Having a strong chest (pectoral muscles) is one of the most desirable physiques, if not the most desirable, there is (especially for men).
You know this if you’ve ever stepped foot in a public gym or weight room. You’ve surely seen guys (& gals) constantly bench pressing day after day after day after day.
Unfortunately this approach (constantly training your chest with weights, especially the bench press), combined with poor form (due to chasing maximum numbers) can and will lead to serious shoulder & elbow injuries down the road.
I know this all from personal experience, which is why I’d like to help you avoid the same mistakes and frustration by putting this simple guide to chest calisthenics.
It doesn’t have to be this way. What if I told you, you could build just as strong of a chest without ever bench pressing again? Would you believe it?
Because it’s true!
It can be done by making use of bodyweight exercises that are adaptable to suit any and all experience levels. In the article below I’ve laid out the top overall bodyweight chest exercises. I’ve also included some movements strictly for beginners, and even some highly advanced moves for the gymnast at heart.
Again even though you will be training completely with bodyweight using these exercises, I cannot overstate how important a thorough warm-up is.
Five to ten minutes of alternating between the warm-ups below in circuit fashion should definitely have you ready to train bodyweight style!
Band or Broomstick Shoulder Dislocations
Band Pull Aparts
Top 3 Overall Chest Calisthenics Exercises
For the top 3 overall movements, as you’ll see in the beginner & advanced sections, I’ve included exercises that can easily be modified or altered to become easier or even more difficult.
As always, I personally have experienced great success using each and every one of these exercises and have made tremendous strength gains using them.
1) Bodyweight Ring Fly (Advanced)
Bodyweight Ring Flies are hands down the best way to replicate weighted flies without a doubt. Actually these are even better because doing them on or with rings adds another degree of freedom into the picture. This extra movement brings your stabilizing muscles and even your core into the equation which is why it is number one by a mile.
Obviously you will need gymnastics rings or a TRX system and something to hang either of those from. Once you’ve done that you will assume a standard push-up position on the rings (see video for complete instruction).
Instead of simply performing a push-up though, you are going to spread your arms out to the side like a “fly”, and then, using your pectoral muscles, push your way back up to the starting position.
If this is too hard for you in the beginning, you can easily alter the movement by starting on your knees in the modified push-up position. .
If they become too easy (congratulations), you can try elevating your feet onto a box or bench to increase the level of difficulty. Or you could also pause at the bottom of the movement for 2-3s which would also add difficulty.
2) Band Push-Ups (Intermediate)
One of the major criticisms of bodyweight chest training compared to bench pressing is that you can’t easily simulate the load of the bench press.
To that I say can’t never did anything.
With quality resistance bands, and your own bodyweight you can most definitely use a regular push-up to stimulate the same muscle fibers that the bench press does.
To start you will get ready to assume a normal push-up position, but this time you’re going to place a resistance band around your back so that it falls right over the middle part of your shoulder blades (see video).
Next take the ends of the band and place them firmly under your hands as you get into a push-up position. Then continue doing push-ups as you normally would.
A lot of times in the gym you will see people adding plate weights on top of their back to obtain the same effect. Do not try this! Using bands is much, much safer and eliminates the risk of a big metal plate hitting you in the head!
3) Chest Dip (Intermediate)
You are probably familiar with the triceps dip, but what I bet you are unfamiliar with the Chest Dip exercise.
Really a lot of people who THINK they’re doing a triceps dip are actually doing a Chest Dip. Basically a chest dip is the same thing as a triceps dip, but you angle your torso (body) slightly forward (roughly 30°) over your feet (see video).
This change in body position switches the workload from the triceps, which would be worked more in a straight up and down movement, to the chest.
You will definitely notice the difference in “feel” between the two movements once you start. On the chest dip you should really feel your chest muscles stretch in the bottom position similar to a chest fly.
To make the movement more difficult you can always add weights (via a weight belt) or more preferably by adding isometric holds (2-5 seconds) in the bottom position.
Beginner Bodyweight Chest Exercises
For those of you who are just starting out with bodyweight training, do not worry at all. The great part about bodyweight training is the ability to easily modify the movements so that beginners can build up their strength and work their way up to the full movement.
Below are three excellent movements that beginners should focus on practicing to advance their way to the full movements.
1) Modified Push-Up
The modified push-up is the base of really all upper body bodyweight exercises. It is done in the same way as a regular push-up, but instead of bracing your feet on the ground, you rest your knees on the ground which lessens the amount of weight being “pushed” up, making the movement easier.
If you find yourself in the “tweener” stage, that is if modified push-ups are too easy, but you still are unable to complete regular push-ups, simply add in isometric holds (2-5 seconds) to the bottom position of the modified push-up to make them more difficult.
By practicing modified push-ups daily, anyone (guy or gal) should be able to perform push-ups in no time!
2) Assisted Chest Dip
Exactly the same as the Chest Dip described in #3 of the above section, except these are done on a machine that can be found at most gyms, which adds in some weight to help push yourself up if you cannot push up your own bodyweight.
The machine that is used for this movement can be seen in the video below, and can be found in most commercial gyms (I have yet to enter a gym that didn’t have one). However, if your gym does not have one you can also use resistance bands for assistance.
If you are using bands you would simply tie the ends to the handles where you place your hands. Then you would bend your knees behind your back and place the band under your ankles so that the band will be pushing you up as you perform the exercise (see video for full demonstration).
Note: If you are using bands to assist you, please use extreme caution. Make sure the band is of high quality and is not going to break on you potentially causing injury. If possible have a partner with you to help you get into proper position and spot you.
3) Modified Push-Up Flys
To perform this exercise assume the normal modified push-up position (knees on the ground).
To make it a fly movement, instead of lowering yourself straight down you angle yourself out to one side emphasizing the movement in your chest like you would in a fly movement. Alternate between arms as you complete your reps (1 right, 1 left, etc.).
As you’ll see in the video below you can do the movement by having something that will slide on the floor under your hands. If this is how you choose to perform the exercise your hands will never leave the ground. Or you could also pick your hand up and move it out to the side of you before lowering yourself. Either method is effective.
If the movement is too easy, put your feet on the ground like you were doing a regular push-up.
Advanced Bodyweight Chest Exercises
For those who are really looking to push the limit and take their bodyweight training to the next level, the exercises below are a good starting point (or something to work towards) for training like a gymnast.
Note: The follow exercises are EXTREMELY challenging, and may take months or years of practice to perfect. Do not feel discouraged or embarrassed if you can barely even attempt them let alone complete them.
Working up to even being able to attempt these movements is an achievement in and of itself.
1) Planche Push-Up (No Feet Push-Up)
The first time you ever see someone complete one, correct planche push-up you will be amazed. I know I was. Actually I still am.
Planche Push-Ups are an extremely challenging feat of strength. If you are able to do these you certainly won’t have to prove or justify your strength to anyone.
To complete them you will have to start by practicing and perfecting the plance hold (see video). Basically the planche position is just balancing yourself on your hands while extending your body horizontally (compared to the ground) from head to toe.
To work up to the planche, you will start by just trying to balance yourself on your hands with your legs pulled in and your body slightly crouched. Eventually you will work up to extending your legs out behind you, and at some point you can add in actually pushing yourself up and down while in the position.
Again, going from a modified planche, to a full planche, to planche push-ups could take years of dedicated, nearly daily practice. Do not be frustrated if you cannot do these.
2) Ring Chest Dips
These are exactly the same as the chest dips in the top overall exercises section (#3). The only difference is that you will obviously be performing them on rings.
The rings add in the possibility of more movement, which adds in another level of difficulty. You will not only be working your chest, but also your body’s stabilizing muscles (core) which makes this movement a complete upper body exercise.
One key is to make sure that you set the rings far enough apart so that the straps are not rubbing or even touching your forearms as you move up and down. Having them touch your arms eliminates the lateral freedom of movement removing the purpose of the gymnastics rings.
While these are definitely an advanced movement, they are not quite as difficult as the planche push-up. In fact the core activation and strength needed make them a great way to practice for eventually being able to complete a planche push-up.
3) Iron Cross
Finally, the granddaddy of all bodyweight exercises. In my opinion the iron cross is the ultimate bodyweight feat of strength. The numero uno way of proving just how badass and strong you are.
To execute an iron cross you start by raising yourself on rings as if you were going to perform ring dips (arms locked out and extended). Then you slowly lower yourself by drawing your arms out to your sides horizontally so that you form a cross. Then you hold this position for as long as humanly possible.
It sounds easy, but in reality this is an EXTREMELY difficult movement that many, many strong people cannot execute. Like the planche push-up, perfecting the iron cross can take years and years of practice.
Also, unless you are an experienced gymnast and have been completing these for years, do not attempt them alone. In fact, even the most experienced bodyweight trainer should have a spotter present while attempting them.
Now you know the exercises – its time to put that in action: