Best exercises to strengthen and tone your chest


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Want to beef up your pecs? Skip the push-ups and chest dips. The top three most effective exercises for targeting the major muscles of the chest for both men and women are the barbell bench press, pec deck machine and bent-forward cable crossovers, according to a study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise.

“We took nine of the most common chest exercises performed by men and women, and tested which one elicited the highest level of muscle activation,” said ACE chief science officer Cedric Bryant in a release. “According to the … results, three exercises [barbell bench press, the pec deck machine and cable crossovers] were far and away the winners in terms of chest muscle activation.”


Proper techniques for chest workouts

Don’t think strengthening the chest is male-exclusive. Everyone can benefit. A strong chest aids in good posture and balance, and helps the body lift heavy things with ease and without injury. Just make sure you perform these top three workouts properly so you don’t hurt yourself. ACE offers the following techniques:

Barbell bench press: Start with your feet flat on the ground and your back flat against the bench. The hands should be placed slightly wider than the shoulders, so that when the upper arms are in line with the body, the forearms are perpendicular to the floor, with the elbows flexed at a 90-degree angle. Grasp the bar with a full grip, with the fingers wrapped around it, and lower it with control to touch the chest. Slowly press the barbell upward, fully extending the elbows. Pause and slowly return the weight to the chest and repeat.
Watch a demonstration

Pec deck machine: (Disclaimer: If you have a shoulder injury or are prone to shoulder injuries, play it safe and skip this machine!) Place your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width (or wider) apart and press your back firmly against the back pad. Elevate and bend your elbows 75 to 90 degrees at shoulder level, and position them directly against the center of the pad on the rotating portions, sometimes called the “wings.” Slowly push the wings all the way toward the center until they are just about to meet. Then slowly reverse the motion back to the starting position.
Watch a demonstration

Bent-forward cable crossovers: Start with your feet hip-width apart in line with the body or with your feet in a staggered stance, a little wider than a walking stride. Grip a handle in each hand. Your hands should be even with (or slightly above) the shoulders, and the elbows should only be slightly bent. Slowly bring your hands together with the arms almost fully extended. Think about moving the arms downward first and then inward to get a nice wide arc. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Watch a demonstration.


Details of the study

The study, conducted by a team of exercise scientists at the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, sought to determine which of the common strength-training exercises for the chest is most effective.

According to a press release, exercise physiologists began the study using a test group of 14 healthy males ranging in age from 19 to 30, all of whom had prior experience in resistance training. To establish a baseline of fitness, a one-repetition max (1 RM) was determined for five moves: barbell bench press, bent-forward cable crossovers, seated chest press, incline dumbbell flys and the pec deck. A 1 RM was not determined for the four exercises that rely solely on body weight for resistance, such as dips, suspended push-ups, stability-ball push-ups and standard push-ups.

After a minimum of three days of rest, the subjects returned to perform five repetitions of each of the nine exercises at 80% of their predetermined 1 RM, in random order. During each of the exercises, electromyography electrodes monitored muscle activation of the pectoralis major muscles.

Compared with the top-performing barbell bench press, the pec deck machine had 98% of muscle activation, and bent-forward cable crossovers had 93%.

All of the remaining exercises resulted in significantly lower muscle activation, with suspended push-ups, stability ball push-ups and standard push-ups rounding out the lowest three.

To learn more about the study and to download a copy, visit ACEfitness.org.