ACE Study Tests Common Chest Exercises, Finds Barbell Bench Press Most Effective

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An independent study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) found barbell bench press, the pec deck machine and bent-forward cable crossovers are the most effective exercises for targeting the major muscles of the chest.

“We took nine of the most common chest exercises performed by men and women, and tested which one elicited the highest level of muscle activation,” said ACE Chief Science Officer Cedric Bryant, PhD “According to the EMG results, three exercises (barbell bench press, the pec deck machine and cable crossovers) were far and away the winners in terms of chest muscle activation.”The study, conducted by a team of exercise scientists at the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, sought to determine which one of the most common strength-training exercises for the chest is most effective.

Exercise physiologists began the study using a test group of 14 healthy males ranging in age from 19 to 30, all of whom had prior experience in resistance training. To establish a baseline of fitness, a one-repetition max (1 RM) was determined for five moves: barbell bench press, bent-forward cable crossovers, seated chest press, incline dumbbell flys and the pec deck. A 1RM was not determined for the four exercises that rely solely on bodyweight for resistance: dips, suspended pushups, stability-ball pushups and standard pushups.

After a minimum of three days of rest, the subjects returned to perform five repetitions of each of the nine exercises at 80 percent of their predetermined 1RM, in random order. During each of the exercises, electromyography (EMG) electrodes monitored muscle activation of the pectoralis major muscles.

Compared to the top-performing barbell bench press, the pec deck machine had 98 percent of muscle activation and bent-forward cable crossovers had 93 percent.

All of the remaining exercises resulted in significantly lower muscle activation, with suspended pushups, stability ball pushups and standard pushups rounding out the lowest three.

“This study provides valuable information to individuals who want to perform exercises that best emphasize pecs,” Bryant said. “Knowing which exercises yield the highest level of muscle activation will allow individuals to make more informed exercise selections in their quest to live their most fit lives.”

To download a copy of the study or to explore tips on how to perform the top three moves correctly, visit ACEfitness.org.