Why You Need to Work Your Chest Muscles

A woman using a chest press machine in a gym

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Working your chest muscles (or pecs) does more than simply improve your physique. These key muscles are involved in essential functions you need throughout the day and provide the foundation for many moves you need in a variety of exercises and athletics.

The Chest Muscles

The chest muscles are made up of the pectoralis major and, underneath that, the pectoralis minor. Together they are often referred to as the "pecs." The pectoralis major is the larger muscle and has two parts—an upper portion (called the clavicular head) and the lower portion (called the sternal head). The pectoralis minor is triangular in shape and works in tandem with the pectoralis major.

The chest muscles are responsible for moving the arms across the body and up and down, as well as other movements like flexion, adduction, and rotation. Most chest exercises involve pushing the arms away from the body or the body away from the arms.

Any chest exercise you do will work the entire area, but specific exercises will stimulate the chest in different ways.

Functional Fitness

The chest includes some of the largest muscles in the upper body and you use the chest muscles all day long. For example, the chest muscles are needed to push open a door, wash your hair, or get up and down from the floor. It's important to keep these muscles strong for all your daily activities. 

The stronger your chest muscles are, the stronger your entire body is.

You also use the pecs in many common exercises, such as the pushup. Your chest muscles are big and can handle more weight, which allows you to burn more calories when you exercise them. In fact, when you work your chest, your shoulders and arms are also involved, allowing you to exercise more of your body at once. A chest workout also serves as a great warmup for those smaller muscle groups.

Training Frequency

You can work your chest up to three non-consecutive days a week. However, if you're lifting heavy weights (enough that you can only complete six to eight repetitions), you'll need at least two to three days of rest before you perform the exercises again. For this reason, you may only want to work your chest once or twice a week.

If your goal is to tone your muscles, you'll want to stick with one to three sets of 12 to 16 repetitions and at least one day of rest before you perform the exercises again.

Choosing Exercises

Some of the most common chest exercises include pushups, chest presses, and chest flies. Choose a mixture of different exercises to target your chest from a variety of directions, and make sure you vary your routine every four to six weeks to avoid plateaus. To augment your workout, you can change exercises, increase weight, and/or add repetitions.

If your aim is simply to get strong and fit, work your chest along with other muscle groups in combination, as in an upper-body pyramid workout or a total-body workout. If you're trying to build size, choose exercises that work your chest by itself with a variety of exercises, such as incline press and parallel bar dips.

Variations

Slight adjustments in how you do an exercise can change which area of the chest is targeted. For example, a chest press involves the entire pectoralis major with a focus on the lower portion of the chest. By moving to an incline position, you still work the entire pectoralis major, but now the focus shifts to the upper portion of the chest.

By changing the movement, the angle, and/or the type of resistance, you'll recruit different muscle fibers and challenge your body in new ways. That's why there are so many variations for each exercise—and why it's worth doing a range of exercises, enabling you to work the entire chest.

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