Many women shy away from chest exercises, generally thinking one of two things: (1) that chest exercises consist of only the bench press and are only useful for male bodybuilders, or (2) that chest exercises will reduce their breast size.
Both of these notions are false. To address (1), there are many more chest exercises than the bench press, and chest exercises benefit everyone! You don’t need to use heavy weights for chest exercises, and even if you do lift heavy weights, ladies, you won’t bulk up like a bodybuilder; your body does not have the hormones for that type of muscle building. Your muscles will increase in size somewhat, but more importantly, they will become toned and defined. Moreover, chest exercises are the best way to train the motion of pushing, a key dimension of functional strength that everyone can benefit from improving.
And to shoot down misconception (2) once and for all, that chest exercises will reduce breast size, you need to know that spot reduction is a myth. In other words, working out your chest will not burn fat in that area. Nor will abdominal workouts burn your tummy fat. Fat loss is a much larger picture involving burning more calories than you consume. Fat loss occurs in a fairly even pattern throughout the body, not in the specific areas that are exercised.
Chest exercises will likely make your breasts look bigger, not smaller! The chest muscles we work during chest exercises directly underlie the breasts, and guess what, if the foundation the breasts sit upon is boosted, the breasts will be boosted as well!
So no more excuses: strength training is the key to women’s fitness and if you are exercising, you should be lifting weights! Keep reading to learn about basic chest anatomy, exercise guidelines for chest exercises, and the best chest exercises for women including instructional videos.
Jump to the Videos of the Best Chest Exercises for Women or continue reading to learn more.
Basic Chest Anatomy
Understanding the basics of chest muscle anatomy will help you maximize the best chest exercises for women.
The main chest muscle involved in all of our chest exercises here is pectoralis major, also known as the pectorals or simply pecs. There are two heads or origin points of the pectoralis major; the clavicular head, which originates from the middle of the clavicle (collarbone), and the sternal head, which originates from the front of the sternum, the cartilage of the 1st through 6th ribs, and the connective tissue of the external oblique muscle. Both heads stretch across the chest, then insert together into the upper humerus.
The clavicular head of pectoralis major flexes the arm at the shoulder, while the sternal head opposes this action by extending the arm. Both heads work together to internally rotate and adduct the arm.
Different chest exercises can target different parts of the pectoralis major. You don’t need to worry too much about this unless you have very specific chest-building goals. I will make a few notes in the exercise descriptions below about which part of the pecs are being mainly worked by each exercise as well as specific adjustments you can make to work one part or the other.
Although not part of the chest musculature, the anterior deltoid (front of shoulder) and triceps (back of arm) are highly involved in many chest exercises, and pushing motions in general, so follow the links if you would like to learn more about these important muscles.
Exercise Guidelines for the Best Chest Exercises for Women
Following are some tips to help you perform the best chest exercises for women correctly, and to get the most out of your time spent working out.
To perform chest exercises properly, you must be able to stabilize your shoulder blades. To stabilize your shoulders, you must perform a shoulder blade retraction by squeezing your shoulder blades back and together. This will push your chest out a bit, and that’s fine. Shoulder blades held in retraction ensure that the work stays in the pectoralis major instead of getting passed off to the synergist muscles, which can lead to postural problems. The risk of injury is also decreased when you keep your shoulder blades actively retracted during your chest exercises.
You must balance your chest workouts with back workouts to balance your upper body. Overtraining the chest can lead to or exacerbate current hunched posture problems all too common in our society where we spend lots of time hunched in front of screens. You can do all your upper body work on the same day as long as you allow at least 48 hours between training sessions. Alternatively, you can follow a split routine where you work different body parts on different days so you can hit the gym more often without overtraining certain muscle groups.
For general strength and endurance adaptations, aim for sets of between 12 and 20 reps. For maximum strength, go for sets of 6-12 reps. As with all other strength training exercises, the goal is to dial in the amount of weight so your muscles fatigue within the desired rep range.
Since everyone’s fitness level is different, it’s tough to give recommendations about how much weight to use in an article like this. The best advice is to start low and add weight as you learn how much you can handle and as you get stronger. Especially during the chest flies described below, you’ll want to start quite low to avoid shoulder injury.
If you’re working with a split routine (where you train different body parts on different days), it’s appropriate to pair chest work with tricep work since many of the best chest exercises for women work the triceps as well.
Finally, make sure to stretch your upper body before and after chest exercises to lubricate joints, increase range of motion, and prevent injury. Read our upper body stretching article to learn more about how to stretch your upper body. Also be sure to check out our Upper Body Workout for Women article for even more great exercise tips to build a killer upper body.
Best Chest Exercises for Women
Without further ado, here are the best chest exercises for women. There are many more chest exercises out there, but these are the three basic moves that will give you the most bang for your buck unless you have very specific goals with regard to your chest. Make sure you read and understand the exercise guidelines in the section above to maximize these exercises and prevent injury.
Dumbbell Chest Flies on a Stability Ball
The best chest exercise of all is the dumbbell chest fly (no, not the bench press). This is because the chest fly is the only exercise that truly isolates the chest and leaves synergists such as the anterior deltoids (front of shoulder) or triceps (back of upper arm) out of the mix.
Perform chest flies on a stability ball to engage your core and legs to get more out of this exercise. Since most female exercisers are looking to increase strength while burning plenty of calories to encourage fat loss, flies on a stability ball perform double duty since they get the abdomen and legs involved to stabilize. You will also develop more functional strength by using a stability ball. Functional training addresses real-world strength which helps your perform everyday activities with more ease, grace, and safety.
Resting your back on a stability ball with your knees bent at a 90 degree angle, push the weights up directly overhead before beginning your flies. Remember to keep your shoulder blades retracted as described in the exercise guidelines section above. With palms facing each other, bend your elbows slightly. Inhale as you lower your arms at a 90 degree angle to your trunk until the weights are just slightly above chest level. Then, exhale and push the weights back together up top, squeezing strongly through your chest muscles.
When you’re finished, bring the weights together and then lower them straight down to the fronts of your shoulders before carefully getting up from the ball.
Never perform chest flies with excessive weight, as it’s easy to injure your shoulders doing so. Weight recommendations vary from person to person, so be sure to start low to determine what’s appropriate for your body.
Bench Press on a Stability Ball
Again, we will use a stability ball instead of a traditional bench for our bench press. The reasoning is the same as for the flies described above: more activation of core and leg muscles leading to increased caloric expenditure, greater stabilization, and higher functional strength development.
Make sure the stability ball you’re using is high quality and fully inflated. Watch the video carefully to see how to assume the position on the stability ball under the rack. Your spotter will help you unrack the barbell. Lower the barbell while inhaling, keeping your elbows close to your body. Exhale pushing straight up. When you’re through with your reps, have your spotter guide you as you re-rack the barbell.
The bench press works a good deal of the pectoralis major fairly evenly. How close together your hands are on the bar will change which parts of the pecs are emphasized. A close grip (hands closer than shoulder width) will work the inner chest closer to the sternum, while a wide grip emphasizes the outer chest closer to the shoulders. To evenly work the pecs, simply grip slightly wider than shoulder width.
If you are pressing for maximal strength using heavy weight, you will want to use a traditional weight bench instead of a stability ball. You will also likely want to use a traditional incline or decline bench if you want to target specific areas of your pecs through bench pressing. Using a incline bench (head higher than hip level) will emphasize the upper pecs, while using a decline bench (head lower than hip level) will emphasize the lower pecs.
For more information on how to maximize your bench press, read the following articles:
Chest Press on a Stability Ball
If you don’t have a spotter available, it’s safer to perform a dumbbell chest press than a bench press. Both will yield similar results, but the dumbbells will actually allow you a greater range of motion downward, giving your pecs a good stretch.
Watch the video on the right for a demonstration of a dumbbell chest press.
You can perform this exercise on a stability ball or on a flat bench with or without the hand rotation shown in the video.
The classic push-up remains one of the best chest exercises for women. It’s a classic for a reason, needing only the resistance provided by your own body weight to provide an extremely effective exercise for the pectorals, anterior deltoid (front of shoulder) and triceps (back of upper arm). The tighter you keep your elbows to your body, the more the triceps are emphasized.
Always begin your push-ups flat on the ground to build functional strength. With your hands flat on the floor next to your elbows and your elbows kept tightly against your sides, push yourself off the ground. Keep your ear, shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle in perfect alignment as if you have a racing stripe painted down the side of your body. Refuse to let your core sag, or your butt to lift in the air. Be careful not to snap your elbows at the top.
Push-ups are good at any time in a chest workout, but work especially well at the end of a chest workout to totally burn out the chest muscles. Don’t worry about how many you can do or how fast you are going. The most important aspect of building chest strength is the time the muscles are under tension. If you bust out twenty pushups in ten seconds or only get through five, it doesn’t really matter as long as you maintain good form and muscle tension the whole time.
Bent-knee push-ups (AKA “girl” push-ups) are not recommended as they fail to build functional strength or engage the core as much as straight push-ups. If you struggle to perform regular push-ups, you can work up to them slowly by raising the incline of your upper body. You can do push-ups with your hands against a wall as the easiest variation, then move to a counter top, then a weight bench, then finally the floor as you get stronger!
If regular push-ups don’t provide enough of a challenge for you, try raising the incline of your feet by placing your feet on a bench or stability ball. As with any exercise progression, make sure you are totally comfortable performing straight push-ups with perfect form before you attempt to progress.
If you would like to build explosive strength and power in your chest, make like Rocky and try plyometric pushups! Instead of merely pushing yourself upright, you push explosively so that your hands leave the floor. Quickly clap, and then catch yourself with your hands and lower down to complete one rep.
Make sure you have stable wrists and shoulders and that your maintain your straight “racing stripe” as in the classic push-up when you do plyometric push-ups.