They may often be referred to as "show muscles" or "mirror muscles," but a bigger chest and jacked arms never hurt anybody. Well, they may have hurt somebody—but most likely not the person who had them.
The reality is that these muscles are not just for show. Every athlete needs to have a good level of upper-body strength to perform their best, and the 23 exercises I'm about to outline will get you the "go" to go along with the "show."
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does provide a variety of traditional exercises along with some more geared toward both power development and stabilization. You'll notice that some of these variations are achieved with just a simple adjustment of the bench height. The point is you don't need to overcomplicate your training by adding "crazy" variations. A simple adjustment in bench height, tempo, rest etc., can go a long way to provide continuous progress. You also won't find any direct biceps exercises on this list. The triceps make up roughly two-thirds of the upper arm, so if you want the biggest bang for your buck in terms of beefing up your arms, I recommend putting your efforts there first.
1. Bench Press
(:00 in the above video)
Probably the most widely known "chest" exercise, the Bench Press is the meat and potatoes of any upper-body training program focused on size development. The Bench Press mainly targets the chest, shoulders and arms but when performed properly by driving the legs and bracing the core, the Bench Press actually becomes a full-body movement.
- Start by lying on the bench with your hands on the barbell at about shoulder width apart (possibly wider or narrower depending on arm length). It's important to grip the barbell as hard as you can to increase tension in the upper body as well as prevent it from slipping.
- Lift the barbell out of the rack and lower it under control to the chest until it lands softly right on the sternum. When resting on the chest, the barbell should make a straight line connecting one nipple to the other. The arms should be positioned at 45 degrees from the body so as to make sure they don't flare out too wide.
- Once the barbell touches the chest, forcefully explode and drive it to the top position with the arms fully locked out. Important Note: your shoulders should be retracted (pulled back) throughout the whole movement to take stress off of the shoulder joint and provide a solid base on the bench.
2. Close-Grip Bench Press
(:17 in the above video)
This exercise is pretty much the exact same set up as the standard Bench Press except you will position your hands much narrower. The position I like to get in is one where the hands are about an inch outside the chest when the bar is lowered down. This close grip position is going to force you to keep your arms tight to the body and utilize the triceps much more.
This exercise is great for building those arms but also great for sports that require the use of your hands for blocking/maneuvering in close quarters (think football linemen). Try creating the sensation like you're trying to bend or break the bar to increase the focus on the triceps even more.
3 and 4. Dumbbell Bench Press / DB Incline Bench Press
(:34 and 1:39 in the above video)
This bench press variation is highly recommended for anyone with sensitive shoulders or previous injuries. Unlike a barbell, the arms are not locked into one position with dumbbells, which allows them to move freely about the shoulder joint in their natural path. In turn, this takes a lot of pressure off the shoulder capsule as well as creates the ability for slight customization for individuals with minor aches and pains.
- I prefer to keep the dumbbells at a 45-degree angle to insure that the arms track properly as they lower down to the chest.
- Once the inside bell touches the chest, explode back to the top starting position. Remember this is a Press, not a Fly, so make sure the dumbbells are going straight up and down not flying out wide.
5 and 6 . Dumbbell Neutral Grip Bench Press / Dumbbell Neutral Incline Bench Press
(:48 and 1:48 in the above video)
The setup is the same as it would be for a standard Dumbbell Bench Press except the dumbbells are rotated so they are parallel to the body rather than a 45-degree angle. Similar to a Close-Grip Bench Press, this positioning will put more focus on the triceps. This is often a suitable option for individuals with shoulder issues as it takes some pressure off the shoulder joint.
7 and 8. Dumbbell Squeeze Press / DB Incline Squeeze Press
(1:01 and 1:58 in the above video)
The Squeeze Press looks exactly like the Neutral Grip Bench Press with the dumbbells squeezed together. This exercise works best with hexagonal shaped dumbbells so you can squeeze the flat ends together. Squeezing the dumbbells together is going to force you to squeeze and flex your chest and arms throughout the whole movement. Essentially, what we are looking for is full tension throughout the whole movement (even on the bottom). It's probably a good idea to go a little bit lighter the first time you try this exercise out, as you'll really "feel the burn" on this one.
9 and 10. DB Single-Arm Bench Press / Dumbbell Incline Single-Arm Bench Press
(1:14 and 2:10 in the above video)
Great for developing the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder joint or when you're in a gym without any heavy weights (such as a Planet Fitness). The Single-Arm Bench press really forces you to focus on your form, specifically driving your legs into the floor and engaging your core. Tension creates stability, so if you're whole body is not tense, then there's a good probability you're going to fall off the bench and embarrass yourself. I also use this exercise a lot with our athletes that are throwers or coming back from an upper body injury. This allows them to focus on one arm at a time, which is much easier than worrying about keeping two in the right position.
11. Dumbbell Fly
(1:23 in the above video)
An old-school bodybuilding exercise that's great for developing that mind-muscle connection. To perform this exercise properly, you truly have to be able to feel the muscles working. Otherwise, you put yourself at high risk of sustaining an injury. The starting position for the Fly looks very similar to the Dumbbell Neutral Bench Press. The difference is when you're not going to lower the dumbbells straight down, but rather you will open your arms like you're getting ready to give someone a weird hug.
Keep the elbows bent throughout the whole movement and only lower as far as your body allows. Once you reach your end range, you will reverse the motion and focus on using your chest to raise the dumbbells back up and together, squeezing at the top.
12. Band Chest Press
(2:19 in the above video)
Bands are a great way to create variable tension in an exercise. This refers to the fact that as the band gets stretched more, the tension will increase accordingly. This is great for a chest press movement, because naturally you will be weaker at the bottom of the movement and stronger at the top (arms extended). The other benefit of using a band is that it can be done pretty much anywhere you can find a pole to wrap it around. Wrap the band around a pole and stand facing away in a position where you can grab one end of the band in each hand. Make sure that the band is at the right height so when your arms are fully bent, you end up in a proper bench press position. From here, press the band forward until your arms are completely locked out. Since pressing with a band for the first time feels a little strange, it may take some time to get used to this. You can increase or decrease the resistance the band provides by moving further away or closer to the pole. There are also a variety of band thicknesses that provide different resistances.
13. Band Chest Fly
(2:30 in the above video)
Set up the same way you would for the Band Chest Press and then press the band until the arms are fully extended. This is where it gets different, instead of reversing the motion of the press you are going to open up your arms in that hugging motion like the Dumbbell Fly. Once the arms are fully open you're going to focus on using your chest to bring them back together. Again, adjust your distance from the pole to create changes in resistance.
14. Floor Press / Banded DB Press
(2:52 and 2:40 in the above video)
The floor press is performed just like a Dumbbell Bench Press except you are lying on the ground instead of the bench.
- To set up, sit on the floor with dumbbells standing on their "head" right next to you. You will grab the dumbbells and lay back as you raise up to the start position of a bench press.
- You'll notice that since you are laying on the ground, your range of motion will be shorter. This puts more of an emphasis on the triceps and takes pressure off of the shoulders.
Want to spice it up?
Wrap a band around your body and grab one end in each hand before you lay back with the dumbbells. This will give you the added tension of the band along with the weight of the dumbbells that you're pressing. With the decreased range of motion, you should be able to go a little heavier than a normal Dumbbell Bench Press.
(3:33 in the above video)
The most classic chest/arm-building exercise is the basic bodyweight Push-Up.
- To execute a proper Push-Up that not only builds your chest and arms but also saves your shoulders, you have to set up in the proper position. This is a position with arms shoulder-width apart and feet evenly spaced. I like to think of a Push-Up as a moving Plank, so make sure there is always tension in the core to keep your body straight.
- Lower your body to the floor while maintaining a 45-degree angle with your arms relative to your body. Again, this arm position will protect your shoulders and allow you to fully utilize your chest and arms throughout the movement.
- Once you reach the bottom position with your chest touching the floor, forcefully push yourself back to the top.
16. TRX Push-Up
(3:05 in the above video)
Adding the instability of the TRX handles to the equation takes the classic push-up to the next level. Start with arms extended and hands on the TRX handles at shoulder width and feet on the ground in a push-up position. The difficulty of this exercise will be determined by how high or low the TRX straps are set: the more closer to parallel you are to the ground, the more difficult the exercise will be.
- Once in position, lower your chest down under control until you reach a position with your hands just outside of your chest. Just like our bench press exercises, we want to keep arms at a 45-degree angle to make sure our shoulders are safe. One tip with the TRX handles is to raise the arms a little bit forward so the straps don't scrape up your arms as you lower down.
- In the bottom position, press explosively to bring your body back to the top position. Keeping the core tight throughout this whole movement is imperative to maintaining good position and keeping your body stable.
If you're not used to training with TRX, I recommend starting at a little bit higher height and gradually lowering down as you become more comfortable.
17. TRX Push Up With Push Out
(3:24 in the above video)
One little extra movement can take the TRX Push-Up to the next level. When you hit the bottom of the Push-Up, all you do is extend one arm to the side, pull it back in and repeat with the other arm before pushing up back to the top. This will force your core to really turn on and keep your body straight as well as light up one side of your chest at a time as you're forced to balance on a single arm.
18. TRX Chest Fly
(3:14 in the above video)
WARNING: This is an advanced exercise. If you cannot do at least 10 Push-Ups, do not even attempt to try the TRX Chest Fly.
- Start on the TRX in the top position of a Push-Up and open your arms up to push the handles out to your side, lowering your body toward the ground.
- Once you reach the bottom position, use the tension in the TRX to bring your hands together and raise your body back up to the starting position.
19. Plyo Push-Up
(3:42 in the above video)
The Plyo Push-Up is a great way to add explosive work to your upper-body training program.
- To perform the Plyo Push-Up, set up the same as with a standard Push-Up.
- You want to create as much power as you can when you push yourself to the top. So much so, that your hands are actually going to leave the ground.
- As your hands hit the ground you will lower yourself under control to the bottom position and repeat again.
The goal here is to create as much power as you can with every rep. If you have wrist issues, you may want to avoid this one.
20. Med Ball Plyo Push-Up
(3:49 in the above video)
You can take the Plyo Push-Up to another level with the addition of a med ball. Instead of setting up with both hands on the ground, you will set up with one hand on a medicine ball. As you explosively launch yourself upward, you will push yourself to the other side of the ball and land with one hand on the ground and the opposing hand on the ball. The key is to generate enough power on the push that you can easily clear the ball and land on the other side. Needless to say, you will know when you're too fatigued because you'll land on the ball. This is another one to avoid if you deal with wrist injuries or pain.
21. Med Ball Push-Up
(3:49 in the above video)
The Med Ball Push-Up puts your hands in a much narrower position while adding a stability component at the same time. Not only will your triceps take the brunt of the work, but you'll also have to squeeze your chest and your core to remain stable on the ball. I recommend starting with the feet in a wider base to make sure you stay balanced throughout the movement. An easy to way to quickly intensify this exercise is to really slow down both the concentric (pushing) and eccentric (lowering) portions of the exercise.
22. Paralette Push-Ups
(4:08 in the above video)
The Paralette Push-Up is a variation of a standard push-up that increases the range of motion of the movement. Increasing this range of motion allows for a much bigger stretch in the chest and adds a bit more difficulty. If you're someone that experiences shoulder discomfort, this one is not recommended. It requires some really good mobility in the shoulder to reach the bottom position.
(4:17 in the above video)
Dips are one of my all-time favorite exercises when it comes to building your chest and arms. This movement can be a little touchy on the shoulders, so it's important to have proper positioning.
- Starting with arms fully extended and gripping the dip bar, retract your shoulders and give yourself a slight forward lean.
- Lower yourself down with control until your arm bend is at 90 degrees. There should not be any pain throughout the movement, so if there is, you know your positioning is likely off and needs to be adjusted.
The most common error I see is the "rounding" of the shoulders at the bottom position due to a lack of upper back strength. To increase the difficulty, you can add weight using a weight belt, weight vest or even chains.