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 Gaining Strength Program you include one horizontal pushing exercise, chosen from parallel bar dips, loaded floor or ring push ups, barbell bench press, 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.   

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, not every one can do a parallel bar dip.   You can use resistance bands to provide assistance to parallel bar dips, or you can choose another exercise. 

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.

Floor push ups may be the best alternative to the parallel bar dip if you are unable to do dips and are able to do push ups with bands.   If you can't do full push ups you can scale them by using a power rack or rings to raise your shoulders above your feet, or by using elastic bands to provide assistance. 

Best Chest Exercise #3: X3 Bar Chest Press

I consider the X3 Bar chest press to be a better choice than the barbell bench press for three main reasons.

First, the X3 Bar chest press is much safer than the barbell bench press.  You can't get trapped under the X3 Bar when you fail.  You also will not drop any barbell plates on yourself while loading or unloading it.  You don't need a safety rack to safely perform chest press with the X3 Bar.

Second, the X3 Bar uses bands for resistance so the resistance varies through the range of motion, with less when the bar is closest to the chest and the shoulder is most vulnerable to injury, and more when the arms are extended, where you have better leverage.

Third, the X3 Bar takes up less space and is more portable than a barbell.

Best Chest Exercise #4: Shoulder Width Grip Pause Barbell Bench Press

If you are unable to do dips or push ups, or just prefer the bench press, you can use the shoulder width grip barbell bench press in a power rack with safety pins in place as an alternative to the other exercises.

Barbell bench press should be done with a shoulder width grip because this produces the longest range of motion, more evenly distributes the load over the pectorals, shoulders and triceps, and also minimizes the strain on the shoulders in the bottom position.

You should do barbell bench presses with a safety rack in place to catch the bar and prevent it from falling on you in case you lose control of it.  You should also pause in the bottom position with the bar just above the chest, and NEVER bounce the bar off the chest or rapidly change direction at the bottom.  Allowing the bar to rapidly descend subjects the shoulders to high forces that can cause injury.  Pausing eliminates this risk and also increases the difficult of the exercise which develops more strength and muscle mass than using momentum and elastic energy to lift more than you can actually safely handle in the bottom position. 

The barbell bench press has the distinct advantage of being the chest exercise that is easiest to incrementally load.  Since your body weight is part of the load in both dips and push ups, the minimal load is what is provided by your bodyweight.  In contrast, for the barbell bench press the minimal load is a 15 pound barbell without any added plates.  The load can also be increased up to hundreds of pounds in increments as small as 1/2 or even 1/4 pound.  It is far more difficult to achieve small increments when doing dips and push ups, especially if bands are your loading modality.  Therefore one can reasonably argue that the barbell bench press is one of the best choices for the horizontal press.  However, to do the barbell bench press safely you need a bench, a safety rack and a barbell, which are not very portable, and with a little ingenuity, knowledge and some elastic resistance/assistance bands you can incrementally progress dips or push ups, which ultimately are significantly safer than the bench press.  

Best Chest Exercises Summary

In the default Gaining Strength program you do either parallel bar dips, band-loaded push ups,  X3 bar chest press, or shoulder width grip bench press in a safety cage.  

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