Do you know which chest exercise stimulates the most muscle growth? Let’s find out.
And to find out, we won’t simply guess in theory what is the best chest exercise for hypertrophy. No. For that, it is useful to use an EMG machine.
An Electromyography (EMG) machine is a sophisticated medical device designed to measure the electrical activity generated by muscles during contraction. This technology allows healthcare professionals and researchers to assess the function of muscles and the nervous system. The core principle behind EMG is the detection of electrical signals produced by muscle fibers when they are activated by motor neurons. These signals, known as electromyograms, are captured by electrodes placed on the skin or inserted directly into the muscle tissue.
The primary use of an EMG machine is in the diagnosis and evaluation of neuromuscular disorders, providing valuable insights into the health and functionality of muscles and nerves. Clinicians employ EMG to identify abnormalities such as muscle weakness, nerve damage, and conditions like muscular dystrophy or peripheral neuropathy. In addition to diagnostic purposes, researchers utilize EMG to study muscle activation patterns during various activities and exercises.
In the context of fitness and sports science, EMG can be instrumental in optimizing training programs by determining which exercises effectively engage specific muscle groups, aiding in the development of targeted and efficient workout routines.
The information laid out below is based on a video shared by Jeremy Ethier, a distinguished kinesiologist and fitness trainer who stands as a co-founder of Built With Science. With a staggering 5.9 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, Ethier has built a reputation for providing lucid information firmly grounded in robust scientific research.
Ethier embarked on a scientific journey to determine the most effective chest exercises. His discovery of a 2010 study on muscle hypertrophy fuelled his passion for understanding the mechanisms that drive muscle development. Armed with newfound knowledge, Jeremy transformed his physique and shared his methods with friends and family. The desire to contribute to fitness research led him to Betty, the EMG machine.
Check it out below how it all went down with Jeremy Ethier’s testing 16 chest exercises with a $12,000 EMG machine named Betty.
16 Chest Exercises Tested Using an EMG Machine
Betty measures the electrical activity of muscles during contraction. It helps researchers assess the effectiveness of different exercises in activating muscles. But before diving into the experiment, Jeremy sought guidance from John, an EMG specialist, ensuring the accuracy and reliability of the data.
With a team of three subjects—Jeremy himself, Alex, and Raza, all employees of Built with Science—and a meticulously planned experiment, they set out to determine the top chest exercises. The 16 chest exercises tested were:
- Banded push-ups
- Standing cable fly
- High to low cable fly
- Seated cable fly
- Chest dips
- Barbell bench press
- Incline barbell bench press
- Flat dumbbell press
- Incline machine press
- 15 degree incline dumbbell press
- 30 degree incline dumbbell press
- 45 degree incline dumbbell press
- Decline dumbbell press
- Pinch press
- Pec deck machine
Weight used on each chest exercise?
Obviously, the weights Alex, Raza, and Ethier can lift will be different. This is why they had to figure out how much weight we’d be using on each chest exercise to ensure they were equally challenging for us. So, a week before the test date to find out what the best chest exercises are, all three spent a whole day in the gym and figured out their estimated “1 rep max” for each exercise.
On test day, they would use 70% of the weight for each of the exercises being tested.That said, they couldn’t really do this with push-ups since you’re forced to use your own body weight.
Before they could go into the first exercise, a crucial measurement to make sure we could standardize the data had to be done. It’s the “maximum voluntary contraction” (i.e., MVC). This represents the maximum activation your muscle can reach. Note that this value will be slightly different for everyone.
So, by gathering this value before testing the exercises, they are able to accurately compare the chest exercises we do against each of our maximum values. This gave them an accurate sense of how well a particular exercise works for each individual chest muscles.
Each participant did 1 set of 5 reps for each exercise, then took at least a 5-minute break in between before proceeding to the next exercise. This is similar to what most EMG research studies do.
The incline dumbbell press emerged as a winner for the upper chest, with varying bench angles influencing muscle activation. The pinch press, despite its high activation, fell short due to its limited muscle-building potential.
For the middle chest, the decline dumbbell press with a slight elevation and the seated cable flyer at chest height proved most effective. Surprisingly, push-ups, a staple exercise, scored poorly for Jeremy and Alex but excelled for Raza, highlighting the need for tailored workouts.
In the lower chest category, seated cable flies and the decline dumbbell press again took the lead. The stable setup of seated cable flies and the slight decline in the press aligned well with lower chest fibres.
In the end, here were the results of the top 3 exercises for each area of the chest according to the EMG machine:
- 15° Incline Dumbbell Press
- 30° Incline Dumbbell Press
- Barbell Bench Press
- Seated Cable Fly
- Decline Dumbbell Press
- 15° Incline Dumbbell Press
- Seated Cable Fly
- Slight Decline Dumbbell Press
- Flat Dumbbell Press
As the results unfolded, a competition ensued, with each participant predicting the top exercises. In a surprising twist Jeremy and Alex tied with four correct predictions each. A dreaded ice plunge awaited the participant with the least accurate guesses. In the end, Raza fell short with three correct predictions, subjecting him to the icy challenge.
This scientific exploration not only revealed effective chest exercises but also highlighted the nuances of muscle activation. With Betty as their guide, Jeremy and his team bridged the gap between research and practical fitness, providing valuable insights for those seeking chest perfection.
Watch the video below to see how they went about to see how they tested 16 chest exercises using a $12,000 EMG machine to see which movements are best for muscle activation and, hence, muscle growth.
- bar facing burpee: Bastien Plu / Unsplash