Exercises to Build Chest Muscles Without Machines

The pectoralis major, or chest, is one of the larger muscles in your body. The muscle is mainly used for horizontal flexion, a squeezing motion, with your arms. It also is used in adduction and extension of the arms, whereby you pull your arms downward toward your sides. Lastly, the upper portion of the chest can perform shoulder flexion where the arm is lifted upward from the side. The pecs also aid in stabilization of the shoulders during any exercise where the arms are held in place in front of your body. Many exercises exist to strengthen and to build-up your chest muscles; there are lots of options that do not involve the machines.

Bench Press

The bench press is one of the most popular exercises in the gym. Performance specialist David Sandler calls the exercise the foundation of upper body pushing movement. It was used as a measure of whole body strength in the past. To perform a bench press, lie on the bench press apparatus and grasp the barbell on the rack with your hands above your elbows when they are bent 90 degrees. Unrack your barbell and lower the bar across your nipple line before squeezing your elbows together to push the bar straight up from the nipple line. Make sure you do not shrug your shoulders during the descent or ascent of the bar. This movement can also be performed with dumbbells, instead of a barbell. To do a dumbbell press, keep the dumbbells above your wrists throughout the motion and repeat the steps for the bench press.

Incline Press

The incline press is similar to the bench press, except it is performed on an inclined bench. This exercise emphasizes the clavicular, or upper portion, of your pectorals. To perform this lift, take the bar off the rack and lower the bar downward midway between the nipples and the clavicle bones of your shoulder. The bar should follow a vertical pathway when moving down or upward in an incline. Do not push it forward or allow it to move backward. Once the bar touches your chest, push it upward by squeezing your elbows. Once again, do not allow your shoulders to shrug. This lift also can be performed with dumbbells, much like the bench press, except the line connecting the dumbbells should cross midway between the nipples and the clavicle bones.

Decline Press

Like the incline, the decline press is the same as the regular bench press except it is performed on a decline. The decline angle emphasizes the sternal head of the chest as opposed to the clavicular head of the chest emphasized on the Incline bench. Similar to the bench press, the decline press involves a vertical barbell movement above the nipple line. As in the incline, the bar moves upward when you squeeze your elbows. Again, do not allow your shoulders to shrug during the lift. Dumbbells can also be used with the decline bench and, like the bench press, you should imagine a line connecting the dumbbells that would cross at the nipple line.

Dumbbell Pull-Overs

The dumbbell pullover exercise uses the pectoral muscles to perform both horizontal flexion and shoulder extension. You perform this movement by laying perpendicular to the bench with your head and shoulders supported by the bench. Use your legs as a crutch to keep your butt from touching the floor. Hold a dumbbell by one end–using both hands–while the other end is suspended above your face. Lower your dumbbell behind your head and let your elbows move away from each other and bend to allow the dumbbell to touch the floor. Once you can no longer lower the dumbbell, reverse direction by squeezing your elbows together and straightening them to return the barbell to the starting position. You should feel a contraction in your chest, triceps and lats.


Dips can be performed using the parallel bar dip machine. This exercise uses your chest to stabilize your arms and flex your shoulders; however, the triceps on the back of the arm will be used most. To perform a dip, grab a parallel bar with each hand and lower the body until your arms are bent 90 degrees. Squeeze your elbows and pull your arms forward, using your chest to return to the starting position.

About this Author

Phil Swain has led a successful career in the fitness industry since 2001. He recently authored the Strength Training and Nutritional Guidelines for the University Interscholastic League of Texas. Swain holds a Masters of Science from Boston University and a master’s in education from The University of Texas at Austin.