Here's Betty: a $12,000 EMG machine who is going to help us determine what the best chest exercises for growth (from upper chest to middle chest to lower chest exercises) ACTUALLY are. EMG stands for electromyography, and it’s a way of measuring the electrical activity produced by muscles when they contract. To make sure I run this experiment evaluating my list of chest exercises as best as possible so that we, and you, could actually trust the data (i.e., that these are the best exercises for a bigger chest), I called up a few colleagues and they led me to John, a Master’s student specializing in EMG.
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It was time to prep the experiment to find out what the best chest exercises for growth really are—and think about all the variables we had to control. First variable: subjects. Everyone’s bodies are slightly different, and the more subjects in study, the more reliable the data. So, I wanted at least 3 subjects in total. Luckily we had Alex and Raza. Raza is more of a beginner so I thought it’d be interesting to see how his results compare to mine and Alex’s. Next, weight. we had to figure out how much weight we’d be using on each chest exercise to ensure that they were equally as challenging. A week before the test date, we all spent a whole day in our gym and figured out our estimated “1 rep max” for each exercise. On test day, we’d use 70% of this weight for each of the exercises.
Plus, we came up with a wager. Before we conducted the experiment to find out what the best exercises for a bigger chest are, the three of us wrote down on a piece of paper what exercises we think will end up being the top 2 for each area of the chest. Once we got the results, we’ll compare them to each of our lists and the person who gets the least exercises correct will be dunked into a human body sized Canadian Tundra Death Trap!
Here are all the chest exercises we tested:
Standing cable fly
High to low cable fly
Seated cable fly
Barbell bench press
Incline barbell bench press
Flat dumbbell press
Incline machine press
15 degree incline dumbbell press
30 degree incline dumbbell press
45 degree incline dumbbell press
Decline dumbbell press
Pec deck machine
Note: with several variables and just 3 subjects, it’s hard to detect any statistical differences. That said, I did average the data and found some really interesting findings that align with a lot of other research. So, let’s start with the best upper chest exercises. The top two exercises were both incline dumbbell presses, just at different bench angles. We tested 15 degrees, 30 degrees, and 45 degrees. The lower inclines of 15 degrees and 30 degrees came out on top.
Next, middle chest exercises. The first winner is the decline dumbbell press, but not the typical version you see at the gym. We used just a very slight elevation by placing a weight plate underneath the front of the bench. Usually this helps emphasize the lower chest the most. But to my surprise, it did an excellent job of activating the mid chest for all 3 of us. The other winner was the seated cable fly. In this case we put the cable handles at chest height.
Finally, the lower chest exercises. Here I expected high to low cable flyes to win, because tension from the cable aligns well with the lower chest fibers. While it did end up scoring well, seated cable flyes came out on top. This might be because it’s a more stable setup, with the tension from the cable still aligning quite well with the lower chest. The other winner was once again the decline dumbbell press, suggesting that the very slight decline aligns the press very well with both the middle and the lower fibers of the chest.
Who got dunked? Watch the video! That said, I got really emotional during the ice plunge. After hitting 100,000 subscribers on YouTube, I founded Built With Science which stemmed from a bigger vision I always had in mind: to build a legacy that would bring a more scientific and research-backed approach to the fitness industry and weed out the BS and “bro-science” that plagues the industry. This little science experiment was a big step towards realizing that. I’m excited for where this leads and I appreciate you joining me on this journey.