Contrary to popular belief, the "show me" muscles of the chest -- the pectoralis major and minor -- aren't actually that big. Despite their somewhat diminutive size, some people insist on spending several days a week dedicating set after set and exercise after exercise to developing the kind of barrel-sized chest that's best suited for a 1940s sailor. Sure, it looks impressive, but really, it's not necessary.
Don't get me wrong. Working your chest is important. Your pecs are required for pushing and pressing, and because they play a role in arm movement, you're pretty much using them all day long. Ignoring them completely is a good way to develop muscle imbalances that open yourself to injuries. But you don't need to spend a ton of time training them. To enhance your strength and size, all you need are these four chest exercises. Incorporate them into your workout twice a week, aiming for two sets of eight to 12 reps using the most weight you can handle while maintaining good form.
Push-ups target the chest, but they're actually not the best exercise for isolating the pecs, as they also require substantial engagement of the core, shoulders, and triceps. The reason they make this list, though, is because they're such a versatile movement. Namely, push-ups require zero equipment, they can be done anywhere, and there are lots of modifications and variations to make them harder or easier depending on your fitness level. For instance, you can make them more difficult by performing them with a suspension trainer or while wearing a weight vest, and you can make them easier by putting your knees on the ground or doing them with your hands on a bench or wall. Plus, they're a great way to get warmed up for more serious pec-focused exercises.
The basic push-up is probably an exercise you're familiar with. Start on your hands and knees, your palms under your shoulders, but slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Step your feet behind you, balancing on your toes, so your body forms a straight line from heels to head. Tighten your core to keep your hips flat, then bend your elbows, lowering your chest toward the ground, your elbows pointing back and out to create a 45-degree angle with your torso. When your chest is a couple inches from the ground, press through your palms and return to the starting position.
Barbell bench press
The standard barbell bench press is a solid chest exercise that's also easy to learn, perform, and adjust based on individual strength. In fact, according to a 2012 study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, the basic barbell bench press was the most effective exercise for targeting the pectoralis major.
Most gyms offer barbell bench press stations in their free-weight areas, but if you don't see a standalone station, most squat racks can be used as bench presses if you pull a flat bench to the station and set it up under and perpendicular to the bar. If you're new to performing the bench press, ask a friend or trainer to spot you before you go it alone.
Lie back on the bench with your torso flat, your knees bent, your feet on the ground. The bar should be positioned just over your shoulders so when you lift it off its rack, you must bring it forward slightly to situate it over your chest. Engage your core and press the bar up off the rack. Extend your arms directly over your chest, your wrists straight, your palms facing away from you. Inhale as you steadily lower the bar toward your chest, bringing it within about an inch or two of your sternum. Allow your elbows to come down at an angle, pointing them away from your torso at about 45 degrees. Exhale and press the bar straight up, extending your arms.
The fly exercise is an excellent option for isolating the pecs by removing the role of the triceps seen in other standard pressing movements. By performing flyes with dumbbells, you must also work each arm independently, helping to even out possible strength imbalances. Because this exercise isolates the pecs while placing some stress on the shoulders, it's a good idea to start with a lower weight than you might with other chest exercises.
Lie on your back on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand, your arms extended straight over your chest. Turn your hands inward so your palms are facing each other and bend your elbows slightly, as if creating parentheses with your arms. Make sure your wrists are straight and strong -- don't allow your wrists to bend forward.
From this starting position, engage your core and open your arms outward, creating distance between the dumbbells as you extend your arms out like a "T" from your body, maintaining the slight bend at your elbows. When your elbows are roughly in line with your shoulders, reverse the movement and press your arms up and inward to the starting position. Make sure you keep your back firmly on the bench throughout the exercise -- don't allow your low back to arch upward.
Incline dumbbell press
The incline dumbbell press is an excellent way to target the anterior deltoid and the clavicular insertions of the pecs, perfect for developing shoulder and chest strength while developing the sought-after appearance of your upper body. While you can perform the incline press with a barbell, the dumbbell version allows you to isolate each arm while performing the press.
Set up an adjustable incline bench with a 45-degree incline. You can increase the incline to hit more of your shoulders, or decrease it to target your pecs. Lie back on the bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand, resting them on your thighs with your palms facing inward. When you're ready, use your knees to help push the dumbbells up, one at a time, lifting them as you extend your arms over your chest, perpendicular to the floor. Your wrists should be strong and straight, your palms facing away from you. From this position, take a breath in as you bend both elbows, lowering the dumbbells toward your chest. When the dumbbells are about an inch or two from your chest, exhale and press the dumbbells straight up to their starting position.
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