If you want to sculpt your chest muscles, then you shouldn’t ignore compound chest exercises! These are lifts that use multiple muscle groups at the same time which, when done properly, could mean more gains. But, enough of the science talk, let us show you the 7 best compound chest exercises.
Table of Contents
- 1 7 Best Chest Compound Exercises
- 2 How To Train Chest Muscles
- 3 Chest Muscle Anatomy
- 4 FAQs
7 Best Chest Compound Exercises
- Barbell bench press
- Barbell incline bench press
- Dumbell bench press
- Dumbell floor press
- Incline press machine
Barbell bench press
The barbell bench press is one of the most widely recognized compound movements. This is why many people see it as one of the best compound chest exercises out there. It employs multiple muscle groups at the same time and, in some cases, can trigger a hormonal response.
Bear in mind that this is also one of the riskier compound chest exercises out there, as it uses major muscle groups. So, if you plan on adding it to your routine, it’s highly recommended to have a spotter while doing it. You can also perform this exercise on a decline bench or Smith Machine. A good alternative to the bench press is the chest press, which we thoroughly compare in our bench press vs chest press guide.
Lifters of all experience levels can benefit from the barbell bench press, particularly if you plan on progressively overloading. This compound chest exercise can add some nice thickness to your lower chest, making you look more defined and powerful. And, of the compound chest exercises, this is generally a good one to start with.
How to do it:
- Load a barbell while it’s on a rack with a suitable weight. Attach safety clips on both sides.
- Lie on a flat bench with your feet planted on either side.
- Grab the barbell with an overhand grip and position your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Extend your arms to push the barbell upward, lifting it off the rack.
- Maintain your grip and lower the barbell until your elbows are parallel to the floor and the bar is at chest level. That’s one rep. Don’t rush your reps and watch your form.
For more detail, check out our guide on how to bench press with perfect form.
Here’s a video providing a visual aid for how to perform the barbell bench press:
People usually perform this compound chest exercise for 5 to 10 reps with heavier weights and 10 to 20 reps with lighter weights. Heavier weights are typically around 75% of a lifter’s one rep max, while lighter weights range from 50% to 75%. Weights below 50% may be a bit too light and ineffective.
Barbell incline bench press
This is also one of the best chest compound exercises out there.
When done properly, both beginners and advanced lifters can enjoy substantial upper chest gains. If you don’t have a barbell, you can perform this exercise on a Smith Machine or with dumbbells on an incline. Although these incline bench press compound chest alternatives still hit your upper chest, the execution is slightly different.
A 2020 study found that incline presses are the most ideal compound chest exercises for building the upper chest fibers, which can give your upper body a better look overall. And this is why the incline dumbbell press is of the best compound chest exercises.
How to do it:
- Position yourself on an incline bench set to around 30 to 45 degrees. Plant your feet firmly on the floor for stability.
- With a barbell at shoulder width, use a neutral grip.
- Extend your arms to push the barbell up above your chest. This is your starting position.
- Slowly bring the barbell down to the chest, making sure your elbows are at a 90-degree angle at the bottom of the movement.
- Drive the barbell back up to the starting position, making sure to engage your upper chest muscles. That’s it, you’ve done one rep.
Here’s a video providing a visual aid for how to perform the incline bench press:
This is pretty much the same as the barbell flat bench press, so you can follow the same rep range and intensity. But, the incline can feel a little different or heavier because of the angle. So, be mindful of how much weight you load on initially.
Ah, push-ups! A classic chest exercise that really lets your pecs shine, without your triceps taking all the credit. How do they do it? The answer lies in the simplicity. By placing your hands flat on the ground, you engage your chest muscles to push your body up.
You can make these push-ups even more challenging by adding variations. This’ll add an element of diversity, forcing your body to recruit more muscle groups other than your middle chest. You can also change your targeting through variations. For example, the upper chest can be targeted with incline pushups and your lower and middle chest can be hit with decline push-ups.
Standard push-ups are great for everyone, from beginners to advanced lifters. If you’re a beginner, it’s the perfect place to start before moving on to more challenging variations. Unlike other chest compound exercises, a huge benefit of the push-up is that it doesn’t require much for you to do it – just your body weight.
This makes it one of the better compound chest exercises for working out at home.
How to do it:
- Get into a plank position with your hands positioned shoulder-width apart on the ground.
- Keep your abs engaged and elbows tucked in.
- Bend at the elbows and lower your body down towards the floor, keeping a straight line from your head to your heels.
- Pause at the bottom.
- Powerfully push yourself back up to the starting position.
Here’s a video providing a visual aid for how to perform push-ups:
You can do push-ups in sets of 10 to 20 reps if you’re a beginner, and up to 30 reps or more if you’re a pro. The intensity of push-ups can be adjusted by modifying the form, such as elevating the feet or adding weight with a weighted vest.
Bodyweight chest dips
Chest dips are highly effective exercise for the lower chest. What’s best about them is that they can be done at home.
Unlike a lot of chest isolation exercises, your chest muscles have to stretch and contract forcefully during chest dips. It’s a controlled way to build muscle and definition.
Besides being a good chest workout, chest dips can also do wonders for your triceps and shoulders, as they have to stabilize you during the movement. With the right form, chest dips are great for pretty much everyone to make nice upper-body gains, especially in the lower chest area.
How to do it:
- Position yourself between parallel or dip bars. Place your hands on the bars, shoulder-width apart, palms facing down.
- Straighten your arms and raise your body off the ground. You’re now in the starting position.
- Begin to lower your body by bending at the elbows. Remember to keep your chest lifted, elbows tucked, and shoulders down.
- Continue going down until your shoulders dip below your elbows or you feel a stretch in your lower chest.
- Maintain control – don’t let your shoulders roll forward and keep your elbows tucked into your body.
- Push yourself back up to the start position by straightening your arms, squeezing your chest, and firing up your triceps.
Here’s a video providing a visual aid for how to perform bodyweight chest dips:
For max upper body gains, do dips in sets of 8 to 15 reps. The intensity can be increased by adding weight with a dip belt or a weighted vest. For beginners, assisted dips or bench dips can be performed until strength improves.
Dumbbell bench press
Your middle chest fibers run horizontally. What does this mean you ask? It means that these fibers respond best to compound chest exercises that involve the horizontal movement of your arms.
This is where the classic dumbbell press comes in. For maximum activation, it’s important to focus on your form during this chest workout. You want to feel a “squeeze” of your pectoral muscles during the concentric (upward) portion of the lift.
This movement is like a barbell bench press, although the barbell bench press is slightly different. See our guide on the dumbbell press versus the barbell bench press.
Because of its horizontal movement path, it’s one of the best compound dumbbell exercises for firing up the middle chest. It’s suitable for all levels of experience. But, as usual, start with lighter weights to get the form right and progressively overload as you get more comfortable.
How to do it:
- Position yourself lying flat on the bench, feet planted firmly on the floor on either side. If you don’t have a flat bench, you can always perform this compound exercise on the floor. Setting up for that will be slightly different.
- Take a dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip, palms facing each other. Position the dumbbells at shoulder width.
- Push the dumbbells up until your arms are fully extended over your chest. That’s your starting position.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells in a controlled manner, bringing them down to the sides of your chest. Keep your elbows slightly bent and parallel to the floor at the bottom of the movement.
- Push the dumbbells back up to the starting position, focusing on using your chest muscles.
Here’s a video providing a visual aid for how to perform the dumbbell bench press effectively:
You can do the dumbbell bench press for 5 to 10 reps with heavier dumbbells to really make your upper body grow and 10 to 20 reps with lighter dumbbells. Much like the barbell bench press, heavier weights usually represent 75% to 85% of a lifter’s one-rep max.
Dumbbell floor press
After mastering the dumbbell bench press, you might be looking for a variation that can provide a unique challenge. Enter the dumbbell floor press.
The main difference with the floor press is that it limits the range of motion, which can actually help you focus the work on your chest and triceps, reducing the involvement of your shoulders. This makes it one of the best chest compound exercises for really focusing on the muscle group.
This exercise also targets your middle chest fibers, which respond best to exercises involving the horizontal movement of your arms. This exercise is suitable for all levels of experience. As always, start with lighter weights to perfect the form and progressively overload as you get more comfortable.
How to do it:
- Start by lying flat on the floor, knees bent and feet planted firmly on the ground.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip, palms facing each other. Position the dumbbells at shoulder width.
- Push the dumbbells up until your arms are fully extended above your chest. This is your starting position.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells in a controlled manner, bringing them down until your elbows lightly touch the floor. This is the bottom of the movement.
- Push the dumbbells back up to the starting position, focusing on using your chest muscles.
Here’s a video providing a visual aid for how to perform the dumbbell floor press:
You can program the dumbbell floor pretty much the same way you would the one on a flat bench. 5 to 10 reps with heavier dumbbells, and 10 to 20 reps with lighter dumbbells.
Incline press machine
The incline press machine is one of the overlooked chest compound exercises out there. By pushing the weight at an incline, your upper body muscles are challenged in a dynamic way.
We’re introducing this robust compound lift as an alternative when the traditional incline bench press starts to feel monotonous. The beauty of it lies in its accessibility – no need for a barbell or a complex setup. Just hop on the machine and get lifting!
There’s an abundance of YouTube tutorials available to guide you through the process, ensuring you’re using the machine correctly and safely.
With its distinct angle and lifting technique, the incline press machine is particularly suited for intermediate and advanced lifters seeking to add some variety to their chest workouts. So, if you’re ready for a change, give this machine a whirl!
Because this compound chest exercise uses a machine you won’t have to worry much about being unstable during your set, unlike if you were doing a barbell bench press. It also makes it much safer for you to push until failure. Because of this, the incline press machine is one of the gym machines for the upper chest.
How to do it:
- Approach the incline press machine and adjust the seat height so that the handles are at chest level when you’re seated.
- Sit down on the machine and plant your feet firmly on the ground. This will provide stability during the exercise.
- Grab the handles with a neutral grip, palms facing forward. Your hands should be positioned at shoulder width.
- Push the handles away from you until your arms are fully extended. This is your starting position.
- Slowly bring the handles back towards you in a controlled manner, allowing your elbows to bend and your chest muscles to stretch.
- Push the handles back to the starting position, focusing on using your chest muscles to perform the movement. That’s one rep.
- Continue the movement for the target amount of reps.
Here’s a video providing a visual aid for how to use the incline press machine:
You can more or less treat the incline press machine the same way you would an incline barbell bench press. But, you could add more reps and weight, as you should be able to push more overall. If not, just for 8 to 12 reps with heavier weights, and 12 to 20 reps with lighter weights
How To Train Chest Muscles
Now that we’ve wrapped up our chest compound exercises list, here are some things to keep in mind before hitting the weights:
1. Mix it up with a variety of exercises
Your chest is largely made up of two main muscles. To give them both some love, you’ll want to mix up your routine with a variety of compound exercises. Sure, the incline bench press is a classic, but don’t stop there! Dumbbell presses, cable crossovers, and dips are also fantastic compound movements.
For more inspiration, check out our analysis of the most effective cable chest exercises.
2. Form is your friend
When it comes to training your chest, form is your best friend. It’s not just about preventing injuries, though that’s super important too, it’s also about making sure your chest muscles are doing the heavy lifting. So, lift the weight in a slow and controlled motion and avoid bouncing the weight off your chest.
This also means keeping your elbows tucked and using your legs when working your core and upper body. Or, for example, keeping your elbows slightly bent when doing a shoulder press.
3. Embrace progressive overload
Progressive overload is like the secret sauce of muscle growth. It’s all about gradually upping the ante by increasing the weight or intensity of your compound chest exercises. Keep a record of your progress and aim to lift a bit more weight or squeeze out a few more reps each week.
4. Find your rep range sweet spot
For muscle growth, the sweet spot is typically between 6 and 12 reps. But hey, variety is the spice of life, right? So don’t be shy about mixing it up with some lower-rep strength work and higher-rep endurance for your compound movements.
For hypertrophy, you want to aim for 6 to 25 sets of compound chest exercises each week (depending on how many times you train a week). Working with light weights? Stick to around 20 to 30 reps per set. This can be reduced to around 5 to 10 reps per set if you are lifting heavy weights – just remember not to overdo it.
5. Recovery is key
Recovery isn’t just about kicking back after a workout. It’s about giving your muscles the time they need to rest and repair between workouts. This includes getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and staying hydrated. Your muscles will thank you!
6. Consistency is king
When it comes to muscle growth, consistency is king. Stick to your workout routine and resist the temptation to skip workouts. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are muscles. So be patient, stay committed to your goals, and trust the process.
7. Level up with advanced techniques
Once you’ve got the basics down, why not level up your routine with some advanced techniques? This could include drop sets, supersets, or pre-exhaustion techniques. These can help crank up the intensity of your workouts and stimulate even more muscle growth.
Remember, everyone’s body is unique and responds differently to exercise, so it’s important to listen to your body and adjust your routine as needed. With the right approach, you can effectively train your chest muscles and achieve your fitness goals. You’ve got this!
Chest Muscle Anatomy
Ok, we did say no more science talk but there’s one more thing you need to understand first. Your pectoralis major – the largest muscle of the external chest wall. This muscle plays a key role in the movement and stability of the shoulder joint. The pectoralis major is divided into two main parts; the clavicular head or upper chest and the sternal head.
The clavicular head originates from the clavicle and is responsible for movements such as flexing the humerus, which is the bone in the upper arm.
The sternal head is further divided into the middle and lower chest. This part of the muscle originates from the sternum and the upper six costal cartilages connected to the ribs. It’s involved in movements like rotating the humerus.
Knowing the structure can help you build well-rounded, strong chest muscles!
If you’re aiming for chest growth, target about 12-20 sets per week, spread across 2-3 non-consecutive days. For strength, lift heavier weights (70-80% of your one rep max) with fewer reps. For muscle size, aim for moderate intensity (50-75% of your one rep max) with a higher rep range. Remember, rest is key for muscle recovery and growth. So, train smart and give your chest muscles the time they need to recover.
Most folks find they get the best results by splitting their training intensity. Try doing half of your chest training in the 70% to 80% range of your one rep max, and the other half below 70%. When it comes to training your chest muscles, intensity matters! So, this mix can help stimulate muscle growth and keep your workouts varied and challenging.
A good rule of thumb is to perform about half of your chest compound exercises in the 5 to 10 rep range, and the other half in the 10 to 20 rep range. This balance allows for both strength and muscle size development, giving you the best of both worlds.
Chest compound exercises are your best friend. These are exercises that engage multiple muscle groups at once. For the chest, this includes all types of pressing movements, both horizontal and vertical, like the bench press and shoulder press respectively.
These exercises activate your chest muscles, so most people are hitting their chest enough without needing to target it directly. But remember, everyone’s body is different, so listen to yours and adjust as needed.
Studies suggest that both compound and isolation exercises are equally effective in muscle growth. This study took place on untrained men, so results could vary for seasoned lifters. People switch between compound and isolation exercises for many reasons like personal preference and injury. For example, a compound exercise may allow you to get through your workout routine faster.
So, you simply have to alternate between compound exercises and isolation exercises to find which type of exercise works for you.