As a personal trainer, I’ve worked with many women who are afraid of bulking up, especially in their upper body. Because of this, they shy away from working certain areas, like the chest. But many people don’t realize all of the benefits that come with strengthening this area of the body.
Whether you’re looking to improve your posture, increase upper-body strength, or even increase the size of your chest, exercises that target the pectoral muscles can help. Not only do chest exercises focus on the pecs, but they also work the shoulders, arms and armpits. Yes, even helping to eliminate that dreaded armpit flab!
To reap these benefits while building lean muscle, I recommend focusing on bodyweight chest exercises and dumbbell exercises with light weights (no heavier than five pounds). Light weights and higher repetitions build lean and long muscles and will help give you a toned, sleek physique.
Stretching any body part we work is also important to relieve tension and promote recovery. Taking time to also loosen up the chest is especially important because tight muscles cause our shoulders to round forward, which can put strain on the back.
Here are five strength-training moves that will work the chest — and five stretches to open it up.
5 exercises to strengthen your chest
The exercises below are a mix of bodyweight and dumbbell exercises. Start with 10 repetitions of each exercise. For a full circuit, repeat for a total of three rounds. You can perform these exercises every other day to help build strength in your upper body and chest.
Come into a plank position with your shoulders over your wrists and your heels reaching toward the back of the room. Pull your naval in toward your spine and bend your elbows out to the sides, lowering your body toward the ground. Press down through the hands to come back up. To modify this, lower onto your knees to perform the pushup.
Lying on your back, hold a dumbbell in each hand. Open the arms out into a goal-post position, bending the elbows at 90 degrees. Exhale as you press the weights up, touching the weights directly over your chest with the arms extended. Then bring the arms back to the starting position.
Lying chest fly
Lying on your back with a dumbbell in each hand, reach the arms out into a "T" position. Press the arms up to touch the weights together above your chest. Then lower the arms back down. Focus on relaxing your shoulders and working the chest and upper arms.
Plank shoulder tap
Come into a plank position with your shoulders over your wrists. Spread your fingers wide. Pull your naval in toward your spine and shift your weight to your left hand as you lift your right hand up and tap your left shoulder. Then place the right hand down and switch to the other side, repeating for 10 times on each side.
Plank to downward facing dog
Start in a plank position with your shoulders over your wrists. Pull your low abs in as you pike your hips up and back into a downward facing dog. Reach your heels toward the ground and your glutes up toward the ceiling. Press down firmly through your hands. Then slowly move forward into plank again. Repeat 10 times.
5 chest stretches
Stretching the chest can improve pectoral muscle flexibility over time, reducing tightness. Tight chest muscles make poor posture more likely, so it’s important to take the time to stretch out our pectorals to open up the chest. (This can even allow you to take deeper breaths!)
You can perform these stretches daily. Remember to take deep breaths as you hold each move for at least 30 seconds, making sure you feel the stretch across the front of your chest.
Wall chest stretch
Stand facing the wall with your right arm straight out to the side at shoulder height. Press your right palm against the wall and slowly press your arm into the wall. Turn your body to the left, away from the wall, so that your arm is behind you against the wall. Hold for 30 seconds before switching sides and stretching the other arm.
Bent arm wall stretch
Stand facing the wall with your right arm bent at a 90-degree angle, resting your entire arm against the wall. Press your palm, forearm and bicep into the wall. Hold here, or gently turn your body to the left to intensify the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds before switching arms.
Clasp hands behind your back
Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart. Move your arms behind your back. Interlock your fingers and press your hands away from your back as you move your chest forward. Hold and take deep breaths, releasing and repeating as many times as you’d like.
Above the head chest stretch
Sitting or standing, raise your hands above your head. Bend your elbows and clasp your hands behind your head. Push your hands back away from your head and push your chest forward until you feel the stretch in your pectorals. Hold for 30 seconds.
Kneel on a yoga mat with your thighs perpendicular to the floor and your shins straight out behind you. Tuck the toes under for a modification. Press your hands on your low back, right above your butt, as if you are sticking your hands into your back pockets. Hold here and open the chest. For a deeper stretch, slowly lean backward, reaching your hands toward your heels and arching your upper back until your chest is pointing toward the ceiling. Hold before lifting back up to the starting position, pressing your hands onto your low back one hand at a time, and breathing slowly.