March 27, 2020 10 min read

It’s 7 pm at the end of the weekend and the Sunday scaries start to hit you. Tomorrow you dive back into the drudgery of work. The weekend’s come and gone.Maybeyou got in a workout somewhere but more than likely there was a cheat day and now you’re feeling lethargic. But don’t despair! There’s a silver lining to the end of the weekend. Tomorrow is Monday, and as any long-time gym-goer will tell you,  that means chest day.

It’s difficult to do the pectorals justice in just a few words (or just one article). This muscle group has been vaulted into the upper echelons of both bodybuilding and popular culture. The pecs are the holy grail of upper body aesthetics. It’s easy to see why, “no pecs, no s*x” is a common proverb in the gym. A broad chest provides a foundation for the sought after tapered physique and exudes a physical confidence that’s difficult to replicate. The pectoralis major is often the first muscle that you can notice on a guy, and it shines through even layers of clothing.

The respect big pecs get is couched in history. After William L. Murray of Great Britain became the winner ofThe World’s First Big Bodybuilding Contest in 1901, the widespread popularity of bodybuilding culture didn’t take long to materialize. Entrepreneurs such as Bernarr Macfadden, who became known as the father of physical culture and a renowned character of the early 20th century, sold his extremely popular chest expander. This provided a foundation for Charles Atlas to launch an exercise system developed by Macfadden 20 years earlier. His marketing cartoon featuring a broad-chested young man sticking up to a former bully is regarded as one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history.

But it’s easy to see the importance of pecs for aesthetics and strength. What’s considerably more difficult is to actually get these bodybuilder like sizes. That’s why a deeper understanding and appreciation of the pectorals will help in achieving your chest goals.

The Physiology Behind the Aesthetic & the Strength

The term “pecs” refers to the two primary muscles of the chest—the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. The former is the one that most people think of when they think “chest”, for good reason. This large, fan-shaped muscle sits at your chest wall and is the primary source of strength and definition in the chest area. The smaller pectoralis minor is considerably flatter and lies underneath the pectoralis major. The primary role of the pec minor is for proper shoulder function.

There are four physiological functions that these two muscles help you with:

  • Shoulder flexion: This action happens whenever you move your arms from a resting position by your sides to straight above your head.
  • Shoulder adduction: This occurs when you move your arms to the middle of your body, for example, when hugging yourself.
  • Internal rotation of the arm, such as in arm wrestling.
  • And most importantly, keeping your arms attached to your body.

While it’s important to show gratitude to pectorals for preventing our arms from falling off, the benefits of having pecs—or more importantly, having large pecs—can’t go understated either.

Life After Getting a Big Chest

Aesthetics: By far the biggest motivational factor for working on the pecs is appearance. Definitely one of the first muscles noticed on a person, big pecs are the undeniable mark of someone who works hard and is fit. While the aesthetic dimension might seem superficial to some, the benefits of looking good can extend to higher levels of confidence and more interest from potential partners. The v-shaped torso physique that people find attractive, has the upper body as a necessary element in its formation. While this mostly extends to men, a more developed pectoral in women will improve posture and lift the breasts.  

Strength: The pectoralis major makes up the biggest portion of muscle mass in your upper body, so it’s possible to unlock a lot of strength from training in this area. The pecs are involved in so many different upper-body movements, activating this region in the gym will help you in any pushing, throwing, and swinging motions. This could translate into functional day-to-day strength that oftentimes doesn’t directly carry over from gym strength. If you play any sports like softball, tennis, or golf, you’ll definitely see results in your game if you stick to a good chest workout in your gym regime. But benefits will extend past that; picking up objects and pushing yourself up from the ground will become significantly easier. 

Posture and breathing: There are two aspects of posture. The first is the way in which strong pectorals encourage you to stand tall and show off your sculpted muscles. Good posture right now is crucial in preventing future back problems—and if you already have back problems, working out the chest can be helpful in fixing these issues. While we’ve been highlighting the star of the show in terms of strength and aesthetics, the pectoralis major, the pectoralis minor plays just as crucial of a role when it comes to posture and balance. When the pec minor contracts, it creates stability for the shoulder blades while also pulling them apart. The pec major’s younger brother is critical when it comes to balance, and maintaining an upright position.

We’ve already covered the importance of breathing properly when pumping iron, but a well-developed chest can take this to the next level. Your pec minor is essential when taking deep breaths because it’s attached to your rib cage—every time you take a big breath, the pec minor has to stretch for your chest to expand.

A man doing the bench press in a gym.

Chest Building: The Bench Press and Other Exercises

The arsenal of chest exercises is huge, the trick is in finding the ones that work towards your goals and doing them correctly. The bench press is the king of the upper body workout, for good reason. However, you’ll also need strong triceps and a strong back to both support your bigger chest, and also push the chest muscles to the next level. As always, a rigorous warm-up is important to perform these exercises to their full effect. 

Barbell Bench Press

One of the most popular workouts, the bench is sure to get anyone a bigger chest. Studies have shown that the bench press is thebest exercise to do in order to strengthen and activate the pectoralis major. You’ll want to lie down on an exercise bench, grabbing onto the barbell above you while maintaining a shoulder-width distance between your hands. Inhale while lowering the bar until it touches your chest. Pause for a second, and exhale as you push the barbell up. Once you get to the top, pause once again and take a deep breath.

You’ll want to add some variations to the bench in order to attain a well-rounded chest. In order to activate and emphasize the upper chest, do some incline bench presses. Additionally, the decline bench will remove any desire to arch your back as you push, while also focusing on your lower chest area. Adding a variety of bench presses into your workout regime will pay dividends when it comes to getting a bigger chest.

Dumbbell Press

Similarly, the dumbbell press has you lying down on an exercise bench, this time using dumbbells instead of a barbell. While you’re not able to lift as much weight as with a barbell, the trade-off is that dumbbells can push the pectoral further and help you contract at the top of the movement. This is because you just can’t take down a single bar as far as two separate dumbbells at the bottom of the movement. Like the bench press, the way to do this is lying down with the dumbbells at about shoulder height. You’ll want to pause at the bottom and top of the movements, while also exhaling as you push up, and inhaling as you go down.

Dips

This demanding exercise works wonders in developing your upper body’s strength and size. Place your hands on two parallel bars with your arms fully extended and dangle your feet below. Bending your elbows, bring your chest down to below the level of the handles you’re holding. To get back up, push through with your triceps and chest. A good tip is to do this exercise at the beginning of your workout since your chest muscles will be at their freshest, and you won’t be relying too heavily on your shoulders.

Two girls doing push-ups in a gym.

Push-ups

The classic push up also does wonders in terms of strengthening and adding definition to your upper body. What sets it apart is that it’s entirely a bodyweight exercise—you don’t need a gym or any equipment for push-ups, so now there’s no excuse for undeveloped chest muscles. To start, lie on your stomach with legs extended and hands underneath your shoulders. Extend your arms to raise your body, remembering to contract your core to keep your back straight.

Variety can also be added to push-ups to get that extra edge when working towards a larger chest. For example, you can do push-ups on an incline, or clapping push-ups for another level of difficulty.

Flyes

An effective chest exercise, the flye is mostly used as a sculpting movement once you already have some size in the pectoral. While activating the chest muscle group, it’s not as effective in this activation as the exercises mentioned above. However, the trade-off is that they remove the pushing motion dominated by the triceps, allowing you to place more stress on the pectorals which are essential in muscle hypertrophy. The way to do these is by lying down on a flat bench and holding two dumbbells fully extended above you with palms facing in. With a slight bend in your elbows, arc the weights out and down to your sides until you feel a stretching across your chest. To return the dumbbells to the starting position, squeeze your pecs and reverse the movement.

While all of the above will raise your chest game to the next level, it’s important to also remember not to ignore other complementary muscles. While the back is also strengthened with some chest exercises, it’s important to also dedicate some time to focus in on it. If your pec muscles are disproportionate to your back, then it’s possible to get the appearance of a rounded back—something which will kill any hope of a good posture. For every chest workout you do, balance it out with a training block dedicated to the muscles of the posterior deltoids. If you need some guidance in this area, we have a terrific guide on zeroing down on the rhomboids.

Furthermore, your bench press might suffer because of some underdeveloped triceps. The pushing motion is dependant on the strength of the triceps, so once they’re strong, the chest can come into play. Triceps will always dominate any pushing motion so it’s fundamental to cultivate these if you want big pecs.

How Do I Program This Stuff to Get Results? 

While size is correlated to strength, the way in which you program exercises will determine whether there’s an emphasis placed on one or the other and how you build muscle. Since we’re looking at how to get a bigger chest, we’ll focus on hypertrophy to really maximize training and turn gains into size. Put simply, hypertrophy is an increase and growth of muscle cells due to exercise, most commonly, weight training.

How it differs from strength training is that with strength as the goal, you do fewer repetitions but with greater intensity (i.e. heavy weights). With hypertrophy training, however, you increase the repetitions and sets but at a decreased intensity. The rest period between sets for hypertrophy is also usually lower.

So, what does this mean in terms of taking your chest to the next level? It means;

  • 10 sets of 6 reps for the bench press
  • 4 sets of 12 reps for the dumbbell press
  • 3 sets of 12 reps for the dumbbell flye
  • 3 sets of 10 reps for push-ups

Obviously the above are general guidelines. So, gauge your progress in the gym and if you’re not seeing the results, the problem may lie in how you’re programming your chest exercises. Rest also plays a distinctly important role. Your muscle fibers are going to need time to heal between workouts, so it’s best to take at least two days off in between working on your chest. It’s during these rest periods where your muscles actually grow, so eating right can’t be downplayed either.

What It Takes to Cultivate Chest Muscle Mass

You’re going to want to eat, a lot. Even if you’re doing everything else right, there’s just no way you’ll cultivate mass in your upper body if you’re eating like a pigeon. This won’t just help with your upper body however since your whole body will benefit from more food and more weightlifting. But it’s just as important to pay attention to what you’re eating. While the Winter dirty bulk is tempting, filling yourself with empty carbohydrates, processed and fried foods—is absolutely no way to nourish those pecs. Instead, opt for whole grains where you can.

Most important, however, is the protein. We’ve already touched on the importance of the carnivore diet in achieving your muscle-building goals. Lean meats will be a boon for developing a bigger chest, such as chicken, fish, and lean beef. However, you don’t need to stick to just meat. Options such as eggs, dairy, nuts and beans, kale, spinach, and other protein-rich vegetables will provide you with a clean, vitamin-packed source of protein.

To take your pecs to the next level, consider taking supplements. Creatine is a powdered amino acid that’s mixed with water. Found naturally in your body and red meat, it helps in the growth of muscles when taken before working out. It’s widely popular and safe, and definitely a recommended supplement when looking for that extra edge in pushing your upper body muscle groups.  A pre-workout will further increase gains and have you looking shredded in no time.

Mind Over Pec

We’ve already touched on the importance of rest when it comes to working out, but the consequences of improper sleep really can’t be drilled hard enough. A full night’s rest is the most important ingredient to building muscle mass, and if you want to achieve any of your long-term goals you’re going to need to prioritize this aspect of working out. Constantly going hard in the gym can lead to burnout and actually stunt muscle growth. Waiting at least 2 days between a hard chest workout will workwith you, not against you—so don’t be tempted to go in the day after chest day and hit the bench press again.

The mind is also an important tool when you’re working out, with studies having shown that just thinking about a muscle during an exercise can lead to improved muscle activation. You’re obviously going to want to keep it well-fed and well-rested so you can get every advantage in the iron temple. When it comes to chest exercises, thinking about the outcome of the movement rather than the action itself will also help in the efficiency of the lift.

Hopefully, this will put Mondays (or whatever your chest day is) in a better light. Training your upper body has been a crown jewel of bodybuilding, both for amateurs and professionals, since the establishment of bodybuilding culture well over 100 years ago. Whether you’re training for the aesthetics, for the strength, or for your secret vigilante lifestyle, the ability for big pecs to transform your physique for the better is phenomenal. Next chest day keep these things in mind and start really sculpting your pecs like a professional.