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Three exercises to build chest muscles

In this “Body Parts” series, Dimity McDowell gets you in playing shape, from head to toe.

Body Part: The Chest/Pecs

What it does: The muscles that stretch from your upper arm to your collarbone and lie under your breasts, the chest is responsible for a range of movements. “When you move your shoulder, you need to engage your chest muscles,” says Briana Boehmer, director of wellness and fitness services at Salus, Inc., in Delafield, Wis. “Whether you’re pushing something, picking something up or moving something sideways, your chest plays a pivotal role.” It also plays a minor role facilitating in deep breathing.

Most commonly used when you: Hit a forehand or backhand in tennis, dribble a basketball, block in volleyball, throw from first to third base in softball, pass the ball to your teammate in water polo, arm wrestle a friend for fun, or otherwise move your shoulders.

Here are three moves to strengthen the chest. Do 12-20 reps, and two or three sets of each exercise, concentrating on proper form before you move up in weight.

1. Chest Press

How to: Position yourself on a stability ball so that your upper back and head are on the ball, your knees are bent 90 degrees and your feet are flat on the floor. Holding a medium weight in each hand — 8 to 20 pounds, depending on your fitness level — bend your elbows 90 degrees so your arms form a goal post; your palms should be facing away from you. With one smooth motion, push both weights up as you straighten both arms directly over your shoulders. Lower and repeat. “Doing the press on the stability ball works your chest muscles while you have to maintain core control and balance,” says Boehmer, “which is exactly what sports ask us to do: multitask.” Tip: Make sure you engage your glutes throughout the whole exercise.

2. Chest Fly

How to: Get in the same position on the stability ball, but use lighter weights for this one. “Because you move the weights farther from your center, there’s a greater force on your joints than in the press,” Boehmer says. Start with your arms extended above your shoulder joints. Keeping a minimal bend in your elbows, lower both arms directly out to the sides, going no lower than your shoulder joint.

3. Push-Up

How to: We’ve got three options for this oldie-but-goodie, and you should pick a level that’s right for you right now.

The assisted version: start on your knees. Hands under your shoulders, knees on the ground, spine in a straight line from head to knees. Lower your body until your chest is a few inches from the ground, then push back up. “Never call these girl push-ups by the way,” Boehmer says. “I know plenty of guys who can’t do proper push-ups and start off here.”

The half-assisted version: Start on your toes in the classic push-up position, making sure your core is engaged, and slowly lower your body almost all the way to the ground. Then drop to your knees and push back up. “This allows you to build strength on the easier half of the push-up,” Boehmer says.

The full version: maintain the traditional push-up position through both the lowering and pushing up phase. “If you can do a good push-up, you have incredible total body strength,” she says. “It takes having control of your core, hips, glutes and upper body.”

If need be, start with as many full versions as you can do, then drop to the half-assisted or assisted version to finish the set. “Proper form is key,” Boehmer says. “A push-up done poorly doesn’t really build strength.”

Let’s hear it for the chest: “When my chest is strong, I have more power in my arms. I feel like my swing is 10 times faster. A strong chest also helps with blocking.” -- Bella Turelli, sophomore volleyball player, Brookfield Central (Brookfield, Wis.).