The chest muscles could be considered a defining part of strength anatomy. They are involved in actions such as squeezing a set of loppers to cut a tree branch and pushing a door open. They are also the primary muscles referenced when debating upper body strength (“How much can you bench, bro?”).

For body builders and those interested in general muscular aesthetics, the chest muscles are the defining part of muscle mass. Powerlifters rely on them for the bench press to score the greatest lift.

But these muscles are also incredibly important from a functional standpoint because they support the movement of the arms.

A number of studies examining perceived attractiveness found that a low waist-to-chest ratio was rated as the most attractive physical feature on males (1). This is when a person has a narrower waist and broader chest.

But gender-specific beauty standards aside, everyone can benefit from strengthening the chest muscles — whether your goal is to have sculpted pecs or simply to be able to play Twister with your kids on the living room floor.

There are three primary muscles that make up the chest:

A lesser-known muscle in the chest is called the subclavius. It is a smaller accessory muscle primarily involved in respiration (breathing) (2).

The pectoralis major is a unique muscle because it has two heads — the clavicular head and the sternocostal head. These are antagonistic to each other, which means that as one contracts, the other relaxes.

The clavicular head flexes the humerus, or upper arm bone, by raising your arm in front of you. It also adducts the humerus — which means it brings the arm inward toward the body’s midline — and assists in internal rotation of the same bone.

The sternocostal head, on the other hand, brings the arm down from a forward or flexed position. It’s also involved in movements such as horizontal adduction (as if you were bear-hugging someone) and internal rotation of the humerus.

The pectoralis minor’s job is to stabilize the shoulder blade by pulling it forward and down against the rib cage — an action known as protraction of the shoulder blade. It also assists with shoulder stability and respiration.

The serratus anterior has a sawlike origination on the outside front of the first through eighth ribs and ends on the medial border of the shoulder blade (closest to the spine). It pulls the shoulder blade around the ribs to prevent scapular winging, providing stability to the shoulder during pushing movements.

Summary

There are three primary muscles comprise the chest. They are the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and serratus anterior.

“Muscle definition” is a challenging term. You may ask yourself, “What does that really mean?”

Well, muscles have to increase in size to be able to see their shape. This is called hypertrophy, and it involves progressively stressing the muscles past their resting state to induce growth. It occurs when the amount of protein used to build muscle exceeds the amount of protein breakdown that occurs (3).

However, you also need to decrease body fat to be able to see muscle definition. For people with breasts, it will likely be difficult to see much muscular definition in the chest.

Still, if muscle definition is your goal, you’ll need to work the chest muscles for hypertrophy but also decrease calories to see your muscles better. This will likely involve increasing calorie burn through aerobic exercise and managing your diet.

Summary

Chest definition comes from both hypertrophy in the chest muscles and decreasing body fat to make them easier to see.

Protein is what muscles are made of. They are the building blocks of muscle — so, the more you consume (to an extent), the greater the ability to build muscle (called muscle protein synthesis). In contrast, there is a typical process that occurs at the same time, called muscle protein breakdown.

General recommendations to reduce body fat include eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and a variety of protein sources. If you are unsure of how to do this safely, consult a dietitian for guidance.

When you consume a greater amount of protein, you tip the scale to muscle protein synthesis. This causes muscles to grow bigger. The current American Dietetic Association recommendation for most individuals is .8 grams of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight (4).

However, in a recent literature review, the recommendation for those engaging in resistance training for muscle growth was 1.6–2.2 g/kg of body weight per day. In addition, protein-rich meals should be spaced 3–5 hours apart (5).

So, a 150-pound (68-kg) person who exercises regularly and is aiming for muscular hypertrophy would need to consume between 109–150 grams of protein per day.

The research also suggests consuming high quality protein, such as whey and casein. These aid in appetite control (5).

Summary

Protein is the building block of muscle. A recent analysis recommends 1.6-2.2 g/kg of body for those participating in resistance training.

1. Incline push up

Equipment required: none

This is a good warmup to prepare the chest for work. Research has shown that a dynamic warmup is helpful in preventing injury prior to training. Lower resistance movements related to those you are about to perform prepares the muscles for work (6).

  1. Start with your hands on the wall or a countertop height surface. Walk your feet back so that your body makes roughly a 45 degree angle with the floor.
  2. Keep your body straight and your spine neutral, and lower your chest to the surface you’re leaning against.
  3. Pause for a moment, then return to the start position.
  4. Make sure the resistance feels light enough to complete up to 20 repetitions. If you need to make it easier, step closer to your hands; to make it harder, step farther away.

2. Flat bench press

Equipment required: barbell or dumbbells, flat bench

  1. Lie on your back on the bench with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grasp the barbell, with your thumb wrapped around the barbell and palms facing toward your feet. Press your arms straight toward the ceiling to lift the weight off the rack.
  2. Move the weight over chest level.
  3. Bending your elbows down at a 45-degree angle, slowly lower the weight to your chest. Keep the bar approximately in line with your nipples.
  4. Pause for a moment, then press the weight back to the start position.
  5. Complete 3 sets of 8–12 repetitions.

Remember to keep your back flat and maintain good control of the weight. Also keep your neck neutral to avoid excessive strain. It’s recommended to enlist the help of a spotter to ensure safety in this exercise.

3. Incline bench press

Equipment required: barbell or dumbbells, incline bench

  1. Lie on your back on the incline bench with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grasp the barbell, with your thumb wrapped around the barbell and palms facing toward your feet. Press your arms straight toward the ceiling to lift the weight off the rack.
  2. Position the weight above your collarbone.
  3. Slowly lower the weight down to your chest, approximately in line with your mid-chest to just above your nipples.
  4. Pause, then press the weight back to the start position.
  5. Complete 3 sets of 8–12 repetitions.

As with the flat bench, remember to keep your back flat and your feet flat throughout the movement. And, again, it’s highly recommended that you do this exercise with someone spotting you.

4. Decline bench press

Equipment required: barbell or dumbbells, decline bench

  1. Lie on your back on the decline bench, with your knees bent and ankles secured behind the ankle rests. Grasp the barbell, with your thumb wrapped around the barbell and palms facing toward the feet. Press your arms straight to lift the weight off the rack.
  2. Position the weight above your lower chest to upper abdomen region.
  3. Slowly bend your elbows to lower the weight down to your chest, approximately in line with your nipples.
  4. Pause, then press the weight back to the start position.
  5. Complete 3 sets of 8–12 repetitions.

5. Pushup

Equipment required: none

  1. Begin on your hands and knees, and step back into a high plank position. Your hands should be just wider than your shoulders, and your legs should be straight with your quads. Your hamstrings should be engaged and your spine neutral.
  2. Keeping your core tight, bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle to lower your chest toward the floor, maintaining a straight line from head to heel.
  3. Aim to go as low as you can without losing the support of your core or the alignment of your spine and pelvis.
  4. Press your chest away from the ground until your elbows are straight.
  5. Repeat, completing 8–12 repetitions. Do 3 sets.

Remember to keep your keep your hips in line with your shoulders and ankles. If this is too challenging to perform on your feet, you may do this exercise on your knees.

If you wish to increase the challenge, you can do a decline pushup by placing your toes on an elevated surface such as a bench or table.

6. Cable crossover

Equipment required: cable machine or a resistance band

  1. Begin by standing away from a set of high pulley cable machine or a resistance band anchored overhead. Select a light to moderate weight to add challenge but give you success.
  2. Grasp the hands (or the ends of the band) as you step forward with 1 foot. Keep enough tension and control on the handles to keep them in front of your chest.
  3. Contract your chest muscles and bring the handles down and forward across your body at roughly belly button level. The hands can cross to add emphasis to the serratus anterior muscles.
  4. Hold for a moment and then slowly return to the start. Then repeat.
  5. Do 3 sets of 8–12 repetitions.

7. Chest dip

Equipment required: dip station

  1. Stand facing the two parallel bars and grasp them, palms facing in.
  2. Straighten your elbows and press into your hands, lifting your body up so that it is in line with your hands.
  3. Then, bend your elbows and lower the chest toward your hands.
  4. Pause, then press back to the start position. Repeat.
  5. Do 3 sets of 8–12 repetitions.

8. Resistance band pullover

Equipment required: resistance band

  1. Anchor the band on something solid. Then, lie on your back with your head toward the anchor point. The band should be about 1–2 feet higher than your head.
  2. Grasp the band overhead so that there is slight tension on the band. Keep your thumbs pointing to the sky and your palms facing away from each other.
  3. Keeping your core tight and elbows straight, pull the band toward your hips. Slowly return to the starting position with control.
  4. Do 3 sets of 8–12 repetitions.

No matter if your goal is a sculpted chest or a stronger upper body to help you lift kiddos into the air, working the chest muscles can only enhance your quality of life. The above exercises, along with a high protein diet, may help increase the size and strength of these muscles.

Perform a good warmup using a lower stress movement, such as the incline push, to prepare your body for heavier loads and decrease risk of injury. Be consistent and adjust the workload to what feels best for you. Soon, your planks will be longer and your press will be stronger — enjoy the journey.