The Problem with Most Chest Exercises

What’s the hardest thing to do in the gym? Find an unoccupied bench press on Monday (or Tuesday or Wednesday…).

Bench press is the most popular exercise in America because everyone wants a big, impressive chest. And somehow, the bench press got crowned as the best chest-building exercise of all time. But if the bench press is the best chest exercise, and everyone bench presses, why don’t we see more people walking around with pecs of steel like Terry Crews?

Maybe we’ve been lied to. Maybe the meathead’s most beloved exercise isn’t the best choice for building upper body mass.

Don’t get me wrong – the bench press is a fantastic exercise. It builds tremendous upper body strength, and getting stronger is the most fool-proof way to get bigger.

But there are some problems with the bench press and other traditional chest exercises that make them less than optimal for pec development.

PRESS FOR CHEST?

The majority of chest exercises are pressing movements. Consider the actions of the joints involved in the bench press:

  • Extension/flexion, horizontal abduction/adduction and internal rotation of the shoulder joint
  • Flexion/extension of the elbow joint

The problem is that the only movement that really involves the entire pectoralis major (the primary chest muscle) to a worthwhile degree is horizontal adduction, which is a fancy way of saying drawing the arm across the body. Move your arms as if you were giving someone an enthusiastic bear hug – feel that squeeze in your chest? That’s horizontal adduction.

If you lay down and move your arms as if you were doing a bench press, you can feel that your pecs aren’t contracting very hard. Go ahead and keep pressing. Try to punch up toward the ceiling as far as you can. What you’re now feeling is shoulder protraction, which has nothing to do with the pec major and is actually pretty dangerous because it moves the head of the humerus too far out of the security of the glenoid fossa (shoulder cavity).

Now if you do a similar pressing motion, but cross your arms in front of your body instead of pressing straight up, you can get a mighty squeeze in your pecs. This isn’t possible if you’re holding a straight bar because you’re locked into a limited amount of horizontal adduction. Once you’ve locked the weight out, you can’t move your arms any closer together.

Push-ups and dips pose the same problem because you hands are in a fixed position and you can’t draw your arms across your body. Dumbbells don’t help much either because they clank together at the top of the movement.

What’s the bottom line? The bench press isn’t a chest exercise. It’s a shoulders and triceps exercise with the chest sprinkled in as an afterthought.

Tucked elbows = safer shoulders and bigger weights… but less pec involvement.

This is especially true if you’re using proper bench press form which resembles that of a powerlifter and maximizes strength gains while minimizing the chance of shoulder injury. This keeps the elbows much closer to the body and brings the bar lower on the chest, shifting the load even more to the shoulders and triceps and even further from the pecs. Many people who are trying to “target the pecs” with the bench press let their elbows flare out to the sides and bring the bar down toward the neck, which places a ton of stress on the shoulder joint and is a pec strain waiting to happen.

Using pressing movements to work the muscles of the chest uses the same flawed logic as using pull-ups to develop the biceps or leg curls to develop the hamstrings. Sure, you’ll hit the muscle to some degree, but you’re neglecting the primary function of the muscle and won’t develop it fully using that exercise alone.

WHAT ABOUT FLYES?

Dumbbell flyes are the most popular “isolation” exercise for the chest. Flyes take care of the horizontal adduction and play upon the primary role of the pecs, so they should be the go-to chest exercise, right?

Wrong. There are serious limitations to both dumbbell flyes and cable flyes.

The biomechanics of dumbbell flyes are all wrong. Problem #1: The moment arm (the distance of the weight from the axis of rotation – in this case, the shoulder joint) is longest when the pecs are fully stretched. That makes the exercise really tough at the bottom position. Problem #2: the moment arm gets shorter as the pecs contract and then becomes non-existent at full contraction. You notice the weight gets easier and easier until it “disappears” at the top and you lose all tension on the chest muscles. Problem #3: When doing flyes, you lifti your arms out to the side while stretching the chest. This puts the shoulder joint in a vulnerable position all while inhibiting the stabilizing effects of rotator cuff. So dumbbell flyes aren’t very effective or safe.

Cable flyes are the classic remedy for this problem. Cable machines create constant tension by altering the length of the moment arm throughout the exercise, so you don’t lose tension at the most important part of the movement. But progressively overloading cable flyes is extremely difficult and it’s tough to keep good form (and, in this case, tension on the pecs) with anything heavier than what you could do for 10 or more reps. This doesn’t bode well for building up the chest over time.

And let’s be real. If you’re serious about getting big and strong, you don’t have much time to waste with little isolation exercises like chest flyes. There’s got to be something better.

THE SOLUTION: PUSH-UP/FLY COMBOS

By combining the mechanics of push-ups and flyes into one movement, you get all the chest-pumping benefits without the limitations of the exercises on their own. The key is using a suspension trainer (blast straps, gymnast rings, TRX, etc.) or sliders to allow for full horizontal adduction.

My favorite way to do this is with rings. Hang the rings over a power rack and set them at knee height, a few feet apart. Get in a suspended push-up position and lower yourself down, tucking your elbows tight to your sides. Press yourself back up and at the top position, cross your hands in front of your body and squeeze your pecs as tight as you can. As you get more comfortable with the exercise, you can let your elbows flare out a bit and even turn your palms toward the ceiling to really stretch the chest.

You can do similar exercises with Valslides (or furniture sliders if you’re cheap). Start in a push-up position, but as you lower yourself to the floor, spread your hands out to stretch your chest. In order to press back up, you have to simultaneously press and draw your hands back toward the center, which crushes your chest. Watch the video below featuring the wildly innovative Ben Bruno.

The “pressing” mechanics of these exercises allow you load it decently heavy (with a weighted vest, chains, bands, etc.). And the “fly” portion becomes much safer than a dumbbell fly because in a push-up position your shoulder blades are free to move. This allows you to actively squeeze your scapula and fire your rotator cuff muscles, which protects your shoulders as you stretch your chest. Just make sure not to let your elbows travel to far behind your body, which could result in anterior migration of the humeral head (the “ball” of shoulder joint sneaks out of the “socket”).

THE BEST FOR THE CHEST

Ideally, a well-rounded program would hit the chest from multiple angles with several exercises. If you’re already doing some sort of bench press with a focus on strength, add in one of the above pushup/fly combos. Then possibly finish off the chest with some sort of dumbbell press or dip variation.

A sample chest-focused upper body day could look something like this:

1a. Barbell Bench Press: 5 sets of 6-8 reps

1b. Barbell Rows: 5 sets of 8-10 reps

2a. Pushup/Fly Combo on Rings: 3 sets of 10-12 reps

2b. Neutral Grip Chin-Ups: 3 sets of max reps

3a. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 8-10 reps

3b. Fat Gripz Dumbbell Curls: 3 sets of 12-15 reps/side

So next Monday, instead of celebrating National Bench Press Day like everyone else, try out a pushup/fly combo. You won’t be disappointed. Who knows, you could be pec-poppin’ next to Arnold and Stalone in the inevitable Expendables 3.

Master's degree in Exercise Science, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, St. Michael's College baseball alum, strength coach, powerlifter, diehard Red Sox/Metallica fan

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8 comments on “The Problem with Most Chest Exercises
  1. [...] The Problem With Chest Exercises. [...]

    • Mike says:

      You could basically use dumbbells and do the same exercise push fly variation by using a neutral grip and doing the same motion

  2. [...] The Problem with Most Chest Exercises by Tony Bonvechio [...]

  3. [...] is my newest go-to chest exercise and I use it just about every upper body day as a supplemental exercise for the bench press. If I [...]

  4. [...] put into training their arms, most people do it ineffectively. Piggy-backing on the popularity of The Problem with Most Chest Exercises, it’s time to break down the issues most people have with training their biceps. The chest [...]

  5. […] THE PROBLEM WITH MOST CHEST EXERCISES […]

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