The chest muscles — called pectorals, or pecs for short — are one of the largest upper body muscle groups. They’re comprised of the pectoralis major (the bulk of the chest) and the pectoralis minor (which sits under the pectoralis major). These muscles work in tandem with the neck, arm, shoulder and core muscles to create movement and power.
You need strong pecs for everything from carrying groceries and opening jars to delivering hard, precise tennis shots. When you train your pecs with compound movements like in the exercises below, you also work the triceps, shoulder and forearm muscles.
Here’s how to make chest strength exercises and stretching a staple in your workout routine.
1. Push-ups (incline or on the floor)
The push-up is one of the most important foundation movements around. Barring injuries or specific conditions like arthritis, everyone should be doing push-ups, no matter their age.
Still, you may be surprised to learn that the kneeling push-up, a common modification for those who aren’t yet strong enough to do full push-ups, is not effective and can lead to injury. It puts excessive stress on the lower back, pelvis and front of the shoulders. It also doesn’t translate well into doing full push-ups because you’re not in a plank position and not using your core muscles. Instead, I recommend incline push-ups, where you place your hands on an elevated surface like a bench.
Start in a plank position with your arms straight, hands on a bench and your toes on the ground. Make sure your core muscles are braced and your body is in a straight line from your neck to your ankles. Bend your arms and lower yourself until your chest comes within an inch of the bench, then push yourself back to the start position. Once you can comfortably do three sets of 10 repetitions on an elevated surface, start practicing push-ups on the floor.
2. Dumbbell Incline Press
This is a staple strength training exercise that works your chest muscles on a different angle than that of push-ups.
Set a weightlifting bench to about a 30-degree incline. Sit down with dumbbells resting on your thighs. As you lean back onto the bench, bring the weights to shoulder height, positioning the dumbbells to each side of your chest, with your upper arms under each dumbbell. Press the dumbbells up until your arms are extended. The weights should follow a slight arc, moving inward once you reach the top of the movement. Lower the weights to the sides of your upper chest and repeat. Aim for three to four sets of 10 repetitions, where it feels challenging at seven reps. My beginner older clients will start with eight to 10 pounds. My intermediate clients use between 15 and 20 pounds, and advanced trainees increase from there.
3. Foam Roller Chest Stretch
When the chest muscles become too tight, they can pull the shoulders forward, leading to potential shoulder injuries and a forward-slumped appearance. This position on the foam roller stretches the pectoral muscles to help return them to normal function.
Lie lengthwise on the foam roller with your tailbone at one end and your head at the other. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Straighten your arms and bring them to 90 degrees from your body, palms facing up. Rest your arms on the floor and relax your chest and shoulder muscles. Also try making a snow angel with your arms, slowly bringing them overhead (see if you can touch the floor with your hands; many people are too tight to do this). This is a stretch I get my clients to perform for longer than the usual 30 to 60 seconds. Try a combination of static stretching and the snow angel for a total of two to three minutes.
I get my older clients to train their upper body muscles twice a week, either together with the lower body or on separate days. The chest should be one of the main muscle groups included in an upper body workout. We’ve long known that strength training can benefit older adults, whether they’ve never lifted a weight before or they’re already involved in aerobic activities. One study found significant increases in strength and muscle mass, with decreased body fat, after already-active women over the age of 60 started lifting weights.