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A beginner’s guide to muscle groups: The chest


The chest is one of the areas most gym athletes focus on, and for good reason: A broad, well-trained chest shows both strength and training discipline. It can also prove helpful in your daily life. Let’s find out how to train it.

What are the main muscles of the chest?

Our chest is mainly composed of two muscles: The largest chest muscle, “pectoralis major,” and the smaller muscle that runs underneath, called the “pectoralis minor.” These are the muscles you see best in the mirror and are responsible for pulling your arms together while you push. Together with your “lats” on the back, they also form your armpit.

While technically not part of your chest, another important muscle for any pushing movement is your triceps muscle. It runs between your shoulder and your lower arm and is responsible for straightening your elbow.

How do the chest muscles function?

The chest muscles have two main functions:

  • Primarily: lifting your arms up and pulling your arms together (like when you hug someone).
  • Secondary: rotating your arm inward.

Pulling your arms together (also called “adduction”) is very important for any pushing motion you want to do, be it a Bench Press or moving furniture. A strong chest musculature will supply a lot of strength whenever you want to move a weight away from you. The same principle can be applied to sports involving throwing a ball, which essentially entails an explosive pushing movement.

Inward rotation, on the other hand, is mostly used during day-to-day activities such as using a steering wheel or screwing something shut. One example of internal rotation in sports is arm wrestling, where you rotate your arm against your opponent's.

Why should you train your chest?

Many people train their chests for aesthetics. A well-trained chest simply looks good and shows the fruits of all that hard work in the gym. This pec-pumping trend started in the 1890s when the Bench Press was invented and is no less current today.

Another factor is the significant impact of a strong chest on sports that prioritize thrusting your arms forward, such as throwing sports like handball, volleyball, or baseball, as well as numerous martial arts like boxing or wrestling.

Lastly, strong chest muscles play a vital role in your overall upper body strength. If you want to move some furniture, push open a heavy door, or open that jar of peanut butter – that’s all in your chest.

If you’re not already, try rotating in some chest-strengthening exercises into your fitness regime. Trust us, you’ll start to notice a big difference in day-to-day activities when developing your chest.

The best exercises for your chest

When you want to build your chest muscles, here are two expert tips:

  1. Vary your pushing angles to hit different parts of your chest muscles.
  2. Vary your tools (body weight, weights, resistance bands, cables) to stress your chest muscles differently. This will also help you train your chest in a lengthened and shortened position.

Train the chest from different angles
By getting strong in one angle, you’ll also develop a little strength in the adjacent angle. At the same time, varying the angles you target the chest muscles will reduce the likelihood of overuse injuries, especially to your shoulders. Here are some common examples of how to target the chest in different ways:

  • Mid chest: Bench Press or Pushups
  • Upper chest: Incline Bench Press or Decline Pushups
  • Lower chest: Decline Bench Press, Dips, or Incline Pushups

Use different tools to train your chest
There are a lot of tools you can use to train your chest: You can use your body weight, free weights such as dumbbells and barbells, as well as resistance bands and cables. Each tool will hit your chest muscles differently and allow you to progress your other exercises simultaneously. Bonus – this will help you push through training plateaus as well!

Also, make sure to include exercises where the most resistance is in a shortened position, such as standing cable or Banded Chest Flies, and exercises where the most stress is in a lengthened position, such as flat bench Dumbbell Flies. This will help you achieve a good growth stimulus.

If you are just starting out, remember that you can always make exercises more manageable by adjusting them to your level. If you can’t do a full Pushup, perform Knee Pushups, or do them on top of a box as an Incline Pushup. This way, you’ll have less weight on your arms. For Pushups, you could also use a resistance band anchored to the ceiling to help you at the lowest point of the exercise.

As you advance, use different tools to increase the challenge: Use bands to resist your Pushups and make them harder, or add weights to your bodyweight exercises such as Dips.

Tips for keeping your chest muscles healthy

To keep your chest muscles healthy, avoid straining them by going too heavy with the weights during training. This can lead to injury, especially when lowering the weight to your chest (also called the “eccentric phase” of the exercise).

It’s best to increase your weight in small increments and give your body time to adapt between sessions.

Once you feel that you can’t progress an exercise anymore, or even worse, start to feel pain during training, it might be time to vary your pressing angle to avoid overtraining your muscles and joints.

Replace your flat Bench Press with an Incline Bench Press, or use a resistance band instead of a barbell for a while. This will help you to keep training in the long run!

Another important point is this: Your chest does not exist in isolation. By training your back and shoulders (especially the rotator cuff muscles and the muscles on your shoulder blades, which keep your shoulder stable), you can progress further and reduce the chance of injuries.

Your chest does not exist in isolation. By training your back and shoulders, you can progress further and reduce the chance of injuries.

The two important muscles here are the “serratus anterior,” a fan-shaped muscle running along your ribcage, and the “rhomboid” muscles in the back. They are responsible for moving and keeping your shoulder blades stable while you move your arms. Train them to have good mobility and stability of your shoulder blades. This will ensure your arms are free to move while you train your chest!

Lastly, if you can’t perform an exercise such as Dips because your movement feels restricted, delay trying the exercise and do some stretching first. Alternatively, try completing the exercise with a lower range of motion and slowly increasing the range as you progress. Don’t force it if it’s painful or limited – no injury is worth pushing the limits here.

Let’s recap

Your chest is best trained with exercises that target the muscles in both long and short positions (think Bench Press vs. Band Chest Flies). Use different angles and equipment for versatility. Don't neglect your back and shoulders, as they play crucial supporting roles and will help you progress further. Incorporate stretching and mobility work on the regular to alleviate tightness. Stay consistent, stay motivated, and you'll gradually sculpt the chest of your dreams one lift at a time.

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