Every man wants a thick, strong chest for the ladies to rest their heads on in bed, as well as to look more masculine in general and fill out that T-shirt. Building a powerful set of pectorals may seem like child’s play, as most of us have been bench-pressing since junior high and you probably think you’ve got it covered. But be honest – is your chest as well developed as you would like it to be? Proper chest training isn’t terribly complicated, but there is substantially more to know than the average lifter is aware of.
The cornerstone of all chest training is the flat press, and the barbell version is by far the most popular around the world and through the years. The most common question posed to weight trainers is “how much can you bench?” However, the barbell bench press doesn’t deliver perfect results of all of us. Oftentimes the front delts and triceps get more work than the pecs themselves. The solution for many is to switch to dumbbells or one of the excellent machines such as those made by Hammer Strength, Cybex, Flex and Icarian. It’s not unusual to fear that abandoning the sacred bench press will lead to disaster and deflated pecs, but this is a needless concern. Your chest doesn’t know if it’s lifting a barbell, weight on a machine or Shakira (don’t you wish). With all pressing exercises, begin at arm’s length and slowly lower the resistance into a full stretch of the chest. Press up explosively yet under total control, and contract the pecs for a brief moment before repeating.
The upper chest is often neglected due to the popularity of the flat bench press, and the effects are obvious on physiques everywhere. The world is full of men with droopy, sagging pecs with tremendous development in the lower region but only a shallow flatland underneath the clavicles. It’s not an attractive look. Pecs should be high and square, and the only way to achieve this is to regularly incorporate incline presses into your routine. To give them equal treatment, you should alternate starting workouts with either flat or incline pressing. If the situation is already unbalanced and your upper chest needs help fast, then do only incline presses for at least six months. Don’t worry that your lower chest will wither away – it will maintain its dimensions while the upper pecs catch up.
Decline Presses and Dips
Decline presses and dips are less commonly practiced chest exercises, but they are certainly valuable as alternatives to flat pressing. Often lifters with shoulder problems who can’t flat press without pain are able to do declines or dips with no problem. Contrary to prevailing belief, these movements do not isolate the “lower” pecs, but instead work the bulk of the muscle in the same manner as flat presses. Only the angle of pressing is different. Declines can be very awkward to perform, so always use a spotter to help guide you. To make sure dips work more chest and less triceps, lean your torso forward and flare your elbows out away from your body. Some trainers get such good results from weighted dips that they make them their main pressing movement.
No chest workout would be complete without a flye movement to isolate the chest in a hugging motion. Dumbbell flyes are the old-school standby, but the reality is that you can achieve a greater range of motion and more evenly distributed resistance with either cables or a machine. For the safety of your shoulder joints, avoid pec decks that have your arms bent with knuckles facing the ceiling. Instead, select the pec flye that doubles as a rear delt machine.
Isolating the Chest
The hardest thing about chest training for most is learning to isolate the chest so that the shoulders and triceps don’t take over. Some useful tips are to keep a slight arch in the lower back and squeeze the shoulder blades together as you press. This elevates the sternum and puts the chest in a more mechanically advantageous position.
Volume and Frequency of Training
Understand that the chest is a large muscle group and is capable of a substantial amount of work in the gym. To allow for growth, you must train it with just enough sets to stimulate hypertrophy, then back off and give it ample time to recover and repair the muscle damage inflicted. No more than 10-12 work sets are needed, and most men find their chests need a solid four to six days to recover before they can train it again with optimum effort and intensity. Beating your pecs up with 20 or 30 sets twice a week will only lead to overtraining for the vast majority of lifters.
Top 6 Growth Tips for Chest
Always Use a Full Range of Motion
Don’t get into the habit of only lowering the weight halfway down, which is what many unconsciously do in order to handle more resistance. All muscles fare better when they are trained through their complete range of motion, all the way down and up. The only exception to this may be when you have already reached failure and wish to extend the set with one or two partial-range reps.
Avoid Maxing Out
Your max bench press may have been considered a barometer of your budding manhood back in adolescence, but some things are better left in the past. Using so much weight that you can only lift it once does absolutely nothing to improve the size and shape of your pecs. Worse, a one-rep max exposes you to a high risk of injury to either the delicate rotator cuff structure or the tendons that connect the pecs to their insertion points above the armpits. Keep your sets in the 8-10 rep range for best growth results and safety.
Stretch and Flex the Chest Between Sets
You can not only increase your range of motion and flexibility by stretching the chest between sets, but many believe that the combination of stretching and flexing actually improves the overall look of the muscle. Muscle separations and striations often become more evident, which look 10 times better when you lean out and get a tan for summer.
Suppress Your Stupid Ego
In an effort to use more weight, many lifters employ horrendous cheating form and ultimately use a host of other muscles to help. Rarely are they able to feel their pecs working as they do their set, and the results are typically almost nonexistent. Little do these misguided studs know that the key to making mass gains again would be to simply lighten up the weight.
Always Warm Up Thoroughly
Chest training isn’t as dangerous as running the bulls at Pamplona, but shoulder injuries and torn pectoral muscles are not unheard of. You can drastically reduce your risk of suffering such a debilitating situation by taking the time to gradually introduce heavier loads to your muscles and connective tissues. Always do 5-7 minutes of light cardio before starting on the weights to raise your body temperature, and then do at least two warm-up sets before attempting heavy weights. These sets should start out with 12-15 reps, then can go down to just four to six as the weight gets closer to what you will start with. Never be afraid to spend a couple of minutes on another preparatory set if you don’t quite feel ready to rock just yet.
Lift the Weight Yourself
What good does it do you to use 350 pounds in the bench press if your spotter is lifting 100 pounds of it for you? Choose a weight that allows you to complete at least eight reps by yourself and use forced reps only sparingly. Growing dependent on someone else to help you lift the weight robs you of significant results and only marks you as an egomaniac who refuses to accept his own limitations.
Basic Chest Routines
Dumbbell Flat Press
3 x 8-10
3 x 8-10
Machine Incline Press
3 x 8-10
Barbell Incline Press
3 x 8-10
3 x 8-10
3 x 8-10
Dumbbell Incline Press
3 x 8-10
Incline Dumbbell Flyes
3 x 8-10
Barbell Decline Press
3 x 8-1