3 Most Effective Chest Exercises for Men & Women

Image courtesy of ACE

Image courtesy of ACE

Whether you are a soldier, soccer mom, or weekend warrior, your chest muscles are the key to your ability to push in a wide range of activities.  The chest muscles - pectoralis major to be specific - can be stimulated by a wide variety of exercises and machines.  Researchers from the University of Wisconsin conducted a study with the goal of determining which of the most commonly used strength-training exercises most effectively trains the chest.



Although 14 healthy male volunteers, ages 19 to 30, all with previous experience in resistance training were used in the study, I would assume that results would be similar in Females.  Researchers selected nine of the most commonly used exercises for strengthening the chest muscles.  Exercises are listed in the table below.  

image courtesy of American Council on Exercise

image courtesy of American Council on Exercise

WINNER:  After crunching the numbers and data, researchers found that out of the nine exercises tested, the pectoralis major was activated the most during the barbell bench press.  Closely behind were the Pec Deck and Cable Crossover.

image courtesy of ACE

image courtesy of ACE

Exercises that elicited the least amount of activation were actually the push-ups,” says study author Whitnee Schanke, B.S. “They came in at only 61 to 63 percent on average. Granted,” he adds, “we didn’t add any weight to the push-ups.” Although each of the three push-ups tested target the chest muscles, subjects were not ‘lifting’ as much weight percentage-wise, so more reps (nearly twice as many) would be required to equal that of the top three exercises. 

So what does this mean for you? 

Your decision on how you use this information is completely based on your training goals. 

BODYBUILDERS:   If hypertrophy (increase in muscle size) is your goal, and you have the time to devote to individually challenging each muscle group, essentially, "...you can use the barbell bench press, pec deck or the cable crossovers interchangeably,” says John P. Porcari, Ph.D. “All three of those exercises are basically going to give you the same amount of muscle activation in the chest and are equally effective.”

FITNESS: If your goal is to build lean functional muscles, and you have limited time for exercise, then the push up is still the exercise for you.  


Take an alternator out of an engine and an engine is useless.  The chest muscles function as a larger part of a whole.  Pushing a grocery cart. opening a car door, swinging a bat or throwing a football all require a certain degree of coordination and cooperation between the chest and the rest of the body.  There is a high need of stability for each of the above mentioned actions along with a slew of others we perform in everyday life and sport.  The need for stability comes from the fact that most of our activities are done on our feet and not on our backs.  When was the last time you were on your back and needed to push off a heavy bar (outside of the gym)?   The Push Up exercise design leads itself to less chest activity but more coordination with other parts of the body.   

Get bored with the push up?  Check out the 19 Best Push Up Variations Ever!


All of the exercises used in the study potentially have value in a training program. In fact, I use several in my BW44 Program.  To maximize the effectiveness of your training, you would adjust your program in favor of the exercises that more closely match your goals and available training time.  I have found that variety, along with consistency, has been the best contributing factor of my training programs.

Tee Major is a Kaizenist, Calisthenics Expert, Group Fitness Trainer and Military Instructor.  If you wish to build a physique that looks like a bodybuilder but functions like an athlete, take a look at my 90 - day beginner to advanced body weight and weight training program and nutrition plan here: 

The BW44 Program by Tee Major Fitness


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