“How much do you bench?” If you have ever talked to anyone about lifting weights or the gym, you have likely been asked that question. Between the normalcy of that question and Monday’s being known as “International Chest Day,” there’s no debate that the chest is the most commonly worked muscle group.
The bench press is, without a doubt, one of the best exercises for building mass, especially in the chest, but chest isolation exercises help sculpt and define the pecs. In this article, we will teach you about the anatomy of the muscles and all of the best isolation chest exercises to help get your pecs defined. We will also provide a sample chest workout to help you get your pecs shredded.
Table of Contents
- 6 Best Chest Isolation Exercises
- Sample Chest Workout Routine
- Programming Tips
- Best Chest Compound Exercises
- Anatomy of the Chest
- Benefits of Chest Isolation Exercises
6 Best Chest Isolation Exercises
In the sections below, we will explain everything you need to know regarding the chest muscle, from anatomy to compound chest exercises. But first, we will teach you the chest isolation exercises you need to maximize your chest workout and muscle growth. Isolation exercises are exercises that target a single muscle group, whereas compound exercises work multiple muscle groups. Isolation exercises are used to address a muscle imbalance or focus on specific muscle groups that are neglected in compound movements.
1. Dumbbell Chest Fly
The dumbbell chest fly is one of the best isolation exercises to practice mind-muscle connection, a tactic where you focus intently on the target muscles moving the weight rather than aimlessly lifting with momentum.
- Lay on a flat bench, feet flat on the floor, with one dumbbell in each hand.
- For the starting position, extend your arms into the air with a slight elbow bend, holding the weights so your palms face each other.
- Slowly lower the weights to your side, like a letter T, with your arms slightly bent.
- Open your arms as wide as possible (without getting hurt) until you feel the chest muscles stretching.
- Squeeze your muscles and focus on the chest contraction as you slowly bring the dumbbells back to starting position.
- Repeat for the desired reps, usually in the 10-15 range.
2. Cable Fly
Cable flyes are another great chest isolation exercise and alternative to the dumbbell chest fly. The movement is the same as the dumbbell version, except you adjust the handles on the cable machine.
Adjust cable weight and height, with D-handle attachments on each to grip.
- For total chest isolation, set the handles roughly at shoulder height.
- To focus on the upper chest, perform a low cable fly.
- To focus on the lower chest, set the cables as high as possible so it becomes a type of decline press.
3. Low Cable Fly
Low cable flyes are an alternative to a regular cable fly that emphasizes the upper pecs. The low cable fly is performed the exact same way as a normal cable fly, except the handles should be dropped as low as possible. You then slowly lift the handles upward to shoulder level, rather than the downward motion of cable flyes. Focus on squeezing the upper chest fibers as you raise the weight.
On the other hand, you can raise the handles to the very top of the machine to place the focus on the lower chest. With the handles above your head, it becomes a decline pressing motion, which targets the lower chest.
4. Pec Deck Machine
The Pec Deck is a chest isolation exercise that uses a machine with two arms to perform a chest fly.
- Adjust the seat so that the machine handles are chest level when you are seated.
- Sit with your back firmly against the bench and your feet flat on the ground.
- Grip the handles with an overhand grip and your elbows slightly bent, just like a normal chest fly.
- Slowly push the handles in front of you towards your chest, with the handles meeting in the middle.
- Focus on squeezing your chest to move the weight, rather than your upper arms, and feel the contraction as your hands meet.
- Slowly return the handles to the starting position. Be sure to feel the muscle stretch and control the weight as it goes back rather than momentum slamming the weights.
- Repeat for the desired reps, usually in the 10-15 range.
5. Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
The flat dumbbell press (dumbbell bench press) is a compound exercise, but you can perform the dumbbell press with one arm at a time. With a regular flat dumbbell press, people often use momentum or other muscles to help move the weight. For this exercise, you set up the same way as a normal dumbbell press, but you only lift with one arm while the other wait idles above your chest. Be sure to use the same weight to prevent a muscle imbalance.
6. Svend Press
The Svend Press is my favorite chest isolation exercise, especially for focusing on the inner pecs. This is a perfect isolation exercise to use until failure or for supersets with compound chest exercises, like a barbell bench press or dumbbell press. It’s a great exercise to focus on mind-muscle connection and focus on the contraction.
- This chest isolation exercise can be performed seated or standing.
- For seated, keep your back firmly against the bench and your feet flat on the ground.
- For standing, stand shoulder width apart with your back straight. You can slightly bend the knees if it’s more comfortable.
Sample Chest Workout Routine
Perform the below sample chest workout once or twice a week, with at least three days rest between.
- Don’t go heavy: Isolation exercises are meant to be done with lighter weights for higher reps to sculpt the muscle. Use a light weight that is easily controlled and focus on squeezing the muscle and feeling the contraction rather than throwing heavy weights around. Using too much weight can cause injury and disrupt form.
- Focus on form: As always, form is the most important aspect of any exercise. Form is extra important for isolation exercises because if you have bad form, you can take the emphasis off the desired muscle by using other muscles.
- Be controlled: Unless you are a competitive powerlifter or CrossFit athlete, there’s no reason to throw weight around aggressively. Move the weights slowly and focus on feeling the muscle stretch.
Best Chest Compound Exercises
In order to maximize your chest development, you must perform compound and isolation exercises. While an isolation exercise focuses on a single muscle group, a compound exercise involves multiple muscle groups. The barbell bench press is considered one of the best chest compound exercises, along with the incline bench press.
Best chest compound exercises include:
Barbell bench press
- Flat bench
- Incline bench press
- Decline bench press
- Flat dumbbell press
- Chest dips
- Machine press
Anatomy of the Chest
The chest, or pectoral muscles, are one of the largest muscle groups, meaning you must hit every aspect for the perfect chest. The pectoral muscles are divided into two main groups, the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor.
1. Pectoralis major:
The pectoralis major is a fan-shaped muscle that makes up the majority of the chest. The pectoralis major is comprised of the clavicular head, sternal head, and abdominal head.
- Clavicular head: This is the upper portion of the chest, originating from the collarbone and inserts into the humerus (upper arm). It is crucial for flexion and adduction of the shoulder.
- Sternal head: The sternal head makes up the bottom portion of the pectoralis major. It starts at the sternum and inserts into the humerus. It helps with adduction and medial rotation of the arms.
- Abdominal head (costal head): The abdominal head is usually grouped with the sternal head. It starts at the abdominal muscles.
The primary purpose of the pectoralis major is to flex, extend, stabilize, and rotate the chest muscles to the humerus.
Pectoralis Major Functions:
- Arm Flexion: One of the main purposes of the pectoralis major is to flex the arm at the shoulder joint. This includes movements like bringing the arm forward, upward, or bending. The upper chest is responsible for shoulder flexion.
- Adduction: Another primary function is arm adduction, which is the arms’ movement toward the body’s midline. Examples of chest adduction include a dumbbell fly or a normal movement like hugging or pressing the hands together in front of the chest, such as a decline press machine.
- Medial Rotation: Medial rotation refers to the internal rotation of a body part towards the midline. A cable chest fly would be an example because you pull the cables toward the center of your chest. The lower chest is involved in adduction and medial rotation.
- Stabilization: Lastly, the pectoralis major provides stability to the shoulder joints, the scapula (shoulder blade), and the chest. Stabilization of the shoulder joint is crucial for any arm/shoulder movements, including pushing, pulling, and reaching. Exercises that strengthen the rotator cuff can help improve your chest.
2. Pectoralis minor:
The pectoralis minor is a small, triangular-shaped muscle below the pectoralis major. It starts from the third, fourth, and fifth rib and inserts into the coracoid process of the scapula. It helps support the scapula and plays a major role in downward rotational movements and protraction of the scapula (shoulder blades).
Benefits of Chest Isolation Exercises
Having bragging rights about your bench press over friends or fellow gym-goers can provide an ego boost, but chest isolation exercises have several legitimate benefits. Benefits of a more muscular chest include:
- Stronger upper body: The most obvious benefit of chest exercises is increased muscle growth and upper body strength. The chest muscles are responsible for the movement of the arms and shoulders, including for pushing, pulling, and lifting. A strong chest is essential to have a solid upper body.
- Improve posture: Your back is the most important muscle for posture, but having a strong chest also plays a major role. A strong upper body and chest help support your posture and prevent slouching.
- Reduce injury risk: Strengthening your upper body and chest muscles helps to prevent injury, especially of the shoulders. A chest isolation exercise that strengthens the stabilizer muscles helps prevent shoulder injury and strengthen joints.
- Perform better: Whether you are an elite athlete or a casual gym-goer, chest exercises can help you perform better. For an athlete, building chest muscles can help improve endurance, power, and sport-specific movements like throwing, tackling, or swinging. For the non-athlete, doing chest exercises as part of a functional fitness routine can improve the quality of your everyday life, such as pushing open a door or lifting something.
- Improve bone density: Studies have shown that resistance training, especially compound exercises, helps increase bone density and preserve bone and muscle mass. The most significant skeletal benefits are associated with compound exercises, like the bench press, performed with high intensity (80-85% of one-rep max) and progressively increased over time.¹
- Look and feel better: People love to train their chest because of its importance in creating an aesthetic, complete physique. Casual lifters tend to train the chest muscles so often because it’s a workout routine that is familiar to them and it’s important to one’s physique.
Barbell bench presses are one of the best compound exercises because they work nearly every upper body muscle and promote chest growth. However, one chest exercise is not enough to maximize muscle growth or chest development. This is where isolation exercises, such as flyes or the Pec Deck Machine, are required to help develop the lower, inner, and upper chest muscles.
Isolation exercises are generally performed with lighter weights for a higher rep amount in the 10-20 range. Chest isolation exercises should always be performed toward the end of your workout after you complete some form of bench press and other compound movements. With a good diet and proper training techniques, you can take your gains to the next level with these isolation exercises.
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