The chest has always been a very stubborn body part for me, and, dare I admit this, I've never been that strong in the bench press. However, for those reasons I've had to do a lot of research, try a lot of different things and work a lot harder to make progress.
Ask a person like me for tips on building chest size, and I can give you a much better answer than the guy whose chest grew easily—those guys didn't have to think about it, they just did a few benches and wham! They had a good chest.
Some guys are like that—they add an inch to their biceps just lifting their coffee cup in the morning. In this article, I will give you several solid tips and routines to nudge that stubborn chest into new growth.
Before jumping into any training, it makes sense to understand the anatomy of the muscle group you're working, as opposed to just blinding hitting the gym with Ronnie Coleman's chest routine.
Anatomy of the chest: called the pectorals, there are two parts to this muscle: the clavicular or upper part and the sternal or lower part. The upper part is attached to the collarbone. It attaches to the sternum, or breastbone, about mid-body, attaching also to the rib-cage.
The lower part attaches to the upper arm bone, just above where the delts attach to the upper arm bone (also called the humerus). It then attaches to the rib-cage in the center and across to the deltoid. The basic function is to pull the arm and shoulder across the front of the body.
In functional terms, this muscle lets you pitch a ball underhanded, do a wide-grip bench press, twist a bottle cap, swim the crawl stroke.
Along with the pecs, there is the subclavius, a small muscle between the clavicle and first rib. The function is to draw the shoulder forward. There is also the serratus, a thin sheet of muscle between the ribs and the scapula (the large, flat triangular bone that forms the posterior, or rear part of the shoulder), this rotates the scapula, raising the point of the shoulder and drawing the scapular forward and downward.
Chest movements fall into two main categories: presses and flyes. Pretty simple. It's what you do with your presses and flyes that make the difference.
The Bench Press
The bench press is pretty much the primary chest and upper body exercise, often referred to as the "upper body squat." It also comes under a lot of criticism because of claims it's not a great chest builder. In reality, it's in how the exercise is performed that determines if it's a good or bad chest builder. The key, which you'd think would be pretty obvious, is to make the chest do the work.
The problem is that everyone benches with there ego—in other words, get up as much weight as possible, any way you can get it up, who cares about using proper form. If you want chest progress, you have to lift with your chest, not your ego. That means good form–back on the bench, legs on the floor, no weird twisting, arching and jerking.
Some keys to a good bench: keep your shoulders flat on the bench, stick your chest out, and keep your elbows back, don't let them come forward. Think of your arms as hooks and start the movement with your chest muscles.
This is as much mental as anything; you have to make a conscious effort to feel it in the chest. If you feel it in the triceps or delts more than the chest, this usually indicates a problem with form and perhaps with the mind-muscle connection.
The way to fix this is to first understand where you should feel it, and using a light weight, work on your form until you feel it more in the chest. It also goes back to what I said about making a conscious effort to mentally feel the chest working.
Variations to the standard flat bench press include:
- Incline presses
- Decline presses
- Dumbbell presses
- Various machine presses
Flyes are more of an isolation exercise. One tip when performing a fly is to keep your little finger a little higher than your thumb. Also, try holding the bells as if you were doing presses, keeping the little finger up. For me, this seems to hit the chest better, try it and see what it does for you.
Upper Body Mass
When it comes to adding upper body mass, you might be surprised to learn you can increase upper body size 10% by doing heavy leg work (squats). In fact, back in the early 80's when Tom Platz was trying so hard to bring his upper body to the same level as his legs, he actually began squatting more than usual upon hearing this. So if you aren't doing heavy squats, start now!
For a weak chest, I suggest training it on its own day, as part of a 4-day split routine.
Here's an example of this routine:
- Day 1: Chest, abs
- Day 2: Back, biceps, abs
- Day 3: Rest
- Day 4: Legs, abs
- Day 5: Deltoids, triceps, abs
- Day 6: Rest
- Day 7: Rest
By setting it up this way, you can devote one full workout to chest work.
Incline Over Flat
It's important to include plenty of incline work; I would do more incline work than flat bench work. Nothing looks worse than a weak upper chest. That's what leads to that droopy look.
You can also hit the upper pecs harder by bringing the bar down around the neck area rather than the nipple area. This is an old Vince Gironda tip. The real secret to improving the chest is as much or more a matter of increasing your training intensity than it is doing any certain exercise.
Here are some of the techniques I suggest: heavy negatives, drop sets, forced reps, rest pause, supersets, and tri-sets. Using these types of techniques in a rotating fashion can really enhance how effective you can train your chest.
You can use several at once for a really intense workout, but by only using some at one time, you give yourself a chance to do something different when you change your routine, which you should do every 3-4 weeks to keep things fresh and introduce a new type of stimulus.
Here's some sample chest routines:
Bench press: 3 warm-up sets, add weight with each set, go for 12-15 reps.
Working sets: take your 1 rep max and add 20-25 lbs, do negatives for 6-8 reps—when you hit failure, begin doing drop sets. I like 2-3 drops, each time to failure. Do two of these.
One way to do these safely is in a power rack, letting the pins stop the weight. Otherwise, you'd need one or two training partners to help. To emphasize the upper chest, you can do these to the neck, or do inclines.
Next up, incline flyes: 2-3 working sets, 8 reps to failure, rest pause for another 3-4 reps. If you have a partner, then do 3-4 forced reps. As mentioned above, try holding the bells in a press style with little fingers up. That's it. If done correctly, that should be all you can do.
Routine 2: Upper Chest Emphasis
Incline press: 3 warm-up sets done as above
3 working sets, starting with a low incline on set #1 and raising it about 10 degrees every set, 6-8 reps to failure, use rest pause or forced reps to get another 5-6 reps. Do a 4th set, drop the weight to about 60% of your 1rm and go for 15-20 tough reps. This is a "burn" set.
Incline flyes into incline dumbbell press: go for 8-10 reps, when you fail, begin to do presses for as many reps as you can.
Dips: 1 set to failure.
Bench press: 3 warm-up sets as above.
Taking about 90% of your 1rm, rest pause your way to 10 reps. This means do as many reps as you can, maybe only 2-3, rack the weight, count to 10, unrack and knock out 1-2 more. If you can't hit 10, do a drop set or two, getting as many reps as you can with each drop.
Incline press: choose a low incline, about 30 degrees. Do 3 working sets, 6-8 reps. At the end of each set, do partials (or, burns). Do as many partials as you can.
As you can see, these are short routines, designed to increase intensity. Along with this type of approach, it's a good idea to train strictly for strength every so often. In fact, it's a good idea to take a break from all this intensity every 8 weeks or so, and do a power lifting type routine for 6-8 weeks. More strength means bigger muscles.
Here's an example of this type of routine:
Using the same 4-day split routine, your chest day would look like this:
Bench press: 3 warm-up sets, starting with 50% of your 1rm for 10-12 reps.
Go to about 65% of your 1rm for 8 reps, go to about 75% of your 1rm for 6 reps. Do 3 working sets of 10 reps
Incline press: 3 working sets of 10 reps
Dips: 2 sets of 10 reps
Flat bench flyes: 2 sets of 10 reps
Do this routine for one week:
Weeks 2-3, add weight and drop the reps to 8 on the bench press and incline press only.
Weeks 4-5, add weight and drop the reps to 5 on the bench and incline press, drop the reps on flyes to 6-8.
Weeks 6-7, add weight and drop the reps to 3, no change on the flyes.
After this, you should be able to go back to intensity type routines with more strength.
Up until now, I haven't talked about the rib-cage. Part of having a big chest is having a big rib-cage. This is achieved through stretching out the rib-cage with light dumbbell pullovers across a flat bench for about 20 reps.
Anyone that knows about the old breathing squat routine knows that there is a variation of that where you do the breathing squats for 20 reps then superset those with the dumbbell pullover. Age plays a big factor here because your rib-cage cartilage loses its elasticity by the time you hit your mid twenties, making it near impossible to expand your rib-cage after that.
Not everyone buys into the rib-cage expansion idea, and I have to tell you when I started training I was already 26, which was a little too old to make this work but if you're young enough (meaning early twenties or under), try these and see what you can do.
No article would be complete without at least a mention of nutrition. You would see better progress if you're on a good supplement stack, such as whey protein powder, a multiple vitamin, creatine, nitric oxide and a testosterone booster. To this, you can add a pre workout energy product and maybe some glutamine.
There is more, but these are the better products. Of course, your diet should be high in quality protein, complex carbs for training energy, and some good fats.
So, you have a lot of information to work with. Variety in training, heart, intense training and adding weight to the bar while maintaining good form are the keys to a great chest. Good luck!