Way back in the day, when we were all mired in puberty and riddled with zits, we understood that chicks loved a well-built chest.
I don't care who you are—most of us started training to impress girls, and often, that doesn't really change!
The pecs are an easy litmus test to determine if someone trains. Couple that with the incessant asking of, "Hey bro, how much ya bench?" and it's no wonder we're obsessed with developing our chest muscles.
Here's the big problem, though: On our way to that great chest, injuries can crop up. We fall victim to beat-up shoulders, strained pecs, and any number of other injuries.
The key is to learn simple strategies that'll allow you to train your chest muscles effectively, while keeping the rest of your body healthy in the process.
Before we start discussing specific exercises, let's start with the basics: your anatomy.
Pec anatomy basics
When it comes to your pecs, we have two muscles: the pec major, and the pec minor.
Let's examine each more closely.
The pec major is the large, fan-shaped muscle we often think of when training "chest." This muscle comprises two different heads, or sub-sections; the sternal (or lower) head and the clavicular (or upper) head.
Nowhere in there did I say middle chest, inner pecs, or anything of the sort. At the end of the day, you only have two sections: the sternal and clavicular heads.
The sternal head of your pec major is responsible for three major motions:
- Shoulder extension: Pulling your arm down from an overhead position, like you would in a pull-over
- Horizontal adduction: Pulling your arm across your body, like you would in a dumbbell fly
- Internal rotation: Rotation of the shoulder toward the midline/front of the body
The clavicular head or your pec major is also responsible for three major motions:
- Shoulder flexion: Lifting your arm up, like you would to reach overhead;
- Horizontal adduction: Same as above
- Internal rotation: Also same as above
With the exception of raising or lowering your arm, you can see the primary movements of the pecs are to horizontally adduct the arm and to internally rotate the shoulder. This information will come in handy when we explore our exercise variations later on.
While the pec major earns all the press, the pec minor is an important muscle group as well, more for injury prevention than for performance enhancement or aesthetics.
The pec minor is responsible for scapular anterior tilt; if you look at its attachment on the ribcage, think about it pulling the scapulae up and forward on your ribcage.
A stiff pec minor is a common cause of shoulder pain, especially issues around the A/C joint. While it goes beyond the scope of this article, a pec minor release via soft-tissue methods such as active release technique or deep tissue massage, coupled with specific strengthening of the lower trapezius muscle, can get your shoulders feeling significantly better.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the pecs, let's look at some training examples to help you maximize their development.
Smart training for the pecs
Ever since we started training, people have told us that inclines are great for the upper pecs, while flat and decline presses are great for the lower pecs.
Turns out, that's pretty much the case!
As we lift our arms overhead (shoulder flexion), we shorten the clavicular portion of our pecs. So the greater the incline, the more stress we place on the clavicular (upper) head of the pecs and anterior deltoid.
In contrast, with flat benches (as well as declines), we decrease the amount of shoulder flexion, and thus place more stress on the sternal (lower) head of the pecs.
However, when creating a holistic program to develop the pecs, it's important to not only choose exercises that maximize development, but also throw in exercises that can help keep us healthy and training hard to boot.
When pressing, it's important to press at a variety of different angles. If you already have fairly balanced pec development between the upper and lower portions, I would recommend balancing your inclines, flat and decline presses.
Going beyond just basic bench variations, however, we have the push-up. People often forget it, or fail to recognize how important it can be in a program. In a bench press, the goal is to keep your scapulae (shoulder blades) pinned back and down throughout. This stability allows you to maximize the weights you handle, and therefore, your pec development.
In contrast, push-ups force you to move your shoulder blades through an active range of motion. Instead of pinning them down and back, they come together as you lower yourself to the ground (retract), and then the actively protract (move away from each other) when finishing the lift.
The added benefit here is developing the serratus anterior, a key muscle group if you want to keep your shoulders healthy. At the top of your push-ups, think about pushing your body as far away from the floor as you can. This active protraction is critical for developing the serratus anterior.
Push-ups offer another additional benefit beyond just serratus development. When your hands are on the floor, this is called a "closed-chain" exercise. These are fantastic for increasing recruitment of the rotator cuff and smaller stabilizing muscles, making push-ups an incredibly shoulder-friendly option in your arsenal.
Knowing our anatomy can also help us modify the above exercises if we have specific issues such as a shoulder impingement.
If you have pain when pressing with a traditional pronated (palms facing away) grip, try using a neutral grip (palms facing each other) and dumbbells. This subtle external rotation of your shoulder opens up your subacromial space, giving your rotator cuff some breathing room.
Another modification is to change the angle with which you're pressing. Often, people have more pain with overhead movements, which would mean incline pressing might not be an option. Rather than simply throwing inclines out, start by lowering the bench slightly. See if that makes a difference.
I would implore you to figure out why you have the shoulder pain in the first place (and address it!), but these options can often keep you pressing in the interim.
I risk losing my powerlifting man-card by saying this, but if your goal is maximal pec development, flyes are definitely important.
As mentioned above, pair your love of flyes with the appropriate muscle group you want to develop. If you lack upper pec development, do them on an incline. If you need lower pec development, go with a flat or decline bench.
Another key move you can incorporate post-workout is what's called a dummbell flye eccentric quasi-isometric or EQI for short. EQI's are fantastic because they're an active stretch, which helps us restore normal length/tension relationships post-workout. The long time under tension is also great for developing connective tissue strength, which will help prevent pec strains in the future.
The exercise is incredibly simple: Set up with light dumbbells (5 to 10 pounders are a great starting point) and then "camp out" in the bottom position of a fly. As you fatigue, your arms will naturally start to sag toward the floor.
The goal is to hold for somewhere between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. Once you hit the 2-minute mark, increase the weights the next time around.
EQI's are a great tool and should be used after every pressing/chest workout.
Incorporating more pulling exercises!
Before we wrap this up, I want to point out one major thing. Often, young guys claim they can't develop their chest, or that they're just not built to have a big chest. These same guys often have horrible posture due to gaming or sitting at a desk 10 to 12 hours per day, with slouched and rounded shoulders.
Oddly enough, these are also the guys that routinely do 20 to 30 sets of chest exercises every single Monday!
Look, if your posture sucks, you need to fix it ASAP. Your slouched, rounded shoulders are "hiding" whatever pec development you do have, and continuing to train them incessantly is a fast track to nowhere.
For people in this camp, I'll often prescribe two or three sets of horizontal/vertical pulling for every set of pressing. Until they fix the imbalance and get their chest opened up, there's really no point in doing a ton of pec-focused work.
Whether your goal is to bench press 500 pounds or to develop pecs that rival Arnie's, the exercises and variations in this article can help you get there faster and with fewer injuries. I hope you'll take this newfound knowledge and use it the next time you're in the gym. Good luck!