Workouts that include dedicated chest routines will improve your upper body strength, posture, and confidence. Unfortunately, many ladies discount these chest-acular benefits from fear based on misguided notions. Here's what you need to know about chest exercises and how they actually affect your -- ahem -- ta-tas. Title illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.
First, a quick anatomy lesson: Your chest is made up of two primary muscles called the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor (we'll simply call them pecs, for short). Those shirtless male fitness models with the huge King Kong chests have a very well-developed pec major, the bigger muscle of the two. And yes, we women have those same pec muscles!
As you can plainly see in the mirror, though, they're a lot less pronounced. They're also covered up by our lovely lady lumps, which are actually composed of fatty and glandular tissues, a network of ducts and lymph nodes, nerve endings, and blood vessels. Their primary function is, of course, to secrete milk to feed infants. In fitness, they don't do much (except sometimes get hard).
Don't Worry, It's Not the Chest Exercises That Shrink Your Boobs
Many women shy away from chest-specific exercises because they think their breasts will decrease in size. Some of you snicker, but this fear sounds an awful lot like our initial misgivings for becoming huge, muscular tanks when strength training; in other words, they seem to be based on some misguided notions about strength training in general.
Now, repeat after me: doing a bunch of chest exercises alone won't (or rather, can't) reduce the size of your breasts.
They can't because such a thing would imply that it is possible to target and zap the fat in specific areas of your body, or to "spot reduce", which we know now to be false. Rather, something different is happening altogether: shrinking breasts is a sign that your body's fat cells are shrinking all throughout your body.
Recall that your breasts are mostly two lumps of milk-producing fat tissue, the size of which greatly depends on genetics, hormones, and all that jazz. If you train and eat in a way that is conducive to weight loss, you will lose fat throughout your body, which inevitably leads to a smaller belly, arms, and -- yes -- even boobs. Really, you have no control over which parts of your body it will draw fat energy from. Moreover, if you have higher body fat to begin with, you can expect to lose more fat overall, perhaps at a more rapid pace at first, too.
The Perks of Chest Exercises
All this talk about exercise and the likelihood of shrinking breasts probably have you runni -- er, walking -- for the hills. But on the other end of the spectrum, you might've heard that chest exercises have their perks, too -- literally, that chest exercises can make the ladies "perkier."
That is somewhat true, but it's not necessarily that your breasts have magically started to defy gravity. According to Examine.com, what's really happening is a one-two-three punch combo of the following:
- A regular chest routine helps develop your pecs, but since your boobs and surrounding fat tissue are covering them up you can't really see those muscles.
- As you lose weight and the fat around your chest, you actually expose more of the pec major, letting your breast stand out a bit more.
- As the muscles get bigger, they appear to lift up the breasts so they sit a little higher on your chest.
This confluence of factors gives the breasts a "perkier" appearance. In other words, chest exercises help you develop your pecs and could indirectly change the look of your breasts. Of course, the effect could be less or more dramatic, depending on their size.
A Strong Chest Isn't Just For Chest Bumps
Beyond aesthetics, chest exercises improve things like throwing or climbing, or even the many everyday movements you're not aware of that engage the pecs. Your pecs are responsible for helping to exert "horizontal pushing" forces, like pushing a stroller or against a heavy door. In addition to pushing things, a developed chest:
- Improves your posture. Just think about the oft-uttered cue "chest up and proud", and you can imagine how a strong chest, along with equally strong shoulders and back, can improve your posture. Kate Galliett, strength and conditioning coach and movement specialist, adds: "You'll have a more 'stacked and aligned' skeleton and naturally stand taller and more lifted." This, too, can also contribute to changing how your chest looks, she says.
- Keeps an overall "balanced" body. Similar to the point above: If you develop your major muscle groups with fairly equal attention, you'll look more "symmetrical". You'll have a fuller-looking chest (because the pec muscles spread out as far as the front of your shoulders and up to your collarbone) to complement your arms and shoulders. Plus, you'll also have what many folks in the industry call "muscular balance," which basically suggests you don't have one dominating muscle group overcompensating for the weaker, or inactive, ones. This would allow you to move better overall and perform other exercises safely and with more efficiency.
- Makes you strong as funk. I've not had a single female friend tell me, "Upper body strength? Meh, no thanks." Frankly, whatever you aim to do physically, a stronger chest will help you do it better -- whether that's banging out knee-less push-ups like nothin'; or even holding certain bad-arse yoga poses.
But let's say you skip training your chest altogether while still training other major muscle groups, like your back, legs, and shoulders -- what's the worst that can happen? Well, I wondered this myself and asked Jennifer Blake, powerlifter and personal trainer. She said:
If a woman totally neglects chest training, that means she is not doing any upper-body horizontal pushing, and the "worst" thing about that is she's missing out on a lot of fun exercises that will add variety to her training and shape to her upper body. The pecs play a very important role when it comes to strengthening the upper body. In fact, you can't increase your horizontal pushing strength (think push-ups, bench press, and one-arm dumbbell bench press) without targeting the pecs.
This is not to say you need to smash bench press world records, but the fact of the matter is: if you avoid strengthening your chest, you're holding yourself back from gaining considerable upper body strength.
How to Start Training Your Chest
The good news is that you're probably already training your chest without even realising it. Push-ups and other exercises like dumbbell pressing work out your arms, yes, but primarily your chest. Keep in mind that chest exercises don't have to be complicated. Push-ups are a fantastic starting point (for anyone really); tried-and-true exercises like the bench press and pec flys are awesome, too.
When helping her clients improve their upper body strength, Kate likes to make sure they are first able to move their joints in the upper body, especially shoulders, in the full range in which they are intended to. (Kate demonstrates a great way to keep shoulder joint health in mind when doing push-ups in her video here.) She does this in order to prevent things like overuse or general shoulder injuries, noting that you should:
Be able to handle your own body moving through your range of motions before loading more weight onto yourself, because far too often people's shoulder joints don't work as they should and so their shoulders are not in a good position [to immediately do push-ups with the right muscle activation]. As you're in the early stages...do more work on the prep stuff [getting the right muscles to activate and joints to move]; and over time, you get to move onto more strength stuff.
Your pecs are a major muscle group, and so in order to gradually build up strength, you want to work them out as often as you work out the other muscle groups (your back and legs, for example). Ideally, focus on them at least once a week by following a sound training program, adequate protein and nutrition, sleep, patience, and above all, consistency.