The chest is one muscle group many men and women strive to grow. As the pectorals are a relatively small muscle group they often take longer to grow, which is why many people describe them as a “stubborn” muscle group. Furthermore, many people don’t have a lot of chest muscle to begin with, so a lot of development is needed. But there are science backed ways that you can grow your chest.
Anatomy of the Chest
Before trying to grow any muscle group it is first important to understand what you are trying to grow. The chest is primarily made up of the pectorals. The main muscle here is the pectoralis major which is composed of two heads: the upper head aka the clavicular head and the lower head aka the sternal head. The clavicular head attaches along the clavicle whereas the sternal head attaches along the sternum.
It’s also really important to think about the fibers of the muscles as well, as that determines what the muscle does as well as how you should train them. The upper fibres run downwards, whereas the middle fibers run straight across and the lower fibers run upward.
Like any muscle group, the chest has some techniques that can help with its hypertrophy.
A 2014 study concluded that pec size was tightly correlated with one rep max strength on the bench press. This suggests that adapting a powerlifting style of training to the chest may be more appropriate if you want to see more growth, especially in the upper pecs.
In a 2010 study Schoenfield found that the mechanisms of hypertrophy were mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress. Out of the three it has been assumed that tension is most likely to be the most important, and therefore should be done early in the workout. It can be achieved by using an overloading stimulus that can get bigger on average each week and/ or month.
Metabolic stress can be optimised by adding an isometric hole at the end of a session. This allows metabolites to build up in the muscle which can signal for hypertrophy. Furthermore, this technique lets you progressively overload in a different way by adding time under tension at a fixed load.
Longer sets can lead to fatigue and impede performance on other exercises, so these techniques can be great to save for the end of a session as a finisher.
As for training volume a meta analysis concluded that training two times per week is better than one time per week for maximising growth. This is supported by Schoenfield’s research that states that it is most optimal to perform ten plus sets a week for each muscle group, i.e throughout the week ten sets of chest targeted exercises.
Specific exercises can help elicit more activation and therefore more growth. However, this will differ from individual to individual so it is often best to try a few exercises to find what works best for you.
The bench press is the most typical chest exercise performed. As a compound exercise it not only targets your chest but also shoulders and triceps to an extent so is a great exercise for the beginning of a chest focused workout. Ogasawara et al found that a program containing only bench press as the only exercise was very effective at making the pecs grow. It also found that using a powerlifting arch positions the upper back in a slight decline position this elicits overall pec activation especially when the intensity is relatively high. Developing the upper chest is what creates the iconic pec shelf look that many strive for.
Another exercise that is great for developing the chest is the chest fly, which is an exercise that has multiple variations. While many people prefer the dumbbell fly, it has been found that the cable fly elicits more activation as the resistance goes right up to the top of the movement. It has also been shown that doing a cable chest fly with your thumbs facing each other (a Bayesian cable fly) puts the pecs in a better position to retract more forcefully. Using a bench in an upright position can also restrict ‘cheating’ and allow for scapular retraction and a safer shoulder position.
It is also important to remember that some exercises that aren’t primarily targeting the chest will also activate the oecs to an extent. This can be seen in movements such as the shoulder press. For more information on this, check out this article discussing all things push.
Summary – the best Chest exercises for Growth
- Bench Press
- Chest Fly
- Bonus – Push Ups