Science-Based Chest Training: Maximize Muscle Growth And Strength Gains (15 Studies)

By Nader Qudimat
Last Updated September 9, 2019
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A troubling thought, isn't it?

You’re slaving away at all the chest exercises you can find but you can’t help wonder why you’re not making as much progress as you should be.

What makes you any different from Instagram influencers or the professional bodybuilders that promote the routines you’re doing?

You’re doing all the same stuff.

Cranking out reps and sets of different exercises, doing your best on the bench press - you know, the usual.

But your chest isn’t showing any development and the problem is, you don’t know why.

Most of the time, you feel like you’re struggling to make gains.

You can’t tell what’s working and what’s not.

It feels like you’re doomed to remain the same.

Perhaps you came here for the ultimate chest routine.

Maybe you’re hoping I’ll tell you exactly what to do.

But I won’t.

Not because I don’t want to, but because there’s simply more to it than just routines.

It’s the exercises that matter and what weaknesses you have in order to create the most optimal routine for yourself.

I’m publishing the guide I wish somebody had given me.

It’s full of details.

It’ll save you tons of time (and money if you don’t want to hire a personal trainer).

Why We Fail To Develop Chest Muscles

​The chest is a small muscle that takes its sweet time to develop.

And the reason why people fail to develop them, is simply because they misunderstand them.

You’ve done all the exercises in the book, you say?

In fact there are more than 80 exercises for the chest, but you don’t want to try to do all of them, not even in a week or a month for that matter.

That’s where most beginners and novice trainers make the biggest mistake, trying to do everything and achieving nothing.

To top it off, we have a very sedentary lifestyle where pushing and pulling, isn’t something we do a lot of. 

​This weird guy was me back in early 2008, back when I didn’t do incline pressing

But then in the same year, I made some good progress and you can see the upper chest is a bit more developed here.

​It is especially hard if you consider yourself to be a hardgainer, a skinny guy (or girl) who can’t seem to gain weight to save their own lives.

​Before I can tell you how to increase your chest size, you’ll need to understand a bit about its anatomy.

Chest Anatomy

The chest looks may look like one muscle.

But it's composed of 2 muscles, the "upper" portion being the clavicular head and the lower sternal head. 

science based chest training

The sternal head (lower portion) of the pec is on the left, and the upper portion is on the right (clavicular head)

​Notice how the fibers of the chest runs in different angles?

The upper fibers run downwards, while the mid fibers run diagonally and the lower fibers run upwards.

You can't isolate chest muscles without activating it as a whole, though certain muscles can be emphasized using different exercises and angles.

Exercises that involve shoulder flexion will emphasize the upper chest fibers (or any exercise involving the arms pressing upward) and the middle chest are best emphasized with flat bench press while the lower chest are best activated with decline bench press or dips. (1)

How To Build Bigger Chest Muscles

​Your muscles won’t grow if you don’t give them a reason to.

They need to be stimulated with not only tension but it also needs to be progressively challenged.

No matter how many sets and reps you do, if you’re not progressively adding weight, you will struggle to make progress. ​(2​)

If you progressively overload muscle fibers by increasing tension levels which is done simply by increasing the amount of weight you lift overtime.

Follow these steps below and you’ll be well on your way to having a well developed chest:

Eat Big

​If you want to get big, you need to increase your calorie intake.

Eating the same amount of food as before you’ve started lifting will not change your physique in any way.

Go for calorie dense foods like eggs, chicken, fish - without neglecting your greens.

Most "hardgainers" eat way less than they think.  

Lift Big

​To get big, you need to prioritize compound exercises.

Free weight exercises like bench press, overhead press, squats and deadlifts will help increase overall mass and strength in the quickest way possible. 

Don't Neglect Legs

​The body grows well as a whole, so it makes sense to train legs if you want to increase overall mass and strength.

Squats increases natural muscle building hormones, testosterone and growth hormone and it also engages the upper body as a whole. 

Pull And Push

Working opposing muscles has some sort of a strength boosting effect, that leaves you feeling stronger.

Try doing bench press after pull ups (or rows) or vice versa, you’ll find it to be much easier to perform either exercise.

You may only include pull ups in your push workout if you don’t want to have an entire back workout combined with your chest. 


Muscles don’t grow in the gym, they grow at rest.

You need to eat, rest and ensure you get sufficient nutrients so your muscles get what they need to repair and grow. 

This is where protein supplements come into use as they can be a quick and convenient way to increase your protein intake. 


​An unsculpted body doesn’t happen overnight, nor does a sculpted one.

You need time, persistence and determination to make gains.

If you’re still below the age of 18, you’ll also need a few years before your chest becomes as developed as someone who is well above 25 years old.


​You need to keep the intensity high and push with maximum effort (at least 80% of your 1 rep max) if you want to make the best out of your chest training ​(3​)

Don’t get too obsessed with what your 1 rep max might be.

As a general rule of thumb, try stopping short a rep or 2 before failure with proper form

A pre workout or fat burner will help increase the intensity if you're looking for a quick boost.

Set Realistic Goals

​Goals are essential for athletes and if you don’t aim to strive then you are aiming to fail.

Set realistic goals and aim to increase your bench press by at least 2.5lbs to 5lbs each week.

Make It A Lifestyle

​Practice makes perfect and the more you do one thing, the better you become at it.

Don’t make it a short 90 day program.

Aim to do chest exercises on a weekly basis so your body and central nervous system can prepare itself for the gains to come.

If you know you won’t go to the gym every week, invest in bands and perform banded push ups as it has been shown to activate the pecs as much as the bench press (4) (but remember, nothing should replace the bench press).

Best Chest Exercises

​There are only a few chest exercises that you should be doing every workout.

While there’s dozens of exercises that work the chest, you should only focus on one big exercise per workout. 

Barbell Bench Press

​A big bench press has high correlation to chest size.

The bigger your 1 rep max is, the bigger your bench press will be. (​5)

There is no substitute for this exercise.

This exercise allows one to generate the most power and strength by allowing you to move the most weight.

If your bench is a weak point for you and you can't bench your own bodyweight at least 5 times, then you will need to bring it up.

Do it at the start of your workout, or as early as possible (6). 

Try warming up with cable crossovers if you’re having trouble feeling your chest being worked during bench press (7).

Incline Press

​A chest isn't complete if the upper fibers are not emphasized and you can do this with the incline bench press, thanks to the additional shoulder flexion of this exercise.

It wasn’t unusual to find Arnold bench pressing this much weight on the incline.

This exercise is usually neglected or rarely done by most people but it is a must since it is very effective at activating the upper chest fibers (8)

The dumbbell version of this exercise will allow for better range of motion, which should lead to better hypertrophy but this doesn't mean you shouldn't do the barbell version as well. 


​If you don't have shoulder issues, then dips is an excellent exercise for the lower chest.

You can either do straight bar dips on a barbell (or smith machine bar) or you can do regular dips. 

​With either exercise, you'll want to lean forward a little bit to target your chest better, otherwise you'll be emphasizing the triceps more.

To progress, you can use a weight belt to add weight or hold a dumbbell between your feet 

Banded Push Ups

Compared to bench press, the banded push ups provides nearly the same chest activation with very comparable bench press gains over 5 weeks.

This doesn't mean you should replace this exercise with the bench press, but this exercise is great to have as a finisher.

You can use higher resistance bands as you get stronger. 

Best Routines For Complete Chest Development 

​There is no such thing as a one-workout-fits-all.

Depending on your progress, weaknesses and goals, you’ll want to adjust your workouts with your goals.

They must go hand-in-hand.

So if your upper chest is lagging, you’ll clearly want to prioritize doing incline bench pressing.

There is no such thing as the best routine. Understand how the chest grows is the best thing to do. 

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​An ideal workout should always include at least 2-4 compound exercises followed by 1 to 3 isolation exercises. ​(9)

If your overall thickness is lagging then you’ll want to prioritize doing compound exercises with lots of bench pressing at flat and incline angles.

Studies have shown that by working on your weaknesses early in the workouts will lead to better gains and strength. (10)

Now if any muscle part is lagging, you can try any of these workouts for 4-8 weeks before changing around the exercises (you can switch between dumbbells and barbells for bench pressing):

If your overall thickness and mid chest is lagging:

  • ​Flat barbell bench press (3 sets of 6-8 reps)
  • ​Dumbell incline bench press (3 sets of 6-8 reps)
  • ​Dips (2-3 sets of 6-8 reps)
  • ​Dumbbell or cable flies (2-3 sets for 6-8 reps)

If your upper chest is lagging:

  • ​Incline dumbbell press
  • ​Flat barbell bench press
  • ​Dips
  • ​Cable flies
  • ​Push-ups banded

If your lower chest is lagging:

  • ​Dips
  • ​Barbell bench press
  • ​Incline dumbbell press
  • ​Cable flies
  • ​Decline dumbbell press or barbell


​Hitting the chest twice per week is optimal and better than hitting it only once.

Though hitting the chest 3 times per week is no better than twice. (1​​​​​​​​​1)

We recommend working chest with a high volume and max effort in one workout, and the other workout having it easy and with much fewer sets.

In any case, you’ll want to work towards increasing your 1 rep max on the bench press as it has high correlation with the size of the chest. (12

Arnold Schwarzenegger's bench press definitely matched his chest size...

​Any more than twice a week and you are most likely going to overtrain or not increase the chest size at all.

Mistakes To Avoid

If it was easy to build a big chest then you’d find a lot of jacked guys at the gym and no one would question how it's done.

These mistakes are commonly made and doing a little research before believing into any theories or conclusions can potentially save you lots of time and effort. 

Overeating And Overtraining

​Eating more than you need will not only have you gaining more fat but you will also lose the appearance of a sculpted chest.

And the same goes when you are overtraining as your muscles need time to recover and grow.

Hitting the chest once a week is more than enough, though twice is optimal with one workout being high volume and high intensity and the other being moderately light and easy going. 

Avoid going over 25 total sets per week and you should be out of the way of recovery issues. 

Isolation Exercises 

Arnold used flies a lot and he’d get down really deep in the stretch position.

​Most of your gains will come from compound exercises like bench press (barbell or dumbbell), dips and anything else that requires multiple muscles.

Isolation exercises like flies have their place as accessory exercises that will enhance the shape of your muscles if done either before or after compound exercises.

Try doing flies right after your compound exercises and really emphasize the stretch position, you’ll feel a great pump.

Copying Routines

​It doesn’t matter how great you think someone else’s routine is, or how ripped they may look, their routines isn’t made for everyone.

You don’t know if they are gifted with genetics or the steroids they may use, or both.

Arnold Schwarzenegger used to workout for hours a day, but this wouldn’t work for the average person. 

Smith Machines

You won’t make much progress by sticking to the smith machine. (13)

While it’s great to use every once in a while, it is simply inferior to the free weight bench press. ​(14)

Plus if your goal is to be as functional as possible, you won’t achieve it with the smith machine since it takes out the stabilizing muscles.

While you can use more weights on the smith machine, it isn't as efficient as free weights for strength and muscle gains. (15)

The Bottom Line On Building Bigger Chest Muscles

​The battle for a developed chest isn’t easy.

But even more frightening is the battle you’ll face within yourself.

Procrastination, doubts, fear… they will all try to deter you away from your progress.

Determination, persistence, discipline and patience, are all key to have to conquer your goals and have the results you’re after.

It’s okay to feel intimidated.

Every lifter does.

But when it comes to your workout, you can’t let that stop you.

Let the doubts and fear fuel your motivation.

Your workout does not demand perfection.

It simply needs to be repeated with the right exercises, with your will to grow and your vision of what you want to achieve.

Complete each set, each rep, workout by workout and soon the bench press will feel like a second home.

Your confidence will grow.

Your technique will be better.

And your chest will show it.

You can build a gladiator plated chest.

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