Guys aren’t the only ones who are into chests.
There is however, one major difference. Man boobs are the last thing women are looking for. Instead they’re looking for a “chiseled chest” as it has consistently been ranked as one of their favorite body parts on a man.
Since every Monday is the unofficial “National Bench Press Day” with every bench station in every gym occupied, it’s obvious that guys everywhere are trying to build their pectoral muscles. Unfortunately, not too many are not getting the results that they’re after. Too often guys are making some common and easy to fix chest training mistakes.
The most common chest training mistakes is focusing on the bench press and how much weight they can use to build their pecs. Not that benching is a bad thing, it’s a great exercise, but it might not be the best choice if you’re focused primarily on physique development and not just strength.
“Benchers Chest” is a real thing, usually seen among long time powerlifters and other strength sport athletes. Essentially, “benchers chest” is an over development of the lower and outer edge of the pecs combined with a relatively underdeveloped upper and mid chest. This happens through years of heavy, low rep training, with a big lower back arch and wide grip.
While this style of benching is the most effective for benching the most weight, it’s probably not the best for stimulating the most muscle growth through the pectorals. Powerlifter technique benching not only has a limited range of motion but it’s only stressing the pecs through one angle. To have the thickest, most evenly developed, chest you must stimulate different areas of the muscle preferentially so that you can bring up your weak areas. This means using many angles to press and perform fly exercises from.
While many used to think preferential stimulation was bro-science and an exercise either stimulated the whole muscle or not, we’ve found through recent research that muscles, “can be regionally targeted through exercise selection” (Schoenfeld). So you’re going to need to do more than a flat barbell bench press if you’re going to hit all the muscle fibers of the chest and build the best chest possible.
But don’t get me wrong, the bench press can be an effective chest builder. It just shouldn’t be your only chest exercise and you need to use the correct technique to maximize muscle stimulation.
Make sure you use a minimal (natural) lower back arch and a smooth consistent motion with no lockout or bounce off the chest. Keep the reps between 8- 20 per set. This will keep the stress on the muscle the whole time and maximize muscle fatigue. Remember to keep your shoulders “packed” tight, scapula pinched together and pulled down and elbows angled back at 45 degrees or so. Not only does this pre stretch the pecs so they receive more stimulation, it’s also a safer position to press from.
Or maybe you should just ditch the barbell altogether?
While I wouldn’t do it right now, because I’m still very focused on strength gains in my training, if I was to begin training exclusively for a bodybuilding show and concerned only with building the best chest possible, from a physique standpoint, I would switch exclusively to dumbbells for my pressing movements.
While some muscle EMG studies show the barbell bench press to activate the pectorals more than dumbbells, in the real world, most high level bodybuilders and physique coaches find dumbbells provide better stimulation and recommend using dumbbells for the majority of chest pressing.
There are a few other reasons for this:
- Dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion. Which means more stretch and activation/ stimulation of the pecs.
- Dumbbells allow for more freedom of movement. With a barbell your line of press is fairly limited, with dummbells you can play around with the angle of the elbows and wrists some and find the line of press that best works for you.
- With dumbbells you can also add rotation to the motion. Rotating the pinkies towards each other at the top of the press may activate more of the upper chest musculature
- Dumbbells tend to be easier on the shoulder and elbow joint long term. Again, you’re not fixed into a certain position, like with the bar. You can find the exact angle that works best for you.
Another chest training mistake I see is not varying the angle of pressing enough. I think most guys would agree that they want more “upper chest” but they never focus on incline movements or they use too much incline. In my experience it’s usually best to stick to a slight to mid range incline. This is usually 15-45 degrees. Any higher and you’ll probably find your shoulders begin to take over the movement.
Keep in mind, chest training isn’t just about bench presses and flys. One of the keys to building a well-rounded chest is to hit the pecs from all angles and in novel ways. Here are some other, less conventional, movements that can really effectively train the pecs.
Upper chest workout
Single Arm Dumbbell Floor Press: This exercise can really hammer the upper chest. Make sure you keep the shoulders down and packed the entire time. Actively press both shoulders into the floor the whole time to make sure you don’t rotate. The movement should be smooth and soft to the floor. Make sure you’re not relaxing at the bottom and always crush the dumbbell handle.
Dips are one of the most effective chest builders when done correctly. Unlike the triceps dip which uses a more upright torso, the chest dip has a great deal of forward lean at the torso. Remember to keep your joints healthy, pull the shoulders back (pinch the scapula) as you lower yourself and don’t drop lower than you can maintain tension on the muscle (chest/ triceps). This is usually around a ninety degree angle at the elbow or when the elbow and shoulder are parallel.
To do Squeeze Press take a neutral grip on the dumbbells and press the heads of the dumbbells together as you’re performing the movement. Begin with a weight that is substantially lighter than what you would use for normal dumbbell bench presses. Using a lighter weight will allow you to focus more on pressing the dumbbells together hard the whole time and really activating the pecs. These can also be done with a reverse grip at the bottom and rotating the wrist while pressing.
A mainstay exercise back in the golden era of bodybuilding, this exercise has really fallen out of favor and should be brought back. The dumbbell pullover is often thought of as a lat exercise, but it’s also a tremendous chest exercise as a 2011 study found. The pullover, “emphasized the muscle action of the pectoralis major more than that of the latissimus dorsi” (Marchetti). Pullovers hit the pecs in a much different angle than pressing movements or flys do so they’re worth doing if you’re trying to maximize your chest development.
To do the pullover effectively, lay with the shoulders on the bench, the rest of the torso and hips off the bench. With the knees at ninety degrees and the hips up into full extension. The glutes and abs should be “on” the whole time. Reach back overhead with the dumbbell, keeping the ribcage down, as far as you can maintain tension on the muscles.
Ring pushups are a great chest builder for two reasons.
- The instability of the rings forces the pecs to be activated the entire time to help stabilize the shoulder joint.
- They allow for a slightly larger range of motion than traditional pushups and really stretch the pecs at the bottom of the movement.
I think these work best as a finisher at the end of a chest hypertrophy workout. If done earlier you’ll notice your shoulders and triceps will often fatigue before your chest does and you’ll limit your chest development. But later in the workout, when you’re chest is already fatigued, your shoulders and triceps won’t be as fatigued as the pecs and probably won’t be the muscles that limit the movement by reaching failure first.
If you’re doing all of these and still having trouble building your chest you may have overpowering shoulders and triceps, and that can limit the effectiveness of your chest training.
If this is the case, I recommend using the pre-exhaustion method. Pre-exhaustion is using a single joint exercise to fatigue the muscle then moving to a compound movement. Doing dumbbell flys followed by a barbell bench press would be an example of the pre-exhaustion method in a chest workout. While recent research has said the pre-exhaust method doesn’t work. Previous research found that it did, many top level bodybuilders and coaches still use it. They’ve gotten good results from it for decades and still swear by it today.
Another important factor in chest training is focus! Too often we focus only on moving as much weight as possible and not the muscle we’re trying to work. While this is fine, and preferential when training for maximal strength, it’s limiting when training for maximal muscle growth. instead of simply moving the weight, focus on the muscle, how it’s performing the movement and how it feels. Building this “mind-muscle connection” over time will help you activate the muscle more than simply going through the motions and moving the weight.
If you have trouble squeezing your pecs and feeling the muscle work you can do isometric pec squeezes to help activate the muscle and build that mind-muscle neural connection. Simply take your palms place them together and focus on pressing them together by bringing the inner part of your pecs together. Hold the squeeze for 5-10 seconds and repeat.
For the next few months, when you head to the gym to train chest, try some of these exercises and strategies. You’ll be surprised how much effective your chest workouts have become by how much “fuller” and evenly developed your chest is.