I’ve never been a big fan of the giant bodybuilder chest. The first time I remember really noticing how baloony a guy’s pecs were was while I was watching one of the Conan movies. Arnold was gripping his sword and suddenly, both of his pecs retracted and started moving. Now, when guys come into my class and ask me what the best chest workout is, they are often thinking about Arnold’s chest, or another like it.
As far as “best” goes, I think it ultimately depends on the goal. My goal as a trainer is always to help people get stronger–unless of course they say “my goal is not to get stronger,” but that hasn’t happened yet. The reason I focus on strength instead of size is that one leads to the other. You can be big without being strong, but it is difficult to get strong without putting on some muscle mass. It is possible, a la Pavel Tsatsouline’s Grease The Groove protocols, but that is intended for people specifically looking to increase strength without much muscle gain.
But in my experience, most guys want to be bigger. And because they don’t really care how they get there, I don’t feel bad about trying to make them stronger on their way to bigger.
So, on that note, I believe the best chest workout is simply the one that produces the desired result. The more weight (or total volume) that can be lifted on a specific exercise, the more muscle building potential that movement has. For instance, the cable crossover is a movement that all the bodybuilding magazines insist is “essential” for the best possible chest.
She is doing a cable crossover. This exercise does not allow most people to use serious poundages, and even most bodybuilding magazines I have read use the crossover for a “finisher” movement, meaning that you end the workout with it. A cable crossover machine is usually used for defining a muscle that has already been built, not building the muscle in the first place. As Marty Gallagher says in The Purposeful Primitive, “Who cares about defining a 14″ arm? Get big first, then worry about sculpting.”
I would make that same argument about chest building workouts. Get big first, if that’s what you want, and then define the muscle. To that end, I would say that bigger movements are better. So let’s look at movements that I have successfully used to build chest muscles, both on myself and with clients.
There is a reason why Monday is (informally) national bench press day: because just about every bodybuilding split in every magazine lists Monday as chest day. And every guy loves to bench and most ignore everything else.
Joking aside, the bench press is a way to move a lot of weight with the chest. Hundreds of pounds at a time if you’re strong, and thousands of pounds per workout.
This press can also be done with dumbbells. The movement is the same, you just have a db in each hand. This can actually feel a lot better on your shoulders. If you have ever experienced discomfort during a traditional bench press, I would suggest trying the dumbbell version. Each arm can choose its own path and this is often what is best when a barbell press causes pain.
The other popular version is the incline press. Same movement, but with the bench tilted at an incline to focus on the top of the chest. At the end of this article I’ll talk about how I choose which movements and variations I choose to do each workout.
No matter how strong a man gets, there is still a pushup that is difficult enough to challenge him. If you are bored doing pushups with two arms in the normal stance, try putting your hands close together. Put them into a diamond shape. Use one arm. Use two fingers only like Bruce Lee if you’re really feeling sassy. Raise one leg off the ground. Elevate your feet onto a table of chair. Do a handstand pushup.
There are endless variations. Different tempos and leverages can make the pushup as challenging as you want it to be, so if a hard chest workout is what you’re after, don’t think you can’t get it just because you don’t have your bench around.
These are the two exercises I use the most with clients who want to develop muscle mass on their chests. They provide the greatest potential for the amount of weight to be used, or in the case of the pushup with varying leverage, the pectoral muscles can learn to contract harder.
Volume for muscle mass
It is not possible to put more weight on the bar every single time. With smart training and a way to test your movements–I use the Gym Movement protocol–it is possible to increase the maximum amount of weight you can lift more often than many people think.
But if you think you’re in a rut just because your max strength is coming along slowly, and if lean muscle is your goal, I would suggest going for more total volume lifted during the workout–with the chest, in this case. If that number goes up, you’re still getting stronger, even if you aren’t seeing huge increases in your max pressing strength.
And if you’re getting stronger, you’ll eventually get bigger. That’s just how it works, provided your eating and recovery times are in sync with your training goals.
What about the best chest workout for definition?
First the size, then the definition. Once you’ve got the size, then I would begin experimenting with all the other fine movements that could bring out more detail in the muscle you have already built.
And again, never forget the impact of diet, especially when it comes to definition. Those last few steps that it takes to get shredded may have nothing to do with cable crossovers or extra decline bench press work, and everything to do with the timing and quality of the food you are eating.
If you would like to know more about Gym Movement or the biofeedback testing for movements that I referred to earlier, I would recommend that you read the Grip and Rip 2.1 review I wrote. Grip and Rip was produced by strongman Adam Glass and is, in my opinion, the best introduction to GM.
In any case, I will say one more time: the best chest workout is that one that gets you the results you want. If you focus on strength and volume, I will be very surprised if you do not get the size you’re looking for, even if it takes a while.