A lot of guys ask about how to build big pecs. In fact, there’s probably no other muscle group that trainees are more interested in developing than their chest. And you can understand why, as a good, well developed chest looks extremely impressive and makes you look much bigger, both in clothes and out of them. So in this article, I’ll tell you exactly how to build a bigger chest.
The structure of the chest musculature is very simple. It comprises of the large, fan-shaped, pectoralis major, and underneath this is the much smaller pectoralis minor. The pectoralis major has two heads – the upper (clavicular) head and the lower (sternocostal) head, which is by far the larger of the two.
All chest exercises work both heads of the pectoralis major, so you can’t “isolate” either one of them. But you can put more emphasis on one than the other. So, to properly develop your chest, you need two main exercises, and ideally an additional isolation exercise too. The exercises are as follows:
Flat or Decline Bench Press
Presses (flat, decline or incline) are compound movements that work the pecs, with assistance from the shoulders and triceps. Flat and decline presses put most of the emphasis on the lower head of the pectoral muscle, and as this is by far the largest part, one of these should be chosen as your primary chest exercise.
Flat or decline presses can be done with either a barbell or dumbbells. Barbell bench presses are best for developing power, but dumbbells allow for a more natural range of motion (i.e. both upwards and inwards) and therefore work the pecs more directly. So choose whichever one you prefer.
Either way, do 3–4 sets of 5–8 reps (after warm-ups), and try to increase the weight you are using on a regular basis.
Incline Bench Press
The incline press puts more emphasis on the upper head of the pectoral, so it is an ideal secondary chest exercise and, when used together with a flat or decline press, will help to ensure complete, all-round development of the pectorals.
Again, these can be done with either a barbell or dumbbells. You can use whichever you prefer, but my suggestion would be to do one of your presses with a barbell, and the other with dumbbells. So you might do flat barbell bench press, followed by incline dumbbell press.
Do 2–4 sets of 8–10 reps. Warm-up sets may not be required if you are doing these after your flat or decline press.
Dumbbell or Cable Flye
After you’ve done your two pressing movements, you can finish off with either dumbbell or cable flyes as your isolation exercise. These work the pecs from a different angle, and they help to stimulate additional growth by providing more volume and extra pump to the muscles.
Either dumbbells or cables will work well, but cables have the advantage of keeping the muscles under constant tension throughout the range of motion, whereas with dumbbells, the tension is reduced (and then disappears entirely) towards the top of the movement.
If you are doing standing cable flyes, I recommend using a high to low angle, as this places more emphasis on the lower pectorals, which is what you need for maximum growth. As the upper head of the pectoral is much smaller, it does not require any additional direct stimulation if you have already done an incline press.
Do 2–4 sets of 8–12 reps of these.
Although that’s all you really need to build a great chest, there are a couple of other exercises that are worth mentioning, as they are also excellent chest developers.
The first one is parallel bar dips. These don’t develop the chest quite as well as presses, but they are still very effective, and I like them because they are also one of the best exercises there is for the triceps.
And the final one is push-ups. Granted, there’s no point doing basic push-ups for increasingly higher reps, as that won’t do anything to help you build a bigger chest. But you can do them weighted, and there are also a number of variations of the push-up that are extremely good. For instance, you could do decline push-ups (with your feet up on a bench), clap push-ups, or suspended push-ups with the straps set about 4–5 feet apart, so that you pull your arms inwards as you push up to the top position.
As always, you should do each exercise with proper technique, and through an appropriately full range of motion. I say “appropriately” because the ideal range of motion will vary a little from person to person. For example, in the bench press you should generally lower the bar to touch your chest at about nipple level, or just below, (with your elbows tucked at about 45 degrees to your sides). But if you have particularly long arms, and/or are very thin, you might be better stopping an inch or two before your chest, rather than going all the way down, as overextending could result in shoulder problems further down the line.
And when using dumbbells, lower them right down until you feel a stretch at the bottom. Don’t adopt the common practice of stopping when your upper arms are parallel to the floor, as it’s the bottom part of the movement that is most important to fully activate and develop the pecs.
As with all body parts, you should train your chest approximately twice per week (or every 3–5 days), for best results. You’ll also need to ensure you are eating the right diet, consisting of a moderate calorie surplus and plenty of protein (about 0.8–1.0g per pound of bodyweight per day). And make sure you get enough rest and sleep too.
So now you know exactly what you need to do to build a bigger chest. Follow the advice given here, and you should soon have a chest that anyone could be proud of.
Photo credit: Carlos Newsome, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr (with permission)