Best chest exercises to improve upper body strength

Want to increase upper body strength? Our resident personal trainer talks you through the best chest exercises.

Upper body strength can diminish as we age, and it’s a good idea to do exercises to combat this. While we might use our legs many times during the day, we don’t have as much opportunity to build or maintain upper body strength unless we carry something. 

Sarcopenia – loss of muscle mass – begins in our thirties, and steadily worsens with age. However, it can be kept at bay with some strength training exercises at least twice a week (as per NHS guidelines). This can take many forms, as we’ll explore, and can be done at home, in a gym, or as part of a fitness class. 

Close grip dumbbell pressCredit: Shutterstock / MDV Edwards

Why do I need to do chest exercises?

We use our upper body strength a lot without really realising it, and for this reason, it’s important to try to maintain strength in those muscles. Every time you push or pull a door, you’re using muscles in the arms, shoulders, chest and back. Whenever you carry something (or someone) it’s your upper body and core that holds the object in place while your legs support you. If you need to get something from a cupboard, you’re using your upper body. 

The chest area is also essential in moving yourself. Each time you push yourself up to get out of bed, your chest helps your triceps in the movement. If you fall, and need to pull yourself up, the chest will give you the bulk of the strength required (because of the size of the muscles) to pull yourself up. 

The chest area is made up of large, powerful muscles: 

  • Pectoralis major – The pecs major sits at the front of the chest, underneath the breasts in women. They run from the collarbone to the armpit and across the lower chest. They help move the shoulder joints.
  • Pectoralis minor – These smaller muscles sit underneath the pecs major, across the top of the ribs. 

When you perform chest exercises, you’ll also work other muscles in that region of the body that will include all or some of the following at any time: 

  • Deltoids – These are what give the shoulders their rounded shape and are responsible for raising and lowering the arm.
  • Trapezius (traps) – Responsible for movement in the shoulder blades, the traps sits at the back of the neck and shoulders. It also helps you move your head, neck, arms, shoulders and torso. 
  • Rhomboids – These attach to the shoulder blades to aid movement. 
  • Rotator cuff – Made up of many smaller muscles, the rotator cuff does exactly what it says – rotates the shoulder.
  • Latissimus dorsi (lats) – The lats runs down the back and is large and flat. It helps the arms rotate and move away from the body. 
  • Biceps and triceps – Found in the arms, the biceps sit on the front of the upper arm and the triceps on the back of the upper arm. They work in conjunction with one another. Triceps are often used in chest exercises. 
Man doing chest press with dumbbells on a Swiss ballCredit: Shutterstock / MDV Edwards

How often should I do chest exercises?

The benefits of strength training can be achieved with as little as two sessions per week. Something is always better than nothing, so if that’s all you have time for, or can manage initially, go for it. If you have more time, then how often you do strength training is up to you – but remember to give yourself time to recover between sessions. 

If you’re doing two sessions per week, a full-body approach is best, so you’ll work the chest on both days. If you have time for three sessions, you can do lower body one day, upper body the next (including chest) and full body on the third (also including chest). You can also do cardio in the morning and weights in the evening if you want to do two workouts in one day. 

Do I need equipment for chest exercises?

It is possible to build strength in the chest using bodyweight exercises, such as push ups and planks. But to really increase both strength and range of motion in the chest, you will need to use some form of weight or resistance. 

You might like to use resistance bands – these are reasonably priced, portable and don’t take up much space. If you’ve got a gym membership, our easy 15-minute gym workout guide walks you through many chest exercises, and if you’re confused by gym machines, we also have a handy guide to help you navigate your way around the equipment. 

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My personal recommendation would be to start with dumbbells, such as the ones featured below. Dumbbells are great for showing any weaknesses you may have on either side of your body, allowing you to then work on that specific area or movement a little bit more. 

You might also like to use a bench to lie on, or the floor (our best yoga mats guide can make it more comfortable for you). 

What weight should I use?

When it comes to deciding what weight to use, it depends on your starting point. A beginner will need a much lighter dumbbell set than someone who’s at a more advanced level of lifting weights. The chest is a large, powerful muscle group, so you can use heavier weights than if you were doing arm exercises, for example. A good idea is to have a set of three pairs – light, medium and heavy. This will allow you room to progress. 

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Best chest exercises to try

Follow these chest exercises at home. Practise each one with no weight (just practising the movement pattern) or very light weights to begin with. Once you feel confident, increase the weight as required and do however many sets and repetitions you feel comfortable with. Three sets of six to eight repetitions (reps) is a good guide to start with. 

If you have any injuries or medical conditions, be sure to consult a doctor before beginning. And as always, if you have any questions, feel free to get in touch using the email button on my profile below. 


Dumbbell chest press

Woman lying on a bench pressing dumbbells upwardsCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Lie on your back, either on a bench or the floor, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. 
  2. Hold a pair of dumbbells above the midline of your chest, arms extended, palms facing towards your feet. 
  3. Letting the elbows come out to 90 degrees, lower the dumbbells to just above the chest, then exhale as you drive them back up. 
  4. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions. 

Tip: Squeeze the dumbbells tightly to activate the triceps. 

Chest fly

Woman lying on bench doing a dumbbell chest flyCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Lie on your back, either on a bench or the floor, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Hold a pair of dumbbells above the centre of your chest, palms facing in, weights together. 
  3. Leading with a soft bend in the elbows, pull the weights apart until your arms are fully extended and level with the chest. 
  4. Squeeze the weights tightly and exhale as you bring them back to the starting point. 
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps. 

Tip: Think about pulling open two doors and closing them again. 

Close grip dumbbell press

Woman lying on bench pressing a pair of dumbbells overheadCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Lie on your back, either on a bench or the floor, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.  
  2. With your elbows close to your sides, arms up at 90 degrees, hold a pair of dumbbells, palms facing each other. 
  3. Press the dumbbells up towards the ceiling, exhaling as you do so, keeping a straight line.
  4. Bring them back to the starting position, keeping the elbows close to the body.  
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps. 

Tip: Your triceps do a lot of work here, so start with lighter weights as they’re smaller muscles. 

Push up

Woman doing a pushupCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and extend your legs behind you so you’re in a plank position. 
  2. From here, lower the knees to the floor if you want to modify the movement and make the push ups easier. 
  3. Take a breath in and brace the core (think of pulling your tummy button to your spine)
  4. Let your elbows bend at 45 degrees to the body and lower yourself in a straight line (don’t leave your bum behind!). 
  5. Drive your palms into the floor and push yourself back up to the starting position. 
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps. 

Tip: Follow our step-by-step guide on how to do a push up for more options. 

Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her


Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky is passionate about Kettlebell training, and runs a regular kettlebell club in the local community. Prior to this, she worked as a Fitness manager in a local gym. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain.

Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

Away from work, Becky unsurprisingly enjoys exercise, with a focus on lifting weights, kettlebells, and Olympic rings. She loves watching theatre, swimming, and reading a good book. She has three teenage children and enjoys spending time with them, preferably on a Cornish beach.

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