Developing the Chest

In weight lifting, a press is an exercise movement in which resistance is pushed away from the body. This resistance can be represented by barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, elastic bands, machines, even your own body weight.

There are many exercises that fit this description, such as chest presses, shoulder presses, leg presses, push-ups, and dips, among others. These exercises are performed from different starting positions, but all of them are composed of two phases: a lifting phase in which resistance is pushed (or pressed) away from the body, and a lowering phase when the exerciser brings the weight back close to the body.

In this article I will describe two exercises that targets the chest muscles.

Chest Press

Also known as bench press, this exercise as the name indicates is largely used to develop the chest region. But don’t get overexcited. Performing a hundred bench presses won’t tone your breasts or make them bigger.  Strength training exercises will only build up muscle mass, and our breasts are composed of mammary glands and fat. Anyway, I still believe you should include this exercise, or any of its variations, in your program, because this multi-joint exercise not only engages chest muscles, but also the triceps and the front part of the shoulders.

The Movement

Start by lying down on a bench, belly up and back flat. Hold a barbell placing your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, palms facing your feet. Controlling the movement, lower the bar to your chest. Then extend your elbows, lifting the bar. That’s one repetition (rep). Perform one or two sets of 10 to 12 reps.

 

Muscles Involved

  • The primary regions involved in this exercise are the chest (pectoralis), the front portion of the shoulders (anterior deltoids), and the triceps muscles. However, many core muscles (abdominals, glutes and back muscles) are needed to stabilize the body. Forearm and hand muscles are also engaged while keeping the grip.
  • An interesting aspect of chest presses is that by varying the inclination of the bench, the hand positioning, or the movement angle, you can recruit muscle fibers from different areas of the chest. However, women are seldom looking for chest definition (as men are), so consider those alternatives as a way to introduce variety into your program.

Tips for Proper Form

  • Keep your body in contact with the bench – don’t arch your back.
  • Control the movement at all times.
  • Inhale when lowering the bar, exhale when lifting.

Variations

  • Start with a flat bench press, keeping your feet flat on the floor. This variation distributes the effort evenly through the chest area. If you don’t have a bench, you can perform this exercise on the floor. However, the range of motion will be slightly limited because you won’t be able to lower the bar to the chest.
  • Positioning the bench at an incline angle will place emphasis on the upper part of the chest, while a decline bench will work mainly inferior chest fibers.
  • Another option is using a pair of dumbbells instead of a bar. This alternative offers a greater range of motion, but more stabilization is required to control the weights separately.
  • If you want to place more challenge on your core muscles, you can perform a flat bench press with raised legs. Still need more challenge? No problem. Replace the bench for a stability ball. Keep both feet on the ground, but hold your pelvis up while performing the exercise.

Push-ups

A push-up is a body weight exercise that can be very challenging if you haven’t built yet enough upper body strength. This is one of those total body exercises that seems to engage every muscle you’ve got. It requires a good amount of core strength to maintain the body aligned throughout the movement. Fortunately, there are a few modifications you can do in order to incorporate this amazing exercise to your routine.

The Movement

In a full body push-up, you start from a plank position: belly facing the ground, back straight, arms shoulder-width apart, legs and arms fully extended, and palms and toes supporting the body. Keeping a flat back, slowly bend your elbows, lowering the rib cage as close to the floor as you can. Then, push back, extending your elbows until you are back to the initial position. That’s one repetition. You can do sets (one or more sets of 12 reps) if you are strong enough to complete those. If not, do as many as you can and try to include one more repetition each time, until you can perform 12 reps without rest in between.

Muscles Involved

  • We can consider this movement an inverted chest press. Therefore the primary muscles involved are the same: chest muscles, front part of the shoulders and triceps. However, a push-up requires stronger stabilization than a bench press, largely engaging back, shoulders, arms, wrists, abdominals, legs and glutes muscles.

Tips for Proper Form

  • Keep your body in a straight line.
  • Control the movement at all times.
  • Inhale when lowering the body, exhale when lifting.

Progression

  • If you don’t think you can complete even one full body push-up, don’t be discouraged; I have alternatives for you. And as you get stronger, you can progress to more demanding variations. If you never performed a push-up in your life, start with a wall push-up. Stand about three feet from a wall, placing your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width distance. Bending your elbows, allow your face to come closer to the wall and then push back. Try doing between eight and 12 repetitions to start. Once you can complete two sets of 12 reps, it is time to progress to incline push-ups (using a countertop, a chair or a bench). The movement is similar, but have in mind that the lower the bench, the harder it will be. Start with a high chair and progress to a lower one.
  • Another option is a kneeling push-up, in which you have to lift only part of your body weight. Whatever alternative you choose, be sure to gradually increase the challenge until you get to the full body variation.

Variations

  • Already mastered the push-up world? I have options for you, too. Introducing challenge to your routine is the key for getting continued results and avoiding plateaus[1].
  • As in the bench press exercise, different positioning of the body recruits different muscle fibers. An incline push-up will engage mostly inferior fibers of the chest, while a decline variation emphasizes mainly the upper chest area. If you want to challenge your balance, place your feet on a stability ball for a decline push-up or use a Bosu ball for a more demanding incline push-up.
  • Do you want to try something funkier? Perform single-leg push-ups or try the spider-man variation.

[1] A plateau is a training period where you stop seeing improvements. It usually occurs because our body gets used to and comfortable with exercise routines and won’t need more physiological adaptations. To get over plateaus, it is essential to keep challenging your muscles in unexpected ways.