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Bodyweight Pec Training | Chest-Focused Calisthenics

Tattooed man doing a pushup on a yoga mat

It’s probably true to say the chest is an area that features quite heavily in the gym routines of most men. It is certainly more likely to get attention than, say, the lower lats for most male gym-goers.

And whether the goals are related to aesthetics or functional strength, weights exercises like the bench press are likely to feature in the gym routine of anyone wanting to build a strong and well-defined chest.

But how easy is it to build a strong and well-defined front section with chest-focused calisthenics when it comes to bodyweight pec training? This is a question worthy of some closer investigation, but one suggested angle here would be to substitute the synonymous ‘how effective’ with ‘how easy’.

Add to that continuous trial, effort, and varied training methodology as well as how it feels—then maybe you’ll have some answers. Let’s first take a look at the muscles involved in chest training.

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The Chest Muscles

Without getting too technical, let’s touch briefly on what comprises the chest in terms of musculature. This region of the body is comprised of two main muscles, with a third one that is closely related and often brought into play with chest-focused exercises.

The pectoralis muscles are any of the muscles that connect the front sections of the chest with the shoulder and upper arm bones on each side of the sternum. There are two varieties of this type of muscle on each side of the chest region by way of the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor.

The serratus anterior is often considered a closely related muscle with something of a supportive position and function at the side of the chest. It originates between the first and eighth ribs along the outside of the scapula. The side muscle is attached to the ribs near the pectorals and has the function of moving the scapula forward and upward.

  • The pectoralis major is the larger of the two chest muscles and forms the main mass of the front region of the body. It also helps shoulder joint flexion as your arm moves across your chest. This is why the shoulders and triceps also get secondary benefits from chest exercises which is particularly true of bodyweight exercises that allow a fuller and more natural range of movement than is usually possible with weights.

Pectoralis_major

  • The pectoralis minor is a much thinner muscle just under the pectoralis major. It originates from the middle ribs and is attached to the scapula, or shoulder blade. This muscle assists in drawing the shoulder forward and downward and is quite powerful. 

Pectoralis_minor

Callisthenics Chest Training

The chest forms the main part of a large group of muscles designed for pushing. Thus, the way to train them is to give them something to push. This is achieved in simple terms from various push-up plank positions.

Doing this with bodyweight exercises is a somewhat different approach to lying on your back and trying to force a heavy weight upward. (And let’s be honest here guys this simple-sounding process is often the cause of many a serious tear or rip—often due to the depth of the bar, underlying shoulder issues, and/or using a weight that is simply too heavy, causing compromised form.)

Bodyweight Over External Weight

Bodyweight exercises pose far less risk to those oft-damaged regions of the chest and shoulder. They also contain more dynamic mobility than you could ever hope to get by pushing any decent weight.

Of course, the simple fact that you are working with much less weight means the volume needs to be quite a bit higher, with plenty of variation on exercises to keep them challenging.

This is also why many men either avoid them like the plague or don’t get the results they seek due to lack of volume. Working up to at least one hundred reps of any given exercise will likely be the first challenge for anyone just getting started with callisthenic-style training.

But don’t sweat the numbers so much and instead focus on form while at the same time developing and maintaining core strength.

Always remember that there are countless ways to complete a number like 100—which is considered relatively small in bodyweight training terms. For instance, a few options are 10 x10, 5 x 20, 4 x 25 etc., etc. But most important are form and body feel—do you feel like you are primarily working on the areas you are focusing on?

The Power of Mobility

One of the absolute best things about callisthenic training for me is that it allows you to work strength and mobility simultaneously. This is something that is incredibly valuable when it comes to injury prevention and natural movement, not to mention training longevity.

Thus, even when focusing on one area like the chest, you are also bringing into play virtually the whole body to some degree. And this will allow you to develop a much more mobile, explosive, and dynamic kind of power from bodyweight pec training—without the risk of injury and with much better all-round mobility.

The basic plank position for the push-up is the place to start. You could spend literally years working in this position alone for chest development. But when you start to feel that you have adapted to this position and can rep out quite comfortably with little resistance, you will then need to start tweaking, modifying, and specializing your chest routines.

The obvious way to do this is by simply attempting to increase volume by way of reps and sets. Modifying the tempo—sometimes moving fast for explosive power and sometimes slow to develop stability, core strength, and form is another valuable angle to consider.

After Learning the Basics, Target Specific Regions of the Chest By:

  1. Changing the position of the hands. Generally the wider they go the more they work the chest. The narrower the position the more the arms, as well as back and shoulders, are doing the work. Also experiment with placing them further forward and further backward than in the standard position to attack the chest region in different ways and from different angles.

800px-One-armed-biased-push-up-1

  1. Changing the depth of the hands or the feet to target the upper and lower chest regions—i.e. elevating either the feet of the hands to allow an incline position either way. Elevated feet positions usually prove the most challenging—the more so the higher the feet are—and this allows you to keep things both challenging and interesting.

800px-Push-up-with-feet-on-an-exercise-ball-2

  1. You can also try using only one leg—elevating the one not being used and experimenting with different widths and foot positions

Sample Recommended Calisthenics Chest Exercises

TIPS:

  • Pay attention to elbow depth—as with the bench press you don’t want to go too deep and put unnecessary strain on any previous injuries or weak points—at least initially—although there is much less chance of injury in doing so with only body weight.
  • Consider the width of the hands (narrow, medium, wide—keep them varied and experiment).
  • Experiment with different hand positions (angled, turned inwards/outwards)
  • Make sure you are working on shoulder and chest mobility in conjunction with training, especially before getting into serious pushing. Shoulder mobility issues can seriously impair the proper form for pushing exercises.

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