Looking to build a stronger, more defined chest? Check out our top 5 exercises that are better than the bench press for chest hypertrophy. These exercises include weighted dips, cable crossovers, incline dumbbell press, decline dumbbell press, and dumbbell flyes. Incorporating these exercises into your workout routine can help you achieve optimal muscle growth and definition in your chest.
Are you tired of doing free-weight barbell bench presses every workout and still not seeing the gains in chest size you want? You’re not alone; the bench press is the most common chest exercise in most training programs. What if I told you that training the chest with bench presses is not the holy grail of chest exercises?
Based on the new science of stretch-mediated muscle hypertrophy, the bench press might not be the best exercise to maximize chest muscle growth. Do I have your attention now? First, let’s examine why muscle stretching is so important for muscle growth.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE STRETCH
Before we jump into the exercises, let’s briefly touch on the science of muscle hypertrophy.
Using a full range of motion results in “stretch-induced muscle growth.” This theory suggests that stretching a muscle with weights creates important anabolic muscle triggers for hypertrophy. (Kruse et al., 2021; Wisdom et al., 2015) Stretching a muscle can result in greater stimulus for muscle growth overall.
GREATER PROTEIN SYNTHESIS, SATELLITE CELLS WITH STRETCHING EXERCISES
One potential mechanism is that a greater muscle stretch can result in protein synthesis. Research has shown that eccentric resistance exercises (i.e., lowering the weight) that involve a greater degree of muscle stretch may increase muscle protein synthesis greater than exercises that do not involve as much stretch. (Choi, 2016; Roig et al., 2009)
Another reason a greater muscle stretch can contribute to better muscle growth is the activation of muscle satellite cells. Satellite cells are important for muscle repair and growth. Increased satellite cells may contribute to muscle hypertrophy over time.
Research has found that resistance exercises that involve a greater degree of muscle stretch activate satellite cells to a greater extent than exercises that do not involve as much stretch. (Bazgir et al., 2017; Tatsumi et al., 2001) This increased activation of satellite cells may contribute to muscle hypertrophy over time.
A previous article on Evidence Based Muscle explains how doing only the bottom half of barbell preacher curls in which the muscle is stretched resulted in greater bicep size than those doing the same routine in the muscle top or contracted position.
IS THE BENCH PRESS THE BEST CHEST EXERCISE?
The bench press for chest growth is undeniably an excellent compound exercise that targets the pectoral muscle and other muscles, such as the delts and triceps. However, the shoulder-width bench press doesn’t create the optimal stretch in the chest muscles, and that’s why it may not be the best exercise for chest muscle hypertrophy.
The bench press is limited by how far the chest can be stretched because when the bar touches the chest, this stops the range of motion. In contrast, other chest exercises that involve a greater degree of chest stretch, such as dumbbell flyes or cable crossovers, can provide a greater stretch on the chest muscles and may be more effective for muscle growth.
5 EXERCISES BETTER THAN BENCH PRESS FOR MUSCLE GROWTH
1. DUMBBELL FLYES
Dumbbell flyes are an isolation exercise that maximizes the stretch on the chest muscles because the hands can be placed further back, leading to enhanced muscle growth. Lower the dumbbells in a wide arc to the sides of your chest like you are wrapping your arms around a giant barrel, keeping a slight bend in your elbows. You can feel the stretch in your chest muscles as you lower the dumbbells.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effects of the bench press and dumbbell flyes on chest muscle activation. The study found that dumbbell flyes resulted in greater chest activation than the bench press. (Clemons & Aaron, 1997)
2. INCLINE DUMBBELL PRESS
The incline dumbbell press targets the upper chest muscles and places greater emphasis on the stretch at the bottom of the movement. Most lifters make the mistake of lower the dumbbells and touching the chest; however, you want to lower the dumbbells on the side of your chest to get a greater stretch. This greater range of motion than a barbell incline press results in a deeper stretch and increased stretch-mediated hypertrophy.
3. CABLE CROSSOVERS
Cable crossovers are one of the best cable exercises for chest hypertrophy. They are similar to a dumbbell fly and allow constant tension on the chest muscles throughout the entire range of motion. Grab the handles and adjust the cable position and angle.
You can focus on stretching the upper, middle, and lower chest. Cable crossovers allow for an efficient upper and lower chest workout without changing machines.
4. WEIGHTED DIPS
Weighted dips result in a fantastic stretch for your lower chest muscles. To emphasize chest stretch, lean slightly forward and flare your elbows out during the exercise allowing your chest muscles to be fully stretched in the bottom position.
5. ELEVATED FEET PUSH-UPS (UPPER CHEST PUSH-UP WORKOUT)
Elevating your feet during push-ups changes the angle of the movement from the middle chest to placing more emphasis on the upper chest. Upper chest workout push-ups can increase the stretch of the chest even further by placing your hands on an elevated surface, such as plates, dumbbells, or steps.
The barbell bench press may be the most popular chest exercise, but it’s not the best for chest muscle hypertrophy due to its limited range of motion. To maximize your chest growth, incorporate exercises that result in the greatest stretch for your pecs. Research suggests that the stretching must be intense, ranging at a pain scale of 8 out of 10 for maximal muscle growth. (Simpson et al., 2017)
Adding dumbbell flyes, incline dumbbell presses, cable crossovers, cable chest presses, weighted dips, and push-ups with elevated feet to your workout routine will make you on your way to a more sculpted, powerful chest.
Bazgir, B., Fathi, R., Rezazadeh Valojerdi, M., Mozdziak, P., & Asgari, A. (2017). Satellite Cells Contribution to Exercise Mediated Muscle Hypertrophy and Repair. Cell journal, 18(4), 473-484. https://doi.org/10.22074/cellj.2016.4714
Choi, S.-J. (2016). Age-related functional changes and susceptibility to eccentric contraction-induced damage in skeletal muscle cell. Integrative medicine research, 5(3), 171-175. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.imr.2016.05.004
Clemons, J. M., & Aaron, C. (1997). Effect of Grip Width on the Myoelectric Activity of the Prime Movers in the Bench Press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 11, 82–87.
Kruse, A., Rivares, C., Weide, G., Tilp, M., & Jaspers, R. T. (2021). Stimuli for Adaptations in Muscle Length and the Length Range of Active Force Exertion-A Narrative Review. Front Physiol, 12, 742034. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2021.742034
Roig, M., O’Brien, K., Kirk, G., Murray, R., McKinnon, P., Shadgan, B., & Reid, W. D. (2009). The effects of eccentric versus concentric resistance training on muscle strength and mass in healthy adults: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med, 43(8), 556-568. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2008.051417
Simpson, C. L., Kim, B. D. H., Bourcet, M. R., Jones, G. R., & Jakobi, J. M. (2017). Stretch training induces unequal adaptation in muscle fascicles and thickness in medial and lateral gastrocnemii. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 27(12), 1597-1604. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12822
Tatsumi, R., Sheehan, S. M., Iwasaki, H., Hattori, A., & Allen, R. E. (2001). Mechanical stretch induces activation of skeletal muscle satellite cells in vitro. Exp Cell Res, 267(1), 107-114. https://doi.org/10.1006/excr.2001.5252
Wisdom, K. M., Delp, S. L., & Kuhl, E. (2015). Use it or lose it: multiscale skeletal muscle adaptation to mechanical stimuli. Biomechanics and Modeling in Mechanobiology, 14(2), 195-215. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10237-014-0607-3