For decades, many gym-goers have prioritised chest training. It's a noticeable muscle that caps off a strong and healthy physique for both sexes. So, how do we train it most effectively? This article will take a look at the scientific research behind chest training, and leave you with not only the best exercises for chest but an actionable workout, too.
Science: This is the best exercise for training the chest
The year 2000 was a special year: the new millennium, the Olympic games here in Australia (Sydney), and the year scientists tested 10 resistance-trained males with a mean age of 22 to see which chest exercise was the best (1).
The researchers started by testing how the classical Barbell Bench Press fared, then compared another 5 chest exercises to them.
They tested the following exercises: The Barbell Bench Press, the Cable Cross Over (crossing your arms before your body), Dumbbell Bench Presses, Machine Pec-Deck Flies, Dumbbell Flys, and Pullovers.
And they found them to rank as follows:
- Barbell Bench Press
- Cable Cross Overs
- Bench Presses (Dumbbell)
- Dumbbell Flys
The most interesting finding here was that in those males, the pec-deck machine fared better than the Dumbbell Bench Press. But that doesn't mean it was a better exercise. What they found was that on an individual level, their form was better on the pec-deck and so they recruited more muscles. So if your form is bad during Dumbbell presses (because you're a beginning lifter or you're really fatigued) you'd be better on the pec-deck.
What the researchers were really interested in also, was what part of the chest was recruited during what exercise.
With this question in mind, here's some chest anatomy:
It's critical that we understand there are no "upper" or "lower" chest muscles.
One particular exercise will stress your ascending, descending, and lateral fibers more than other alternatives, but you can't isolate just one. But you can obviously select certain exercises to shift most of the work to a given part of your chest. However, for simplicity, we'll refer to them as "upper" and "lower" rather than their technical names for ease of reading and learning.
And with this question posed, the researchers noted the best exercise for all three parts of the chest was the Decline Barbell Bench Press.
This exercise came out on top because of the way in which they were measuring effectiveness (electromyography: putting an electrode on a muscle, and measuring its activity). Now because you can lift MORE by doing Decline Bench Presses, this came back as the highest reading.
But it's not as black and white as this. So, when this was factored into the data and compensated for, the 45-degree Incline Bench press came out on top. It activated the "lower" and "middle" chest more, and increasing "upper" stimulation in the chest by 69%.
But the fact remains because we can lift more during Decline Bench Presses, and it was the best for the chest as a whole, and thus "the best exercise for activating the whole chest" if we were to answer that question. But the incline bench press is best for the "upper" part of our chest, which will really give our chests a "bigger" and "fuller" look.
But of course, in reality, we don't go to the gym and train chest utilising only ONE exercise. And as you would have guessed, decline and incline, based on the aforementioned findings, will be what we do!
Further research examined bench pressing at flat and inclined angles, examining how to target both the "upper" and "lower" chest. They concluded: "To optimise recruiting the involved musculature, it would seem that performing both the flat and incline chest press exercises is necessary" (2).
So when we analyse the data, we realise that decline, incline, and flat are all important, which is rather humorously obvious! But the point is we can never be sure without investigation, and there is still a strategic way to make our chest workouts count more in light of these findings!
The science-based chest workout for optimal growth
This is obviously not the "be all to end all" of chest workouts, and mixing up these exercises is advised. However, this is a great starting point:
- 4 x Decline Barbell Bench press (6-10 reps)
- 4 x Incline Bench Press (45-degree angle) (8-12 reps)
- 4 x Cable Cross overs (10-20 reps)
Another alternative to try is:
- 3 x Incline Bench Press (45-degree angle) (8-12 reps)
- 3 x Decline Barbell Bench Press (6-10 reps)
- 3 x Flat Dumbbell Bench Press (6-10 reps)
- 2 x Cable Cross Overs (10-20 reps)
- 2 x Bodyweight dips (to failure)
I hope this information and the aforementioned workouts help you with your fitness goals. All the best with your progression!
(1) Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000.
(2) Trebs AA, Brandenburg JP, Pitney WA. An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jul;24(7):1925-30. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181ddfae7. PMID: 20512064.