Walk into any gym or talk to anyone who knows you workout, and they will undoubtedly ask you, “How Much Ya Bench?” While building a strong bench press and big chest are not the only ways we can define our strength and fitness, it certainly is one of the most common in today’s lifting culture.
With many lifters looking to maximize their chest training, various chest training programs and exercises are popping up across the internet, leaving many of us curious as to how many chest exercise we should be doing in a single workout?
You should perform 1-4 chest exercises per workout, with the most optimal range being 2-3 different chest exercises in a single training session. Why? For most lifters, performing any more than 3-4 various movements can result in diminished returns, excessive “trash” volume, and suboptimal quality volume.
In this chest training guide, we will discuss everything you need to know about how to train the chest more effectively in your next chest workout.
Are All Chest Exercises Created Equal?
No, not all chest exercises are created equal.
Understanding which movements are best for heavier loads, which ones are best for isolation of the chest, and which ones may or may not be the best for you (and your joints) are key for long term muscle growth.
When performing a chest exercise, it is important to have the ability to FEEL the muscles lengthening under load (a deep stretch), fully contracting throughout the range of motion, and fatiguing out as repetitions go on.
With the exception of heavier chest training protocols that are geared toward strength (see below), lack of feeling the chest muscles during isolation exercises, machines, and lighter free weight training could suggest improper technique, or worse… diminished gains.
A quick note: if you’re looking for chest exercises that you can do with sore shoulders be sure to check out our Chest Training Guide For People Who Have Bad Shoulders.
What Chest Exercise Should You Do?
Chest exercise can be divided into many categories, however the three main types of chest training exercises are below.
Each group offers a specific benefit(s) to a lifter, and when used correctly can help build a well-rounded chest training program.
1. HEAVIER COMPOUND PRESSING MOVEMENTS
Movements like the bench press, incline press, and floor press are all movement patterns that can be done using heavier loads to stress the muscles of the chest.
While these can also be done for rep-based protocols, it is best to diversify your training program to at least train compound movements with heavier loads (5-10 repetitions) at some point in the training week.
By doing this, you can overload the chest muscles and increase strength. Refer to the sample workouts below for ideas.
Related article: Learn more about the benefits of compound lifting!
2. ISOLATION EXERCISES
Isolation movements are great ways to pre-exhaust and isolate a muscle group after or before more compound movements.
By training movements like chest flys, for example, you can increase muscular damage and stress placed on the muscle group.
For isolation exercises, it is key to train in the full range of motion, keep tension on the muscle, and use moderate to higher rep ranges with loads that allow you to focus on lengthening the muscle, feeling a deep stretch, and forcing strong contractions.
Related Article: Should You Train Chest And Triceps Together?
3. MACHINES AND FREE WEIGHTS
Machines, dumbbells, body weights, and even lighter barbell movements are all viable options when training the chest.
Using moderate to higher repetition ranges, with emphasis on deep muscle stretches and contractions, high amounts of muscle damage can be done that will increase muscle growth.
For non-strength based sections of the workout, it is recommended to train these movements in the moderate (8-15) or higher (15-30) rep range to near failure (see section below about training to failure).
Related Article: Muscle Memory For Bodybuilding: What Is It? How Does It Work?
Should You Train Chest with Heavy Weights?
Yes, however if you have shoulder injuries or pain during heavy pressing movements, it is advised to seek medical attention and/or find a qualified fitness professional who can instruct you on proper technique.
Lifting with heavy weights (relative to one’s maximal strength) can be defined as training in the 5-10 repetition rep range. Most lifters do not need to train in the 1-3 repetition range if their goal is overall muscle growth (and general strength).
While there are benefits for training in the 1-3 rep range for lifters who are specifically attacking maximal pressing strength, it is advised that the majority of one’s training takes place in the 8-15 range for muscle growth (granted, there are benefits for training in all rep ranges).
Related Article: How Often Should You Max Out Lifting Weights?
With that said, if you choose to train with very heavy loads (1-3 repetitions), you should understand proper technique and do this with compound movements like the ones listed above.
Failure to subject your chest muscles to heavy loads (in this case rep ranges of 5-10) can limit overall chest development in all individuals. It is recommended that lifters train their chest in a variety of rep ranges for optimal growth and performance (see sample 2-day program below).
If you want to try a workout involving muscle building exercises, download the Fitbod App, select a fitness goal of either “strength training”, “bodybuilding”, or “powerlifting”, and use a training split that involves “all muscle groups”. Get 3 free workouts by using the link above.
Why Shouldn’t You Do More Than 4 Chest Exercises Per Workout?
While adding variety to a training program is key, it is also important to remember that too much variety can limit your ability to perform quality reptions and work sets to maximize muscle fatigue. In other words, performing more exercise for the sake of variety will leave you doing too much volume, not enough quality work sets of a given movement, and limit overall chest growth…not to mention having you spending all day running around the gym.
By selecting 2-4 chest exercises per workout you can add 4-8 different chest exercises per training program, which is plenty of variation in a month’s time. Be sure to keep your weekly training volume (the total of your working sets) for chest between 12-16 total reps. If you find out you are performing more than 20 sets per week, there is a very good chance you are doing TOO much and are actually diminishing your bodies ability to build new muscle mass. Instead, stay within those ranges and work to perform quality repetitions with a hyper-focus mindset of feeling the chest muscles stretch throughout the full range of motion.
Related Article: Can You Build A Chest Without Bench Press?
Should You Train to Muscle Fatigue?
While training to failure is sometimes acceptable, most of the time you should be training to NEAR failure. When performing movements, it is best to think about how many QUALITY repetitions you have left in the tank before you either (1) fail a repetition or (2) are able to complete a repetition but at the cost of proper form.
For most movements, it’s best to train at an intensity that allows you to train to near failure, leaving approximately two (2) quality repetitions in the tank.
Related Article: Strength vs. Power: 5 Main Differences You Should Know
Sample 2-Day Chest Workout Routine
The below workout program is a 4-week chest training routine that is geared for all levels. This program is designed to increase chest strength and size. The overall training volume is 16 total work sets per week, at varying intensities to maximize muscle growth.
DAY 1 (7 TOTAL SETS)
Perform 4 sets of 8-12 repetitions, making sure to pause 1” off the chest on all reps.
Choose a weight you can perform all sets for the prescribed weights. If you cannot perform 8-12 repetitions for all sets with the same weight, go lighter.
Once you can perform at least 10 reps every set with the same weight, you can increase the weight on the barbell in the next week.
In the pause, be sure to keep the shoulderblades squeezed together, feeling tension in the middle of the chest.
Choose a weight that you can do 15-20 total reps with on your first set. Use the same weights for the next two sets, training to near failure.
Rest 45-60 seconds maximum between sets.
Perform the movement with a controlled lowering phase of 2 seconds, and pause 1 second at the bottom in a deep chest stretch position.
Fully extend the arms at the top and flex the chest, pausing briefly before continuing into the next repetition.
DAY 2 (9 TOTAL SETS)
Week 1 – Perform one heavy set of 10 reps, then perform 2 sets to failure with same of that weight (leave 2 good reps in the tank on the first set)
Week 2 – Find one heavy set of 10 reps, then perform 2 sets to failure with same of that weight (leave on good rep in the tank on the first set)
Week 3 – Find an 8 rep max, then perform 2 sets to failure with same of that weight (max out)
Week 4 – 3 sets of 5 reps with Week 2 weight
Dumbbell Chest Fly (3 sets)
Choose a weight that you can get 10-15 reps with on your first set, making sure to lower slowly and maintain tension of the chest. Perform two more sets with the same weight, making sure to perform at least 10 reps each successive set.
Pause briefly at the bottom position.
Perform 3 sets to failure, using a slow and controlled tempo consisting of 2 seconds lowering yourself down, 1 second pause hovering off the floor (as close as possible), and 1 second flexing chest at top of repetition.
Rest 30 seconds between sets.
For added difficulty, you can perform a deficit push up to increase the range of motion.
Adding quality muscle mass to the chest is done by progressively overloading the chest muscles with a variety of intensities (loads), repetition ranges, and movement patterns. Like anything, there must be a balance between performing enough variation and volume, and performing too much. Hopefully the above article clarifies common questions people have on how to effectively train, and program, the chest.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition. In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.