How to build a strong chest and fix your push-up

I can't speak for women, but just about every man wants a bigger chest. And why wouldn't he (or she!) — a strong set of pecs is a confidence-booster, shirt on or off.

You can't beat push-ups

Best chest exercise, hands down (no pun intended). Push-ups target not only the pectorals but most of the muscle groups in the upper body, you don't need any equipment to do them, and you can mix up the difficulty by adjusting the tempo and position of your hands. 

The push-up looks simple, but there are a few mistakes I'm constantly correcting when I coach people:

Head dipping towards the ground. This mistake's especially common in women, likely caused by muscles in the neck and upper back trying to "help" during the push-up. Basically, your nose shouldn't get the floor before your chest does.

To stop your head craning forwards, pull your chin in to keep your neck long. Whip out your phone and film your push-up to check how your body is moving: in a "perfect" push-up, your entire body stays in a straight line — you only pivot at the toes. 

(Or from the knees, if you can't get your chest all the way down to the floor from your toes. No, this is not a "girlie push-up", as a male member at my gym once complained to me.)

Sagging at the hips. The push-up is a plank disguised as a chest exercise. Brace your core, squeeze your butt and tuck your hips under — like a dog tucking its tail between its legs — to keep your hips solid.

Elbows flaring out to the side. As a personal trainer colleague noted years ago: "You're not doing the chicken dance." Your elbows shouldn't go any wider than 45 degrees from your body during your push-up. The closer they're tucked to your torso, the more you'll target your triceps.

Bench, baby, bench

There's a near-endless roster of chest exercises to do in the gym, but the bench press is as indispensable to to chest day as avo on toast is to cafe breakfasts.

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Switch between barbells and dumbbells, and adjust the bench's angle to target different parts of your chest: an inclined press hits a little more of the upper chest, and a declined press a little more of the lower.

Hottest tip for your bench press: scapular retraction and depression, which is a dressed-up way of saying "pull your shoulder blades firmly together and down, and hold them there as you lower and raise your weights". This creates a strong base of support for your press. Without it, your odds of injury shoot up.

(Trust me on this: I still have shoulder troubles caused by years of bad bench pressing as a gym rookie, because I never learned about shoulder retraction. This is a great YouTube checklist for improving your press.)

How much do you bench, bro?

Inevitably, you will be asked this question. And the correct answer is: who cares. A better test of strength than how much you bench, or how many push-ups you can do, is how well you do them.

Try this: Do 10 push-ups with perfect form, lowering for three seconds, pausing for one second at the bottom, then pressing up for one second.

If that's a struggle, but you can bench more than your body weight, you might have serious upper-body imbalances. Work on fixing your push-up and press form.

According to Sam Downing, the secret to wellbeing is just to keep it simple. A qualified personal trainer, fitness instructor and nutrition coach, Sam is also a writer focusing on everyday health.

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