The Best Chest Exercises

Horizontal Pushing Alternatives

The best chest exercises are versions of horizontal pressing that build strength and size in the pectorals (chest), deltoids, and triceps.

In the Elastic Strength Program you include one or two horizontal pushing options, chosen from parallel bar dips, loaded floor or ring push ups, or X3 chest press. 

Contrary to popular belief it is not necessary nor desirable to use multiple angles of pressing to properly train the pectorals.  It is important to use a proper shoulder width grip to ensure full range of motion for the pectorals.

Best Chest Exercise #1: Parallel Bar Dips

Parallel bar dips are one of the best chest exercises and the default main horizontal pressing exercise in the Elastic Strength program.   If you can’t do them, then you should substitute floor push ups or the X3 bar standing chest press.

Properly performed parallel bar dips are an excellent exercise for building strength and size in the pectorals, deltoids and triceps.

The parallel bar dip has been called the upper body squat.  Dips are a more natural movement than bench pressing, which is responsible for so many shoulder injuries that there is a syndrome known as bench presser’s shoulder.  

Wide grip bench presses are the worst offenders as they put tremendous strain on the shoulder capsule by putting the upper arm in a disadvantaged leverage position.  In daily activities you would never adopt a wide grip position to push a car or other heavy object because it puts the shoulder in a weak and vulnerable position.  Yet people routinely adopt wide grip bench presses, dips and push ups in the gym, which contributes to shoulder injuries.  Taking a wide grip turns the best chest exercises into shoulder wreckers. 

Contrary to popular belief, if you do dips properly, with hands about shoulder width apart, and a slow eccentric easing into and pausing at the bottom, you not only will not hurt your shoulders, you will gradually increase their mobility.  Gradually and eventually you can get to where you can descend until your shoulders almost touch the bar/your hands.  Unlike bench presses, where you actually lie down with your weight upon and impinging the movement of the scapulae,  dips allow the scapulae to move freely to provide strength and stability to the shoulder joint. 

In addition, the parallel bar dip and push ups are closed chain exercises – you move your body, not only an external load – which according to some research may produce superior muscle activation.

Finally, compared to bench presses, it is much easier to load parallel bar dips with resistance bands for variable resistance.  Just use a hip belt and anchor the resistance bands to the bottom of the parallel bar apparatus.  Resistance bands have a resistance curve similar to the strength curve of any pressing exercise.  By using them you get a better training effect because the bands increase the resistance as you extend your arms, where you have the greatest strength. 

Contrary to popular belief the parallel bar dip does not only activate the lower chest.  Brett Contreras performed an EMG study that showed that parallel bar dips produce high activation of both upper and lower pectorals and also may activate the triceps to a greater degree than bench type presses.  

According to Contreras’s data, weighted dips produce upper pectoral activation similar to heavy incline presses, mid pec activation similar to bench presses, lower pectoral activation greater than either bench press, and peak tricep activation similar to tricep extensions. 

Once you can perform 10 bodyweight dips, you should load them progressively with resistance bands or a combination of resistance bands and barbell plates.  

Although the bar dip is one of the best chest exercises, they have one important drawback: they don't take the arms through a horizontal adduction (movement across the chest) so they don't produce a pectoral contraction as strong as a push up (especially on rings) or a horizontal chest press.  Therefore the default Elastic Strength program alternates dips with either push ups or the X3 Bar chest press. 

Best Chest Exercise #2: Push Ups

Push ups are another excellent exercise for building strength and size in the pectorals, deltoids and triceps. 

Push ups are like dips a more natural movement than bench pressing.  In addition, the push up is a closed chain exercise – you move your body, not only an external load – which may produce superior muscle activation.  Also, unlike a bench press the push up is performed in a plank position, which strengthens the abdominal muscles. 

Further, Contreras’s data (linked above) indicates that doing push ups with heavy band resistance produces upper pectoral activation similar to heavy incline bench presses and mid pec activation similar to flat bench presses. 

Finally, the push up is far safer than the barbell bench press.  People have suffered serious injuries not only of the shoulder, but also of the chest or neck as a result of dropping a loaded barbell on themselves or being unable to push the barbell up from the bottom of a bench press. 

All these features make push ups one of the best chest exercises. 

One problem with push ups is finding a way to progressively load them.  I recommend loading push ups progressively with elastic resistance bands.  I demonstrate one method I use in the video to the right.

Another method is to use 41" loop bands across your back and simply put your hands on top of the bands to anchor them

Research has shown that push ups loaded with adequate resistance bands produce similar strength and mass gains to barbell bench presses, but far more safely.

You can do floor push ups, or push ups on rings.  

Floor push ups are the best alternative to the parallel bar dip if you are unable to do dips.  

Ring push ups are superior to floor push ups because they allow a greater range of motion and a greater contraction for the pectorals.  I program them as the default second horizontal pushing exercise in the Elastic Strength program, alternated with dips.  

Best Chest Exercise #3: X3 Bar Chest Press

The standing chest press with the X3 bar is another safe exercise for building strength in the chest, deltoids and triceps. It is an alternative to push ups with band resistance. 

Arguably, it may be inferior to parallel bar dips or loaded push ups for muscle activation because it is an open chain exercise (you move the bar, not your body).  

However it is superior to barbell bench press because

  1. it uses resistance bands which have a resistance curve that matches the strength curve of horizontal pressing
  2. it prevents wide gripping which damages the shoulders, and
  3. you can’t get trapped or injured by dropping the weight on your chest or neck.  

In addition it is a bit easier to progressively load the X3 Bar chest press with bands in comparison to loading push ups with bands.  This might make the X3 Bar chest press a better choice than push ups for the long haul of strength gains. However the bar is far more expensive than just a set of graduated resistance bands you can use with push ups.  I favor the push ups with band resistance.

In any case, the X3 Bar horizontal press is one of the best chest exercises.

Best Chest Exercises Summary

The default Elastic Strength program includes two of the best chest exercises: 1) parallel bar dips and 2) either push ups (preferably on rings) or X3 Bar chest presses.  

Push ups and X3 Bar chest presses don't load the triceps as effectively as dips, but dips don't involve horizontal adduction of the humerus so they don't produce a pectoral contraction as strong as push ups or X3 Bar chest presses.  

Therefore the default Elastic Strength program alternates dips and push ups or X3 Bar chest presses from session to session.  This way you get the superior tricep stimulation provided by the dips, along with the superior pectoral stimulation provided by the push ups or chest press. 

However if for some reason you can't do dips, you can do either push ups or the X3 Bar chest presses, or alternate them.  

Or, if you don't want to do push ups or the X3 Bar presses, you can limit yourself to dips.

But don't complicate the routine.  Choose no more than 2 of these options and set about becoming as strong as possible in your chosen horizontal pushing exercises. 

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