Developing a Gladiator-like Chest With Incline Barbell Bench Presses

Developing a Gladiator-like Chest With Incline Barbell Bench PressesBy Stephen E. Alway, PhD, FACSM

The armor-plated chests of Roman gladiators would both intimidate their foes and also serve as vital protection in battle. Very few folks are born with the genes associated with the iron-hard covering of a Gladiator’s chest structure, so building the armor plating associated with a tight, hard and square chest requires shedding a few gallons of sweat for most of us. A gladiator with a weak or unprotected chest would not survive very long. Fortunately, most of us don’t have to depend on the strength or mass of our chest musculature for survival, but there are still certain advantages to possessing a strong and balanced chest. Aside from the obvious visual advantages of having a deep, hard chest, improving all aspects of the chest will help improve your performance and decrease the chances of injury if you engage, even periodically, in recreational activities such as tennis, racquetball, volleyball, basketball, swimming, baseball or football, to name just a few.

Flat bench presses are great for building overall muscle thickness in the chest and specifically, the lower and outer parts of the pectoralis major muscles; however, if all that you do for your chest training is the flat bench press, you’ll never develop a balanced chest with thickness in the upper part of your chest. Guys who choose to utilize flat bench presses as the only (or primary) chest exercise do so for a couple of reasons. First, they’ve been able to improve their strength so that the weight they are currently lifting is impressive, both to themselves and their training buddies. Second, flat bench presses allow them to lift a decent weight without making them feel terribly wasted at the end of the set. Because the lower chest regions have more fibers and potential depth than the upper regions, the upper chest can appear shallow if it doesn’t receive special attention. Presumably, no one sets out to develop “droopy” pectoralis muscles, but that’s the impression that could be conveyed if there isn’t specific training for the musculature of the upper chest. The incline barbell bench press is designed to build a high chest and thereby improve the balance and shape so that you have a square, gladiator-like chest.

Muscle Structure & Function

Developing a Gladiator-like Chest With Incline Barbell Bench Presses The pectoralis major muscle is shaped somewhat like a fan. Its fibers have different orientations and angles of pull from the top to the bottom of the chest, but all of the fibers converge on a single location on the humerus bone of the upper arm. This large muscle covers the upper (superior) part of the chest and its outside (lateral) border forms the front (anterior) wall of the armpit (axilla). The pectoralis major muscle is anatomically associated with the anterior chest wall, but it acts on the humerus bone of the upper arm, through manipulation of the shoulder (glenohumeral) joint. A very tough and dense connective tissue sheet called the pectoral fascia covers the pectoralis major like a tight-fitting sock. The pectoralis major muscle has two heads. The clavicular head is located along the anterior lower surface of the clavicle (collarbone). The sternocostal head takes its origin from the manubrium (the top portion of the sternum), the upper-six costal cartilages (cartilages at the ends of the ribs that attach to the sternum) and from the tendinous-like portion of the superior part of the external oblique muscle (a lateral muscle of the abdominal wall). The clavicular and sternocostal heads converge on a groove near the head of the humerus (the upper arm bone), which separates the lesser tubercle (small bump) and greater tubercle (large bump) on the humerus (upper arm bone) near the shoulder joint. The clavicular head of the pectoralis major receives an extraordinary concentration of contractile effort in the incline bench press.

Developing a Gladiator-like Chest With Incline Barbell Bench PressesBoth sternocostal and clavicular heads of the pectoralis major adduct the humerus (draw the arm toward the midline of the body) and they medially rotate the humerus at the shoulder joint. Both heads also flex the humerus by moving the upper arm anteriorly (or toward the front of the body) and this is the major function achieved by the incline bench press. However, the shoulder angle will determine the relative activation of the muscle, so an incline bench press will preferentially activate the fibers in the clavicular head of the pectoralis major, whereas the flat bench press primarily recruits the sternocostal head of the pectoralis. Nevertheless, the sternocostal head is far from silent during the incline bench press, because it isn’t possible to totally isolate the recruitment of fibers of the upper and lower chest.

Incline Barbell Press

Developing a Gladiator-like Chest With Incline Barbell Bench Presses1. Choose an incline bench that is 30º to 35º. Benches that are steeper than this (e.g., 45º or more) place an increasing emphasis on the anterior deltoid, and this detracts from the activation of the pectoralis major.

2. Place a barbell on the weight stand at the head of the bench and load it with a resistance that you can do 10 to 12 times. It’s important that you warm up the shoulders and chest with a medium weight on your first set, especially if this is your first chest exercise. If you wish, you can go heavier on your subsequent sets and drop the repetitions accordingly.

Developing a Gladiator-like Chest With Incline Barbell Bench Presses3. Have a partner lift the barbell from the weight stands. Begin with your arms straight, with the bar balanced and positioned over the clavicles.

4. Slowly lower the bar under the chin to the top of the chest, just below the clavicle. You should control the descent of the barbell and avoid bouncing the bar off your chest because this could lead to rib damage or even damage the internal organs. It could also set you up for a pectoralis tear. The forearms should remain perpendicular to the floor and you should keep your elbows back (toward the top of your head) as far as possible, to stretch the muscle of the upper chest as you lower the barbell toward your chest. Inhale as the weight is being lowered to your chest.

5. Press the barbell up and straighten the elbows as you return the bar toward the starting position. Don’t let the bar wander toward your feet as you’re pressing it upward. Rather, make sure that the bar stays over your eyes or the top of your head as you’re extending your elbows and moving the bar upward, away from your chest. However, you shouldn’t completely lock out the elbows at the top of the lift because this would reduce the loading on your chest, as the resistance would be transmitted directly through the humerus bones rather than being supported by the musculature. Exhale as the weight travels upward and away from your chest. Repeat the repetition until the set is finished.

Both the bench angle and forcing the elbows toward the head (backward) during the lift make this exercise focus on the upper chest by activating the clavicular head of the pectoralis major, but it will also involve fibers from the remainder of the pectoralis major (although to a lesser extent). It’s important to bring the bar down all the way to your chest, because there’s a greater degree of humeral extension (stretch) with the elbows back and the barbell lowered to the chest than if you stop before reaching the chest with the bar. It’s important that both the shoulders and the elbows be back (toward your head), as the barbell is pressed both up and down. Never let your elbows move close to your ribcage or toward your feet or you’ll be changing the movement from the upper pectoralis to the triceps and anterior deltoid.

It makes good sense to stress the upper chest fibers early in the chest workout. Thus, if you have a weak upper chest, or you have previously used exercises that stress the lower chest, you should do the incline presses first in your chest routine. You’ll be unable to use as much weight in an incline barbell press as compared to a flat barbell bench press, and this could be a little tough on your ego. Nevertheless, the overall improvements to the shape and balance of your chest will more than make up for any hit your ego might take by using less than superhuman loads. Although the amount of resistance you use is important, it’s equally important to use this resistance in good form and choose exercises appropriately. Few great chests are born, so most are forged by a lot of hard work. So, make the precious time you have set aside for training pay off by including the incline barbell press in your workouts. This exercise will help to avoid any “droopy chest” and instead, your chest will take on the character of high, thick plates of gladiator-like armor laying across your upper torso.