#1 Flat bench press + incline barbell press + decline barbell press
This routine involves only compound exercises. Change the order depending on which part of your pecs needs more development.
- Vary your grip width slightly if you wish.
- You may also try the reverse-grip bench press with your palms facing you.
#2 Flat + incline + decline dumbbell presses
Dumbell presses are slightly harder than their barbell equivalent as you need to balance the weight. Again, the emphasis is on compound movements that will recruit the maximum amount of muscles.
- Vary the order of the exercises depending on which part of your chest is lagging.
#3 Bench press + dumbbell flyes
This is a classic: a compound exercise followed by an isolation exercise. The isolation exercise at the end of the routine serves to really drill down into the pecs and really finish them off.
- Replace the flat bench press with the incline or decline version.
- Replace flat flyes with the incline or decline version
- Replace the barbell with dumbbells.
Try not to combine flat bench press with flat dumbbell flyes, incline with incline and so on in order to keep your workout more varied, unless one region of your chest really needs to be targeted.
#4 Dumbell flyes + bench press
There is more to this than just swapping exercises around. By performing an isolation movement first, you pre-exhaust the muscle before the hard work starts. This is the pre-exhaustion technique and is useful when secondary muscles such as the anterior deltoids become so powerful that they end up doing most of the work during the bench press.
- Do the incline and decline versions as variation.
- Replace the barbell with dumbbells.
#5 Dumbell flyes + bench press + flyes
This is a combination of the last 2 routines. Isolation exercise first to pre-exhaust the pecs, followed by a compound exercise and finished off with an isolation exercise.
- There is nothing wrong with doing all the flyes in the same plane of motion but equally, some variations are welcome.
- Also replace the barbell with dumbbells.
#6 Dumbbell press + barbell press + chest press machine + flyes
The order of the exercises is important here but you do not have to do all of the exercises. Dumbells require more concentration and are harder to perform as they need to be balanced while the chest press machine is at the other end of the spectrum. This is useful when you have already been exhausted by the dumbbell and barbell movements. You can then just concentrate on pushing at the machine. You may finish with flyes if you are no longer a beginner.
- Variations: incline and decline planes where possible.
#7 21s with the chest press machine
21s are 3 sets of 7 reps each where you perform the top half of the movement in the first set, the bottom half in the second set and the full motion in the last set. So with the chest press machine, in the first set you lower the handles halfway to your chest and back up again, in the second set you lower the handle from the bottom of your chest to half-way up. This is a real killer. You can also add a compound movement before to make it even harder as your muscles will then already be tired.
- Replace the chest press machine with a barbell or dumbbells; however, the advantage of the machine is that you can just concentrate on pushing as much as you can.
#8 Press-ups + compound exercise
If you are a fan of bodyweight exercises, then this is for you. Do them first as a warm-up if they are easy for you, followed by a compound movement such as barbell or dumbbell press, or even the chest press machine. If all this is still not enough, finish off your pecs with an isolation exercise.
Equally, if you find press-ups really easy, you can perform them at the end of your routine, after a compound movement. Your pecs will be tired by then so press-ups will be harder.
If you find press-ups hard to start with, you will have no option but to do them at the beginning.
- The gamut of variations for press-ups applies here: place your legs higher up and torso lower, the equivalent of the incline press, vary your arm width and hand orientation, use a Bosu ball, use one arm, one leg, etc.
- When you can no longer do a single press-up in good form, push yourself beyond that limit by resting your lower body on your knees instead of your toes.
#9 Chest dips + compound exercise
The chest dip is another bodyweight exercise. As with the press-up, you can perform it last if you find it easy. Or add a weighted belt. Make sure you lean into the movement and you adopt a wide grip to really target the pecs instead of the triceps.
Chest dips are great at really sculpting the sides of your pectorals. No other press movements can replace it. Finish off with an isolation exercise or a second compound exercise.
If you find the dips hard already, you will have to keep them at the beginning of the routine or else you won’t be able to do a single one.
More exercises to incorporate into a routine
The pullover works both the chest and the lats. It also helps expand the thoracic cage. Some people perform the pullover in their back routines, others in their chest routine. I prefer the former. However, feel free to add it towards the end of your routine.
They are performed at the cable station using the pulleys on either side. Vary the height of the pulleys to introduce variety. If you lie flat on a bench, the pulleys will lie low, same for the incline and decline version. However, raise the pulleys all the way up if you do it standing. In this position, you will lean slightly forward and bring your arms together either at stomach-level, at chest level or above your head. Try them all and find out how each movement feels.
Replace all flat bench exercises with the Swiss ball. You can add a slight incline or decline to the exercise by lying forward or backwards on the ball. You won’t be able to go as heavy because of a lack of stability but the Swiss ball is a great game-changer.
Smith machine presses
Replace the barbell with the Smith-machine to get a hybrid of the bench press and chest press machine. Or you can also use the Smith machine as an extra exercise. Incline and decline versions are of course possible.
The old-fashioned pec-deck required your elbows to be bent 90 degrees and was uncomfortable, felt like an unnatural movement and put a lot of stress on the shoulder joints. Modern versions are very similar to flyes and allow more freedom of movement. At least the old-fashioned one was a different movement to the flyes. The modern one is simply a machine-replacement for dumbbell flyes. Feel free to use it as a substitute at any time.
Dumbell press with rotation
This is a combination of the dumbbell press and flyes. Start your dumbbell press as usual with your palms facing forward. As you get near the top of the exercise, rotate your palms towards each other so that you finish the exercise like a fly movement. This extra rotation when handling heavy weight will add an extra dimension to your pecs workout.
Of sets and reps
No routine would be complete without mentioning all the types of sets and reps which you can perform. Here are a few advanced techniques you can implement in your workouts.
The superset is particularly effective with the pre-exhaustion technique. Move from flyes to bench press with no rest.
Taking the superset further is the giant set where you perform more than 2 exercises back to back. Apply the giant set when doing routine #6 for example.
Use degressive sets with an isolation exercise, for example the pec-deck machine. As soon as you finish one set, reduce the weight and start the next set and so on. This can be particularly brutal. Don’t use it at every session.
Negative reps are ideal when handling heavy weight, for example with compound exercises.
Partial reps are also appropriate when going heavy and allows you to squeeze a couple more (partial) reps when you can’t do a single full rep anymore.
So, how many routines in all?
I can already count 6 combinations of #1 and #2 each, 7 with #3 by playing with the planes of exercises and another 7 again when replacing the barbell with dumbbells. You can also have another 14 combinations with #4 which reverses the order of the exercises of #3. That’s a total of 40 so far. Remember, every time you change the order of exercise or the way of doing it, your strength in each will be different.
Replace the bench with the Swiss ball in 8 of the 9 routines, and that’s without counting all the combination of ball and bench within each routine. Replace all dumbbell flyes with the 4 versions of the cable flyes plus the pec deck and that makes another 20 more different routines. Total so far: 40 + 8 + 20 + initial 9 = 77. Substitute all routines where possible with the dumbbell press with rotation: that’s another 7. Replace all barbell routines with the Smith machine, another 7. Add the pullover to all 9 routines. Total: 100.
Now add in the mix of sets and reps techniques and adding and subtracting exercises to each routine, press-up variations, grip variations and you can easily get a few hundred different routines in total. That should keep you busy. Working out that is, not counting them!