Chest Training: Opening your treasure chest!
Why you aren’t seeing your true potential and how to do what’s optimal.
From the ages of 15 to 25, I was a stereotypical guy in the gym. I LOVED training chest and arms, and chest and arms, arms and chest, chest and chest, arms and arm etc, you get the picture!
Don’t get me wrong I have always trained other muscle groups, but when I was younger (I am 36 this year) I always found myself desiring two major areas of development: chest and arms or the t shirt muscles! To this day, the average male client I deal with will very often also cite these areas as key components of their training.
When it comes to chest training, Ive tried a truly massive variety of approaches: High Volume/Low Volume (Dorian Yates style) /Tri sets/Giant Sets/ 500 rep workouts (simply awful!)/body weight only & every barbell/dumbbell angle possible. Over the years through continually educating myself both with practical application and scientific research I feel now is an appropriate stage for me to share some of this valuable knowledge with you to help you with your own chest development. You may also see why you are NOT getting the results you wish for and/or you are not using the most optimal methods you can for this development.
Please note that this blog is centred purely around compositional/hypertrophy goals, whilst there are some crossovers to the application for power/pure strength the tempos and contractions detailed would not apply.
Step 1: Chest Bouncing & Mind Muscle connection:
Step 1 begins BEFORE you even pick a single weight. What I want you to do right now is attempt to bounce/flex your pectoral muscles. Literally try to bounce your pectorals as you are reading. Flex and physically move your pecs. My reason for this strange request is that you NEED to learn how to connect with the muscle in question so you can flex against resistance when you are lifting. Once you have learnt how to contract/bounce/flex your pectorals you need to then apply this when you are pressing, more of this later in terms of how and when to move. For now, start bouncing your chest.
Step 2: The Bench Set Up.
Whether you are using a barbell or dumbbells the set up/body position you adapt is essential to getting the most beneficial pathway of movement. You need to adopt your usual bench position( feet to the floor, back flat) HOWEVER you must shove your weight down into the bench, place your weight through your heels, and through your back. Avoid placing your feet on the bench. Before you commence you must also drop your shoulders down away from your ears. If you are starting any press with your shoulders forward (internally rotated) you are not only limiting your range of movement (R.O.M.) but you are also taking focus out of the pectoral and into the anterior (front) deltoid. EXTRA TIP: if you have shorter legs, and struggle to place your feet on the floor, use a step for support, and drive your weight through the step.
Step 3: Execution
To encourage a full ROM, take a slightly wider than shoulder grip and aim to flare the elbows out as the weight lowers towards the chest. Aim for the centre of the chest, but do not touch the body with the bar/dumbbells, then continue to press the weight back up through the chest, keeping the elbows soft at the top of the press, never fully locking out. Throughout the entire movement, keep your body shoved towards the floor, and as you press the weight focus on squeezing the hands/elbows in to squeeze and contract hard at the top.
It is essential you create time under tension (TUT) and place as much stress/emphasis on the working muscle as possible. To extend TUT you must work on your tempo (speed) with particular focus on how you the lower the bar/dumbbells.
The lowering phase of the bar/dumbbells MUST always be SLOWER than the lifting phase. My golden rule /mantra is ‘ALWAYS LOWER SLOWER’!
Sadly I see the complete opposite of this on a pretty much daily basis. A slow lifting of a weight (that’s often too heavy) no pause or contraction, followed by the weight crashing back down in a fast uncontrolled manner.
My recommended Tempo for hypertrophy based goals is 3121, which in terms of practical application translates as:
-Lower the weight for 3 seconds.
-PAUSE at the bottom phase of the movement for 1 second.
-PRESS the weight over 2 seconds.
-SQUEEZE at contraction (top of movement) for 1 second.
Doing this would give an average TUT of 40-60 seconds per set of work (based on performing 8-12 reps).
So far, so good? Hopefully. So what does chest bouncing/pec flexing have to do with all of this?
The contraction at the top of the move is where you need to connect with your pectorals. If you can bounce your pecs you are on the way to creating a strong mind-muscle connection, therefore when you flex against resistance you will create far more muscular tension in the correct areas. I would suggest that by following all of the above pointers, you may need to lower your usual weight selection. Technique, tempo and stimulation should all come before weights selection in terms of priority of importance and reflection on your results. Your ego may take a battering but it will be worth it. I invite you to take this opportunity to try a new approach, think about the actual muscle in question and focus less on the actual weight used.
Resistance Training for composition should NEVER be about simply moving a weight from ‘a to b’. It should ALWAYS be about moving the weight with as much tension (difficulty) as possible.
Choice of exercises for optimal chest development:
In order to adhere to the above guidelines and to encourage you to learn how to fully contract your pectorals I strongly suggest introducing the following exercise into your chest routine/pressing program:
Incline dumbbell neutral grip bench press.
If you can master this exercise you will begin to create a strong mind to muscle connection with your pectorals. Using all of the above pointers, if you focus on driving your elbows in towards each other at the top of the press and fully contracting your pectorals you will literally transform your dumbbell pressing work. Keep your wrists strong and drive through the centre of the chest through every repetition. Do not confuse this with a close grip dumbbell press; it’s a totally different exercise!
I would always look to and encourage you to vary the angles in which you target/stimulate your chest. However, remember that when performing any incline work (bar or dumbbells) the steeper the angle the greater potential there is for you anterior deltoid to take over. Logically thinking you will know that if the bench angle continues to increase, a bench press eventually becomes a shoulder press. I would advise no higher than a 1 or 2 notch incline bench for chest focus.
One of my favoured pieces of reference work is from the great Tudor Bompa. Tudor conducted massive research using Electromyographical (EMG) to measure the actual muscle fiber stimulation utilised in a variety of exercises. This is where science meets practical application. If you imagine 100 represents maximum potential stimulation and 0 is nothing at all, his results for chest based exercises where as follows:
Pectoralis Major (Chest)
Decline dumbbell bench press —————-93%
Decline bench press, Olympic bar(OB)———89
Push-ups between benches ——————–88
Flat dumbbell bench press ——————-87
Flat bench press (OB) ———————–85
Flat dumbbell flyes ————————–84
Pectoralis Minor (Chest)
Incline dumbbell bench press —————-91%
Incline bench press (OB) ——————–85
Incline dumbbell flyes ———————–83
Incline bench press (smith machine) ———81
Tudor’s research reinforces my own practical experience and experimentation and as result I rarely advocate a flat barbell press into a routine. I would urge you to utilise both decline and incline pressing into your training routines.
If you are not currently utilising free weights of any kind into your routine, do not worry, you can still apply everything I have detailed above to a standard chest press machine. If the machine you are using has the option of a neutral grip, try it and focus on applying the contraction outlined above at the top of the press.
When performing any form of Fly movement the same outlines above also still apply. The bench set up and the tempo would be performed exactly as outlined above. I always describe fly movements as ‘hugging’ motions. Your elbows must always be slightly flexed and the resistance should travel through the centre of the chest, this is basic stuff but often I see a fly movement becoming more into a press, which in my mind is the equivalent of doing two things inadequately opposed to doing one thing optimally.
It you take only one thing away from reading this I would like it to be that you apply more focus, energy, connection, intention, and concentration into all of your chest workouts and less attention to simply how much total weight you can move.
I guarantee that with less weight, using all of the above principals, you will develop and make far greater gains and progress than before.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, if you found it useful please like and share with others.
Any questions, give me a shout on here or on facebook.