What is more iconic in terms of masculine strength and virility than a well-muscled chest? Pectorals gave Steve Reeves a career fighting cinematic beasts and lent Sylvester Stallone his Rambo sex appeal. There's something about a heart beating beneath a rock-hard chest that generates more than symbolic arousal.
Apart from the mouthwatering delectability of it all, the pectoral muscles have specific and important functions for actions involving athletic movement, such as swinging a bat, throwing a punch, blocking a tackle, or bear-hugging your wrestling partner. The muscles involved are the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. The pectoralis major has two heads, one that originates on the clavicle and the other on the sternum (the solid bone that coincides with your cleavage). Both attach to the humerus (upper arm bone) and form triangulations of tissue that result in that wonderful ripped look. The pectoralis minor lies beneath the major muscles and forms a connection between the scapula (shoulder blade) and the ribs.
In terms of action, we're dealing with muscle groups that move the arm horizontally forward, down, up, or rotated inward. Different exercises hit different areas of the pecs, so with that in mind, it's important to work the pecs from various angles. Follow the workout below to build bigger, more powerful pectoral muscles.
- Barbell press: It's the mother of all chest exercises, but don't feel like you have to run to mother all the time. Overall, the bench press builds general pectoral strength and is great practice for pushing off an aggressive, self-indulgent top who has overstayed his welcome. Lying with your butt, back, shoulders, and head flat on a bench, and your feet on the ground, grip the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder width. With the weight stabilized, lower the bar slowly until it is a few inches above the chest. Don't bounce the bar on the chest; you don't have Dolly Parton's cushioning. Move the weight back to the starting point and pause slightly before repeating. Do three sets at a moderate weight you can comfortably lift for 10 to 12 reps.
- Incline dumbbell flyes: With the bench tilted at a 30- to 45-degree angle, lift the dumbbells overhead, arms slightly flexed, palms facing each other. Lower the weights in an arc to the sides until the pecs are just slightly stretched and raise them back upward until the weights are about six inches apart. This works the upper pecs (the clavicular head). Do three sets with moderate weight you can comfortably lift for 10 to 12 reps.
- Decline dumbbell press: Lying on a decline bench, take a light to moderately weighted dumbbell in each hand and position near the chest, palms facing forward. Lift them directly overhead (making sure to balance them well—crashing dumbbells are unsafe and embarrassing when that hunky guy you've been cruising happens to be watching). Lower them slowly to head level and slowly raise them up again. If you need a spot, call that guy over to help. This exercise is great for the lower pecs (sternal head). Do three sets at a moderate weight for 10 to 12 reps.
- Cable crossovers: At the cable station with the grips placed at the higher level, take one grip, then the other, and step one foot forward for balance. With arms slightly bent, brings the hands together and feel the position. The pecs will be squeezed. Hold the contraction for two seconds, then slowly extend the arms back to a healthy stretched position. Crossovers work the inner fibers of the pecs and promote strength and striation of the muscle. Be careful not to release the cables quickly. Do three sets at a moderate weight for 10 to 12 reps.
- Push-ups: Pushups are a great back-up exercise you can do almost anywhere. Just make sure the back is straight and the rhythm is steady. For outer pectoral development, take the arms wider than shoulder width.
Joseph Carman is a contributing editor for Dance Magazine who writes for the New York Times and the Advocate, as well as other publications. A former professional dancer, he is now a bodybuilder and the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions, 2004).