How to Build a Bigger Chest with Bodyweight & Dumbbell Exercises

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

If you want to know how to build a bigger chest you’re in the right place. I’ll give you all you need to know including the best chest exercises and the ultimate chest workout.

Let’s start by discussing some anatomy basics about the pecs. There’s an upper head of the pecs known as the clavicular head, and there’s a lower head of the chest known as the sternal head. There’s also a pec major and a pec minor.

What you really need to know are the following two facts:

1) You can definitely target the upper pecs and lower pecs with different exercises. 

Most people will be deficient in upper pec size so it makes sense to do more of your dumbbell presses on an incline and a lot of your pushups on a decline. That being said it’s important to note that you can’t isolate either head. Both will work during all chest exercises.

2) The pec major muscles are performance muscles that are predominantly fast twitch.

That means a lot of your pressing should be done with slightly lower reps if you want the fastest results. While some muscle groups can grow with weights that are 60-70% of your one rep max (1RM) the chest is not usually one of them. You’ll want to train the chest with weights closer to 80% of your 1RM. I like an average of about eight reps for the majority of pressing exercises.

Like all other muscle groups you want to train the chest with an average of 30-60 total reps per workout. The pecs can be trained three times per week if you’re a beginner, and 1-2 times as you get more advanced.

That’s what the research shows as far as volume goes, though I and many of my trainees have seen impressive results with even less total volume than that.

It’s always better to start on the low end of the scale and work your way up from there. Progressive overload and getting stronger is always going to be the most important thing. Volume is a secondary concern. Only do as much volume as you can recover from and that allows you to get stronger on a consistent basis.

What Are the Best Chest Exercises Using Bodyweight & Dumbbells?

For an exercise to be deemed a good muscle builder it a has to meet a few criteria.

1) It has to involve a large amount of muscle mass taken through a complete range of motion.

2) It has to allow for the greatest amount of loading to be used.

3) It has to be something that will allow for a large strength increase over the course of weeks, months and years.

That leaves us with pushups at the top of the list. You’re going to be using roughly 65% of your bodyweight when doing a pushup. If you weigh 180 that means regular pushups will have you moving 117 pounds of resistance.

But that’s just regular, plain old pushups. Once you start manipulating your body position and adding in suspension straps that number skyrockets pretty quickly.

To build your chest you need to continually move on to more advanced pushup variations that keep you in the 8-12 rep range. Once you can start banging out more reps than that you won’t be stimulating any muscle growth and it will be time to move on to a more advanced variation.

One thing people fail to realize is that any time you move your body through space (like you do on pushups, dips, chin ups, etc.) there is a much greater level of neuromuscular activation than there is on an exercise where you simply move your limbs. Higher activation means higher potential for muscle and strength gains.

The best chest exercises using bodyweight and dumbbells are:

  • Weighted pushups
  • Suspended pushups
  • Archer pushups
  • Superman pushups
  • Divebomber pushups
  • Dips
  • Incline dumbbell presses

If you’re really advanced you can add in some suspended flyes here and there as a finisher. These should be done with a pronated grip to more effectively target the pecs.

But as I mentioned above, pushups are king. Push ups are one of the first exercises that people start doing when they embark on a mission to get bigger and stronger. But once most people progress past the beginner stage they never do push ups again. That’s a shame, because as long as you continue to strive for progressive overload they can remain a great exercise that you should do throughout your training career.

My favorite form of pushup is performed on rings. It’s safe, brutally effective and allows for consistent strength gains. It should be a staple in your training program.

You should set the rings about a foot off the floor and put your feet up on a box of equal height. Move the handles at least 4-5 feet apart. Doing that increases the tension on the pecs because the natural function of that muscle group is to draw the arms across the midline of the body. So when the straps are spread out further it forces you to have to pull the handles together while you simultaneously press your body up.

To increase the difficulty of suspended pushups you can wear a weighted vest or drape chains across your neck or upper back. The other option is to turn it into more of a modified planche push up. That means that as you lower yourself you allow your hands to drift down towards your hips while supinating your wrists (turning your palms up).

This is a tremendous exercise for the upper pecs. But be warned that this is a very advanced movement and can be stressful on the shoulders. Work up to it very slowly over the course of several workouts.

If, like Frank Rizzo of the Jerky Boys, you have a chest like a wet blanket, then I highly recommend you give this exercise a try.

Even if you trained in a well equipped gym I would tell you to use dumbbells instead of barbells for your chest exercises. Natural bodybuilding legend, Skip Lacour shares these sentiments.

The dumbbells allow a more natural range of motion and are less stressful on the shoulders. I like to rotate through 10-15 degree, 20-30 degree, and 40-45 degree incline presses. You can also do dumbbell presses on a flat bench. All are good options for building muscle and strength.

Dips are another great exercise that should be part of your chest building arsenal. For many people they will actually be more effective than the other types of pressing.

When doing dips to target the chest you have to be sure that you lean forward slightly. Staying more upright targets the triceps more.

While dips can be very effective they can also be hard on your shoulders.

If these give you shoulder problems avoid them or try doing them on rings instead. The freedom to move about into more natural ranges of motion can make a difference. But note that you have to be VERY strong to do ring dips properly and safely.

The Ultimate Chest Workout

Despite what you read in the muscle mags, most people don’t need more than one chest exercise per workout.

When starting out you should do full body workouts, meaning you will train chest three times per week.

Pick one of the exercises listed above and do it for 3-5 sets of 6-10 reps once per week, then choose another and do that on a second day, and finally pick a third exercise for Day 3 and do the same thing. Track your progress in a log book and always try to get stronger whenever you can, either by advancing to the next progression, adding more weight, or doing more reps.

As you get more advanced you can split your training into upper and lower body days. This will have you training your chest anywhere from twice per week to once every five days. When doing this you can do two, and sometimes even three (though, that’s probably overkill) chest exercises per workout.

Here’s an example of how that might look:

Day 1
1) Incline DB Press- 4×6-8
2) Ring Dip- 3×6-8
3) Chin Up
4) Row
5) Farmers Walk

Day 2
1) Decline Ring Pushup- 3×8-12
2) Walking Alligator Pushup- 2×10-12
3) Row
4) Chin Up
5) Arms or Abs

Dietary Considerations for Building a Bigger Chest

As with all muscle groups, your chest is never going to look good if you have a layer of fat covering it. That leads to the dreaded man boobs look for men and the soft, hanging out of the side of your sports bra look for women. So you have to make sure your diet is on point and that your bodyfat is low enough to see your hard work.

Eat around one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight each day. Focus on lean meats, chicken, fish, eggs, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt and high quality protein powder.

Set carbs at 1.5-2 grams per pound of bodyweight. The best sources of carbs are rice, potatoes and oats. Eat about 2-3 servings of fruit per day and all the green veggies you want.

Have about .4-5 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight. You’ll get most of this with the protein sources you are consuming. In addition to that you’ll get from animal products you should also get some of your fat intake from coconut oil, olive oil, nuts and avocado.

The Bottom Line

  • Pushups are king
  • Dumbbells are better than barbells
  • Get progressively stronger
  • Train smart and don’t get hurt
  • Eat enough to grow
  • Rest, rinse and repeat

Now you know how to build a bigger chest.

Thanks for reading.