Want to start working on a stronger chest? The first step is broadening your idea of what chest strength really means.
“When people say they want a good chest workout, they’re usually hoping to see a gain in front of the shoulder,” says Carlisle Price, national manager of coaching for Gold’s Gym. “It really ties back to the front of the shoulder girdle being functional.”
The shoulder girdle is the set of bones that make up the shoulder blade and collarbone. And that broader view of chest strength encompasses the shoulders (deltoids), rotator cuff and the muscles along the sides of the chest and between the ribs. The functionality that stems from those areas affects our lives in ways we often take for granted — pushing a door closed, pulling ourselves up off the floor, rearranging things on a shelf, holding our child out in front us.
“Having control throughout the shoulder girdle enables you to support your own body weight,” Price says. “Without it, you won’t be able to move as far as you should, your shoulders are vulnerable to injury and your quality of life potentially decreases.”
This workout incorporates classic pushing exercises, isolated movements to build the pecs (major and minor) and work that promotes synergy throughout the upper body. Price suggests doing this regimen two or three times a week, with two rest days in between, to gain strength and range of motion in the chest and shoulder girdle.
Perform two sets of the following exercises to warm up your joints and activate your muscles. This will help prevent injury.
1. Scapular pulls and presses
Assume a plank position, maintaining a straight line from head to heels. With fingers slightly turned out and elbows locked, pinch together your shoulder blades (scapula); your chest will lower. Then, move the shoulder blades apart to open them; your chest will rise.
“If you feel like it’s a small movement, you’re probably doing it right,” Price says. The full range of motion is 3-6 inches, and the scapula is the only part that should move.
The goal: Do 20 reps to open the chest and improve shoulder mobility.
2. Santana plank
Starting from a plank position, lift your right hand toward the ceiling, rotating hips to square them with the right wall. Keep toes on the floor, rotating as needed. Come to a full stop, and then return to plank position. Repeat on the other side.
The goal: Do 10 reps to activate upper-body muscles (abs too!) and further open the chest.
A superset consists of two exercises that work muscles that are related, performed back-to-back with little or no rest in between. “With that extra time under tension, you’ll get a higher heart rate and more work done in a shorter amount of time,” Price says. He recommends doing these supersets four to five times each.
Superset No. 1
1. Incline barbell presses
Set a bench at 45 degrees and low enough to plant your feet firmly on the floor. Lie back with the bar positioned a few inches below your fully extended reach. With arms shoulder-width apart, push the bar off its rests. Stabilize the bar directly above your shoulders and engage your scapula to keep a proud chest. Slowly lower the bar, touching the chest if possible. Once you’ve achieved your maximum depth, push the bar back up until your arms are fully extended. Do not let your elbows track more than 45 degrees away from your ribs; the closer they stay, the more supported your shoulders will be.
A standard barbell weighs 45 pounds, which is enough weight for most beginners. If feel like you can’t do any more repetitions after the first set, add 10 pounds on your next set. Continue this trend until you find the max weight you can lift without compromising good form.
The goal: Do 10 reps to work the pectorals and deltoids and promote stabilization throughout the shoulder girdle.
Start in plank — arms straight with hands under shoulders. Maintaining a strong line from head to heels, lower your body to the floor; chest, stomach and thighs should touch. Then push the floor away and return to starting position.
If you need to lighten your load, modify by raising your heels and planting your knees at the bottom of the push-up. Once your arms are extended again, return to your toes and resume a strong plank.
The goal: Do 10 push-ups to fire your pectorals, deltoids, triceps and abdominals.
Superset No. 2
1. Machine flys
Adjust the seat so the handles are below your shoulders. Keeping a gentle bend in the elbows, grasp the handles and push them forward and together. Then, slowly and with control, bring them back until they’re even with your shoulders. Throughout the movement, keep feet flat on the floor, back glued to the support and chest proud to ensure you’re isolating the targeted muscles.
Experiment to determine the right weight. Start with 15 pounds and add 10 after each set until you hit that sweet spot between fatigue and form.
The goal: Do 12-15 reps to work the pectoral muscles and interior deltoids.
2. Hand walkouts
Start in plank. One at a time, inch your hands forward until you feel tension in your core and shoulders — shoot for a distance of about 1 foot. Maintain a straight body line, keep abs tight and squeeze glutes throughout to protect your spine. Then return to starting position with control.
The goal: Do five reps to incorporate synergy throughout the upper body. “This is a great core exercise,” Price says, “but it also forces you to work through the shoulders, which in turn activates the chest, deltoids and triceps.”
As with any workout, remember to cool down to loosen muscle fibers and ward off stiffness. Price says chest openers like door stretches are particularly beneficial after this routine.
Stay tuned for intermediate-level chest exercises, and check out these other workouts from our fitness experts.