According to the stream of messages posted by physique athletes on social media these days, all that stands between you and the body of your dreams is drive, guts, persistence, focus, or determination. I disagree; more often than not, it's due to common mistakes made in the gym, especially on chest day.
Fortunately, MuscleTech athlete and lifestyle transformation coach Dylan Thomas has agreed to show us his top five chest-training mistakes and the quick fixes you can immediately apply to set you straight. If you've already benefited from his article "Fixing Your 5 Biggest Biceps Blunders," consider this the other half of your beach muscle triage.
Blunder 1: Pressing Your Cable Cross-overs and Flyes
The most common—and in my experience, best—way to build a chest workout starts with multijoint movements like presses and progresses to isolation or single-joint movements. Examples of single-joint movements include dumbbell flyes and cable cross-overs. However, that categorization comes with a big "but." To be truly single-joint, your elbows have to stay locked in a slightly bent arm position.
"Trainees often go far too heavy, causing them to break form, pressing the weight out of the bottom, stretched position rather than pulling it out and across their body," says Thomas. "That means the fly is wrongly turned into a multijoint movement. If you want to do presses, stick to doing them on benches, because you're stronger when your body is supported."
To be clear, you probably won't be able to move brag-worthy weights if you do your flyes and cable crosses correctly. But Thomas insists that for these moves, the "how" is far more crucial than the "how much."
"During the eccentric (lowering) phase, take your hands out wide from your body, stretching your pecs," says Thomas. "You may bend the elbows ever so slightly, but too much bend will turn this into more of a press as you execute the concentric. If you're having trouble getting the form down, rehearse the motion on the pec-deck machine, which pretty much locks your arms in the right position."
Blunder 2: Going to Failure While Warming Up
If your goal is to put a fair amount of weight on the bar, you'll have to do a few warm-up sets first, especially on your first exercise. But a warm-up is simply meant to limber up the muscles and joints, rehearse the movement pattern, and get your head focused on the task at hand. In no way should it compromise your strength for the actual working sets.
"Pushing to failure as you pyramid up in weight will result in diminished performance, meaning you'll likely fall short of your rep target," says Thomas. "Going too close to muscle failure with your warm-ups can also increase accumulated lactate, which can adversely affect exercise performance for everything that follows."
Pyramid training is a common approach that starts with a lighter weight. "Take only your heaviest sets of each exercise to failure so you don't compromise your strength," says Thomas.
Blunder 3: Using an Incline That's Too Steep
When benching, the steeper the bench, the more the point of emphasis on your chest moves upward, and the more the front delts get called into play. In fact, once you reach 90 degrees, it switches from a chest move that hits the shoulders to a shoulder move that hits the chest. But you aren't nearly as strong on shoulder movements as you are on chest movements, so it behooves you not to get too close to that point at which the delts become the major focus of the movement.
"I'm a big fan of working my way down the adjustable bench when training the upper pecs," says Thomas. "Typically, I'll start out at about a 45-degree bench angle, then adjust it to about 30 degrees, and may finish off with a very slight incline—about 15 degrees."
Blunder 4: Taking Too Many Sets to Failure
We've all been there: You want a big chest so badly that you're just going to push as hard as you can to make it happen. More sets. More weight. More sets to failure. More intensity techniques that push you past failure.
"While training to failure signals muscle anabolism, too many sets to failure can elevate cortisol instead, which works in the opposite fashion and eventually suppresses important growth factors," says Thomas. "Generating volume and intensity are both critical factors for growth, but it's a delicate seesaw to get the balance right."
He advises advanced lifters to take 1-2 of their heaviest sets of each exercise to failure—or beyond, with various set-extension techniques—whereas beginners may find the best results from taking only the compound exercises like presses to failure. As a rule, the more sets you take to failure, the more you should back off on the training volume by performing fewer sets or exercises.
Blunder 5: Always Doing the Bench Press First in Your Workout
As beginners, the bench press has an aura unlike almost any other exercise. After all, it's one of the best movements for chest muscle growth, part of the "big three" of powerlifting, and even lifters who couldn't name the other two know the answer to the question, "How much ya bench?" It makes perfect sense, then, that as a beginner, the bench becomes your go-to movement on chest day.
Eventually, however, you'll begin experiencing diminished returns. "As you become more experienced, your chest workouts will eventually become less productive in terms of strength and hypertrophy advancement if you don't make changes," says Thomas. "That's not just you; it's a natural development."
When this happens, you have plenty of options. "There are a couple of ways to invigorate your workout with the kinds of changes that will allow you to still grow bigger and stronger," Thomas says. "One is to substitute another piece of equipment in place of the barbell on the flat bench, like dumbbells. They're harder to control, because each side works independently, requires more stabilizers, and has a longer range of motion, all of which help you focus on strength imbalances between sides." That may not sound like a big change, but because they hit the target musculature quite differently, they actually provoke a different training stimulus. That's what you're after here.
If you've been in the "bench, then-incline, then decline" camp for as long as you can remember, turning that arrangement on its head can work wonders as well. "Try starting your workout with inclines or declines, exercises typically relegated to later in your session when fatigue levels have risen," Thomas says. "By doing them first, you're likely to be able to push more weight or do more reps, allowing a greater stimulus on the upper and lower pec regions than they're accustomed to."
Here's what not to do: The same old things, long after they've stopped working for you. Don't let your mistakes become any more engrained than they already are. Get on the path to improvement this week, and start earning the growth you might have been missing out on.