Exercise Basics - Chest Press

Exercise Basics - Chest Press

The Chest Press is an exercise for the Pectoralis muscles (pecs).  The Pectoralis Major originates at the medial part of the clavicle (collarbone) and the sternum and inserts into the humerus (upper arm).  It flexes, adducts and medially rotates the humerus (upper arm).  Thus, it is contracted when you hug, climb or hit a ball with a racquet.

The Pectoralis Minor originates on your 3-5th ribs in three straps that all converge on the corocoid process of the scapula (knobby bit at the front of your shoulder). This is the prime mover in all reaching and pushing as well as movements and stability of the shoulder blades.

The Deltoids is a muscle group usually considered part of the shoulder (because it is). It has three parts, and the anterior (front) portion of it sits adjacent to Pectoralis Major, aiding in actions involving lateral rotation of the arm (as in swinging or bowling).

Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press. Target muscles are marked in red.

Traditional Chest Press exercises involve stabilising the body on a bench and pushing a weight above the chest and slowly lowering.  You can alter the activation of the pectoralis/deltoid couplet by the incline angle of the bench you lie on and the wideness of your grip on the bar.

A high incline works the upper pecs, a low decline works the lower pecs (and gives you a head rush).

Wide hands work the lateral edge more and close hands work the sternal border more.  

Remember though, that this is all irrelevant if you are lifting for endurance (lighter weight 12+ repetitions) and really only makes a difference to the serious body-builder who lifts heavy and requires pin-point pectoral definition.  For most of us, a standard chest press will do the job.

But why just work the pectorals when you can do so much more? We are all time poor, so rather than isolating one or two muscles, use your time in the gym wisely to incorporate stabilising muscles and antagonists (muscles working in other directions).

Firstly – ditch the bench.  All the bench does for you is make your core go to sleep.  So get rid of it and use a fitball instead.  This turns on a myriad of stabilising muscles as you make a bench from your own body.  For optimal abdominal (stomach), gluteal (bottom) and quadricep (front thigh) activation walk out from the ball (further than this picture below) so that only your head and shoulders are resting on it (like a pillow) and your torso and hips are horizontal to the floor .

Dumbbell Chest Press on Stability Fitness Ball Exercise

If your core starts to fatigue, your hips will drop.  Stop, reposition the ball closer to your waist and restart.  Now, you are turning on your shoulders and neck to keep your head stable so be careful not to strain your neck.


Dumbell Press – Because you hold one dumbbell in each hand, they are less stable and feel heavier than a bar of the same weight.  This adds more complexity to the movement.  Try bilateral press (both arms together), unilateral press (one arm at a time whilst the other stays extended to the ceiling) or alternate press where one arm is up whilst the other is down, and vise-versa.  You may find that your glutes and thighs get fatigued before your chest and arms.  This is a sign that you need to work on strengthening these areas too.


If you do the same routine day in day out, your body becomes accustomed to it and stops changing.  So mess it up a bit to confuse your muscles and keep them on their toes. Instead of 2 counts down – 2 counts up, try: 3 down – 1 up, 1 down – 3 up, short pulses with limited range of movement close to chest then with outstretched arms.  


If you are training for general fitness and not hypertrophy (increasing muscle size) do repetitions for about 45-60 seconds working slowly and smoothly.  Your movement should be in timing with your breath.  Breathe in on the easy part (lowering) and breathe out on the hard part (pushing). Rest for 30 seconds and repeat 1-3 times before you move onto a new muscle group.  


If, at any time, you lose form (saggy hips, pain in lower back, jerky movements, unable to press without bouncing the ball) STOP and reevaluate.  Reposition, lighten the load, or stop completely.  NEVER lift anything with bad form.  Even if you only have 1 rep to go.  Just 1 rep, done with incorrect or poor form might result in injury.

Beginners should always have a ‘spotter’ – who is a person who can watch your form and be in a position to take the bar from you if you think you are going to drop the weight. 

If you do not have a spotter, make sure you do the chest press with lighter weights or in a rack where you can place the bar back safely. Serious injury and even death can occur if a heavy bar lands on your chest or across your throat. Be safe out there people.

Do you have any questions about the Chest Press? Got some great modifications you would like to share?  Please post your comments below.