Chest day is usually every gym-goer’s favourite day in the gym. And that’s mostly because working on your chest is fun: the bench press, the push-ups, the dips, the flys. It gives a great boost; you feel confident, and the clothes fit after the workout. But there’s another reason people cannot wait for chest day: chest workouts feed into the relentless chase to get the perfect shape. There’s the never-ending need to keep at it; adding some extra weight to your press, that extra rep to break your own records, that extra variation that will add a new dimension to the workout. Fact is, the ‘perfect’ chest probably exists, but always seems out of reach.
Other than vanity, there are a few legitimate reasons to work on your chest muscles regularly. One of the largest muscle groups in the body, you engage your chest for acts as simple as simple as pushing open a door. As an article in the health publication Verywell Fit notes, “Your chest muscles are big and can handle more weight, which allows you to burn more calories when you exercise them. In fact, when you work your chest, your shoulders and arms are also involved, allowing you to exercise more of your body at once.”
Which brings us to the most asked question in the fitness world: what is the perfect chest workout? Which is quite ironic given it’s one of the workouts that even most gym newbies will be able to figure out after a day. Here are some basics: warm-up with pushups, hit the incline dumbbell press for the upper chest, the flat bench press (with barbell or dumbbells) for the middle zone, and then do some dips or decline bench presses for the lower chest. But apparently, all this can only take you this far. And to go farther, one needs to understand the muscles better.
The chest muscles comprise the outer (and larger)pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor that lies underneath. The pectoralis minor mainly helps pull the shoulder forward and down. Then there’s the serratus anterior, which is at the side of the chest and comes into action when you lift weights overhead. A good chest workout will hit each of these muscles, but the devil, as usual, lies in the details.
Fitness portal MuscleandStrength.com suggests a few basic changes that people can make to create a perfect chest workout. The commonest suggestion, believe it or not, is to slow down the pace and tempo of your compound lifts (e.g. the bench press). A lot of trainers have been recommending the 2-1-3 method: two seconds on the way up in a chest based lift, one second on top, and 3 seconds on the way down.
Another pro-tip if you’ve hit a wall in your chest routine is to take your fly exercises past the centre-point of the chest. This is called adduction: taking weight and pushing it across the midpoint of the upper, middle, and lower chest. Most people will use a cable machine and do a fly in a way where the motion of the hands ends at the midpoint before taking it back to starting point.
The secret however, is in extending the range of motion beyond that point. Try a simple experiment while you’re reading this article: raise one arm up to shoulder level, and move it across the chest: the little muscle that juts out where the armpit meets the chest is the one that you need to engage. An interesting way to add this to your workout is to do a few reps of these cable flys (or dumbbell flys, or even bands) between every set of your conventional chest exercises. These flys can also be done by adjusting the cable in a low-to-high, high-to-low, and midzone heights. Pair them up with the corresponding press: incline, decline, or flat.
Trainer and Athlean-X founder Jeff Cavaliere suggests a useful routine in his article The Perfect Chest Workout on his site. “Perform the barbell bench press for four sets at 6, 8, 10 and 12 rep max, alternating it as a drop set with the horizontal cable crossover for 15 reps. Take no rest between sets of bench press and cable crossover, but rest after each full set [of both exercises],” he writes.
IFBB (International Federation of Body Builders) athlete Brandon Fokken has described a chest workout has contains just five exercises, but they activate your entire chest. These contain incline dumbbell presses, cable flys, cross body incline hammer presses, flat barbell presses, and the plate front press. It contains dips as well, that one exercise that heavier people tend to avoid in exchange for a decline bench press. For those who have the strength to lift their bodyweight though, I highly suggest doing dips, or even weighted dips, to get a really good chest burn. Dips will also put load on your triceps and is an intense core activator. The dip is a closed-chain kinetic exercise where your feet don’t touch the floor. So the entire load is on your upper body, giving it an almighty pump.
Finally, it’s important that you pay attention to the mind-to-muscle connection; it is especially important while doing chest presses. The reason is simple: to make it easier to lift heavier weights, your body will try to cheat by activating your shoulders and arms during a press. Telling your mind to only push using your chest, by actively visualising your chest doing all the work will aid you in the long run.
So is there one chest workout that works for all? Of course not. The aim of designing a perfect workout is not to apply it every time you hit that muscle - it is to make sure that your workout is affecting every part of the muscle group. With the chest, variations are easy to add in between conventional lifts. So experiment, be patient, go slow, and let the gains begin.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writes on football and fitness.