This month's Q&A is a not so dramatic reenactment of a conversation I had with a bodybuilder concerning lat and chest development. It was a back and forth conversation so this article's format will reflect that.
Rob: I'm wondering if you had any good workouts or suggestions for better chest activation and lat activation. I feel like my delts tend to take over on chest workouts and my lats don't seem to want to grow from what I can tell.
Eric: Rob, anytime you are looking to improve the activation of a certain bodypart, always begin by studying what its muscle-actions are. Focus on the biomechanical functions of the pecs and lats; the main action of the pecs is flexion of the humerus (bringing the arms across the front of the body), and the main function of the lats are adduction and extension of the shoulder (essentially reverse front and side raises).
Keeping this in mind, I think some key movements for a delt dominant presser would be to move to using dumbbells for chest pressing since they allow more arm movement across the chest, and also to do some mild decline and incline work since they can help take the shoulders out of the equation a little more.
As far as the lats, including a pull-over motion is very important and often overlooked in most programs. A Hammer Strength or Nautilus pull over machine are the best options and really allow you take the synergists out of the equation. If you don't have access to one of those you can make do with straight arm pushdowns or decline DB pull-overs. I would prioritize those lifts, and then focus on progressively loading them.
Rob: Do you think I should do the pullovers or pulldowns at the end like I've been doing or should I do them first to pre-exhaust the muscles? I know some people aren't big on pre-exhaustion, but I figure it might be a direction to go since I usually leave those until the end. Also, the same question for chest, would doing pec deck and flyes before presses be more beneficial or less than the opposite order?
Eric: Rob, I'm not big on pre-exhaustion. The idea that pre-fatiguing a muscle group with an isolation exercise will then result in it being preferentially utilized during a subsequent compound movement has been proven to be incorrect in the research. In fact, pre-exhaustion results in greater recruitment of the non-fatigued synergists because they have to compensate for the pre-exhausted muscle group.
That being said, I am big on putting lagging bodyparts first before anything else. It has been shown that the first movement performed in an exercise program gains more strength compared to exercises done later in the workout. Logically, you could make an argument that the same would be true for hypertrophy. For this reason, I'd suggest putting a pull-over movement first, simply because you'll be able to put your full energy into an exercise that prioritizes your lats and minimizes synergistic dominance.
Another thing for back work, try incorporating the shoulder extension action of the lats (reverse front raise) while doing rowing and pulldown movements. During pulldown movements most people pull in a straight line, only utilizing the shoulder adduction (reverse lateral raise) action of the lat and neglecting extension. But if you pull in a slight arc as you come down, you may notice a greater contraction in the lats. It is a subtle change, but is noticeable when done right.
For rowing movements, utilize the same principle, don't just pull straight back in a line. Keep your elbows at your sides instead letting them flare and pull back and down in an arc towards your waist. If you pull straight back and flare your elbows, the posterior deltoids and mid back do most of the work. The lats act primarily on the shoulder, not the scapula, and most people focus more on scapular retraction and not enough on shoulder extension. This results in a well developed upper mid back and poor lattisimus dorsi development.
Lastly, think of pulling from the elbows not the hands. Use straps, or a thumbless grip and try not to "death-grip" the handle. This can help the biceps take less of a role during the movement.
You might be thinking, "If I should begin my back workout with pull-overs since they mimic the primary muscle action of the lats, why not start my chest workout with flyes for the same reason?". Although a logical assumption, I actually think starting with a dumbbell press first is best. It's a good balance between allowing you to use the heaviest load and also focusing on the action of the pecs. The reason I suggest doing pull-overs first but not flyes, is that a rowing or pulldown motion has more synergists than a chest press. On a chest press, it's just front delts, pecs and triceps. On a rowing motion your lats, posterior delts, trapezius, rhomboids, erectors, biceps and forearms all come into play. So, it's a lot more common to get synergist dominance while doing a row or a pulldown than it is with chest press.
While doing a dumbbell press, it's nearly impossible not to recruit your pecs as prime movers. But, there are some things you can do to help make sure you are and to avoid delt take-over. Flare your elbows, and make a conscious effort to not just press up, but also to press the dumbbells together and across the front of the body. I recommend a tucked, "power-style bench press" while doing the barbell bench because it is safer on the shoulder. But, unlike a barbell dumbbells allow each shoulder to track individually, so it is safer to allow flaring of the elbows and results in greater pec recruitment.
I advise a slight incline (less than most fixed benches give) or a slight decline, (whichever you feel your pecs working more on) not because I am trying to isolate "upper" or "lower" pecs but because they are better for overall pectoral recruitment.
One thing is for sure, you can't make it to the top of natural bodybuilding these days without an impressive chest and lat spread!