The best chest exercises are the ones that will get you stronger and build your pecs while keeping your injury risks low.
In sports such as golf, where your arms move overhead, or throwing motions, injures to the shoulders (or deltoids) are common. Some chest exercises also work the shoulders, strengthening your rotator cuffs and improving shoulder stability. Then again, other chest moves can actually raise your shoulder injury risk.
So, read on to find out how to optimise your chest strength training, while protecting your shoulders...
1. Level Up Your Press Ups The press-up is a classic chest exercise that's worthy of including in any workout that aims to raise your heart rate, and hit your core.
That said, unless you add a weight vest or similar, the press-up has a cut off point above which it becomes more of a conditioning exercise than a chest strength and muscle-builder.
This is because you are supporting 75% of your bodyweight in the 'down' position of the press up, and 69% in the 'up' position (according to a 2011 study). So, you can compare that to how much you can bench press. And generally speaking, if you can do more than 20 consecutive press ups, then you need to either add weight (or a variation) and drop the reps to 8-12, or keep the press-ups for your warm-ups and bodyweight circuit training.
The sweet spot for upper chest activation with the incline bench press is actually 30° – lower than most people use
2. Take Care With The Angle Of Your Incline Bench As this 2020 EMP study shows, the incline bench press is good at stimulating your pecs, particularly in the upper chest region.
However, once you go past a 45° angle on the backrest of the bench, you are recruiting the front deltoids (shoulder muscles) so much that it effectively becomes a shoulder exercise. The sweet spot for upper chest activation is actually at 30°, according to the study, which is a lower angle than most people typically set it at for this exercise.
This is important because you need to allow each muscle group adequate rest between workouts, to repair and become stronger. But 'doubling up' on your shoulder training by also hitting them during a chest workout could compromise shoulder recovery and raise the injury risk.
3. The Cable Crossover Has A Limiting Factor The cable crossover scores very well in Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies 2000 EMG study, second only to the most effective chest exercise (more on that later). This is partly due to the adduction that occurs as your hands holding the cables cross over each other, and the centre line of your chest.
And yet, there's a weak spot in the movement chain for actually executing this lift: your core. If you try to load up a decent amount of weight on a cable crossover, your core will quickly be on fire as you battle to stop being dragged backwards towards the weight stack.
So, to maximise the muscle overload you should simply opt to do the single-sided version of this exercise, crossing over with a single arm, but select a higher weight than the two-armed version. You can then switch sides and repeat the move to hit the other side of your chest, without having to stabilise both arms at once.
One common gym machine has surprisingly proven to be the third best chest exercise
4. The Pec Deck Machine Is Worth It The general perception in most gyms is that lifting free weights (barbells and dumb-bells) is always better than using weight lifting machines. While it's true that a free weight will require the stabilising muscles around your joints to work harder, it always pays to keep an open mind.
That's because there's one machine that has proven itself to be the third most optimal for activating the chest: the pec deck!
This machine uses fixed 'wings' loaded with a weighted cable and it's in pretty much every gym across the world, which makes it a handy and safe (because you can't drop the weight on yourself) way to overload your chest. Just make sure to set the degree of 'flying' motion to a point where your shoulders are not overextended, and you're good to go.
5. The Dumb-bell Bench Flye Is, Er Dumb The problem with lying back on a bench, loading up some heavy dumb-bells, and then trying to do a flying motion is that there's a good chance you will lower the weights too far, especially when fatigued. Potentially, this will either damage your rear shoulder capsule, (a notoriously hard injury to fully recover from) or tear your chest muscles.
Fortunately, there's a quick fix for this: do the exercise lying on the floor to give you a handy 'catch' on the eccentric (lowering) movement. The floor flye also allows you to load up with more weight, in greater safety, to achieve greater training stimulus. You can even shift the focus to the lowering phase of the lift, which has been shown to fast-track muscle gains.
The barbell bench press has a chest muscle activation score of 100%
6. The Barbell Bench Press Is Still King! There's on undisputed king of chest exercises and that is the bench press using a loaded barbell. This had a score of 100% chest activation in the 2000 study – it simply cannot be beaten.
So, just do the barbell bench press and leave it at that, then? Well, not so fast – you don't get adduction from a fixed barbell, and that's a great way to make sure you are overloading the whole muscle. This is why the cable crossover (and to a lesser extent the dumb-bell bench press) score so highly.
In addition, many of us struggle to raise the amount of weight we can lift on a bench press, without a progressive program of maximal strength training, which can lead to gains slipping.
The way forward is to introduce new challenges into your barbell bench press. A common variation is to reduce the width between your hands gripping the bar. As this study shows, this also increases the load on your upper chest.
But the simplest bench press variation is also the most effective – and the most humbling! By pausing for 3-5 seconds at the bottom of the lift, we require ourselves to overcome inertia to execute the lift.
Not only does this require more strength, it also makes having a good leg drive crucial, and will teach you how to properly recruit your lower body into the lift. You may well find yourself having to reduce the weight in order to execute this, but when you go back to a heavier weight you will be more able to put more of your total available strength into it, and eventually lift heavier.
Whatever exercises you end up using to target your chest, follow the advice above and you will see strength gains, as well as an improvement to your shoulder resilience.
WHAT NEXT? Want to get stronger, more stable joints to level up your sport? Then read our guide to TRX suspension training with golf strength coach Trevor TA Anderson.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao, Delaney Van, Gordon Cowie, Sam Owoyemi, Victor Freitas on Unsplash