If you’re working to build a superhero physique, you might occasionally train in your “fortress of solitude” or “bat cave” — meaning at home. Some lifters utilize home workouts to maintain consistency and training frequency when they can’t make it to the gym. Others may opt for the convenience of an at-home workout over the variety of exercises a commercial gym offers. Whatever the reason for training at home, anyone can build a Herculean body in their living room or garage.
And the centerpiece of an aesthetic physique is the chest. Those looking to build muscle — known as bodybuilders — can and should try this efficient workout that delivers a robust training stimulus to all significant parts of the chest. This workout requires only a few dumbbells, a bench, a resistance band, and your body weight. Gather your gear and get ready for a superhuman chest pump.
How to Train Your Chest Muscles
The visible slabs of chest muscle consist primarily of pectoralis major. This fan-shaped muscle covers several smaller muscles. Owing to its prominent location and size, the pectoralis major dominates the aesthetics of the upper torso. If you care to learn the functional anatomy underlying chest training, class is “in session” below.
Bodybuilders commonly divide the pectoralis major into two major parts: The clavicular head and the sternocostal head.
The clavicular head is located just under the collar bones and comprises the “upper chest.” The sternocostal head originates from the breastbone and ribs, making up the midportion of pectoralis major.
The clavicular and sternocostal heads have different lines of action at the shoulder joint, contributing inequitably to various shoulder movements. (3) Therefore, various chest exercises train or bias different portions of the chest.
As a general rule…
- Shoulder flexion (i.e. pushing or lifting in front of the body) is dominated by the clavicular head. (3)
- Shoulder adduction (i.e. pulling the arms into the sides of the body, like with a lat pulldown) is accomplished primarily by the sternocostal head (3)(4)
- Horizontal adduction (i.e. pulling the upper arms inward when the elbows are at shoulder height, as in a wide-grip press or wide push-up) is accomplished by both heads.
However, the upper chest is more engaged when force is directed inward and slightly upward (as in an incline barbell press, push-up, or low-to-high cable flye) (4)(5) The sternocostal head is biased when the force is directed inward and slightly downward (as in a decline press or high-to-low cable flye) or when the arm is externally rotated (as in the flat bench dumbbell flye exercise). (5)
Altogether, a good chest workout, like the one below, hits both the clavicular and sternocostal heads of the pectoralis major. Other muscles trained during the chest workout are the triceps brachii, serratus anterior, and anterior deltoid. As a bonus, chest exercises can also hit various stabilizing muscles, such as the rotator cuff, latissimus dorsi, pectoralis minor, and trapezius.
Incline Dumbbell Flye Press
Incline presses primarily target the upper chest. (4)(5) So the incline dumbbell flye press is a smart variation on the traditional variation, as eccentric contractions (i.e. lengthening the muscle under load) are stronger than concentric, or “up phase,” contractions. (6) Training techniques that increase demand on the target musculature during the eccentric exploit this phenomenon.
The incline dumbbell flye press requires the lifter to perform the concentric as a “press” and the eccentric as a “flye” — This technique puts more demand on the chest when the muscle is stronger during lowering.
- How to Do it: Set an adjustable bench to the incline position (i.e. 45 to 60 degrees). Perform your working sets with dumbbells lighter than you’d typically incline press, but slightly heavier than you’d normally use for a dumbbell flye. Keeping your forearms vertical, press the dumbbells toward the ceiling. At the top, ensure your palms face each other and unlock your elbows. Lower the weights by allowing your arms to drift apart. At the bottom of the movement, you should feel a stretch across your chest. Pull your elbows toward your ribcage to reset for the next repetition.
- Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12
- Rest Time: Rest 90-120 seconds between sets
Benefits of the Incline Dumbbell Flye Press
- It stretches your muscles under a heavier load than you could typically use for flyes, creating more eccentric tension, a huge driver in muscle growth. (6)
- This movement targets the upper chest, and building this portion of your chest contributes to a more complete-looking torso.
Banded Dumbbell Bench Press with Bands
Adding a band to your dumbbell press adds more tension to the top of the lift, where lifters are typically stronger. Instead of getting to that phase of the press and “resting” the additional band resistance places your pecs under more stress, making each phase of the lift as difficult as possible.
So, if you’re looking for an easy variable resistance setup or training with a limited dumbbell selection, try the dumbbell bench press with a band. (7)
- How to Do it: Wrap a moderate-thickness resistance band around your back, holding an end in each hand. Ensure the band is below your shoulder blades. Pick up a pair of dumbbells while holding the bands. Lie on a flat bench. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and create a slight arch in your spine. Press the dumbbells toward the ceiling until elbows are straight. Lower with control.
- Sets and Reps: 3 x 6-10
- Rest Time: Rest 90-120 seconds between sets
Benefits of the Dumbbell Bench Press with Band
- Training with variable resistance may promote improved training effects, such as strength (8) and fatigue resistance (9) with lower perceptions of exertion. (10)
- This is a simple and self-contained variable resistance setup. Unlike traditional bench press with bands, this dumbbell version does not require a power rack with band anchors.
Dips train the chest and triceps brachii from a position of shoulder extension. Dips performed with hands set wider than shoulder width promote adduction and bias the mid and lower pecs. (3) The bottom position of the bench dip applies a profound loaded stretch to pectoralis major, increasing mechanical tension.
Since mechanical tension is thought to be a primary mechanism of muscle growth (11), the bench dip may prove to be among the most effective chest-building exercises. However, remember that this is a bodyweight exercise and may not be challenging for relatively strong lifters. To get the most out of the dip, perform enough repetitions to produce fatigue. (12)
- How to Do it: Sit along the long edge of a flat bench with your legs extended. Place your hands wider than shoulder-width on the bench. Move your heels six to eight inches forward and support your body on your heels and hands. Lower your body toward the floor by allowing your elbows to bend and your upper arms to move backward and out. Return to the top position by straightening your elbows and drawing your arms toward your ribcage.
- Sets and Reps: 2 x 12-16
- Rest Time: Rest 90-120 seconds between sets
Benefits of the Bench Dip
- The chest experiences a “loaded stretch” at the bottom of the bench dip. This feature may promote accelerated muscle growth. (11)
- During bodyweight dips, pectoralis major activity has been shown to increase as fatigue builds, illustrating why you want to take this particular movement to failure. (12)
- The dip also trains pectoralis minor, a deep chest muscle, and the lower part of trapezius, a midback muscle.
Push-Up Drop Set
A drop set is a resistance training technique consisting of a set taken to failure, followed by a “drop” or reduction in load, then immediately performing as many additional repetitions as possible. (13) To extend the technique, a lifter may perform multiple “drops,” but little to no rest should be taken between them.
The push-up is a staple bodyweight exercise for building the chest and arms; however, for strong lifters, it may not be challenging enough for efficient programming. It’s not uncommon for lifters to hit multiple sets of 30, 40, or even 50-plus repetitions of push-ups per straight set. Fortunately, drop sets make training more efficient without sacrificing strength or hypertrophy outcomes. (13) Finish your chest workout strong with this push-up drop set.
- How to Do it: If you can perform 10 or more traditional push-ups consecutively, begin the push-up drop set with a resistance band wrapped around your back just below the shoulder blades. Otherwise, start with your body weight. Get into a push-up position. Lower to the floor, then push back to the top position. Perform the first banded set until failure, then immediately transition to a bodyweight push-up. Perform until failure, and then perform a push-up on your knees to failure.
- Sets and Reps: 1 set of three drop sets
- Rest Time: None.
Benefits of the Push-Up Drop Set
- Compared to straight sets, drop sets are expected to result in similar hypertrophy and strength adaptations while requiring less training time. (13)
- This drop set promotes a chest and triceps “pump,” which, for many lifters, is an undeniable sign of a quality workout.
How to Warm-Up for Your Chest Workout
Although any warmup can set the stage for a better workout, the R.A.M.P. warmup protocol is among the most robust. Popularized by Coach Ian Jeffries, R.A.M.P. stands for “Raise, Activate, Mobilize, and Potentiate.” (14) A sample R.A.M.P. warmup for chest or upper body pushing workouts is provided.
- R: Raise your body temperature, metabolic rate, and breathing rate by performing five to eight minutes of an aerobic exercise of your choice — jogging, jumping rope, or performing jumping jacks are accessible options for at-home workouts.
- A: Activate the muscles you’re about to train. In addition to the chest muscles, the posterior rotator cuff is highly active during pressing. (15) Various chest exercises also engage the latissimus dorsi and midback muscles.
- Band External Rotation: Hold a light band in front of your stomach with palms up. Stretch the band by rotating your upper arms and forearms out. Perform a single set of 10 to 15 repetitions.
- Band Pull Apart: Hold a resistance band at shoulder height with your elbows straight and an overhand or neutral grip on the band. Stretch the band by pulling your arms apart. Perform a single set of 12 to 15 repetitions.
- Overhead Band Pull Apart: to involve the chest and latissimus dorsi as shoulder adductors. Hold the band above your head and stretch it as you pull your arms toward your sides. Stop and return to the top position when the band touches your upper back. Perform a single set of 12 to 15 repetitions.
- M: Mobilize the wrists, shoulders, and midback.
- Plank to Pike: Begin in a high plank position supported by palms and toes. Using your arms, push your hips back as far as you can without rounding your back or bending your knees. Return to the start position with control. Perform a single set of 12 to 15 repetitions.
- *Reverse Plank: Sit on the floor with your torso leaned slightly back, knees and hips bent, with heels on the floor. Place your hands on the floor beneath your shoulders. Bridge your hips toward the ceiling to mobilize your shoulders into extension. Lower to the floor. Perform a single set of 12 to 15 repetitions.
- P: Fire up your neuromuscular system for peak performance.
- Incline Plyo Push-Up: Assume the push up position with hands at shoulder width or slightly wider on the long edge of a flat bench. Lower your chest toward the bench then ballistically push up, launching your upper body away from the bench. Land on your palms, allowing your elbows to bend to absorb the impact. Perform two sets of three to five repetitions.
No Need to Leave the Fortress of Solitude
In your quest to achieve a superhero physique, missed workouts are kryptonite. This efficient chest workout can be performed at home with limited equipment and can help you to maintain consistency. Better yet, advanced training techniques and functional anatomy principles will help you to build a chest worthy of a capital “S.”
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- Haładaj, R., et al. (2019). Anatomical variations of the pectoralis major muscle: notes on their impact on pectoral nerve innervation patterns and discussion on their clinical relevance. BioMed Research International, doi.org/10.1155/2019/6212039.
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- dos Santos Albarello, et al. (2022). Non-uniform excitation of pectoralis major induced by changes in bench press inclination leads to uneven variations in the cross-sectional area measured by panoramic ultrasonography. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 67, 102722.
- Lee, H. M. (2019). Force direction and arm position affect contribution of clavicular and sternal parts of pectoralis major muscle during muscle strength testing. Journal of Hand Therapy, 32(1), 71-79.
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- McKenzie, A., et al. (2022). Fatigue increases muscle activations but does not change maximal joint angles during the bar dip. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(21), 14390.
- Coleman, M., et al. (2022). Muscular adaptations in drop set vs. traditional training: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 2(1).
- Jeffreys, I. (2006). Warm up revisited–the ‘ramp’ method of optimising performance preparation. UKSCA Journal, 6, 15-19.
- Wattanaprakornkul, D., et al. (2011). Direction-specific recruitment of rotator cuff muscles during bench press and row. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 21(6), 1041-1049.
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