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Training The Chest!

Slowly but certainly the focus when training the body has shifted from muscular shoulders and a tiny waist, to building a chest that resembles the armour of a mythical soldier.

By: Big Cat

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Article Summary:
  • The focus of training has shifted slowly over time from wide shoulders to massive chest.
  • When performing pressing movements it is important that the shoulders get used very little.
  • Make sure you do a pre-exhaust movement before you do your main pressing movement.
  • Slowly but certainly the focus when training the body has shifted from muscular shoulders and a tiny waist, to building a chest that resembles the armour of a mythical soldier. The bench press replaced the military press as the major lift for strength and bodybuilding was never the same again. Now every young lifter strives for one thing: Get a chest like a champion. This was not such an evident transformation because until the time of that evolution there wasn't so much known about properly training the chest. That changed fast enough though.

    With the chest as the focal point the look of the bodybuilder changed too, it became thicker and denser. The chest, or at least its use, is limited in daily life. I mean how many times do you complete heavy or durable lifts across the chest? But as things are, no one can deny that a bodybuilder lacks a complete thickness and shape in side poses if he has a lagging chest.

    How Many Times In Daily Life Do You Have To Complete A Heavy Lift With Your Chest?
    + Click To Enlarge.
    How Many Times In Daily Life Do You Have
    To Complete A Heavy Lift With Your Chest?


    Delts VS. Pectorals

      The delicacy of training the pectoral muscles is that they are in a position where it is easy to let the shoulders and triceps take over much of the lift. In a person with a lot of glycolytic fiber in his chest this is rarely an issue, because it seems no matter what he does, his chest will blow out of proportion. Unfortunately there is this other half who tend to grow rather large shoulders and arms, but no matter what they do they can't add an inch to their chests.

      This has a lot to do with the amount of slow fiber in this area, but also a lot with the strength of the delts, who tend to take over the lift most of the time resulting in a lack of stimulation to this area. It's for this reason that it is often best to get educated about the physiology and uses of the pectoral muscle and how to optimize them before you jump in and attempt to train them but only end up with huge asymmetrical front delts.

      There is nothing wrong with getting a little extra work for a muscle while you are really working another, but in this case you would be surprised about the difference it can make. People get carried away with heaving a lot of weight on bench presses and the shoulders are very strong. Since you only lift with the front delts, due to positioning of the body you will see that these grow out of proportion not only dwarfing the pecs, but also the rest of the shoulder girdle: medial and rear delts and the traps.

      This is the problem with most trainers who can't budge the chest. I'm not guaranteeing that this is the problem, like me your chest just may be genetically less gifted than the rest of your muscles, but I assure that in over 80 percent of cases this is the cause.

    RELATED POLL
    Do You Heave The Weight A Lot When Bench Pressing?

    Yes.
    Sometimes.
    No.


    How To Shift The Pressure

      Taking The Shoulders Out Of It

        Well obviously getting less involvement from the delts will assure more stress is placed on the pectorals. But how? Well by putting the chest forward. This is a process called scapular retraction and should be applied to all pressing exercises when training chest. To do this roll your shoulders down, then back into the bench and attempt to keep them there throughout the entire movement. Stick your chest forward and tense up he muscles. Lower the bar or dumbbells to a point just over your nipples before you push it up again.

      Pre-Exhausting The Muscle

        Presses and their counterparts are one of the main focal points of chest training, so leaving them out would severely cut you short. Naturally they aren't the only exercise. What you can do to make a pressing movement more effective is to make sure that the pectorals are already worn out before attempting a lift, which in turn guarantees that even if the shoulders take much of the stress, the little work the chest does will pay off, because it only has to take the muscles so far.

        The best isolation exercise for the chest is the flat bench flye, which will also provide you with better outer pec development. The point is that you have to perform he flye very strict and go very deep into the stretch before coming up out of the lift, then making sure you stay in contraction for at least a count. If you don't know how to do flat bench flyes, read on in the how to section of this article.

    Dumbbell Flyes
    Dumbbell Flyes
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    Dumbbell Flyes
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Dumbbell Flyes.

      Placing And Keeping Stress On The Chest

        For one, you have to emphasize the contraction. In a scapular retraction, it's hard to keep the shoulder blades (scapulae) all the way back and together in the point of contraction when your body seems to be begging you to put your shoulders up, but that is exactly the point where it is of the most benefit. In fact, so much that when you reach the point of contraction, you should squeeze extra hard for a count before lowering again all the while keeping the shoulders out of it. This will really get the blood flowing in the muscle.

        Now, to make sure that this pressure stays on, playing in to the hands of the pre-exhaust theory you need to keep that pump in between sets, and the best way to do that is to tense the pectorals in between two heavy sets of presses. Simply move in to a crab most muscular (pecs tensed hard as you can) and stay that way for 30 seconds, then stretch the pecs for thirty seconds. Wait 30-45 seconds after that and attempt your next set. This way you keep the pump flowing and make sure the chest has no chance of a full recuperation until the workout is over.

    RELATED POLL
    Do You Keep Your Shoulder Blades Retracted When Doing A Pressing Movement?

    Yes Of Course.
    No I Don't.
    Sometimes.


    Physiology Of The Muscle

      The pectoral girdle consist of two muscles mainly, the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. Some count the serratus and intercostals to this muscle group as well, but I prefer to see them as individual muscles. The pectoralis major has the main function of bringing the arms in front of the chest in hugging motions. Because of the pressure it can place in this manner it is also heavily involved in any pressing that happens in a form perpendicular to the body.

      Since you can use more weights this way that makes pressing much more effective than flyes and cable crossovers as the main function would suggest. It is attached near the shoulder at the end of the clavicle bone and runs down to the solar plexus, where it is attached to the rib cage. It spreads outward along the rib cage, but most of the denser muscular mass is towards the inside. That I why it is often hard to train the outer chest, since it is stimulated indirectly.

      The pectoralis minor is attached near the inside of the clavicle bone and runs down to the middle of the ribcage, partially covered by the pec major. In a properly ripped bodybuilder you can see a nice striated line between the last visible part of the pec minor and the thickest part of the pec major. The pec minor only comes in to play in motions that move up and in, and only in a "minor" fashion.

      So to train them we will need a variety of exercises that are based on the same principle, but can work from different angles to place different kinds of stress, because the pectorals cover such a large area of the body.


    Training The Muscle

      As we discussed earlier the base of a chest program is some kind of press, but that doesn't mean it has to be the first exercise. As the pre-exhaust factor gives us the benefit of exhausting the pectorals, improving the hard to train outer chest and stretching the fascia to provide more room to grow when executed properly, we should take this into account and start of with a flying motion. Preferably the flat bench flye, since this is a harder position, more vulnerable and insures less weight is used in much cleaner form.

      Lay on a flat bench, with your feet off the ground. This avoids the balancing with the lower body. With a dumbbell in each hand, together, raised over the chest with palms facing each other and stretched arms. Now lower the weights to your side at the height of your shoulders keeping the arms straight. Go as deep as you can and hold your deepest stretch for a two count. Naturally you will not be exaggerating the weights you use in this. Then slowly bring the weight back up to the starting position and squeeze the contraction real hard before recommencing.

    Dumbbell Flyes
    Dumbbell Flyes
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    Dumbbell Flyes
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Dumbbell Flyes.

      Your arms shouldn't be totally straight but very slightly bent. This allows you to go deeper, but the hands should be farther from the body than the elbows at all times except the point of contraction. If you have a great outer chest, and are more worried about your upper chest, you should probably start of with incline flyes, on a bench that is in a 30-45 degree angle. It is the same motion, stay horizontal to the floor, so the weights will not meet over your chest, but over your head now.

    Incline Dumbbell Flyes
    Incline Dumbbell Flyes
    Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
    Incline Dumbbell Flyes
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Incline Dumbbell Flyes.

      Then of course the all-important pressing movement. If you started of with flat flyes you should move to the upper portion now and do incline dumbbell presses, and if you started with incline flyes you should move down and do either bench presses or flat dumbbell presses. On the inclines, notice that I didn't include the incline barbell bench press because the proper position on that is too far of a grip to include training the pec minor in the lift.

    Incline Dumbbell Press
    Incline Dumbbell Press
    Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
    Incline Dumbbell Press
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Incline Dumbbell Press.

      Use incline barbell bench press to train upper chest and front delt strength and use it once a month, whereas the other 3 or 4 sessions, keeping the dumbbells is wisest. I already explained the proper way to execute presses above. Lift to a spot above the nipple, on the incline even the shoulders. Use a grip on the bar that puts the forearms perpendicular to the floor when arms are in a 90 degree position. When using dumbbells forearms should stay perpendicular at all times and you should go back as far as you can with your elbows.

      Barbell Incline Bench Press - Medium Grip
      Barbell Incline Bench Press - Medium Grip
      Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
      Barbell Incline Bench Press - Medium Grip
      Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Barbell Incline Bench Press - Medium Grip.

      Use scapular retraction as described above to avoid lifting with the shoulders. Pause at the bottom for a count to ensure intensity and pause at the top to really squeeze the contraction for a count as well. Keep reps strict and controlled. On heavy lifts the back can arch a little, which puts the pressure lower on the chest, but your butt should touch the bench at all times. Keep reps low enough to stay heavy, but high enough to get or keep the pump. Don't worry if that means your reps are higher than most. If you have a weak chest you have a lot of oxidative fiber in there and they thrive on aerobic reps (12 or higher). So attempt that, it may be what is blocking your gains.

      The order of exercises after that is rather irrelevant and should be in function of the intensity you perceive from it and the benefit of the individual exercises. It could be one more, it could be four more depending on what your chest reacts best to. What it should include at least is the opposite pressing movement of the one you already did. If you did inclines, add flat benches and if you did flat benches add inclines somewhere in there. Preferably as a third or fourth exercise because if you keep it for the end of the workout you will not be pressing with all you can.

      Favorites to include for chest training are dips and pullovers. Pullovers are especially good for young beginners, since they have the ability to stretch the ribcage out a little bit giving you a wider frame and they hit the upper chest, lower lats and the serratus below the chest, next to the abs. Some people prefer to do this with barbells, and if you are heavy enough and can handle a lot of unbalanced weight this is definitely the best way to go since you can only put so much weight on a dumbbell. But for most people, a dumbbell will do just fine.

    Bent-Arm Barbell Pullover
    Bent-Arm Barbell Pullover
    Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
    Bent-Arm Barbell Pullover
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Bent-Arm Barbell Pullover.

      The question is always, do you do a strict or a cross-bench pullover. If you use a barbell always do a strict pullover because you need to stabilize the upper body to do this safely. In this case attempt to keep the arms slightly bent as you have the barbell over you lying flat on the bench, neck resting on the end. Keeping arms at the exact same angle lower them behind the head, the grip should be just within shoulder width. Lower as far as you can and bring it back up, all the while keeping feet firmly on the floor and body relatively straight on the bench. Stop over the eyes and start again.

      If you pull back further you will take the stress off and risk making this exercise easier. With dumbbells it's better to do strict as well if you intend to hit a lot of the lats. However, though this requires the spotting of someone more experienced if you wish to avoid injury, it isn't so bad for a beginner, or an intermediate lifter to do cross-benches. Because of the safety factor people think this is an advanced exercise, but the fact is you can stretch the ribcage better this way and that is important to the beginning bodybuilder.

      So grab a dumbbell, turn a bench sideways and rest your shoulder blades on it. The dumbbell is held in both hands at the top set of weight, just underneath and safely locked with arms straight above the chest. Your head hangs over the end one way, your feet are planted firmly on the floor the other way. Bring the weight back, your tummy comes up over your chest, arms are stretched, or almost stretched and reach back until the dumbbell hits the floor or almost hits the floor. Your body is arched, and stretched in chest, abs, serratus and upper legs.

    Bent-Arm Dumbbell Pullover
    Bent-Arm Dumbbell Pullover
    Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
    Bent-Arm Dumbbell Pullover
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Bent-Arm Dumbbell Pullover.

      Then you come back up as if in a crunch, but at the same time the weight moves up with the arms still straight up over the eyes, this tenses abs and serratus, upper chest if you don't come back to far and relaxes the legs. Your stomach is lower than the chest now. It's a bit of a violent-looking sloppy motion but you stimulate a lot of fiber this way and its really beneficial to overall development.

      And of course dips. I usually include them as a pre-contest exercise but I don't shy away from them in the off-season because they stimulate more since it's the body that moves through the space instead of it staying stationary and pushing a weight. Just like chins, that makes this a very effective exercise. Use a dip station or two parallel bars, even two chairs.

      Suspend yourself on them with your arms stretched. Lean in slightly to hit more of the chest and less of the triceps, but make sure you don't, under any circumstance, swing. Now bend at the arms and go as low as you can, often times that means your chin will be lower than your hands. Now pause for a count and move back up. Some use this exercise all the time and add weight with dumbbells between their legs or a weight belt with plates attached and so forth.

    Dips - Chest Version
    Dips - Chest Version
    Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
    Dips - Chest Version
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Dips - Chest Version.

      I find that if you do this exercise after 4 or 5 other hard exercises with 2-4 sets a piece, even without weight you shouldn't get more than 6-7 reps per set. And it doesn't matter if the rested muscle can still do 25 or 50, after all that you'll barely rep out at 6. I find dips very effective in a dieting phase because they really bring out the separation between the lower pecs and the abdominals. Doing dips, I have never really needed to include decline bench variations.

      Another popular exercise is the cable crossover, for the people who have a cable station at their disposal. Attach two handles to two overhead pulleys and stand your feet about three inches behind the line of the pulleys with the handles in your hand. Lean the upper body forward until your nipples are over that line and consequently your arms are too. Bend arms very slightly and pull the cables straight down in the line. As you hands near the body, push them forward slightly making them meet or pass each other in front of the body, tense the pecs tightly, as in a most muscular and slowly move back.

    Cable Crossover
    Cable Crossover
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    Cable Crossover
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Cable Crossover.

      Stop when the hands reach shoulder height to keep the pressure on and then repeat. This has the effect of a very tight decline flye. It really brings out the qualities in the lower chest. Because of the strange and vulnerable position too much weight soon leads to an injury, so its best to keep this one near the end of a workout so you don't need to use as much weight.

      These are some of the main exercises you should consider to make your workout, experiment with the order if need be, adjust the set/rep scheme to your needs as described in the article on sets and reps and try to perform the exercises correctly. Pretty soon you'll develop a feel for the muscle and then muscular development isn't far away. Provided of course that you are still tying up loose ends in the kitchen and bedroom.


    Other Exercises

      Naturally these aren't all the exercises, the chest is a large muscle-group and has a lot of variations for a lot of angles. Above are some of the more effective tools, and definitely the core of things to the beginner and the intermediate seeking more mass, but below are some other exercises you may choose to include or just give a try and see how you like them.

      Decline variations to presses and flyes are some things I don't invest a lot of time in. The bulk of the mass in the pecs is situated low on the chest and exercises like bench presses and flyes often put your back arched making sure you hit the lower pec to point anyway. If you find that you have rather large upper pecs however you may choose to include these until the problem is corrected. They are performed in the same manner as the flat bench or incline versions, but on a decline bench.

    Decline Barbell Bench Press
    Decline Barbell Bench Press
    Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
    Decline Barbell Bench Press
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Decline Barbell Bench Press.

      Don't set the decline too deep, because then you might as well do dips and cable crossovers, exercises I find more productive for this area anyway. I sometimes use low-incline flyes to further accentuate the outer pectorals which are a weak point for me, but the decline presses are all but useless in my book. If however your inner pecs near the bottom are a point of frustration, doing dumbbell presses on a 30-45 decline bench may be the answer.

      One of the things I really love to add to get a little definition in the upper chest is low-pulley cable crossovers. Lovely variation that is fun to do. I guarantee you not many people in your gym use it, but since I started everybody at my gym has been doing them. Attach two handle to the lower pulleys and stand about two inches in front of the cable station with the handles in your hands and your hands about 5 inches beside your hips. Arms are slightly bent, but keep the bend the same throughout or else you'll feel more in the biceps than the chest. Now bring the cable forward and together until they meet in front of the chest, bring them up to the eyes and lower. Split up near the chest and return to starting position. Truly a great exercise.

      One exercise you may see a lot is around the worlds. It gains and loses popularity all the time, but it is the deviation to other chest exercises that makes it so interesting. It's nothing like the others. It's not that effective that it warrants a place in the top exercises, but the variation, the feel of the exercise make it worth adding to your program once in a while, even if just for fun.

      Lay flat on a bench with two dumbbells, not too heavy, in your hands. Lower arms stretched to the side as in a flye. Now rotate backwards, keeping arms stretched, and up a bit so they meet behind the head as in a pullover. Rotate back and down and keep rotating down and up this time so they meet about an inch over your groin. Tense it tightly here as a form of isometrics. That is basically the exercise. Since the top part of the motion is harder than the bottom part that means you can't use a lot of weight.

    Around The Worlds
    Around The Worlds
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    Around The Worlds
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Around The Worlds.

      To help this, I invented hemispheres. Here you lower as in the flye, but you don't rotate up, you rotate down to over the groin, tense for a two-count and rotate back the flying position. This is a great isometric version to add near the end of a workout. It really keeps the pump going.

      Cable variations to flyes are already described in a way since the cable crossover is one, but if you attach handles to the low pulleys and slide a bench into the station you can do flyes this way too. The benefit here is the constant tension of the cables which make the point of contraction more effective. For example doing top-halve incline flyes may be a good way to stress the pec minor more directly.

    Flat Bench Cable Flyes
    Flat Bench Cable Flyes
    Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
    Flat Bench Cable Flyes
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Flat Bench Cable Flyes.

      The downsides are that you don't have the balancing effect which guarantees thick musculature and the fact that you are in the groove of the machine which limits natural motion, which is the same reason you should never do bench variations in a smith machine. But as a trouble-shooter for the pectoralis minor it may be just what you were looking for.

      Some people don't like to do flyes and injustly replace them with the pec deck. This machine gives you, in most instances, an ergonomically incorrect angle of the arm (forearm perpendicular to upper arm) in flying motions. Not only that, but when squeezing contraction you often have the incentive to lean in to it and involve other muscles, whilst laying down you would sooner do the opposite. So I don't really use the pec deck unless I'm too wasted to do flyes. In that case I'll keep my arms straight, resting my elbows on the pads and do them like that, watching that my back never leaves the pad behind me.

      Neck presses are a variation of the bench press and by many who see the bench as a shoulder exercise this is put forward as the alternative. You do them in the same way as the bench press, described above, only you lower the bar to the neck and not the chest. This does indeed hit more of chest than shoulders. But in the other hand it is mostly working the upper chest and as you'll agree, there are better and more complete ways of doing this.

    Neck Press
    Neck Press
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    Neck Press
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Neck Press.

      Hammer dumbbell presses can be done by doing the dumbbell bench press as described above with the dumbbells in a hammer grip. This may hit more of the chest because the hand position is more natural. The downside is that you may be using more of your triceps and it is hard to stay strict. Nonetheless this could be a useful variation for that once-in-a-while thing.

    Hammer Grip Incline DB Bench Press
    Hammer Grip Incline DB Bench Press
    Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
    Hammer Grip Incline DB Bench Press
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Hammer Grip Incline DB Bench Press.

      Back to the middle ages, dump your dumbbells and do some pushups or variations thereof (one-arms, incline, decline, hand out, close-grip, wide-grip). This may not have much to offer in terms of strength and handling more weight, but as with all exercises (remember dips) that move the body and not the weight it is a magnet for hormonal release and could thus excite the fiber to new growth faster than other exercises. You can add this at the end of your workout or instead of dips. Or if you rather not, they are always a good idea as in betweeners when you are traveling and have no weights at your disposal.


    Tweaking The Weaker Areas

      I think it is explained rather nicely which areas are hit with which exercise and that you shouldn't have any trouble finding the ones you need to overcome lagging parts. It's important that you develop the chest evenly because it is one of the focal points of the body and mistakes show up rather easily. Lack of outer chest will offset your illusion of width and male arms and lats seem out of proportion. Lack of thickness will hinder you in side shot, but also poses with arms overhead since this will make the chest disappear if it is not thick enough on the lower end.

      Lack of upper chest will increase incongruities in the shoulder girdle and will make you look less powerful. As if you had tits instead of pecs. So all areas are equally important. Try to develop a program that will keep things level and work hard to overcome any shortages that may occur. A full chest does not only go a long way in presenting a full physique, it's also one of the first parts that will make every male in the neighborhood go green with jealousy and every woman blush in admiration.

    RELATED VIDEO: Scivation Tri-Phase Training
    Scivation Tri-Phase Training, Episode #12: Phase 3 (Frequency), Day 4 - Weak Points Training!

    In this twelfth and final episode, watch and learn as Scivation's Marc Lobiner and Derek Charlesbois explain Tri-Phase Frequency Training (Phase #3), continuing this week with the final full workout of this series, Weak Point Training on Day Four!
    Watch More From This Series Here.


    Progression of Training

      If you have a chest that hardly budges that means you'll be putting a lot of attention into flyes and presses to overcome your genetic deficiency. As long as you are not satisfied with the width and thickness of the chest you will have to include flyes and presses in the manner described up above and make them the center of your workout. As you start becoming more acquainted with the size issue, later on it may be time to focus on other exercises that will shape the rough mass you have attained.

      But especially early on it could be wise to drop some of the latter exercises and add a few sets to your presses, as long as you keep doing them strict and correct. Attempt some pyramids, experiment with higher reps, tense the chest between sets, keep the pump going, that above all. Keep your eyes on the prize and the answers will come to you. If not, you know where to find me.

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