Top 3 Exercises For A Better Chest: Back To Basics

Listen up, warriors of the iron realm! Today, we’re stripping away the fluff and getting back to basics. 

We’re talking about top 3 exercises for a better chest, the front armor plate of any true lifter’s physique. 

As a certified personal trainer, I’m going to unveil the top three exercises to make a chest worthy of champions, and provide other valuable tips along the way. 

Here’s what’s coming up. 

The Top 3 Exercises For A Better Chest
How To Choose The Right Exercises?
How Many Sets and Reps Is Right? 
4 Master Chest Day Tips
Bottom Line 

The Top 3 Exercises For
A Better Chest

top 3 exercises for a better chest

You don’t need an arsenal of chest exercises on every chest day! Back to basics is all about training hard in the movements of how your chest is designed. 

The top 3 exercises for a better chest are:

  • a flat press exercise: my pick is bench press!
  • an incline exercise: my pick is incline dumbbell press!
  • a cable fly exercise: my pick is high to low cable crossover!

The bench press, incline dumbbell press, and high to low cable crossover are by no means the only exercises out there for chest. There are a variety of exercises that target the flat press, incline, and cable fly. 

There are a ton of exercises in each of the three categories, and you’ll find some suggestions listed below.

  • The point is to choose a flat press exercise, an incline exercise, and a cable fly variation for your next chest day. 
  • These three categories of exercises will target your total chest effectively and help to build a strong, rippling chest. Even popular lifter Sam Sulek uses these principles on his chest days.

Flat Bench Press  

The flat bench is the king of chest movements because it allows you to focus on the primary function of the pecs: horizontal adduction. 

It’s a big, heavy compound movement that allows you to load the pecs and target the chest as a whole. It offers high tension as long as you bring the bar to your chest. 

How To Do It

  • Set Up: Lie down on the flat bench with your feet planted firmly on the ground. Make sure your back, shoulders, and head are all resting comfortably on the bench.
  • Grip: Grip the barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Your palms should be facing away from you (overhand grip).
  • Lift: Lift the barbell off the rack and hold it directly above your chest with your arms fully extended. This is your starting position.
  • Lowering Phase: Inhale as you slowly lower the barbell towards your chest. Keep your elbows slightly tucked in, but not flared out excessively. 25 to 45 degrees is a good range, or whatever is comfortable for you.
  • Pressing Phase: Once the barbell is just above your chest, exhale as you push it back up to the starting position. Keep your movements controlled and steady.

Incline Dumbbell Press  

Put the incline of the bench at 30 degrees to get the upper chest more involved. 

Most people don’t have a developed upper chest, and this exercise can give you that lean mass that sticks out of your collar bone. 

The dumbbell version of the incline press is nice because it doesn’t limit the amount of adduction you can get at the top of the movement. In other words, dumbbells allow you to bring your arms together and squeeze at the top. 

How To Do It

  • Set Up: Adjust the incline bench to an angle of around 30-45 degrees, whatever is comfortable for you. Sit down on the bench with a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Lift: Hold the dumbbells at shoulder height with your palms facing away from you and your elbows bent.
  • Press: Push the dumbbells upward until your arms are fully extended, but not locked out. This is your starting position.
  • Lowering Phase: Inhale as you slowly lower the dumbbells down and out to the sides until they are level with your mid chest. Keep your elbows slightly bent throughout the movement.
  • Pressing Phase: Exhale as you push the dumbbells back up to the starting position, squeezing your chest muscles at the top of the movement.

High To Low
Cable Crossover  

The cable machine is so good for chest because of the deep stretch and short contraction. The cable fly machine allows for the greatest “feel” of the muscle when compared to pressing movements. 

This feel of the full pectoral muscle is part of what makes this good for growth. The constant tension on the muscles and the full range of motion create an exercise worthy of maximal fiber recruitment. 

How To Do It

  • Set Up: Adjust the pulleys on the cable crossover machine to the highest position. Attach a D-handle to each pulley.
  • Grip: Stand in the middle of the cable crossover machine, holding one D-handle in each hand with your palms facing downward.
  • Stance: Take a step forward with one foot and assume a staggered stance for stability. You don’t have to do this if it feels odd. You can stay 
  • Starting Position: Extend your arms out to your sides at shoulder height, keeping a slight bend in your elbows. This is your starting position.
  • Crossing Over: Exhale as you bring your hands together in front of your body, crossing one hand over the other in a downward motion.
  • Squeeze: At the fully contracted position, squeeze your chest muscles for a moment to maximize the contraction.
  • Return: Inhale as you slowly reverse the movement, returning your arms to the starting position in a controlled way. 

Chest Exercise Alternatives

Remember to choose a flat press exercise, an incline exercise, and a cable fly variation for a great chest workout. 

Great chest exercises provide 3 things.

  • A big stretch with high tension. This is the “down” portion of the exercise that micro-tears the muscle allowing for a big pump and big gains. 
  • A good feeling experience. It shouldn’t cause pain and have a smooth resistance profile that offers a good mind muscle connection and pump. 
  • A way to add progression. If the exercise is not able to go up in weight or reps, then it’s not a good exercise. 

Flat Bench Alternatives

  • Dips (assisted or weighted) 
  • Dumbbell bench press
  • Smith machine bench press
  • Plate loaded chest press machine
  • Chest press machine
  • Guillotine press

Incline Alternatives

  • Incline bench press 
  • Incline plate loaded machine
  • Smith machine incline bench press

Cable Fly Alternatives

  • Low to high crossover  
  • Middle crossover
  • Seated cable fly 
  • Dumbbell fly on flat bench
  • Dumbbell fly on incline
  • Pec deck machine

How To Choose
The Right Exercises

Building a solid, front armor plate of a chest doesn’t have to be an elaborate process. But it’s also not as simple as benching a couple times a week. 

To choose the right exercises, pick the ones that target the fibers of the chest in the right way. If you want build bigger pecs, first understand the chest muscle function and anatomy. 

The 3 main functions of the chest are to:

  • raise your upper arms (humerus) in front of your body 
  • bring your upper arms together to the midline of your body 
  • internally rotate your upper arm so that your thumbs point to each other and down  

You then have three angles of attack for the pectoral muscles. 

  • A flat bench movement to target the sternal portion of the chest, which covers the lower, middle, and upper portion of the chest. 
  • An incline movement to target the clavicular portion of the upper chest. 
  • A fly movement from high to low to bring your arms together and target the center fibers and lower pecs. 

It’s not possible to isolate or contract one part of the chest more than the others, but it is possible to influence the fiber activation with different exercise orientations. 

The sternal pec fibers are activated best through moves that bring the arm straight across the chest (flat).

The upper chest fibers run towards the clavicle and respond best to movements that bring the arm from a low and away position to one up and in (incline).

The abdominal head fibers of the lower chest respond best to movements that bring the arm from a high and away position to one down and in (cable cross). 

How Many Sets and Reps
Is Right?

You only need 3 exercises at 4 sets apiece. Aim for 12 sets of total work for you chest. That boils down to 4 sets per exercise. 

Start with heavier weight in the first set, then go down in weight for later sets. You want to front load heavier weight so that your body will have more strength to lift. 

For repetitions, there is an argument of wether more reps or less reps are better. The 6-12 rep range has been shown to an appropriate range for muscle growth and strength. 

Choose a weight where the end 2 or 3 reps feels hard and you have to push yourself to finish it. If you do 12 reps and it feels like you could go for 15 reps, then add more weight. 

Relate Article: How Often Should You Workout At The Gym?


The sets and reps will go as follows: 

  • Warm Up Set: 15-20 reps of light weight
  • Set 1: 6 reps heaviest (86% of 1-RM) 
  • Set 2: 8 reps less heavy (81% of 1-RM) 
  • Set 3: 10 reps less heavy (75% of 1-RM) 
  • Set 4: 12 reps least heavy (71% or 1-RM)
  • Learn more about the 1-RM (1 rep max) from Healthline

This set up allows the best of both worlds: heavy weight and high repetitions. You get to start with heavier weight and go to a lighter weight.

Can you really target the chest with 3 exercises? Yes! But if you go to any gym you’ll see the opposite – people doing 5 or more movements.

Does the chest of the average lifter need that many movements to be fully worked? No. Building the chest is not a complicated process as some make it.

If you’re going absolutely ballistic on each set with intensity and focus, then after 12 sets you should start to feel so weak that you’re barely stimulating muscle. 

Afterwards you might be moving around, but only adding fatigue know as junk volume. Junk volume is overkill so keep it simple with this approach: 3 exercises, 12 sets. 

4 Master Chest Day Tips 

Being coachable and learning from others is a the best way to keep getting better. Because everyone can use good tips once in a while. 

Try these tips out for size, strength, and an amazing chest workout.

Tip 1: You don’t have to do it all in one session! 

Focus on some exercises on one session, and save more exercises for a different session. It can be a temptation to do a flurry of exercises because more is better, right? 

Not exactly. Hone your focus into 3 chest movements and push with all your might. 

Tip 2: Follow your natural movement

Don’t force yourself to do things that are uncomfortable.

For example, it’s been said to keep the elbows fixed at 45 degrees while pressing. But if flaring your elbows pain free gives you massive improvements in gains and pumps, then go for it! 

Tip 3: Focus on progression 

Once you’ve got your three key moments for that chest session, focus on progression. 

If you’re doing the right exercises with the proper form, that means the pecs will be doing the majority of the lifting. 

Tip 4: Focus on repetitions 

Weight is excellent for building strength. But adding mass will require more work under load.

Stick to the 6 to 12 rep range for flat and incline movements. For cable fly movements, high reps are gold because they stretch the muscle to the max. Go for 12 to 20 reps for cable fly variations.

Bottom Line

The fitness space can be a savage arena of fitness, because there’s no room for weakness or compromise. Wherever you are on the fitness journey, greatness is within you. But you have to earn it. 

Use these top 3 exercises for a better chest, and remember to keep it simple by getting back to the basics. 

For more chest pumping action, check out these barbell chest movements for growth.

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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