The 8 Best Barbell Chest Exercises

Are you on the hunt for a bigger, stronger, and more defined chest? Then barbell exercises could be what you’re missing! 

Welcome to this comprehensive guide on the best barbell chest exercises. 

As a certified personal trainer, I’ve done these and let me tell you, they are tried and true. 

So let’s explore these top tier movements with barbells to sculpt a powerful chest. 

Here’s what’s coming up. 

Quick Anatomy Of The Chest & Supporting Muscles 
The 8 Best Barbell Chest Exercises
Alternative Smith Machine Variations  
The Benefits Of Barbells 
The Drawbacks Of Barbells 
Bottom Line

Quick Anatomy
Of The Chest
& Supporting Muscles 

The best barbell chest exercises engage several muscles to perform the movements. Here are the main muscles involved: 

Pectoralis Major 

This is the primary muscle targeted and is the “meaty” part of the chest. 

It moves the arm towards the center of the body (adduction), and brings the arms forward.

It has two heads: the sternal head towards your mid chest, and the clavicle head towards the shoulder and collar bone. 

Pectoralis Minor 

It’s smaller, triangular muscle, that is deeper than the pectorals major. It also helps with movement and stabilization of the shoulders. 

There are secondary muscle groups that work while doing barbell chest exercises. These include: 

Anterior Deltoids (Front Delts)

The front delts play a big role in pressing movements because they help move the arms forward. 

Triceps Brachii 

The triceps muscle on the back of the arm help to extend the arms and push weight away from the body. This is why triceps are often trained in workout spilts with the chest. 

Serratus Anterior

This muscle is fan shaped and can be felt between the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi (lat) muscles.

It’s not directly targeted by barbell chest exercises, but is involved in scapular protraction in some chest movements and better posture to prevent rib flare.

The 8 Best Barbell Chest Exercises 

Barbell exercises offer benefits that contribute to strength and muscle development that dumbbells and machines cannot provide. Later on I’ll talk about the benefits. 

But for now, here’s comprehensive look at the best barbell chest exercises. Playing with the grip width and bench angels is include to emphasize different parts of the chest muscles. 

Barbell Bench Press 

You know this had to be at the top of the list. It’s the king of chest exercises for beginners, hard core gym bros, and elite power lifters. Protect your shoulders during the movement with the right weight and form. 

How To Do It

  • Lie flat on a bench with your feet firmly planted on the ground and eyes under the bar. 
  • With your palms facing away, grip the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. 
  • Pull your shoulders blades back and have a slight arch in your lower back.  
  • Unrack the barbell and lower it to your chest, keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle.
  • Don’t bounce the weight, but lightly touch your chest for full range of motion.
  • Press the barbell back up to the starting position, fully extending your arms and locking out. 

Best Practice Tip

Use leg drive and breathing for more strength! Press your heels hard into the ground. Inhale as you lower the bar and exhale as you blast the bar up without momentum. 

Incline Barbell Bench Press  

It’s like an elevator to the upper floors of building a chest mountain. It’s arguably the most aesthetic part of the chest, the upper chest! 

Put your bench on an incline. Everyone says 30° is the best angle. But experiment and find the angle that you feel hitting upper chest the most. Anything between 30-45° is a good bet to not feel your shoulders as much. 

Bodybuilding legend Franco Columbo did his incline at 60°! That just shows you that there’s no one size fits all when it comes to fitness. 

How To Do It

  • Grip the barbell with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Lower the barbell to your upper chest, maintaining control and a slight arch in your lower back.
  • Press the barbell back up to the starting position, fully extending your arms.

Best Practice Tip

If you don’t feel your upper chest during the exercise, lower the weight and adjust the angle of the bench till you feel mind muscle connection. 

Decline Barbell Bench Press  

Ever wonder what it feels like to bench press on a slide? Set the bench on a decline and you’ll notice you can lift more because of the angle.

It does feel a weird at first if you’ve never done it. But once you get proficient it’s an excellent way to target the lower part of your pectoral major muscle. 

How To Do It

  • Set the bench to a decline angle of around 15-30 degrees.
  • Grip the barbell with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Lower the barbell to your lower chest, maintaining control and a slight arch in your lower back.
  • Press the barbell back up to the starting position, fully extending your arms.

Best Practice Tip

Master the descent of the bar during a warm up set of decline, because this movement can put pressure on your shoulder capsule leading to injury. 

Reverse-Grip Bench Press   

This is an exercise popularized by The Titan, Baby Don’t Hurt Me, Mike O’Hearn. It’s identical to the bench press except that you grab the bar with palms facing towards you. 

This variation can be harder on the shoulders and wrists so use lighter weight until you get the movement down.

How To Do It

  • Lie flat on a bench with your feet firmly planted on the ground.
  • Grip the barbell with an underhand grip with hands slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart.
  • Unrack the barbell, keep wrists straight, and elbows tucked in close to your sides.
  • Lower the barbell towards your chest in a controlled manner, maintaining a slight arch in your lower back.
  • Press the barbell back up to the starting position, fully extending your arms.

Best Practice Tip

Take this slow to practice, but eventually incorporate this into your routine. It hits your inner chest, upper chest, biceps, and forearms more than regular bench press.  

Close-Grip Bench Press   

This movement is an invitation to your triceps to join the lifting party! This is known as a mass builder to triceps but also helps to feel the chest in a different way. 

How To Do It

  • Grip the barbell with hands positioned closer together than shoulder-width apart.
  • Lower the barbell to your mid-chest, keeping your elbows tucked close to your sides. 
  • Press the barbell back up to the starting position, fully extending your arms and squeezing your triceps. 

Best Practice Tip

Squeeze your shoulder blades together and keep your elbows tucked. Don’t have your wrists too narrow or it can hurt.  

Wide-Grip Bench Press    

This one’s all about spreading the love for more chest activation. It places less emphasis on triceps and has shorter range of motion. 

Go a little wider than shoulder-width apart, but you can also experiment with going super wide. 

I’ve read that many lanky lifters with longer arms feel their chest working more with a wide grip as opposed to a normal grip.

How To Do It

  • Grip the barbell with hands positioned wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Lower the barbell to your mid-chest, maintaining control and a slight arch in your lower back.
  • Press the barbell back up to the starting position, fully extending your arms.

Best Practice Tip

Use leg drive and breathing for more strength! Press your heels hard into the ground. Inhale as you lower the bar and exhale as you blast the bar up without momentum. 

Paused Barbell Bench Press    

It’s like hitting the pause button mid-rep to give your chest muscles a chance to soak in the burn. Hold that barbell on your chest for a moment, then unleash the power as you press it back up.

How To Do It

  • Perform the bench press as usual with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Pause for 1-2 seconds with the barbell on your chest before pressing it back up.

Best Practice Tip

Use a lighter weight than you would for regular bench press so you can control the pause, maintain proper form, and not injure your sternum.

Barbell Floor Press    

Who needs a bench when you’ve got the floor? The floor gives you added stability, an amazing chest pump, and protects your shoulders because they can’t go past floor level. 

How To Do It

  • Lie on the floor with your legs bent and feet flat on the ground.
  • Grip the barbell with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Lower the barbell to your chest, allowing your elbows to lightly touch the floor.
  • Press the barbell back up to the starting position, fully extending your arms.

Best Practice Tip

Do this exercise with a spotter or spotter arms on a squat rack to be safe.

Want more chest exercises? Check out these 15 Push Up Variations.

Alternative Smith Machine Variations 

best barbell chest exercises

The Smith machine gets a lot of slack in the fitness community for being an easy machine or as a cheat to a real barbell movement. 

The Smith machine offers certain benefits such as added stability, safety, and ease of use.

It’s entirely comparable to a barbell in terms of functional strength development and muscle activation. 

It’s a fitness tool that has its own uses and benefits. If 4x Classic Physique Bodybuilding Champion Chris Bumstead uses smith machines, then it’s ok for every average gym goer to use! 

The Smith machine offers 3 benefits: 

  • A fixed path of movement. The barbell is attached to a fixed vertical track, which guides its movement along a predetermined path. This can provide added stability and support during exercises. 
  • Safety. The fixed path can be beneficial for reducing the risk of injury, as it limits the range of motion and helps to stabilize the weight.
  • Isolation. The guided path restricts lateral movement and focuses the effort on the targeted muscle group.  

You can do the following barbell chest exercises on a Smith machine: 

  • Bench Press
  • Incline Bench Press
  • Decline Bench Press
  • Close-Grip Bench Press
  • Wide-Grip Bench Press 
  • Paused Bench Press

The Benefits Of Barbells

  • Progressive Overload. Barbell training allows for easy progression by simply adding more weight to the bar. This facilitates continuous strength gains and muscle growth over time.
  • Efficiency. With barbell exercises, you can target multiple muscle groups simultaneously with compound exercises. 
  • Versatility. Barbells offer a wide variety of exercises beyond just chest movements. They can be used for squats, deadlifts, rows, and more, making them a versatile tool for full body workouts.  

The Drawbacks Of Barbells 

  • Risk of Injury. Barbells require proper form and technique to use safely. Incorrect form, especially when lifting heavy weights, can increase the risk of injury. 
  • Imbalanced Development. Barbells may not address muscle imbalances as effectively as unilateral exercises or machines that allow for independent movement of each limb.
  • Greater Learning Curve. Learning proper form and technique for barbell exercises can be challenging.  

Bottom Line 

Mastering these 8 best barbell chest exercises is a surefire way to unlock chest gains. With consistency, nutrition, and sleep, you’ll be on the way towards reaching your chest goals. 

Whether your goal is to increase your bench press PR or sculpt a rock-hard chest, these barbell exercises offer a versatile approach to chest training. Now you can grab that barbell with confidence!

Looking for more? Check out these Exercises You Can Do Everyday.

AUTHOR

Shalom is a content creator, musician, and a teacher at heart. As a certified personal trainer, his goal is to encourage others to lead healthier lives and to get buff in the process!

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