You have to admit, sometimes one could mistake Arnold’s pecs for watermelons. They were that big.
The chest is one of the most appealing muscles that makes a physique stand out. A big well shaped chest but in proportion to the other important muscles, namely, shoulders, arms and back, is a must.
Most people grasp this and that’s where the famous statement comes from: “Monday is chest day.”
Every Monday the squat racks are empty and there are no open benches to be found.
Yet all this fanaticism of hitting the chest first thing in the week, few succeed in building a well shaped chest.
So how do you train the chest correctly?
I’ve already written about sets, reps, frequency and all that for muscle growth, so I’ll just give a short summary here.
Hypertrophy is best stimulated with 10+ sets per week, betwen 4-12 reps per exercise, 2-5 min rest between sets and with a frequency of 1-6 times a week (frequency is not that important).
Now this is pretty broad I know, but if you want a solid laid out program of the perfected formula for hypertrophy and strength gains, the Ultimate Strength Size and Skill Program is for you.
On to the other good stuff.
The barbell bench press is probably the most common exercise prescribed for building the chest. It does stimulate the chest nicely and it’s very easy to keep on overloading the muscle by adding weight and progressing with this exercise.
With differences in grip width, there is no difference between muscle activation with a wide or narrow grip. Compared to a wide grip, there is equal tension and muscle activation in the chest, but greater activation is the triceps with a narrow grip (R).
Most of the time people cannot lift as much weight with a narrow grip than with a wide grip so it’s advised to use a wide grip for overloading the chest for hypertrophy. Then close grip bench press, DB presses, flies, etc., can be used after that to further build the chest.
Is it essential to start with the BB bench press or even have it in your program?
Nope. If you don’t want to do it or if you feel uncomfortable doing it then you don’t have to. As a matter of a fact, an EMG study found that DB bench press resulted in greater muscle activation that BB bench press.
You also get a greater range of motion with DBs and a greater squeeze at the top. During my second year of training I did only DB presses and flies for my chest and my strength and size improved greatly. After that year of training I tested my BB one rep max and got 295lbs and I didn’t even train BB bench at all. That was a nice surprise. So bottom line is that you don’t have to train with a BB if you don’t want to, but it’s still easier to overload and progress with a BB in strength as you get more advanced than DBs.
However, the greater the intensity of the lift, meaning the heavier weight you use for less reps, the less the chest is activated and the more the shoulders are activated (R, R). With lighter weights, 60-85% of your 1RM, your chest is the primary mover of the weight, whereas, if you go heavier, your shoulders become the primary movers.
Chest activation increases with bar speed and lifting the weight explosively (explosive concentric and controlled eccentric) is also better for hypertrophy and strength in men with more training experience (R).
Bands is another tool few even think about. You mainly see in powerlifting gyms because mainly powerlifters use them. This is because bands don’t offer much extra benefit for hypertrophy, but it does aid in build strength faster than not training with bands in the short term (R).
Furthermore, Vince Gironda was right. He never liked the normal (powerlifting) bench press because it wasn’t good enough for chest activation. He liked to do the bench press with a wider grip and bring the bar to the collar bone while keeping his feet up; hips and knees bent 90 degrees. Turns out he was right. Wider grip is better for promoting hypertrophy in the chest, but also bring the knees up activates all the muscle involved in benching to a greater degree than if the feet were on the ground (R). This (feet up) can be also be done with DB presses.
Lastly, focus on the muscle being trained. Hone in on your mind to muscle connection. Focusing of the muscle being training, you can actually activate more of that muscle and get better gains. This works especially good for lagging muscle groups or a certain area of a muscle that you want to bring out. For instance, if your chest is big and full but lack the upper inner aspect, pick exercises that will hit that area and focus on feeling the exercise in that area. This will yield greater results (R).
So let’s talk a little of the proper exercises for training the chest.
The upper chest’s (clavicular head) function is to bring the shoulder up and in; flexion and adduction.
The clavicular head is best activated by incline presses or incline exercises.
A few top exercises for activating the upper chest are:
- Reverse grip flat bench (R)
- Dumbbell (DB) close grip bench press (a personal favorite of mine)
- Incline DB/cable flies
- Hammer strength incline press
- Standing inward fly (arm travels up from the side of the body to the opposite shoulder. Keep arm slightly bent. Bent body to the side that’s being trained)
Mid and lower chest
The mid (sternocostal head) and lower (abdominal head ) part of the chest is best activated by flat and decline bench presses (R).
A few top exercises for activating the mid and lower chest are:
- Neck press (guillotine press)
- Flat BB or DB press.
- Flat DB/cable/machine flies (in that order, from best to least effective)
- Dips with elbows away from the body and leaning forwards (this version is great for hitting the abdominal head and creating a broad chest)
- Hammer strength press
- Push-ups (this exercises loses its effectiveness if you can do more than 15 reps)
- One arm push-ups
Do you want to maximize muscle growth and strength while staying lean? Then my Ultimate Strength, Size and Skill Program is for you. It contains the perfected formula that produces the best results every time, all you have to do is implement it.