It’s not uncommon to see men spend a ton of their strength training time in the weight room, focused on busting out rep after rep of chest presses, flyes, and every other variation they can think of to make sure they’ve hit every angle of their chest. Compare that to how the average woman spends her time training and, chances are, the chest gets little—if any—attention.
But women have a large, fan-shaped pectoralis major muscle on either side of the chest, directly beneath the breast tissue. A smaller muscle, known as the pectoralis minor, is located in the upper part of the chest, beneath the pec major. Collectively, these muscles are known as the pecs, and they cover the entirety of your chest. And yet, despite the fact that pecs are literally front-and-center, they’re pretty easy to ignore.
“There is a bit of a misconception that, since we have breasts, we don’t need to train pecs,” says Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S. But don’t be fooled. Training the pecs is just as important for you as it is for your male counterpart. So if you’ve been neglecting those muscles, it’s time to give them some love. Here, experts explain why they’re worthy of your attention.
When it comes to posture, the back and shoulders get all the attention. However, as one of the largest muscles in the upper body, the pecs play an equally important role in maintaining posture and upright stability, namely by supporting the scapula (your shoulder blade) and the shoulder joint itself.
“Every muscle that surrounds the scapula and shoulder is going to be important for stabilizing those joints,” says Joel Seedman, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and owner of Advanced Human Performance in Suwanee, Georgia. “If one gets weaker, then you will have offset tension across the joints.”
And if one muscle becomes overly shortened or lengthened, it won’t matter much if they’re strong or weak—the pecs won’t be able to sufficiently do their job. The biggest culprit of shortening? Your computer. When you slouch over it all day, you simultaneously shorten your chest muscle fibers and lengthen your back ones, says Seedman.
To help counteract that, try performing a basic chest exercise two times per week for three sets of 6 to 10 repetitions. Grab a weight that’s 10 to 20 percent less than what you would normally use (so, if you typically press 60 pounds, use 45 to 55), and perform a chest press. When you do, spend three to four seconds lowering the weight (also known as the eccentric phase of the exercise), and then hold that bottom position for another three or four seconds before driving the weight back up. “That accentuation of the eccentric phase helps to make sure that the pec muscles stay in their optimal lengthened state,” says Seedman. It also ensures that your shoulders and scapula also stay in their proper position, as opposed to becoming rounded and slouchy.
When you fix your posture, you also open up your chest, which makes it easier to take deep, quality breaths. The pec minor in particular is especially helpful, as the smaller, triangular muscle attaches at the middle of your third, fourth, and fifth ribs. Any time you breathe in, the pec minor stretches, allowing your ribcage to expand.
“If the pec muscles are overly shortened, then breathing will be significantly impaired because you’re not going to be able to open up the diaphragm,” says Seedman. “But if you’re lengthening those chest fibers, breathing and the ability to improve oxygenation to all your muscles is going to be greatly improved.”
Seedman says many women shy away from training their chest because they think their breasts will shrink, but that’s actually the opposite of what can happen—chest exercises are kind of like a non-surgical method of breast augmentation. “What you’re doing is pushing the breast tissue up and forward more, so it gives the illusion that your breasts are bigger,” he says. Plus, adding muscle to your chest helps elevate your breasts, “almost acting like a push-up bra.” And don’t forget: Adding muscle beneath the actual breast tissue doesn’t take away from the breast tissue itself.
Outside of the gym, your pecs play a major role in a wide variety of daily activities, from loading grocery bags into the house, to pushing open a heavy door or lugging a suitcase around an airport. “Pretty much any upper-body activity or motion that we do involves the pectoral muscles to a significant degree,” says Seedman.
The primary functions of your pecs are to flex (raise), adduct (bring back), and medially rotate (turn inward) your upper arm. So, “if you think of picking things up, holding things, squeezing things, or any kind of movement that involves pushing, the pecs are involved in all of that,” says Thomas.
That’s why, if your pecs are weak from disuse, the simple act of carrying and loading grocery bags into your house can feel like a challenge. From a purely functional standpoint, you’ll make your day-to-day way easier if you regularly train your chest muscles.
Sure, pecs are big, important muscles simply because of their wide range of activity. But they also matter because they call a bunch of the surrounding muscles into action—namely the shoulders, back, and triceps—which makes any chest exercise a fantastic all-over upper-body movement.
Example: Seedman says one of the best exercises to tone up triceps is actually a chest press. And research backs him up: A new study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research reveals that different chest press variations are more effective for targeting specific muscle groups than others (including the tris). Using surface electromyography, a method for measuring muscle activation during exercise, the researchers found that a dumbbell chest press is best for those who want to build up their chest, whereas a Smith machine or barbell setup is the ideal way to perform the move when that horseshoe look in your triceps is the goal.
Now that you know you should work out your pecs, the only question is, um, how? To get your chest muscles strong and stretched, Thomas says to focus on them at least once a week. (Though, ideally, you’ll do two to three full-body sessions, hitting both your pecs and back every time, she adds.)
As far as specific moves go, Thomas says it’s best to incorporate a variety so that you work the muscle from every angle. Her go-tos include the chest press (using a dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell, or Smith machine), an incline press (a higher incline will recruit more of your shoulder and upper back muscles), a chest fly, and the push-up. (Pro tip: If you can only manage a few full-body push-ups at a time, elevate your hands on a box or a bench so you can knock out more reps in one go, says Thomas.) Sprinkle ’em into your workouts throughout the week, or tackle them all on one chest-focused day. Either way, before you know it you’ll be feeling stronger—and healthier—than ever.
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