You’ve been lied too.
The standard barbell bench press in not the best chest exercise. (I will discuss why I choose dumbbells in a moment. A close variation, but also substantially different in ways)
Sure. It’s great for strength, and yes, it will certainly develop your pecs… but if you are looking to get a way better looking chest, there are other lifts that will give you far superior results than the standard bench. This, or course, is my opinion. But it comes from years and years of experience.
I am no different than you, as a kid the single greatest indicator of strength was how much you could bench. There is a love affair with the exercise. Think about it. We idolize the bench press. The most common question big guys get at the gym is “how much can you bench”?
It’s not that it isn’t a great lift, it’s just that there are other lifts that offer more bang and many of you have not been able to get the growth out of your chest that you desire because all you focus on is benching week in and week out.
As a kid I would go to the health club with my dad’s roommate and friend and watch him put three plates on each side and knock it out like it was nothing. I was in awe of his ability to do that. I can still remember not even being able to press the 45 pound bar off of my chest!!!
I would hope and dream and work at it.
It was all about bench press and bicep curls when I started out. These were the lifts that I associated with strength and muscle.
I remember when I was around the age of twelve getting an old “throw me down” set of weights and lying on my bedroom floor bench pressing. How I managed it is a testament to the will of a kid who desperately wanted to get bigger muscles. You know those old weights out of the 80’s that have the notched plastic coating?… well that is what I was working with.
I would put the weight on and apply those “old-school” bolt clamps down on the bar to secure the weight and then proceed to lie on my back on the carpeted floor and slide underneath the bar.
I could, off course, only do half reps because my elbows would stop when they hit the floor, but I was hooked from the moment I began because in my mind if I was able to lift weights, I could get big and accomplish my goal of playing in the NFL (Didn’t quite make it, but played D-1 at The University of Wisconsin anyway).
So like you, I also have had the bench press ingrained into my DNA since I was a kid.
But the thing that you come to realize if you spend any time doing research is that many top bodybuilders and fitness model types do not actually list the standard barbell bench press as their “go to” exercise for developing the chest.
Again, it’s a dynamite strength builder and it certainly has mass building benefits, don’t mistake what I am saying here. But the fact of the matter is that it is not one of the best chest exercises in my book.
Here’s my three.
Chest Exercise #1: Dumbbell Incline
I really like to work with dumbbells – like in this workout.
I just feel that they allow for a better and more natural range of motion. What a lot of you don’t realize is that the chest muscles really respond to movements that provide a good stretch. This is where dumbbells excel vs. a standard barbell. Using a barbell limits the lower range of motion and doesn’t allow for a full stretch at the bottom of the movement.
And when you add an incline to those dumbbells, it has the ability to work a large portion of your chest. It’s a very efficient movement and if I had to pick one and only one chest exercise it would be the dumbbell incline.
This is something that really surprised me when I first learned about it.
Incline is just far superior than flat bench when it comes to activating your chest. In his article “Inside the Muscles: Best Chest and Triceps Exercises” Bret Contreras shares the results of testing 20 different chest and triceps exercises for their ability to activate the upper, mid and lower portions of the pecs. His findings can really benefit many of you.
Standard bench press and incline press using a barbell (this is what most of you think of when you think of benching) did not even make the list of peak activation exercises for any area of the chest: Top, Mid or Bottom.
Dumbbell incline press landed in the top spot for peak activators of the upper chest.
The natural, deep stretching range of motion on an incline, combined with the independent movement allowed by using dumbbells has the ability to trigger extreme activation of the upper pectoral muscles.
When you stick out your chest, which area do you think makes it look the biggest?
If you answered upper, you are correct.
What guys tend not to realize is that the upper to mid upper portion of your chest is the biggest area of that pec muscle. In other words, if you grow your upper chest… your entire chest is guaranteed to look bigger and more pronounced. This is why dumbbell incline is so often listed as the best chest exercise among many well informed and seasoned bodybuilders with the best bodies.
Chest Exercise #2: Cable Crossover
A lot of guys don’t do crossovers because they are viewed as a auxiliary exercise.
I have to admit, I don’t always do them, but they are certainly one of my favorites for targeting my chest.
Again, a lot of the benefit comes in the ability to get a solid stretch and peak contraction in the movement. This is why I feel that cable crossovers are superior to the peck deck/fly. Sure, the peck deck does allow for a good stretch on the eccentric movement, but the cable crossover beats it in that the pectoral muscles are activated far more on the concentric movement. (I talk about the importance of getting full concentric and eccentric movements here.)
To demonstrate this simply take the fingers of your left hand and place them in the “V” between your chest and make the crossover motion with your right arm like you’re doing the pec deck. You should feel that the further that crossover movement is extended the more that right pectoral muscle “hardens” – it’s because it causes progressively greater activation the more you crossover.
It’s much the same principle using dumbbells over barbells, the stretch and contraction are greater and this leads to greater chest development.
I really like to get a good squeeze when I do my cable crossovers.
Nothing makes my chest burn like doing these. Just one of the best chest exercises in my book that many of you could add to your current chest routine with noticeable results over time.
Chest Exercise #3: Dumbbell Bench
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the incline dumbbell press and the flat bench dumbbell press are similar. While they offer a similar looking movement, the portion of the pectoral muscles that are triggered are different.
This dumbbell bench press offers extreme activation of the mid and lower portions of the chest. It has the ability to give you that full defined “cup” on the bottom of your chest. Yes, this will make it possible for the ladies to tell where your abs end and your chest begins guys!
Like mountains springing up put of the desert sands!
It’s also great for getting that big canal looking “V” in the middle of your chest because of the fantastic stretch and squeeze you can get at the bottom and top of the movement.
Another think I love about dumbbell bench is the ability to go really heavy. Much heavier than while doing inclines.
Using progressively heavier weight is really important for muscle growth.
Key To Maximize Chest Gains
Here’s just a couple key tips I’ve learned over the years. See if there is anything on here that you are neglecting.
Of so, fix it!
Every time you perform a chest exercise (or any lift for that matter), you should be focusing on these things.
The problem that most of you have is that when you don’t see the benefits immediately you assume that nothing is happening. It is those of you who consistently continue to lift disciplined each and every time you are in the gym that are going to notice the most pronounced changes in your chest muscles and the rest of your body.
Muscles respond to weight that challenges them. Period!
Generally speaking, using heavy weight triggers greater activation of your pectoral muscles guys. Going back to Bret Contreras chest activation chart you’ll notice that the heavier the weight that was used, the more the muscle was activated!
This doesn’t mean that you need to max-out every time you work your chest, but you should be doing a set and rep range using a weight that actually challenges you. It’s only going to cause greater growth in the long run. (I give my take on optimal rep and set ranges for maximum muscle growth in this post.)
As I indicated above, the stretch is incredibly important for stimulating your chest muscles to grow. You don’t want to cheat on your down/eccentric movement. This is one of the advantages of using dumbbells, they allow you to go far deeper in the movement.
Doing the full range of motion on every movement keeps your muscles under tension for a longer period of time and helps to stimulate fibers that otherwise would not be stimulated.
All of this helps you build a bigger more ripped looking chest over time.
The concentric movement is the push away from the chest.
I see so many people at the gym failing to get a full extension on their lifts. This doesn’t mean you have to lock out your elbows. I am not a fan of that because it puts unnecessary strain on your elbows and other joints. But, although you see a lot of guys doing “half” reps it’s not going to create the growth and muscle stimulation that the full range is going to.
I discuss the benefit of a full eccentric and concentric contraction here and why they promote more muscle growth.
Not getting a full peak contraction causes you to miss out on many benefits such as sharper, more pronounced and cut looking pectoral muscles. It’s these little things that will separate the guys who get great looking pecs from those who don’t.
And it is the key to making my best chest exercises even better.
My Typical Chest Workout
Like I said above, bench press does not work the best for me. Not even close. But this does not mean that I don’t do it.
I believe the standard barbell bench press has great benefits for upper body mass building. Especially in the front deltoid muscles.
It’s also dynamite for adding upper body strength.
Same goes with incline barbell press. Just becuase I prefer using dumbbells and they score higher on muscle activation charts, doesn’t mean that I neglect standard old barbell lifts. I like them. They are fun and I’m going to continue doing them.
However, I simply see most guys focusing mainly on barbel exercises like bench press and doing so is costing them major chest development. So, bluntly, if I had to only focus on one chest exercise it would be dumbbells hands down… period. They just work better for building my chest.
Here’s a typical chest workout for me. Keep in mind I am currently lifting 4 days a week so I work chest and back on two of those days.
- Bench press: 5×6
- Dumbbell incline press: 5×6
- Cable crossover: 5×6
- Dumbbell bench press: 5×6
- Barbell incline press: 5×6
- Cable crossover: 5×6
If you’re not getting the size and look you want out of your chest you probably need to start bumping your weight up. Doing a 5 set x 6 rep workout will allow you to use heavier weights, which many of you would notice a very quick increase in strength from doing. Especially those of you who have only been operating in the 12 rep and higher range.
The heavier weight will also trigger those muscles to begin to grow.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t do higher rep ranges, but if you have never been able to get much growth out of your chest you need to start using heavier weight.
If you have any questions feel free to leave them below. I hope you found this article useful.