We’re often reminded to never skip leg day, but what about chest day? Taking the time to sculpt and strengthen your chest offers huge benefits, from basic aesthetics to helping you lift heavy objects with ease in your everyday life.
However, chest training novices often make a variety of mistakes when first starting out, so it’s important to learn how to build a bigger chest safely and effectively.
How to build a bigger chest safely and effectively
When first learning how to build a bigger chest, a classic mistake many people make is to rush the process in a bid to lift the heaviest weights as soon as possible. Another common slip-up is failing to give the right attention to the movement pattern or not connecting your mind to the specific muscle you’re trying to activate.
Let’s take a closer look at the common chest training mistakes novices make – and how to avoid them.
1. Make sure you’re contracting the right muscle
If you want to build muscle mass in the chest and develop your pecs, one of the most important skills is being able to actively contract the exact muscle you want. With regards to the chest, this specifically means that you should learn how to contract the upper, middle and lower chest. If you can’t feel the right muscle working, it isn’t going to grow.
Want to work your upper torso? Try this Dumbbell Chest & Core Workout
How to activate the different chest muscles:
To successfully activate the different chest muscles during your workouts, you should keep the weight low, keep the reps slow, work through the full range of motion and actively think about squeezing the chest during the concentric phase of the movement. If you’re just trying to complete the movement, then you may well be compensating with your more naturally dominant muscles, such as the anterior deltoids and triceps.
2. Always activate the shoulder joints before lifting
Another common issue is the complete negligence of prehab and activation exercises before starting the first heavy lift. The chest muscles work to pull the humorous closer to the midline by using the shoulder as a pivot point. However, the shoulder joint is mostly held in place by ligaments and muscle. This means that in order to stabilise the shoulder and improve the ability of the chest to produce force, we need to activate the stabilising joints in the shoulder before lifting.
How to activate your shoulder joints:
Try adding in three simple shoulder activation drills before the first lift in your chest workout and notice how much more stable the joint feels and subsequently, the lift itself.
- Straight arm press-ups activate the serratus anterior and work to pull the shoulder joint forward
- Banded retractions activate the rhomboids and rear delts to retract the shoulder blades
- Hanging scapular retractions activate the rhomboids, lats and lower traps to retract and depress the shoulder blades into a very stable position, perfect for maximal chest activation.
Best exercises to build a bigger chest:
- Barbell bench press
- Incline dumbbell chest press
- Alternating flat dumbbell chest press
Keep reading to discover the benefits of these exercises when learning how to build a bigger chest…
1. Barbell bench press
The barbell bench press is a bilateral movement that utilises a stable base and closed link between the arms to maximally engage the chest muscles and produce the most force available. This is the movement that will allow you to lift the most weight possible using the chest muscles.
As the bar is freestanding it can move in multiple directions, which requires the user to stabilise through the shoulder and core creating a more functional exercise than using a machine alternative, e.g. a smith machine.
One reason this is a great exercise when first learning how to build a bigger chest is that there is very little risk of injury. The movement is simple, controlled and repetitive, meaning that if performed and spotted correctly, the injury risk is minimal.
2. Incline dumbbell chest press
The incline dumbbell press is a unilateral movement that requires an increase in stability of the shoulder to control the dumbbell and develops the upper portion of the chest. As the hands are not connected, like with a barbell, the dumbbells are free to move in any direction and irrespective of the movement of the other. This does mean that a novice lifter will be required to increase their concentration to prevent the weights from moving incorrectly.
However, if done correctly, this movement is one of the best ways to increase the strength and size of the upper chest, while also improving the stability of the shoulder. Before you begin, set up the bench to a 30–40-degree angle. Test it out with a small weight and see if this feels right for you. Do you feel a stretch across the top of your chest, close to your collar bone? If not, try moving your elbows into a slightly wider position or changing the angle of the bench.
3. Alternating flat dumbbell chest press
The alternating flat dumbbell bench press is the final movement worth noting for anyone learning how to build a bigger chest. This alternating unilateral movement is wonderful for creating lots of control through the chest and shoulder, while also stabilising the spine through resisting rotation.
Arguably, this is a more functional movement as we are utilising one arm to push while also controlling the body. It will often be used preferentially by contact sport athletes due to the carry over application.
One key coaching cue here is to keep the straight arm in a fully vertical position while the other is working. Don’t let your body or shoulder rotate at all – the only thing that should be moving is the single dumbbell each time.