Top 5 Best Chest Exercises for a Lean Chest Workout

Chest Bench Workout

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Below are the Top 5 best chest exercises to build a strong and muscular chest. This lean chest workout will harden and strengthen your chest and pecs. A muscular chest (commonly referred to as “pecs”) is super important if your goal is to build a great body. You just can’t have a great build (or even a good build) with a flabby, undeveloped chest.

Top 5 Best Chest ExercisesWhether you have a shirt on and are living your normal life, or you’re at the beach wanting to look buff, a lean and muscular chest is a must-have and will make all the difference in your physical appearance. It doesn’t matter your age, we can all have a lean, hard chest with a little time and work.

If you work these best chest exercises with consistency and focus, you may not ever catch Arnold, but you will definitely build a lean and muscular chest.

The good news is that it is not hard to develop your pecs…just takes a little work and performing the best chest exercises to maximize your gains.

Lean Chest WorkoutSome of the exercises can be performed at home – like push-ups. A home chest workout is one of the simplest and most effective home workouts you can perform – much easier than a home back workout.

And both men and women will benefit from working your pecs. More and more women are seeing the benefits of resistance training, and hardening the pecs is a great first step to achieve a firm and desired look. A lean and toned body has become the desired look for most women.

Table of Contents

Main Takeaways

  • Always perform a solid warm-up with some dynamic stretching before performing chest exercises.

  • These chest exercises can be done with dumbbells, barbells, cables, or no equipment, depending on your resources.

  • These exercises are designed to build strength, mass, and hardness across the entire chest: upper chest, middle chest, lower chest.

Muscles Worked

Primary Muscles Worked 💪

  • Chest (Pecs)

Secondary Muscles Worked 💪

  • Tricep
  • Anterior Deltoids (Front Shoulder Muscle)

Lean Chest Workout

Lean Muscle Building SupplementsBy the way, no offense to Arnold, but the “Arnold” look is not the preferred body for most men and women today. This site is tailored to help you achieve a lean, sharp, angular build, not the massive, muscle head look. And in addition to a great lean chest workout, a lean muscle diet is equally important to achieve the lean, muscular build.

More and more often today, men and women alike are realizing that the most attractive physique is lean and muscular, but not overbuilt. It is also the most sustainable over the long-term, which is really key as you get older and have a busy life schedule.

Chest Structure and Function

Building a Muscular Chest

The pectoralis major (commonly called “pecs”) is located at the chest, and over the top portion of the rib cage. Women’s pecs are under their breasts. (1)

The pecs are a thick, fan-shaped muscle.

They have 2 points of origin:

  • The middle half of the clavicle (collar bone)
  • The front, top portion of the sternum (chest bone)

The point of insertion of the pectoralis major is the humerus (long bone in the upper arm).

The pectoralis minor lies underneath the pectoralis major, is triangular in shape, and spans from the 3rd, 4th, and 5th ribs up to the scapula (shoulder blade).

The function of the pectoralis major is to control the movement of the shoulder and upper arm (the humerus).

Top 5 Best Chest Exercises

Best Chest Exercises

First, remember these basics when performing the Top 5 best chest exercises.

Always perform warm-up:

  • Do some light cardio (2-3 min) to warm the muscles (jog in place, jumping jacks, etc.) – key to avoiding injury!
  • Do some dynamic stretching to prepare muscles for resistance.

This is the best way to avoid injury, and an injury is something you just don’t want. It can put you on the sidelines for months.

  • Keep the reps smooth and controlled.  Yes, you do want to lift heavy to build mass and density, but just don’t swing and jerk weights without control.
  • Do some static stretching when your best chest exercises are complete. This is the best time to do static stretching, which will elongate the muscles and improve your range of motion.

#1  Incline Dumbbell Press for the Upper Pecs

Incline Dumbbell PressFirst on the list, because incline work (press and flyes) is a low priority for most people. The focus for most people is on flat exercises (flat bench, flat flyes), and this results in poor balance of the pecs. Flat exercises build the middle and lower of your pecs, whereas incline exercises work the upper pecs.

If you focus first on the upper pecs in your routines, you’ll be far ahead of most in the gym. This will help you build mass in the upper and the middle pecs, resulting in good overall proportion.

  • Start Position:  Using an Olympic bench, set the upper bench at a 30 deg angle.  Sitting on the bench holding your dumbbells, slowly lift the dumbbells as you rock back into position. Your elbows should be at a ~ 45 deg angle as shown in the start position. Keep your feet solidly on the ground.
  • Technique:  Extend the arms straight up until your arms are extended, feeling a contraction and squeeze in your pecs. Return the dumbbells to the start position. Keep the motion fluid, and do not jerk the weights.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 4 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Caution:  You will be lifting less weight with incline presses than flat presses, so make sure you lift proper weight so that you can control the dumbbells

#2  Barbell Bench Press

Lean Chest WorkoutThis is considered the top dog when it comes to pec work in the gym.  When alpha males want to size up their peers, one of the first questions might be “Yah, what’s your bench?” It is a common measuring stick used to assess success in the gym.

Don’t worry about the weight you push. Focus on a lean, hard, muscular physique that looks good in a suit, as well as at the beach.

The key is to build lean muscle and increase strength without creating the overbuilt, muscle head look.

  • Start Position:  Lying flat on an Olympic bench, extend the arms up and grip the barbell slightly wider than shoulder width. 3 points of contact on the bench – butt, upper back, and your head. Feet flat on the ground.  Position your body so that when you lift the 45# barbell off the rack, it will be directly above your chest.
  • Technique:  Lift the barbell off the rack, and lower down until the barbell just touches the middle of the chest, then press barbell up until the arms are fully extended. Make sure you do not bounce the bar off of your chest, as this is not the best way to fatigue the pecs.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 4 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  You can narrow your grip, which will bring the triceps more into the action. Wider grips will primarily work the chest.
  • To bench without a spot, you must stay well under your max weight to make sure you maintain control of the barbell. There are plenty of video horrors when this simple rule goes awry.

#3  Cable Crossovers

Cable Crossover Chest WorkoutThis is a great lean chest workout! Do it right and you will feel the pecs burn – a great workout and one of the best chest exercises. Do this one 2nd in your pec routine, like after flat bench, machine press, or incline dumbbell press.

  • Start Position:  Stand facing away from a cable machine. Grab the handles attached to the cables in each hand, and lean out away from the machine.  Put your feet in a staggered stance, right foot forward. To support the resistance, your body will likely lean forward at a 45 deg angle. Your arms should be extended to your sides at shoulder height.
  • Technique:  Pull the cables in front of you in a flye-like motion, so your hands move to the front and slightly down. Feel the contraction of the pec as you perform the crossover. Return your arms to the start position.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 4 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  You can vary the angles slightly to work different parts of your pecs.
  • Caution:  Cable crossovers put a lot of strain on your shoulders. Just make sure your shoulders are nice and loose prior to crossovers.

#4  Push-ups

Classic Push-up

This is on the list because they are very simple and very practical…you can do them anywhere with no equipment or prep. And they are an all-time favorite of workout legend Jack LaLanne, the push-up king. They are great for not only building chest size, but also raw strength in the chest area. (2)

  • Start Position:  Palms on the ground slightly wider than shoulder width, body straight and aligned, toes supporting the lower body off the floor.
  • Technique:  Lower the body by bending the elbows until your chest slightly touches the floor, or is just off the floor.  Return to the start position without ever stopping the motion.  Your arms should return to a straight position prior to the next rep.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / To Failure / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / Just short of Failure / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  Great when doing a bi-set with another exercise first, and doing the push-ups on a bench.  Example would  be to do incline bench followed immediately by bench push-ups.  Do this is succession for each set.
  • Caution:  This is a pretty safe exercise, just make sure your pecs are properly warmed.

Click to see a complete push-up workout with all types of push-ups.

#5  Dumbbell Flyes

Dumbbell Chest Flyes

  • Start Position:  From a flat bench or incline position, hold the dumbbells straight up above your chest, palms facing each other. Flat flyes will work the middle and lower pecs, incline flyes will work the upper pecs. Keep your feet solidly on the ground, and as with press motions, 3 points of contact on the bench – butt, mid/upper back, and head.
  • Technique:  From the start position, slowly lower the dumbbells down to the same plane as your shoulders, or maybe slightly lower. A good full range of motion is key to the exercise. Contracting the pecs, then return the dumbbells to the start position directly above your chest.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 4 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  The angle of the bench can be varied to work the pecs at different angles, thus working different parts of the muscle.
  • Caution:  Just make sure you keep the dumbbells under control.  It’s a long range of motion, and you want to make sure you have the right weight in your hand.

Close Seconds

Actually, these are every bit as good as the above list of best chest exercises, and the variety is key to a well-rounded approach:

Chest Dips

Chest DipsDone from parallel bars – hunch the shoulders and upper body over as shown, to isolate the pecs. You can add a weight belt to increase resistance. This will also work the triceps.

This is a great exercise to do as the last chest exercise in your routine. The key to isolating the chest muscles (pecs) is for you chest to be as close to parallel as possible. When your chest is parallel to the floor (or very close), it’s almost like doing a push-up.

Bench Push Ups

Bench Push-ups

Bench push ups must be part of any chest workout routine! These are great to do as the second part of a bi-set, where you do two chest exercises back-to-back. For example, doing cable crossovers followed immediately by bench push-ups. They are a terrific chest exercise.

Foundation exercises for a strong chest

These are great exercises and really all that you need to build a strong, symmetrical chest. It is best to mix these exercises up and vary them from week to week.

So unless you are a competitive bodybuilder or that is your goal, you don’t need to perform all of these exercises weekly. Just pick two or three for your weekly rotation, and that is more than sufficient for most people looking to build a lean and strong physique.

It’s also a good idea to include a pressing exercise and a flye exercise with each workout to get a complete workout for your pecs.

It’s also very effective to use angles, specifically incline and decline, to work and engage the upper and lower chest.

And certainly don’t forget about the power of the classic push-up. When I was in the Army, we did tons and tons of push-ups. This bodyweight exercise is a foundation exercise that works three muscle groups in one: the chest, the shoulders, and the triceps. And there are lots of push-up variations that you can do to maximize your efforts.

I like to work push-ups in conjunction with other chest exercises as well. For example, doing bench press followed immediately by incline push-ups to work the lower chest.
There are lots of these combination sets that you can do that will keep your chest super engaged and always challenged.

Avoiding Injury

Chest InjuryChest injuries from resistance training are pretty rare when compared to back strains, or elbow and wrist strains, but it’s always good to be safe when performing these best chest exercises:

  • Make sure you don’t overload your muscles by lifting too much weight.  You definitely want to go heavy to build mass, but always maintain control of the weight.
  • Proper warm-up is must – light cardio to warm your muscles, and dynamic stretching to prepare them for the lift. Jumping into a routine with ice cold muscles is a sure way to get injured.
  • Do some static stretching at the end of your workout to elongate the pecs.  This will also improve your range of motion.
  • Always use good technique – don’t use jerky motions where your cheating with your whole body as leverage. You want the resistance to be a heavy load, but not so much that it requires back-breaking thrusts to perform a rep. The best chest exercises rely on good technique. (3)

Bridging the Gap

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Click to see a great home chest workout. This is the best chest workout for lean muscle that you can do in your home.

Click to see more on building lean muscle, and see our chest workout videos.

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David Williams

A diet and fitness enthusiast, David is an ex-Army Airborne Ranger and Infantry soldier with decades of fitness and wellness experience. A West Point graduate with a degree in engineering, he focuses on technical research related to fitness, nutrition, and wellness. He loves the beach and working out, and spending time with his wife and daughters.

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  1. Jones, O. (2020). Muscles of the pectoral region. TeachMeAnatomy.
  2. Firman, T. (2020). It took this Trainer 10 years to even Attempt ‘LALANNE Push-Ups’ Again. Well+Good.
  3. Wheeler, T. (2020). Workout injuries: Prevention and treatment. WebMD.

Click to see our medical disclosure.