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There are two main chest muscles – the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor – collectively known as “the pecs”. The pectoralis major is significantly larger than the pectoralis minor and is situated under our breasts. The pectoralis minor is a smaller, thinner triangular shaped muscle that sits underneath the pectoralis major. The two key movements of the chest muscle group are to 1) push or “press” the arms straight out in front of us and 2) bring the arms from the side of the body across the front of it.

There are three key exercises you can do at home to work your chest muscles: pushups, presses and flyes. All of these exercises can be progressed to make them more challenging as your chest muscles become stronger. If you’re new to working out, start at the basic level and progress from there at a realistic pace to avoid injury. It takes time to build a strong and healthy body, so don’t start with unreasonable expectations that within a few weeks you’ll be smoking hot. Understanding and accepting this will prevent you from becoming discouraged and allow you to actually enjoy your transformation process.


Chest Exercises You Can Do At Home
Pushups
Presses
Flyes


IMPORTANT NOTE:

Always exercise in a safe and responsible manner. Please be aware that as with most physical activities, there is always a risk of injury associated with weight training and other exercise programs. While I have made every effort to describe how to perform the exercises outlined on this site in a safe manner, note that every body is different and so not all exercises can or should be peformed by all people. Therefore, if you feel pain or discomfort when attempting any of the exercises described on this site, please stop immediately.

It is always important to consult your physician before starting any exercise program, especially if you have been sedentary for an extended period of time. This is particularly true if any of the following apply to your current medical condition:
  • chest pain or pain in the neck and/or arm
  • shortness of breath
  • a diagnosed heart condition
  • joint and/or bone problems
  • currently taking cardiac and/or blood pressure medications
  • have not previously been physically active
  • dizziness
In addition, if you have any chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes or arthritis) or risk factors (such as smoking or being more than 20 pounds overweight), and have not discussed exercising with your doctor, you should do so before beginning. Exercise is often an important part of the treatment for such conditions, but you may have some limitations or special needs that your doctor can tell you about.

If none of these apply to you, start gradually and sensibly. However, if you feel any of the physical symptoms listed above when you start your exercise program, contact your physician right away.


Push Ups

The pushup is an excellent body weight exercise that works the entire chest muscle. Done properly, it is also a great core strengthening exercise, because your abs and lower back have to be strong enough to hold your entire body in a plank position throughout the entire movement. Pushups also work your triceps (back of the arms), anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder), glutes (butt muscles) and upper back, so it really is a bang for the buck type of exercise in that during the time it takes to do 3-4 sets of pushups you’re working multiple body parts.

The beauty of the pushup is that it can be done virtually anywhere. The basic movement works as follows:

  1. Lie on your stomach and place your palms flat on the floor beside your body, approximately in line with your shoulders. You will need to experiment to find the position most comfortable for you. (While you can always vary your hand position to work your muscles from various different angles, you do not want to place your hands in any position which causes undue stress on your shoulder joints.)
  2. Keeping your body in straight line plank position from heels to shoulders, raise your body by pushing up off the floor with your arms. Support your lower body by resting on your toes. DO NOT LOCK YOUR ELBOWS once you have fully extended your arms as serious joint injury could occur. Your arms should remain slightly bent at the top of the lift (but only very slightly bent) to avoid stressing the elbow joint.

    Ready Position

  3. Slowly lower your body until your nose is about an inch from the floor. Note you should remain looking at the floor throughout the entire exercise so that your neck remains in proper alignment with your spine. Do not stick your butt in the air in an attempt to get your nose close to the ground without having to lower your entire body. You will need to fully engage your core muscles in order to keep your body in a straight line.

    Right way - entire body in a straight line, with core fully engaged
    Wrong way - butt in the air to avoid having to lower your entire body to the floor

  4. Hold the position briefly and then raise yourself up again.
  5. Breathe out as you push yourself up and breathe in as you lower yourself back to the starting position.
  6. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but NEVER go to failure on this exercise as you could fall onto your face and seriously hurt yourself.

Helpful Tips

  • The distance your arms are from your body affects degree of difficulty. When your arms are closer to your body, the triceps muscles (back of the arms) engage to help the chest muscles, and the further apart your arms the more the chest muscles are isolated. So experiment with different arm positions to continually challenge yourself.
  • The wider you spread your feet, the easier the movement. So start with your feet wide and as you get stronger, slowly move your feet closer together.
  • Some people experience excessive stress on their wrist joints when doing pushups. While push up bars are commercially available at a reasonable price, if you own a pair of hex shaped dumbbells that will sit flat on the ground without rolling you can try gripping them instead of placing your hands flat on the floor.

    Pushup Bars
    Hex Shaped Dumbbells

Basic Pushup

Ready Position
Push Up Position

Optional Hand Positions (Mouseover name of each hand position for a detailed description)

Military Pushups
Close Grip
(Diamond) Pushups
Dumbbell Pushups
Hand Position A
Dumbbell Pushups
Hand Position B

Simplified Pushups

If you are not strong enough to do a regular ground pushup, you can start with a more simplified version, sometimes called a “girl pushup”. These simplifed pushups are done pivoting on your knees as opposed to your toes. Place your knees together and fold your ankles behind you for stability. Doing this exercise on a hard surface such as laminate flooring or cement (as in a basement) will be hard on your knees, so I recommend you do these pushups on a yoga mat. If you find the yoga mat is not enough, try placing either a pillow or folded towel under your knees instead.

"Girl Pushups"
Ready Position
Push Up Position

For those individuals with back problems, pushups can also be done off a wall. Since wall pushups are easier, in order to feel the same burn you will need to do much longer sets than if you were doing ground pushups. You will achieve very limited muscle growth and development with this type of pushup, so I do not recommend Wall Pushups unless pre-existing health issues prevent you from doing pushups from the ground.

Wall Pushups
Ready Position
Push Up Position

Decline Pushups

To increase the difficulty of your pushup, raise your feet off the ground so your body is in a decline position. You can use a weight bench (or the edge of a couch) to accomplish this. For a further challenge, try doing pushups off a stability ball. This is much harder than it looks – not only do you need to worry about the pushup exercise itself, you also need to really engage your core muscles to keep yourself balanced on the ball.

Decline Pushups
Off weight bench
Off stability ball

Crossover Pushups

Once you’ve mastered regular pushups, here’s something you can do to further challenge your sense of balance and muscular control. Start with one hand flat on the floor and the other on a raised surface. After completing your first push up, move the hand that was on the floor to the raised surface and shift your body over so that the opposite hand is now on the floor. Do another pushup and then switch back. This can be done on a stable surface (i.e. phone book) to start, and then to additionally challenge your stabilizing muscles you can progress to a medicine ball. But exercise caution - a wipeout could lead to a broken nose and/or broken teeth!

Crossover Pushups using a Medicine Ball
First Push Up Position
The Switch
Second Push Up Position

Bosu Ball Pushups

If you have a Bosu ball, you can challenge your stabilizing muscles by placing the rounded side down and gripping the flat surface.

Ready Position
Push Up Position

Medicine Ball Pushups

There are two great advantages to medicine ball pushups. First, your stabilizing muscles are working hard to keep you steady on the balls. Second, you are able to increase your range of motion for the movement because you can now drop your body below your hands. (Just be careful not to overstress your shoulder joints.)

Ready Position
Push Up Position

Single Limb Pushups

For an interesting twist, try doing your pushups with either one leg or one arm off the ground. While I can demonstrate the one leg pushup for you (see below), the one arm pushups are beyond me at this point. However, if you’re interested in learning how to do one, I recommend you visit a great tutorial at Beast Skills.

One Leg Pushups
Ready Position
Push Up Position

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Presses

Think of a chest press as an upside down pushup. With a push up you are “pushing” your body away from your hands, and with a chest press you are “pressing” your hands away from your body. Both movements work the pectoral (chest) muscles primarily, and the triceps (back of the arms) and anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder) muscles secondarily.

The Barbell Bench Press is arguably the most popular lift in the gym. Guys love it because it’s the upper body exercise that allows them to press the most weight. However, how much weight someone can bench does not correlate with how well developed their chest is and how good they look visually. As I’ve outlined in my Basic Workout Guideline #9, the amount of weight you can press is only one part of the training equation. How you press it is equally, if not more important, to your overall physique development.

My personal preference is to do chest presses with dumbbells rather than with a barbell. This permits a more natural range of motion and forces both sides of my body to work equally as hard so my chest development is more even.

Chest presses can be done in 3 different positions – lying down with either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells, seated using a machine or standing using resistance tubing. Here is the basic movement for a prone (lying down) position with dumbbells:

  1. Start with your dumbbells close to your chest about in line with your nipples. Your palms should be facing forwards.

    Start Position

  2. Make sure you have a firm grip on the dumbbells so they don’t slip from your grasp and fall on you during the exercise. Your thumb should be across your fingers, which locks your grip in place.

    Right Way – Thumb locking fingers into place
    Wrong Way – Weight of the dumbbell could force your fingers open and slip from your grasp

  3. Your wrists should remain straight and rigid at all times. If you relax them at any time during the exercise and the weight of the dumbbells causes your wrists to bend you could strain the tendons or perhaps even break your wrist!
  4. Tighten your chest muscles and press the dumbbells up in a smooth, controlled motion and stop when your arms are fully extended above your eyes. DO NOT LOCK YOUR ELBOWS STRAIGHT OUT once you have fully extended your arms as serious joint injury could occur. Your arms should remain slightly bent at the top of the lift (but only very slightly bent) to avoid stressing the elbow joint.

    Finish Position

  5. As you complete the movement, focus on really squeezing your entire chest muscle to maximize the muscle contraction and explode upwards with authority.
  6. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position in a controlled manner. Don’t let gravity do the work, for two reasons. The first is safety – letting the dumbbells simply drop can damage your shoulder joints, which will take the brunt of the stress when the dumbbells abruptly come to a halt. Second, you want to keep as much stress as possible on your chest during the downward motion so it doesn’t get a chance to recover between reps.
  7. Breathe out as you push the dumbbells away from your body and breathe in as you bring them back to the starting position.
  8. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but NEVER go to failure on this exercise as you could drop a dumbbell on your head and seriously hurt yourself.

Helpful Tips:

  • Dumbbell starting position will vary for each individual, depending on their natural flexibility. At bare minimum, your upper arms should be parallel to the floor, but the lower you can drop your elbows the better the pre-stretch on the chest muscle. (Refer to Basic Workout Guideline #6.) However, you should NEVER drop the dumbbell below your shoulder as doing so can overstress the shoulder joint and cause serious injury.

    Minimum Start Position
    Upper arms parallel to the floor
    Maximum Start Position
    Dumbbells in line with shoulders
    Your start position should be somewhere between these two extremes, depending on your natural flexibility. When determining the best start position for you, please err on the side of caution. The lower you drop the dumbbells the greater the potential stress on your shoulder joints. Shoulder injuries are notoriously painful and take a very long time to heal, so risking injury for the sake of trying to maximize your pre-stretch just isn't worth it.

  • Your dumbbells should come together above your eyes, but not quite touch. Touching them together takes some of the pressure off the muscles and allows them an opportunity to recover slightly. Even though it's only for a moment, you do not want this to happen as it detracts from the overall effectiveness of the exercise.

    Right Way
    Dumbbells close, but not touching
    Wrong Way
    Dumbbells touching

  • Always remember the rhyme “Presses and flyes above the eyes”. When doing presses or flyes, you should have a slight upwards arc to your pressing movement, which mimics the natural way our chest muscles work. Many people press straight up above their nipples, but this does not fully complete the movement and thus reduces the overall effectiveness of the exercise.
  • To progress the degree of difficulty of the chest press exercise and really challenge your stabilizing muscles, try single arm alternating chest presses. The start position for the exercise is the same as for regular presses, with both arms holding a dumbbell. However, only one arm presses at a time while the other remains in place. The pressing arm comes back to the start position before the other side begins the press. You can also alternate your arms simultaneously so that as one arm comes down the other is going up; this option will challenge your coordination more so than your stabilizers.

Dumbbell Chest Press on Workout Bench or Exercise Ball

An adjustable workout bench was listed under the “Nice to Have” basic workout equipment because it allows you to press heavier weights than you can on an Exercise Ball. However, using an Exercise Ball better challenges your stabilizing muscles, so both options have their advantages.

You can do chest presses with the bench completely flat or on an incline. An incline press will work the top part of your chest muscle more, but the greater the incline, the more your shoulders are called into play, so the incline should never be extreme when you are specifically targeting your chest muscles.

When doing chest presses on a flat bench, place your feet up on the end of the bench so that the upper body is forced to do all the stabilizing for the movement. (When your feet are flat on the floor, the entire body is involved with the stabilizing process and so there is no overload in any specific area. Click here for a very good video explanation of this concept by my Coach, Scott Abel.)

Dumbbell Chest Press on Flat Bench
Start Position
Finish Position

Dumbbell Chest Press on Incline Bench
Start Position
Finish Position

Dumbbell Chest Press on Exercise Ball
Start Position
Finish Position

Standing Chest Press with Tubing

A tubing chest press can add extra challenge and spice to your chest workout. With tubing, as your chest muscles tire, you can continue stepping back slightly to ease up on the resistance and keep on going until you honestly can’t go any further. It’s a great way to really push yourself with no fear of dropping the dumbbells on your head as you approach failure.

This is similar to what is known as a “strip set” in body building terms, where you do the same thing on a machine by setting the weight pin at your maximum weight and doing as many reps as you can before progressively lowering it one weight bar at a time. A properly executed strip set will take several minutes to complete, and believe me, it’s truly exhausting.

And of course you can always do alternating chest presses with tubing just as you would with dumbbells.

Helpful Hint: When doing chest presses with tubing, lean slightly forward or the tubing may pull you off balance and cause you to fall backwards as it contracts when you move your arm(s) back into the start position. However, do not lean so far forward that your body weight is assisting your chest muscles with the movement.

Standing Chest Press with Single Tubing
Start Position
Finish Position

Standing Chest Press with Dual Tubing
Start Position
Finish Position

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Flyes

While pushups and presses mimic the chest’s pushing (or “pressing”) function, the flye exercise simulates the second function of the chest, which is to draw the arms together in front of the body.

Similar to chest presses, flyes can be done lying down with dumbbells, seated using a machine or standing using either a machine or resistance tubing. The basic flye movement in a prone (lying down) position is as follows:

  1. Start with your arms extended away from your body, with your hands about in line with your nipples and no lower than the level of your shoulders. Your elbows should be bent slightly to prevent the weight of the dumbbells in your hands from hyperextending (overstretching) your elbow joint. Your palms should be facing upwards.

    Start Position

  2. Make sure you have a firm grip on the dumbbells so they don’t slip from your grasp and fall on you during the exercise. Your thumb should be across your fingers, which locks your grip in place.

    Right Way – Thumb locking fingers into place
    Wrong Way – Weight of the dumbbell could force your fingers open and slip from your grasp

  3. Your wrists should remain straight and rigid at all times. If you relax them at any time during the exercise and the weight of the dumbbells causes your wrists to bend you could strain the tendons or perhaps even break your wrist!
  4. Flex (tighten) your chest muscles and lift the dumbbells up in a smooth, flowing motion to meet above your eyes. DO NOT LOCK YOUR ELBOWS STRAIGHT OUT during this lift process as serious joint injury could occur. Your arms should remain slightly bent at the top of the lift to avoid stressing the elbow joint.

    Finish Position

  5. As you complete the movement, focus on really squeezing the inner part of your chest muscle, which is what will build nice cleavage.
  6. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position in a controlled manner. Don’t let gravity do the work, for two reasons. The first is safety – letting the dumbbells simply drop can damage your shoulder joints, which will take the brunt of the stress when the dumbbells abruptly come to a halt. Second, you want to keep as much stress as possible on your chest during the downward motion so it doesn’t get a chance to recover between reps.
  7. Breathe out as you lift the dumbbells above your body and breathe in as you lower them back to the starting position.
  8. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but NEVER go to failure on this exercise as you could drop a dumbbell on your head and seriously hurt yourself. You could also lose control of the dumbbells on the way up or down if your chest muscles fail and then gravity would cause the dumbbells to drop and seriously injure your shoulder joints as they absorbed the force of the weight.

Helpful Tips:

  • Starting position will vary for each individual, depending on their natural flexibility. You should feel a slight stretch on your shoulders, but not so much of a stretch that the shoulder joints are in danger of being damaged. Your objective is to pre-stretch the chest muscle without impinging your shoulder joints. (Refer to Basic Workout Guideline #6.) NEVER drop your hand position below your shoulder as doing so can impinge the shoulder joint and cause serious injury.

    Maximum Stretch for Start Position
    Note elbows are bent and hands are not below the level of the shoulders.

  • Your dumbbells should come together above your eyes, but not quite touch. Touching them together takes some of the pressure off the muscles and allows them an opportunity to recover slightly. Even though it's only for a moment, you do not want this to happen as it detracts from the overall effectiveness of the exercise.
  • Particularly as you work with heavier weights, you will need to keep your elbows bent to protect both the elbow and shoulder joints. This will result in your arms being somewhat rounded as your hands meet above your head, similar to what my Coach describes as like "hugging a tree".

    "Hugging a Tree" Finish Position
    Bent elbows protect elbow and shoulder joints
    from being overstretched or impinged.

  • Always remember the rhyme “Presses and flyes above the eyes”. When doing presses or flyes, you should have a slight upwards arc to your pressing movement, which mimics the natural way our chest muscles work. Many people lift straight up above their nipples, but this does not fully complete the movement and thus reduces the overall effectiveness of the exercise.

Flyes on Workout Bench

An adjustable workout bench was listed under the “Nice to Have” basic workout equipment because it allows you to do flyes with heavier weights than you can on an Exercise Ball. (However, using an Exercise Ball better challenges your stabilizing muscles, so both options have their advantages.)

You can do flyes with the bench completely flat or on an incline. An incline press will work the top part of your chest muscle more, but the greater the incline, the more your shoulders are called into play, so the incline should never be extreme when you are specifically targeting your chest muscles.

When doing flyes on a flat bench, place your feet up on the end of the bench so that the upper body is forced to do all the stabilizing for the movement. (When your feet are flat on the floor, the entire body is involved with the stabilizing process and so there is no overload in any specific area. Click here for a very good video explanation of this concept by my Coach, Scott Abel. The exercise demonstated is the bench press, but the principle is the same for flyes.

Flat Flyes
Start Position
Finish Position

Incline Flyes
Start Position
Finish Position

Flyes on Exercise Ball

Start Position
Finish Position

Standing Flyes with Tubing

Similar to tubing chest presses, tubing flyes can add challenge and spice to your chest workout. With tubing, as your chest muscles tire, you can continue stepping back slightly to ease up on the resistance and keep on going until you honestly can’t go any further. It’s a great way to really push yourself with no fear of dropping the dumbbells as you tire.

This is similar to what is known as a “strip set” in body building terms, where you do the same thing on a machine by setting the weight pin at your maximum weight and doing as many reps as you can before progressively lowering it one weight bar at a time. A properly executed strip set will take several minutes to complete, and believe me, it’s truly exhausting.

As with most tubing exercises, you can position the tubing at various heights and various positions to hit your muscles from different angles. For example, for the first option illustrated below where both lengths of tubing are attached to a single point, the tubing is positioned at approximately chest height and the hands remain at that same level throught the exercise. For the exercise underneath where the two lengths of tubing are positioned apart from each other, the tubing is positioned above the head and the arms are drawn downwards in a decline angle.

And of course you can always do alternating chest flyes with tubing just as you would with dumbbells.

Standing Flyes with
Tubing at Chest Height
Start Position
Finish Position

Standing Flyes with
Tubing Above the Head
Start Position
Finish Position

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