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Chest Muscle

In fitness, it’s hard to find a muscle group talked about more than the chest. Men and women alike are obsessed with this body part, and it’s easy to see why. Our primal instincts tell us that a robust chest is a symbol of strength, health, and fertility. Fitness models invariably have theirs on display as much as possible.

Here’s the good news: following a bodyweight chest workout can quickly build an upper body that is aesthetically pleasing and immensely powerful.

The bad news isbecause of the world’s infatuation with this subjectwe are constantly flooded with a torrent of information that is both conflicting and confusing. Just taking a quick search through Google, one is immediately smacked in the face with authors that claim to have “28 of the newest and greatest chest exercises,” or whatever.

For example, a typical calisthenics chest workout on the internet might look like this:

Exercises:

  1. 10-15 Regular pushups
  2. 10-12 Wide pushups
  3. 10-12 Diamond pushups
  4. 10 Clapping pushups
  5. 8-10 Decline pushups
  6. 15-20 Bodyweight ring flies
  7. 10-15 Parallel bar dips
  8. 5 Horizontal bar dips
  9. 1-Minute planche lean

Now, by themselves, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those exercises. I’ve utilized them all at some point.

However, using the above workout to build mass is fundamentally flawed. I believe the scientific description is: it’s too damn complicated.

Keep It Simple

The thought process behind complex workout programs usually goes something like this:

“In order to work all parts of the muscle group, I have to use multiple exercises that focus on different areas.”

While this may be true for weight- and machine-based isolation exercises, people often forget that bodyweight exercises are mostly compound movements.

When it comes to building muscle, more exercises is not better.

This means that instead of using multiple movements, a bodyweight athlete should focus his chest workout on one or two key movements that hit all the necessary areas. Too many exercises hinders one’s ability to focus on what matters. Thinking of exercises to work specific muscles is backwards logic. The human body is designed for functional movements. Become extremely adept at these movements and your muscles will naturally grow to their ideal proportions.

I’m talking about a strict progressive chain of dips and pushups. Most bodyweight chest workout programs consist of these two categories anyway.

But Why Isn’t More Better?

It is generally accepted that high resistance is ideal for muscle growth. To weightlifters, this means lifting heavy. For calisthenics athletes, this means doing increasingly difficult exercises in a progressive chain. Simply put, an unnecessarily high number of exercises detracts from the key sets that maximize hypertrophy.

Instead of doing eight or nine pushup variations, a bodyweight athlete should focus his or her workout on the hardest variation they can currently do for low-to-medium repetitions.

Muscle growth happens as a response to progressive overload. Triggering this response can happen in as little as one intense set. To increase your size, forget about several intermediate sets and focus on one or two hard sets. That’s all you need.

Just one set can trigger growth.

Some people disagree with this philosophy. I get it. Just doing one set doesn’t feel like it’s enough, especially if you’re used to multiple sets. If you won’t take it from me, take it from bodybuilding ideologist Mike Mentzer, who was known for telling his students to focus on only one set. Mike has a famous quote I like, even though it is commonly attributed to Jason Statham:

“You can take a stick of dynamite and tap it with a pencil all day and it’s not
going to go off. But hit it once with a hammer and ‘BANG’—it will go off!”

-Mike Mentzer, and apparently Jason Statham

Dips or Pushups?

It’s no secret that the majority of calisthenics chest workouts focus on pushups and dips. Both are great exercises that teach us to forcefully push things away from our body, such as a box, an attacker, or a jealous ex-lover. However, which one is better for chest growth?

The answer depends on the athlete.

When we do pushing exercises, a chain of muscle activation happens. It travels from our palms to our chest, and sometimes even further. For most people, this take the resistance of the exercise and transfers it from their relatively weaker forearm muscles until it reaches their powerful pectorals, which take the lion’s share of the load. This is how pushups work for the majority.

However, some practitioners have extraordinarily strong triceps. Whether this was from training or genetics, this means the triceps can handle more of the pushing. While this is fine for strength training, this leaves comparatively less work to trickle down to the chest. Less work means less growth.

This is not a genetic flaw so much as a safety mechanism. If one muscle is weak or injured, the surrounding ones will work harder to compensate.

If this applies to you, I recommend focusing your chest workouts on dip progressions.

Otherwise, revolve your chest training on good ol’ pushup progressions.

Of course, dips and pushups don’t refer to a single exercise, but a family of exercises. This article will cover the exercise progressions for these two chains, from beginner to advanced.

The dip progression goal is the Horizontal Bar Dip.

The pushup progressions lead to the One-Arm Twist Pushup.

There are harder variations of these exercises. There always are. I encourage you to experiment and share your experience with me.

Progressive Dipping

Some might disagree, but I consider dips to be a slightly more advanced exercise than pushups. Not necessarily harder—just more advanced. The upshot of this is that early pushup progressions are my recommended way to get to the first dip progression. I recommend mastering Kneeling Pushups before working on dips. Getting to Full Pushups is even better. Don’t worry; if you are not yet at the stage where you can do these, your chest is getting the necessary work from pushup work—strong triceps or not.

Most of these progressions can be done on parallel bars or rings. Rings are generally considered more difficult. However, if you don’t have access to parallel bars, rings make a very versatile alternative.

Assisted Dips

This step may not be strictly necessary for some people who an already do Full Pushups well. I’ve included it for the extra cautious athlete. Pushing off an object with your legs to assist the dip helps increases stability and helps more than one might think. Be prepared for a sizeable increase in strength demand for the next stage. Using an unstable object (such as a basketball) to assist prevent overusing the legs.

Do At Least: 5 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 15 Repetitions

Bent Leg Dips

Bending the knees shifts your center of gravity to a favorable position when descending. This makes this exercise slightly easier than traditional straight leg dips.

Do At Least: 5 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 12 Repetitions

Straight Leg Dips

This is a fantastic bodyweight chest exercise that even hardcore weightlifters will do. Most of them stop at this progression (or even the previous one) and simply add weight for increased difficulty. However, because the lats significantly assist this movement, there are better dip progressions for chest work.

Do At Least: 7 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 15 Repetitions

Archer Dips

Depending on how far away one holds the assisting arm, this exercise has the potential to be much harder than the next progressions. Start by holding the assisting arm a few inches away from the body and increase the distance until you can comfortably do the next steps.

Do At Least: 3 Repetitions (Per Side)

Move On To The Next Stage: 8 Repetitions (Per Side)

Perpendicular Bar Dip

This step is not necessary for everyone, but acts as good in-between progression for students still having trouble with Horizontal Bar Dips. In addition, it’s not always possible to find a “corner” where bars intersect for this exercise. They can be done on rings (as shown below), but this makes it significantly harder.

Do At Least: 5 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 12 Repetitions

Horizontal Bar Dip (+Weight)

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. The ability to do this seemingly straightforward exercise actually alludes many supposedly strong gym rats. With your hands in front of you, your lats are unable to assist as much as they were, putting the work on your triceps and pectorals. Your elbows are also at a slight mechanical disadvantage. This is my favorite dip progression for chest work, but it is difficult to do on rings. Do it on a single rail of parallel bars, a pull-up bar, or even a ledge. It’s at this stage that I would recommend adding weights if necessaryjust make sure your joints are ready.

Do At Least: 3 Repetitions

Start Adding Weight: 20 Repetitions

Pushup Power

I built my pushing strength on a foundation of pushups before I ever attempted dips. Truthfully, dips probably would have suited my bodytype better, but now I’ve done plenty of both. The obvious benefit is that they can be done virtually anywhere, unlike dips. Pushups are also great for functional pushing force, which often requires us to push up or forward (think about pushing a car). Even if you love dips, I recommend savoring some nice pushups every once in a while.

Wall Pushups

This exercise is the first step in many pushup progressions. As a result, they’re also commonly blown off as “too easy.” However, I recommend them to just about everyone I train. The light resistance combined with high repetitions isn’t strictly a mass exercise per se. However, it does help condition the joints for the far heavier loads that further progressions bring. You’ll need to be able to do those safely if you want muscle. So wall pushups indirectly aid hypertrophy as a buffer.

Do At Least: 50 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 80 Repetitions / After a few weeks. Wall Pushups are mostly for therapy and joint protection.

Incline Pushups

Like Wall Pushups, these help ease the transition from standing to kneeling. Those that have loudly cracking joints in the later progressions can benefit greatly from weaving in sets of Incline Pushups.

Do At Least: 5 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 20 Repetitions

Kneeling Pushups

Using your knees to support you decreases the weight on your arms. Take care not to overly concave your lower back.

Do At Least: 5 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 20 Repetitions

Full Pushups

This is the gym class standard exercise. Possibly the most well-known bodyweight exercise on the planet. While one could arguably stop here and add weight for hypertrophy, I find this exercise a little too easy. Eventually, one runs out of space to safely place weights on one’s back. For true bodyweight chest muscle, continue your journey.

Do At Least: 5 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 20 Repetitions

Diamond Pushups

Here’s another bodyweight exercise classic. I’ve never been a fan of making the “diamond” symbol with my thumbs. This puts unnecessary strain on the elbows. Just keep your index fingers touching and the purpose of the exercise is accomplished.

Do At Least: 5 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 20 Repetitions

Archer Pushups

The jump from diamond pushups to one-arm work is usually quite sizeable. With this exercise, you can still support your primary pushing arm with the other arm. It’s very easy to scale this exercise—the straighter your assisting arm, the more difficult it is.

Do At Least: 3 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 12 Repetitions

One-Arm Incline Pushup

For those still struggling with multiple reps on a single arm pushup, this helps ease the transition. It also trains the mind and body to use the muscle coordinations necessary for One-Arm Pushups, which can be initially confusing if you’ve never done them before. Of course, the lower the object, the harder the exercise. Experiment with different heights until you’re ready for the next stage.

Do At Least: 3 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 9 Repetitions

Classic One-Arm Pushup

As kids, we used to try these on the playground to show off to one another. I’ve always found them to be quite a sore sight, even when done by very strong athletes. The hips naturally want to rotate towards the pushing side. Keeping the body straight has less to do with chest and arm strength than it has to do with balance and core strength. Start with your feet twice shoulder width and slowly bring them closer.

Do At Least: 3 Repetitions

Move On To The Next Stage: 9 Repetitions

Snake Pushup (+Weight)

Bring your feet totally together increases the amount one is pushing in a similar way that Full Pushups do to Kneeling Pushups. In addition, the hip rotation looks more purposeful here. This is a rarely seen exercise, and it seems the internet is not quite sure what to call it. Remember that this is a one-arm exercise, and any weight you add means you’d be pushing twice that weight if it were a two-arm exercise. For example, doing these would a 20 lb. dumbbell in your resting arm would be the equivalent of adding 40 punds to, say, a benchpress. A 40 lb. dumbbell would be like adding 80 pounds. This is a tremendous difference, and should be treated as such.

Do At Least: 3 Repetitions

Start Adding Weight: 9 Repetitions

Bodyweight Workout For Massive Chest Size

Remember that if you’re training for mass, you want to train like a bodybuilder. This means that any preconceived notions you have about bodyweight training may need to be set aside. The “Greasing The Groove” concept, while I love it, is not ideal for hypertrophy.

As I recommended above, keep your chest workouts short and intense. This allows you to focus on the one or two sets that will really trigger your body’s muscle growth response. If the idea of doing fewer sets bothers you, think of it as doing more of the stuff that matters.

For example, an ideal bodyweight chest workout may look like this:

Exercises:

  1. Warmup – Earlier progression you can do easily
  2. 8 Repetitions – Current Dip/Pushup progression
  3. 1 Minute Break – Controlled breathing
  4. 7 Repetitions – Current Dip/Pushup progression

That’s it. If you’re on a progression that forces you to work hard to get those repetitions, that’s all that’s needed to gain muscle. I recommend going almost to failure. I try to leave one rep in the bank in case I suddenly need it, and this helps prevent injury.

To illustrate, here are some workout samples for various stages:

Beginner Workout:

Pushups

  1. Warmup – 50 Wall Pushups
  2. 8 Incline Pushups
  3. Break – 8 Controlled Breaths
  4. 7 Incline Pushups

Dips

  1. Warmup – 15 Kneeling Pushups
  2. 9 Assisted Dips
  3. Break – 9 Controlled Breaths
  4. 7 Assisted Dips

Intermediate Workout:

Pushups

  1. Warmup – 15 Full Pushups
  2. 18 Diamond Pushups
  3. Break – 8 Controlled Breaths
  4. 18 Diamond Pushups

Dips

  1. Warmup – 15 Assisted Dips
  2. 12 Straight Leg Dips
  3. Break – 9 Controlled Breaths
  4. 11 Straight Leg Dips

Advanced Workout:

Pushups

  1. Warmup – 5 Archer Pushups (Both Sides)
  2. 9 Classic One-Arm Pushups (Left)
  3. 15 Second Break
  4. 9 Classic One-Arm Pushups (Right)
  5. Break – 2 Minutes
  6. 8 Classic One-Arm Pushups (Left)
  7. 15 Second Break
  8. 8 Classic One-Arm Pushups (Right)

Dips

  1. Warmup – 15 Straight Leg Dips
  2. 15 Horizontal Bar Dips
  3. Break – 2 Minutes
  4. 15 Horizontal Bar Dips

Final Thoughts

The primary focus of my training is strength. I define this as the ability to move my body through space. I don’t see much point in looking big if there’s not a crushing foundation of sheer strength to back it up. I’ve seen too many “small” guys beat the utter crap out of muscled-up Roid Charlies that I know I don’t want to be on the receiving end.

That said, more muscle generally means more potential for strength. The best workouts train for both, and the ones included in this article are not exception—why do you think the exercise chains are progressive?

Of course, there’s more to hypertrophy than exercise. Rest and nutrition are also important. Icelandic strongman Hafthór Júlíus Björnsson, perhaps best known for playing “The Mountain” in Game Of Thrones, said it best: “You can’t just lift big. You have to eat big. You have to sleep big.”

Most muscle growth, healing, and progress happens when you’re asleep. If you’re serious about getting bigger, make sure you sleep a solid 8 or 9 hours a day, MORE if necessary. Sleeptime is also when our body replenishes testosterone, which is vital for packing on solid muscle.

A thick, athletic chest is a coveted prize few achieve. While many impressive physiques are blown off as the result of steroids (and they sometimes are, even in calisthenics), it is possible to naturally get an intimidating upper body with pectorals reminiscent of knight armor. This can be done with calisthenics; it’s just that most people don’t know how to do it.

Did I leave anything out? Comment below!

2018-09-01T01:22:58+00:00

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