The best chest exercises for women to build upper body strength

Our resident personal trainer talks you through the best chest exercises to try at home or in the gym 

Woman performing a dumbbell chest fly

by Becky Fuller |
Updated on

Strength can diminish as we age, especially in our upper body, so it’s a good idea to do chest exercises to combat this. Age-related sarcopenia, or loss of muscle mass, starts in our thirties, and steadily increases as we age. For women, our bone density can decrease during menopause, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, potentially putting us at a higher risk of fractures and falls. This is why some form of weight training for women over 50 is important.

What are the benefits of chest exercises?

Dean Zweck, Product Development Manager at Total Fitness, points out that we use our upper body a surprising amount, but we don’t tend to exercise it nearly as much as our legs.

"While many people often focus on lower-body exercises like squats, lunges, legs, bums and tums classes and walking or running, it’s important to incorporate upper-body exercises as well. Striking this balance will provide you with strength across different areas, making everyday tasks easier.

Upper body exercises help with a variety of daily activities such as carrying your shopping, lifting your grandkids, tending to the garden, and exercise such as swimming and racket sports. The main muscles used in these tasks are your back, shoulders and chest."

One of the benefits of chest exercises is increasing mobility, flexibility and strength in this area, so we can continue to do our daily activities with ease. Having a strong upper body also means we put less pressure on the lower back as we adopt the correct posture.

Crucially, we also need our chest, arm and back muscles to help us sit up out of bed, or to pull us up after a fall. Exercising the upper body on a regular basis really could be a lifesaver.

The chest area is made up of large, powerful muscles, including the pectoralis major that sit at the front of the chest, just under the breasts. The pectoralis minor sit behind this, along the top of the ribs. When you perform chest exercises, you’re also building the arm muscles (biceps and triceps), back muscles including the latissimus dorsi (lats), and shoulder muscles including the deltoids and rotator cuff.

Can chest exercises lift the breasts?

As we age, our chest loses elasticity, causing breasts to sag. Because they’re mostly formed of fat and tissue, they can’t be tightened or lifted through exercise. However, exercising the chest muscles behind the breasts will improve the overall look and improve your posture. An added benefit of regular exercise can be weight loss, which might reduce breast size as well.

How often should I do chest exercises?

NHS guidelines for older adults recommend some form of strengthening exercises on at least two days a week. Something is always better than nothing, so if two sessions is all you can manage or have time for, you’re still going to be building muscle and improving your overall health. If you have more time, then three or more sessions a week is great, just give yourself time to recover between.

What equipment do I need for chest exercises?

If you want to work out at home, you’ll need some equipment. It is possible to strengthen the chest using no equipment, with exercises such as planks and push-ups, but for best results you’ll want to invest in a set of dumbbells. You’ll also need an exercise bench or an exercise mat for lying on.

What weight should I use for chest exercises?

What weight you use for chest exercises will depend on your starting point. As a guide, you should be able to complete all repetitions with good form but feel like you can only do one or two more with the weight you have. My personal recommendation would be to invest in a set of dumbbells that come in light, medium and heavy (for you). Alternatively, you can look at adjustable dumbbells, which are more money but incredibly versatile.

Best chest exercises to try at home or in the gym

Below, we have a series of dumbbell exercises for the chest. You can follow this workout at home or in the gym.

Equipment needed:

• Dumbbells  
• A mat or bench to lie on 
• A towel to support the head if needed 
• Water if needed

Practise each movement pattern without weight first and add weight when ready. Always try to exhale on the hardest part of the movement, usually when you push the weights away. For each move, aim to complete six to ten repetitions, and repeat the moves for three rounds in total. Rest as needed between moves.

Please consult your doctor before starting any new exercise regime if you have any pre-existing injuries or health conditions.

Dumbbell chest press

Woman lying on her back performing a dumbbell chest press
©Getty Images / Elizaveta Starkova
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat.

  2. Hold a pair of dumbbells above the middle of your chest, arms fully extended and palms facing your feet.

  3. Lower the dumbbells, letting your elbows bend to 90-degrees, then exhale as you drive the weights back up and repeat.


Woman performing a knee-down push-up
©Getty Images / Rick Gomez
  1. Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and extend your legs behind you so you’re in a plank position.

  2. Drop your knees directly underneath you to the floor to make this easier.

  3. Lower your chest until it’s a couple of inches from the floor, then exhale as you drive yourself back up to the starting position and repeat.

  4. Don’t let your back sag or your hips come up in the air.

Dumbbell chest fly

Woman performing a dumbbell chest fly on a bench
©Getty Images / Antonio_Diaz
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat.

  2. Hold a pair of dumbbells above the middle of your chest.

  3. With soft elbows, let the weights come apart until your arms are fully extended.

  4. Exhale as you bring the weights back together and repeat.

  5. Top tip: think ‘open the door, close the door.’

Close grip dumbbell press

Woman lying on her back performing a close grip dumbbell press
©Getty Images / JGI / Tom Grill
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat.

  2. Keep your arms close to your side, elbows bent at 90-degrees.

  3. Hold a pair of dumbbells with your palms facing in.

  4. Keeping the arms tight to your side extend the weights up, exhaling as you do so and keeping the palms facing in towards each other.

  5. Lower the arms back to the starting position and repeat.

Best chest exercises at the gym

If you have a gym membership, you can follow the workout above using a bench instead of the floor. You can also use machines for chest press and chest fly instead. The machines will offer more support, so you’ll be able to lift more weight, but be sure to include some dumbbell moves as well so you can work on stability.

Dean recommends the following gym machines for the upper body:

Seated chest press: "Sit down with your back firmly against the pad and adjust the seat so the handles are in line with your chest. Press the handles out in front and slowly return to the starting position."

Seated shoulder press: "Sit down with your back firmly against the pad, press the handles overhead and slowly lower back to the start."

Lat pulldown: "Sit with your thighs under the pads, reach up and grab the bar with an overhand grip. Lean slightly back and pull the bar to your chest, controlling the bar back up."

Dean Zweck is the Product Development manager for Total Fitness

Becky Fuller is a senior digital writer for She is also a fully qualified personal trainer and strength coach, specialising in fitness and wellbeing for over 50s. Prior to joining Yours, Becky was a fitness writer for Saga, and a freelance entertainment and theatre journalist. Becky is passionate about helping people to move well and discover the many benefits of strength training.

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