Should you perform the chest exercises that stimulate the chest muscles the most or the ones that stimulate them the least?
It might sound like an odd question, but a new ACE-sponsored study revealed which chest exercises are most effective for stimulating the chest muscles—specifically, the pectoralis major—and it gives us the opportunity to examine which exercises are most appropriate for you based on not only effectiveness, but also your training goals and available time for exercise.
In the study, the barbell bench press and pec deck machine stimulated the most chest activity, while three variations on push-ups (standard, stability ball and suspended) stimulated the least. In my opinion, this is great news and can help determine which exercises can best assist you in meeting your training goals.
For example, while the push-up variations were among the least effective for stimulating the chest muscle, these exercises might, in fact, make the best use of your training time. Here's why:
In life, we use our chest muscles for activities like pulling open a door, pushing a lawnmower or grocery cart, throwing a ball or swinging a tennis racquet. Every one of these involves some combination of asymmetry and/or a high need for stability. The asymmetry comes from the fact that one side of the body is not doing the same thing as the other side. The high need for stability comes from the fact that we are often on our feet and need to balance movement and ourselves against gravity while performing the activity.
Put another way, these activities require a significant degree of coordination between the chest muscles and the rest of the body. If you take the steering wheel out of your car, it becomes nearly useless. Attach it to the car and it becomes a useful part of a much larger whole. The same is true for all of the muscles in our body.
If your goals are general fitness (meaning, you just want to stay healthy, reasonably lean, muscular and capable), and you have limited amounts of time for exercise, then "chest" exercises like push-ups that use less chest muscle are likely the best choices for your workout program. These exercises utilize less chest muscle simply because you are also using many of the other muscles in your body to aid in either stabilizing against gravity or to assist with the movement.
In the barbell bench press for example, you are on your back against a pad and pressing the bar up against gravity with both arms, performing symmetrical activity. In life, this is rare. After all, when was the last time, outside of the gym, you were on your back and had to push a heavy bar off of your chest?
However, if you are more interested in hypertrophy (increase in muscle size) and have more training time to devote to individually challenging specific muscles, then the barbell bench press, which was shown to stimulate the most chest muscle, would be the better choice for you. This is because the design of this exercise leads to more chest activity and less coordination with other parts of the body. And this is a good thing if your main goal is great chest-muscle development. It is more time-consuming, however, to target individual muscles, so this training goal is usually reserved for those are able to devote at least four to five days per week to targeting all of the major muscles.
All of the exercises used in the study potentially have value in a training program. You would simply tilt your emphasis in favor of the exercises that more closely match your goals and available training time. This does not imply exclusivity, however. I am not recommending that those with limited training time and general fitness goals never perform a barbell bench press. Likewise, I am not suggesting that those seeking hypertrophy should avoid push-ups. Variety is a useful aspect of any training program, as well.