like a frog’s legs.
- Brace your core, retract your shoulder blades and tighten your lats. Lean forwards slightly and bend at the elbows, bringing your chest down to parallel.
- Pause at the bottom, then push back up to the top of the exercise.
To focus more on the chest, go deep and don’t come up all the way – always leave your elbows a little bent. To focus more on your triceps, don’t go quite so deep, but come up to straight arms (though never with your elbows fully locked out).