No-Weight Workouts: Chest Exercises

Weight is weight. It doesn’t matter if it’s iron pressed into plates or flesh and bone. Your body weighs something, and that’s all you need to design an effective workout. Fitness expert and author of Building Strength and Stamina, Dr. Wayne L. Westcott, says, “Bodyweight exercises are effective for improving muscle strength and endurance.” Bodyweight workouts are also great for changing the pace – for keeping your body guessing what’s coming next. Functionally, our muscles exist solely for the purpose of moving the weight of our bodies. Why wouldn’t we use that very natural connection in training? Here’s how to start your own bodyweight workouts … with your chest.


Isometric Chest Squeeze
This is a great one to start with, because it both warms-up your chest, and pre-exhausts it for the workout to come. Warming up is important to avoid injury, and pre-exhaustion is an age-old exercise principle proven repeatedly. Imagine instead of isometric chest squeezes, you start your workout with push-ups. Because your triceps are smaller and weaker than your chest, your chest will never reach failure because your tri’s will fail first. According to exercise physiologist and co-author of The Power of Champions Kelli Calabrese , “working a set to failure is an effective technique for both beginning and advanced exercisers to promote muscle growth.” So, we begin with an isolation exercise like squeezes to “pre-exhaust” the chest so that it can reach failure later.

Bend your arms and place your hands together in front of your chest. Push both hands against each other and squeeze as hard as you can for 30 seconds. Remember to breathe throughout the contraction, because a good muscle “pump” is what we’re after, and that can only be obtained by oxygen-rich blood flowing into the muscle. Release and repeat. With each successive rep, your chest will fatigue more, and soon you will be unable to hold the contraction for long. When you can’t hold the contraction longer than 10 seconds, you’re finished.

There’s a reason that everyone in the world knows what a push-up is. It’s because the push-up is tried and true. It’s perhaps the best bodyweight exercise for overall upper-body development, strength, and power. The push-up, unlike any other weighted chest exercise, requires you to balance yourself and hold your body rigid – you’re not just lying on a bench. As a result, you wind up working your abs, lower back, shoulders, triceps, and even your neck during push-ups. That’s why the U.S. Department of Defense says, “The strength endurance measures selected by the services – push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups – are all considered the best measures of their respective muscle group.” And that’s why the military uses the push-up to gauge upper-body strength. As an added bonus, you can also switch quickly between wide-grip and close-grip push-ups to isolate various areas of your chest.

Kneel down and place your hands flat on the floor and slightly wider than shoulder width. Move your feet back, placing your toes on the floor, so that your knees are off the floor and your legs are straight. At this point, your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Your body should remain straight throughout this exercise. In a controlled fashion, lower your body toward the floor, bending your elbows, until your body is nearly touching the floor. Now, push your body up away from the floor, straightening your arms, until you have returned to the starting position.

NOTE: You can vary the distance between your hands during push-ups to work different parts of your chest muscle. Place your hands wide to emphasize the outer chest, or place them closer together to focus on the inner chest and triceps.

Feet Elevated Push-Up
A variation of the regular push-up, this exercise works the upper chest more directly. Aesthetically, the upper chest is extremely important because it is the area that gives your chest that “thick” look. Working the upper chest also helps to build an overall symmetrical pectoral area; without it, your disproportionate lower chest will appear droopy.

Kneel down and place your hands flat on the floor and slightly wider than shoulder width. With your shoulders directly over your hands, straighten your arms. Move your feet back, placing your toes on a chair (or other raised surface). The higher the chair seat, the greater the intensity of the exercise. Continue with the same movement described for regular push-ups.

WARNING: Don’t place your feet too high or you’ll end up working your delts and leaving your chest behind. Think about it, if your feet are so high that you’re pitched at a severe angle, the movement will resemble an upside down shoulder press, not a push-up. The height of a normal chair seat is perfect, as your body should form about a 45-degree angle with the floor.

Chest Dips on Chairs
This weight-free exercise is a combination of both the chest dip and decline press. It’s perfect for finishing off your workout because the dip-like movement works the entire chest, while the decline-like positioning emphasizes your lower chest, which is important for overall symmetry.

Set two chairs (the tallest ones you can find) facing each other with about two feet of space between them. Place one hand on the seat of each chair. With your legs bent, but only your toes touching the ground, pitch your body forward and perform dips as you normally would. Make sure you’re leaning forward — this will take the emphasis off your triceps and place it on your lower chest. Your torso should form about a 60- to 75-degree angle with the floor.

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