Recently on Quora I had a question about which exercise was better for building a big chest, Bench Press or Dips, and I had to stop for a moment and think, you see the big thick chests of the late 70’s Bodybuilders were built with both, as this was the way of things, in fact it was common practice to warm up with Bodyweight exercises like dips and pull-ups before heading onto the weights, additionally Dumbells were seen as finishing exercises or “concentration” and were normally left to the end, the question was interesting though as I have always thought of the Barbell Bench Press as quite an inefficient exercise as it tends to recruit a lot of help from the Triceps and Shoulders to complete the movement, but it cannot be denied that it is the exercise of choice and if anybody is going to lift weights you can be fairly sure that it will figure in their routine.
To decide what is best, we first need to understand in where the muscle is anchored as this will give us some idea of what movement it is bio-mechanically suited to performing, the whole idea behind all these new and strange looking machines that came out of late are all trying to move the resistance through the best possible motion to load the target muscle directly, there is a trade off with this though, when we do this we isolate the muscle completely and build it in size and strength, but if we concentrate solely on that type of isolated movement we do not bring the other supporting muscles up with it, and you can at best start to look a little odd as you have large major muscle groups with nothing behind or at worse you could liken it to hanging a chandelier from a thick heavy chain from a plasterboard ceiling with no extra support, sooner or later it will pull loose from the ceiling and the roof will come in, this what gives powerlifters and strength competitors that solid thick look it is all the muscle groups growing together regardless of aesthetics to create the strongest individual possible.
So the pectoral muscle has two parts the Pectoralis major and minor, the muscle we are all referring to when we think of this is the major as this is the most visible, this is anchored under the anterior Deltoid and attached like an open fan to the sternum it’s major function is to draw the arm across the chest and is used to push things away from us, the minor is also anchored under the anterior Deltoid but this is attached to the Ribcage and is activated by drawing the arms back over the head this would tend to be activated along with the Latissimus Dorsi and Serratus muscles.
- Bench Press
- Cable Cross Overs
- Dumbell Press
- Cross Bench Dips
These all have an Incline / Decline variant and as discussed previously Bench Press can be done with Dumbells as well as a Barbell and in fact when training on your own it is probably advisable to do it that way to avoid dropping the weight on yourself!
The best way to determine which exercise is best is to try them, and variations of them, but I would say that as an integral part of a chest routine they should both exist, in fact I would go out on a limb and say that a routine consisting of just these two exercises would be sufficient to build a good think chest, I will explain.
Laying flat with your feet flat on the floor grip the Barbell evenly at just beyond shoulder width and by that I mean that the inside of your thumb should be just outside the line of the shoulder this will help to reduce the activation of the Triceps, there are several schools of thought on the arched back situation you often see but I will offer my opinion, a small arch that you could just about slide a flat hand into is fine any more than that and it is too much, lower the weight slowly and under control, do not bounce the weight at the bottom as this could cause damage, push straight up and do not lock out, it is bad for your elbows and besides it just rests the weight on your Triceps as they fight to keep your arm straight against the weight.
Traditional Dips at a dip bar are very difficult to get wrong as the body is suspended and pretty much just follows it’s own pattern, the trick here is concentration, mind – muscle connection plays a big part in this movement as you are concentrating on moving up by squeezing the pectorals together rather than simply straightening your arms, you will know when you have got it right because your chest will pump up instead of you triceps just feeling like balloons!
Done with Dumbell in a flat position keep your arms just shy of straight and put a small arc into the movement so instead of simply going straight up and down move your arms from the open position as if you were going to cross them over your chest but obviously stop as they meet at the top of the movement the best way to imagine this is to think about pulling from under your shoulder and toward your sternum as that is the path the muscle will want to naturally take.
These are done on a cable crossover machine (surprise) and are easy to get wrong, it seems that some people are trying to replicate a pressing movement by literally closing and opening the arm at the elbow, this really makes it a Tricep exercise and at best the Pecs just had a stabilising support, You need to imagine the same movement and intent as the Fly but stood up, this exercise also targets the Pectoralis Minor due to you bringing the arms down and across from overhead, once performed right you will know because the resultant pump from both the Major and Minor muscle groups is huge and you will notice it.
I would (and do) use this exercise as a warm up, it is a brilliant one to warm up the shoulder joints and the elbows as well as the chest and when performed correct you even get a lot of AB activation as well as some Hip Flexor assistance, the right way to do this is with a flat straight line from your ankles to your shoulders and hands in the same shoulder width position as with Bench Pressing, slowly lower yourself to the ground so that the whole body touches at once not the face or tummy first, and then in one movement the whole body lifts back to the starting position, this is a little rough on the wrists though so make sure to roll them out after each set.
As you can see the two exercises that stand out as having the most activation on the Pectoralis Major are the Bench Press and the Dip as they naturally sit across the muscle girdle and move in the same direction as the muscle can pull, Cable Crossovers are a very close third as they also target the Minor and this will lift your chest up and make it appear bigger over time, I do not subscribe to the Incline / Decline theory because it is so easy to over do, benches just aren’t adjustable enough unless you are lucky, and tend to be too high on incline, moving the stress to the Shoulders and too low on Decline because you have to put one end on a step to achieve it and you end up pushing with you triceps, if it is possible to do so and you are determined to do it, then an incline or decline of no more than 2 inches would suffice more if you have shorter arms to allow for the lever effect, so in the end after being forced to think it through I realised that done correctly Bench Press is a very good exercise and has a good amount of activation across the chest, the trick is to get the hand spacing right and think about the movement rather than the ego boosting weight, because if you go heavy to soon you just recruit every other muscle and leave the Pecs just supporting.