Take your pec training to the next level—without needing to go heavy.
Muscle & Fitness Editors for Men's Fitness 1 / 7
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to put up big numbers on the bench press. After all, we have yet to see tiny pecs on a dude who can bench 400 pounds. But whether your goal is to build a bigger bench or simply develop a rock-solid and symmetrical chest, you don't have to keep stacking on the iron. In fact, the best route to achieving your goals might mean exploring all the exercises that contribute to continuous strength and muscle growth.
These six chest exercises and tips don’t require you to load a ton of weight onto a bar, but they’ll hit a variety of angles, create new loading patterns, and demand more from your muscles than movements you’re using in your current chest routine.
“The use of explosive movements to generate power is often used to work on jump height and speed, but it can get overlooked for the upper body,” says Dr. Sean Wells, DTP, ATC/L, NSCA CPT, the author of Double-Crossed: A Review of the Most Extreme Exercise Programs. “That’s because most people don’t look at the upper body as a power generator. But if you’re a power lifter or football player trying to hit someone, you must develop upper body explosiveness.”
Wells suggests adding a plyometric ball depth push-up into your routine. “The movement incorporates a lot of balance and coordination, and it’s very challenging,” he adds.
Here's how to do it: Put a medicine ball on the floor and get into a narrow push-up position on the ball. The ball should be in line with your chest. Quickly remove both hands from the ball, drop to the floor, and quickly perform a push-up. When your chest touches the ball explode up to start position. That’s one rep.
Use a wider grip instead of a standard shoulder-width grip on the bench press to reduce triceps involvement. "The triceps no longer have a dominant role in the movement when you use a wider grip," Wells explains. "The pec muscle is more lengthened and produces more force, whereas a normal grip has an equal contribution between the triceps and pectoralis."
It’s not an exercise you’d think would benefit the chest, but climbing a rope can and will place new demands on the pecs. “Chest presses can cause tendinosis, so it’s good to mix it up from doing push-pull movements,” says Wells. “I’d start with a narrow-grip pulldown and then move to a rope climb. Since the shoulder is already flexed, you’ll be targeting the lower fibers of the pec muscle in a new way.”
Make sure your shoulder blades are pulled back instead of allowing them to round forward. “When your shoulders are forward the pec muscle is in a shortened position,” Wells explains. “As you roll the shoulders back the pec muscle is in a more elongated position, so it’s more to produce force and better for your posture.”
Using the cambered bar — a bar with a large depression in the center — greatly increases the range of motion compared to a typical barbell bench press. “A cambered bar bench press stimulates more musculature and increases the amount of motor units utilized,” says Brian Matthews, CSCS. “I’d suggest doing more reps with lighter weight instead of trying to go too heavy. It’s such an extreme range of motion that the risk of injury greatly increases.” If your gym doesn’t have a cambered bar, Matthews suggests doing box-elevated push-ups to achieve the same effect. “Place your hands on two boxes that stand about four inches tall and perform a push-up until your chest touches the ground.”
Develop More Balance, Flexibility, and Coordination
Whether you’re doing presses or push-ups, TRX will demand you use more balance and coordination to complete the exercise. “TRX push-ups require a unique loading pattern that can work the chest in a nontraditional way,” Matthews explains. “Since you’re starting with bodyweight exercises you can rep out what you can and progress to using chains or a weight vest to make it more of a challenge.”
For more core involvement, try TRX atomic push-ups: slip your feet into the handles, perform a push-up, bring your knees to your chest, and get back into the start position. Repeat.