Do your pecs look like something you'd find at IHOP, covered in maple syrup? The Mountain Dog has got you covered, skinny boy.
Chest training has always been a challenge for me.
It's not because my genetics sucked (as with back), or because of the pain involved (as with leg training). For me, the hardest thing about chest training was simply staying healthy: I've had so many pec strains over the years that were a breath away from being tears, and so many beat up rotator cuffs requiring hours of treatment that I was finally forced to examine my style and creatively adapt to keep growing – or simply keep plowing forward like an idiot and suffer a severe injury.
Interestingly enough, training a bit "scared" eventually lead me to what works best for me in terms of muscle growth, with the added bonus of no more strains and irritated rotator cuffs. It's been said before, but it's worth repeating: the pursuit of putting on muscle is a marathon, not a sprint.
So why was I suffering strain after strain? By being a dedicated pupil of the bodybuilding magazines and performing the classic routine of barbell bench press, followed by incline press, and then dumbbell flyes.
It Starts With How You Start
Whenever I started my workouts with barbell bench pressing, I'd estimate 25% of the time I'd get at least a minor pec strain if I went up to anything even remotely heavy. It never failed; I'd be progressing well, and then after a few weeks of feeling good, bam! I'd pull something.
I then switched to doing barbell inclines first, and unfortunately experienced the same damn thing. This was really frustrating as I wasn't doing extremely heavy sets of doubles or triples; we're talking about sets of 6-8 reps. Yet again, more pulls, more aggravation, and more sessions of ART and MAT. When my physiotherapist's BMW dealer sent me a Christmas card, I knew something was wrong.
People around me were tearing pecs right and left, too. A former Mr. Ohio and a few world champion powerlifter friends of mine all had major tears that required surgery and it made me start to question my methods. Was I headed in the same direction? I was stubborn though, and kept thinking how difficult it would be to get a truly mammoth chest if I couldn't barbell bench or incline first. I mean that's how you do it, right?
It was hard for me to get out of that paradigm. I'd heard many bodybuilders say that the best gains were attained by doing the large, multi-joint barbell movements first. I'd also read plenty of studies supporting the notion. I never questioned those studies and still don't to this day, but I also know that there's always more than one way to skin a cat, if you're creative enough.
So how did my training evolve into something that allowed me to make outstanding gains, injury free?
In my experience, the exercises that resulted in frequent strains were flat and incline barbell bench presses. The thing is, I still love doing both, and was determined to keep them in my routine – I just needed to examine how to safely do them. After much experimentation, these are the conclusions that I made.
Bench press third, or even fourth in your routine: You won't be able to set any PRs, but try to look at what you're doing at that point as your new reference. For example, let's say you can bench 315 for 6 when you bench first, but can only do 275 for 6 when you bench third or fourth. Make the 275 for 6 your new frame of reference and try to beat that; except now with the confidence that you're so warmed up you won't blow a pec in the process.
As for you PR junkies, you'll be amazed at how much of your "lost" strength returns after getting acclimated to this new order. You probably won't get back to the 315 for 6 right away, but 295 or 305 is likely doable within a few weeks of training.
Incline second or third: You should be fine with doing these second or third in your routine if you use the technique I describe later in this article.
Slight angles work better than excessive ones. Dorian Yates believed in very slight incline and decline angles and he was definitely onto something. A very slight incline seems to hit my entire chest the best, without the intense shoulder burning that I sometimes get with standard barbell incline presses.
In fact, standard barbell incline presses are among my favorite exercises for shoulder width. I've noticed that when I back off from doing them, my shoulders seem to get narrower looking, and my upper chest noticeably flatter.
It's like my genetic predisposition for "slumped shoulders" comes into play instead of the wide "straight line from shoulder to shoulder" look coveted by every bodybuilder, myself included. So I consider regular incline bench presses a great shoulder builder along with hitting upper chest. (I train chest with shoulders, so this works well as an exercise that day.)
As for declines, traditional declines absolutely destroy my rotator cuff; they're the most uncomfortable exercise I think I've ever done. I believe this was due to the benches I used; the angles were just too extreme.
The solution is to find an incline sit-up bench that you can lie down at its lowest level and be at just a slight decline. It's the perfect angle for natural contractions; you can also use this setting for dumbbell work.
Try this if you have trouble feeling your pecs: Get on the Smith (yes, the Smith machine) and use this slight decline angle. Take a wide grip, and begin to do reps where you lower the bar to your chest and drive up to 75% of lockout before coming right back down – we want continuous pec tension. Do high reps, at least 15-20. Try a couple of sets; your chest will be on fire.
For inclines, slight angles are again better than more extreme varieties. They seem to feel more "natural," and allow me to use much more pec instead of shoulder. Watch the videos below and pay particular attention to how slight the angles are on the incline and decline. I believe these subtle changes have had the greatest impact on my own chest development as well as the vast majority of the folks I've worked with.
So what about hitting the different heads of the chest? Can you isolate the clavicular and sternal portions for example? Great question. There are many really smart people who'd say no, that doing a flat bench barbell press, for example, works your entire chest equally. Their logic is sound, but here's the thing: sometimes we overcomplicate, but we also sometimes oversimplify.
I know that when I do declines on the Smith, flat flyes, and barbell benches, my lower and outer pecs are much more sore the next day than my upper pecs. When I do tons of barbell and dumbbell inclines, my upper chest is very sore the next day, and when I do a lot of machine flyes with a good stretch and flex, my pec fibers by the sternum are extremely tender the next day.
So to me, in this simplistic way, I do believe that varying angles fatigues different portions of the muscle to a greater or lesser degree. I know, nothing groundbreaking there, but many of my colleagues would disagree.
Range of Motion
Adjustments to your range of motion can do several things. It can keep you healthy, and it can lead to greater growth. So how do you know when to go all the way up, get a deep stretch, touch your chest, etc.? Let's look at some exercises that you should perform with a limited range of motion and others that should be a full range of motion.
Incline barbell presses - Do not touch your chest. Stop 2-3 inches short, and drive up. Do not lock out either. Keep constant tension on your pecs with this range of motion and you'll reap the benefits. Check out the video on the right for further demonstration.
This ROM is what saved my rotator cuffs from frequent strain, pec insertions from potential rupture, and allowed me to actually feel my chest working. Again, I also believe this is one of the best exercises for increasing that wide "barn door delt" look from the front, so it's an extremely valuable exercise in the toolbox.
Dumbbell Twist and Press
Regardless of the angle, these presses should be done with a full stretch at the bottom, which is the main advantage of using a dumbbell over a barbell. There are also variations in the execution of the exercise that can help give you a more intense contraction. I have an exercise that I call a twist press in which you start in the normal pronated dumbbell press position, but as you drive up you turn your pinkies IN toward each other and flex. Check out the video below for a demonstration.
Chest Machine Press
You can get really creative on these and use a variety of ranges of motion. On the Hammer strength presses, I like to lower the seat so that I'm driving more in an upward arc. The key is to come all the way down with an arched chest, pause, and then explode the weight up.
You can also work partial ranges of motion from both the bottom and the top safely, and with good results. One good way to incorporate this is to go to failure with a full range of motion, then pump out partials ala Tom Platz. Check out the video below for a demonstration.
I occasionally like to start routines with machine flyes. I use a good stretch and try to get a complete contraction. As you push hard, you get an intense burn around your sternum that's hard to achieve with any other exercise. The soreness the next day let's you know that you've pounded it. Be careful though; just go back until your arms are at your sides or slightly behind it. I've seen many strains from an exaggerated range of motion on these. For safety sake, I wouldn't advise going to the absolute maximum stretch possible.
Press and Stretch
One of my friends, John Quint, a myofascial therapist, taught me this. He's a massive guy with one of the thickest chests I've ever seen, so I listened. In between sets of presses, take a flexible band or something similar and perform the press and stretch shown in the video below.
When I first started doing this, it was ridiculous how bad my shoulder flexibility was, but each week it got increasingly better. The cool thing is that your pump reaches an insane level when you perform these between sets. I prefer to do these later in the routine when my pecs are already full of blood to make the stretch as hard as possible. As you get more flexible, you can gradually move your grip inwards so that the stretch is more challenging.
Do Higher Reps in Smith Machine
Now this is something that I had to try out on several people before I could believe it myself. You can build size and thickness with higher rep counts in the Smith machine. I was using many sets like this while preparing for a contest and noticed all my partners that were doing these were also getting bigger, fuller chests – even while dieting. Generally, I'm talking about sets of 15-25 reps. This is another one of those things that every book will tell you is fruitless, but I'm utterly convinced pays dividends.
In terms of volume, my 12-week chest program is a little shy of what you'd do for legs or back, as your chest isn't as large or expansive.
Phase 1 – Weeks 1-3
Use a medium volume approach. The set total ranges from 10-12 sets. A medium volume approach will suffice to start things off, as the intensity and variety of exercise angles will be enough of a shock.
Phase 2 – Weeks 4-9
Use a high volume approach. Now we start to build in volume each week. Your body will be adjusting to the intensity you threw at it in the first phase, so we'll keep it off balance by adding more overall volume and total tonnage lifted over the next six weeks. Sets will typically go to 13-16 sets, with more high intensity sets added weekly. You're going to grind for six hard weeks during this phase.
Phase 3 – Weeks 10-12
Use a low to medium volume approach, with almost exclusively high intensity sets (preceded by a proper warm up). Sets will range between 8 – 10 sets. Overall volume goes down, but the sets you do will be the hardest you've done in your life.
De-loading Phase – Weeks 13-14
As with any hard program, there's a period of de-loading that will benefit you in the long run with rebounding from cumulative neural fatigue that accompanies high intensity work. Everyone is different though, and I have had people insert this at the 6 week point, while others have gone over 30 weeks training with lights out intensity and continued progress.
How do you know when you need to take the 2 weeks? You might have an elevated resting heart rate, or you might notice you just can't generate much force on your heavier compound exercises. Maybe you can't sleep; maybe you're suddenly in a bad mood all the time. At the end of the day, you have to either work with someone who knows your capacity, or you just have to know when to throttle it down based on self-observation.
Intense Training Techniques for Chest
Rest / Pause
These work well with machine presses like Hammer strength presses. I also love performing standard flat barbell presses this way. There's no fear of injury in resting and exploding off your chest when you're doing these exercises later in the routine. Dumbbells can be done this way too, but I think the machines (Hammer strength, Smith machine, Cybex, etc.) are the best way to do this, along with the barbell movement.
On almost all chest exercises using a barbell you should focus on lowering with a controlled tempo, and driving to a 3/4 lockout before lowering right back down immediately. I use this on mainly barbell presses and Smith machine presses.
I occasionally perform partials out of the stretched position on machine exercises, but I'm still not comfortable doing them on standard barbell exercises. I also like to do partials out of the contracted position on machines. So for example, on the Hammer strength press, you do a normal set of 10, then do little partial flexes at the top for another 6 reps.
Or, you could do 10 full reps followed by10 partial reps out of the bottom for some additional blood flow. When performing partials out of the bottom, I usually opt for rep counts in the 20-30 rep range. That's impossible to do when performing them out of the top, so it's more like 4-8 reps.
I love drop sets on machines such as Smith, Hammer strength, and Cybex. I'm not big on doing them with a barbell or dumbbells because your arms give out too quickly, rendering it pointless. You're after deep pectoral stimulation, not triceps stimulation.
As with legs, I like doing basic, heavy movements with a 3-second descent on occasion, such as barbell inclines and flat presses. I'm not big on doing this with machines. Intuitively, it just seems like the triceps take on too much of the work.
Putting It All Together
Now that you've read the high level view of my approach to chest training, let's take a look at two sample workouts:
Example Workout for Phase 1
Exercise Sets Reps
A) Flat dumbbell twist press 3 10
It's all about the squeeze. Lie flat on a bench (or, on a slight incline) with dumbbells. Lower them and arch your chest so that you get a good stretch at the bottom. As you drive the weight up, turn your pinkies in and squeeze at the top. You can't do as much weight as with a regular dumbbell press, but you'll get a great contraction. Once you find a good weight, do 3 sets of 10.
B) Barbell incline press 2 warm-up
3 - 5 8
Perform two warm-up sets of 8 reps, then pyramid up the weight with sets of 8 – for example, 225, 250, 275, 315. Keep going until you can't get 8 reps, then stop. You should get to this point in about 4 sets. Remember the form in the video – lower to 2-3 inches above the chest and drive up to 75% lockout.
C) Machine press and stretch 3 10 + 10
Perform 10 reps on a chest-press machine, then get up and do the stretch shown in the video. For every rep you do on the press, do the same number of stretches. Do 3 sets of 10 + 10.
Example Workout for Phase 2
Exercise Sets Reps
A) Incline dumbbell press 4 8
Nothing fancy here, just a good ol' pyramid. Get a good stretch at the bottom and drive to full lockout and squeeze. Keep going up in weight until you get to something that brings failure at 8 reps. Don't go so heavy that you can't squeeze each rep. If you can do 80 lbs. for 8 reps, your work sets might look like 65 x 8, then 70 x 8, then 75 x 8, then 80 x 8. Not all sets are taken to complete failure, just the last set.
B) Smith machine decline barbell presses 4
Use constant tension on these: go all the way down and touch your chest, but only come up 3/4's of the way. Use a medium weight for 25 reps and get your pecs burning. Then do another set with a little more weight for 20 reps. Next, go up in weight and do a solid set of 12 reps with perfect form. Now we do the championship set. Start with something you believe you can do for 8-10 reps and go to failure. Do not do one single rep with bad form. When your form starts to break, take the weight down significantly and do as many as you can get, again with good form. Then for your last drop, widen your grip and repeat. Your chest should be flat-out on fire.
C) Flat barbell bench press 4 4 R/P
Rest/pause time. Do four rest-pause sets of 6 reps. Lower the bar in a controlled fashion, pause on the chest for 2 seconds and then drive up hard. Use perfect form, but explode out of the bottom.
D) Pec minor dips 3 Failure
This is another exercise that I love for chest. It's a modified version of the classic dip, done for the pec minor. Keep your arms straight and lower your body to a full stretch. Then, raise yourself up by flexing the chest. Remember to keep the arms straight throughout the movement. Watch the video on the right for a demonstration. Try to attach some weight if possible.
Bamboo Bar Bench
Some of you may be familiar with this piece of equipment. Jim Seitzer, one of the few people to ever beat Lee Haney, invented it. Jim is a brilliant guy and invented this fiberglass bar that distributes tension all through the joint through oscillating kinetic energy by hanging weight off it.
This bar can be used for two things: rehab and strength building. The point of it is to engage your stabilizer muscles and make them fire. There are pro teams such as the New England Patriots that use this bar for rehab purposes – it's awesome for rehabbing strained rotator cuffs specifically.
It can also be used to enhance strength. Louie Simmons uses this bar at Westside with his lifters. I used to worry that the bar would break as it's extremely light, but knowing that Louie's guys use it and have never broken one, well, I don't guess I need to worry too much.
Watch in the video below as I do these. The bar is bouncing around and my stabilizers are trying like heck to keep up and steady the weight.
I hope you can appreciate where I'm coming from on chest training. Sometimes we have to "live to fight another day," so I was forced to move away from the exercise sequences outlined in Muscle and Fitness and the other popular muscle mags. Fortunately, my concern for injury led me down a path that I think provided the best results for my chest development.
Again, I would contend that this routine is still very basic in nature; I'm not doing BOSU ball inverted cable crossovers or anything like that. Just the basics, performed in what I consider the safest, most result-producing fashion. Try it for yourself!