Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Ripple Effect of Improper (Upper) Chest Training.

Yesterday was chest day. Before I hit the gym, I get myself into a certain mindset – focus on the body part I’m training, visualize the exercise motions, imagine the muscle growth – to better establish the mind-muscle connection so important to advanced bodybuilders. My chest workout today was more explosive, more painful and definitely more effective than it had been for some time. The reason is this: During the past eight years I’ve been training and the past four years I’ve been competing, I’ve been training my chest all wrong. That is until yesterday. If you work out, guess what. You’re training wrong too. In this blog post, I’m going to explain to you why so many people train their chest improperly, and I’m going to tell you exactly what to do – including the exercises – to increase your chest size, symmetry and aesthetics.

The pectoral area in what’s known as a classic physique of 60s and 70s pro bodybuilders is a dense pair of square-shaped masses. It stretches T-shirts and conveys a look of strength more than any other muscle group. The problem is, during the past 30 years or so, the evolution of the chest has lagged far behind every other major muscle group. Take a look at the following photos.

The first photo is of – of course – Arnold Schwarzenegger, six-time Mr. Olympia winner. The second photo is of Dexter Jackson, the 2008 Mr. O. Now, obviously, due to much mechanical and pharmacological advancement in the bodybuilding world, Dexter is much, much larger than Arnold ever was, but pay close attention to the differences in muscle symmetry (how the mass of one muscle group compares with that of the other groups). What is the most prominent feature on Dexter? It may be his shoulders or biceps, whereas on Arnold, it is unquestionably his chest, and most important to what I’m going to discuss here, the way his upper chest sits far out away from his body, bringing his shoulder and neck back. Imagine a string stretched from Dexter’s right shoulder to left shoulder. His chest may just barely touch that string. Imagine the same string across Arnold’s shoulders. You’d have to add a lot of length to that string to make it reach around his pecs. Here begins our problem with chest training.

If you spend any amount of time in the gym, you know that the bench press is the most-used piece of (non-cardio) gym equipment (OK, maybe besides the curl bar). Unfortunately, it’s also the most-often improperly used piece of equipment. Guys pound out rep after rep of bench press with horrible form in the hopes of being able to proudly answer the “How much can you bench?” question. The bottom line is, even if performed correctly, the flat bench press is only good for one thing: Allowing you to be able to bench press more weight. Good if you’re a powerlifter. Bad if you’re trying to put on some size to fill out your shirts and impress the ladies. Even worse if you’re a bodybuilder. Now don’t get me wrong, properly executed, heavy bench presses will build mass in your pecs, but the angles of the press prevent you from building the part of the chest that really matters, the upper pecs. Read any bodybuilding or fitness forum and you’re likely to hear the question, “How can I build size in my upper chest?” The most common answer is “Incline bench press.” This myth has been passed around for so long, no one knows where it started. But, here’s a pretty solid theory: Pro bodybuilders. Pro bodybuilders spreading bad information about training methods? “No way,” you say. Well, not pro bodybuilders, but “enhanced” pro bodybuilders. I’ll let you in on a little secret; those guys you see in the pages of Muscle & Fitness don’t get to look that way naturally. Another not-so-well-kept secret is that steroid use really screws up your body, so these guys have had to adjust over time to prevent catastrophic injury. Here’s where the extinction of the chest and the myth of the incline bench press began.

One of the most debilitating injuries in bodybuilding is a shoulder injury. It can end careers, or, at the very least, set your progress back a year or more. In the top ranks of steroid-freak bodybuilding, the risk of that setback in unacceptable. For this reason, the shoulder ligaments and tendons have been protected while sacrificing upper chest development. This is why the incline bench press, the incline dumbbell press and Hammer Strength machines have become so prominent. They keep a safe angle on the shoulders to minimize stress to the connective tissue. If you’re throwing around 160lb dumbbells, you might have to worry about this. For the rest of us, let’s get down to the physiological motor aspects of chest training and start getting some real results.

It’s not that incline bench presses don’t work the upper chest; it’s that the incline bench press at your gym doesn’t work your upper chest. It’s a great front deltoid workout, but the angle is completely wrong for chest training. The incline benches at most gyms have a back pad that sits on a 35-45deg angle from the floor. Again, that’s a great angle for working shoulders, but the upper chest is targeted more directly when sitting at a 20-30deg angle. Raise your arms to a 125-135deg angle from your torso and feel what muscles begin to tighten more – it’s your anterior deltoids (the front of your shoulder). Now, lower your arms to 110-120deg. Your shoulder muscles will loosen and you’ll incorporate more of your upper chest.

STEP #1: Change your incline bench press angle. How to do that? Easy. If your gym happens to have an adjustable incline bench, lower it to 20%. If not, place a weight plate or a block of wood under the lower feet to decrease the angle.

The angle of the press is the first step to more effectively targeting your upper pecs, but there’s more – much more. Next, let’s look at your hand position when you perform bench press or dumbbell press movements. Generally, most people use the pronated, or overhand, position. Basically, this means your palms are facing your feet. Try this: While remaining relaxed, extend your right arm directly in front of your body, palms facing the floor and close your grip. Place your open left hand over your upper right pectorals, no higher than your clavicle. Now, rotate your right hand outward (clockwise) until your palm is facing upwards. What did you feel? You should have felt a contraction in your upper chest even if you weren’t flexing your pecs (If you felt no contraction, you really need to pay attention to this article). Some people give the advice that, while doing pressing movements, we should rotate our hands inwards, like a punching movement. Watch a commercial for The Perfect Pushup, and it will demonstrate this motion repeatedly. The problem is IT’S COMPLETELY BACKWARDS. Rotating your hands inwards brings more shoulder involvement into the motion. In order to better isolate your chest, and especially your upper chest, you should be rotating your hands outwards. You can easily do this with your dumbbell movements on your (20-13deg) incline dumbbell press. This motion is difficult to perform on a regular barbell bench press, but we’ll address that concern later.

STEP #2: Rotate your hands outwards towards the top of your pressing motion (CAUTION: You may have to significantly reduce the amount of weight you use to perform your incline dumbbell presses)

Another problem with regular pressing movements is their inability to provide a complete contraction of the pectoral muscles. Barbell, dumbbell and machine exercises do not allow the elbows to cross the body’s center line and therefore do not completely stimulate the chest. Even cable crossover exercises do not allow for a complete contraction as the contraction of the right pecs limits the range of motion of the left pecs and vice versa. During biceps curls, we’re taught to squeeze at the peak of contraction to further work the muscle group. The same idea should be applied to chest training.

STEP #3: Bring your elbows past the body’s center line for a more complete contraction at the peak. How do you do this? One-arm cable crossovers. Stand in the middle of the crossover apparatus and grasp the handles. The height of the handles should be set so that, when grasping the handles in the relaxed position, your arms are at a 45%angle to your torso and legs. Raise the handles up and across your chest. Be sure to follow that 45deg line of motion provided by the cables, and remember to keep you elbows slightly bent and locked and rotate you hands outward as much as possible as discussed in step #2. Alternate your left and right sides, keeping a tight squeeze at the peak.

The final problem with training your upper chest is that the normal rotation of the shoulder joints doesn’t allow for efficient targeting of the muscle group. During a press motion, the elbows are angled down to allow you to meet the bar with the chest. This motion naturally incorporates more anterior delt than we’d like to.

STEP #4: Angle the elbows upwards to reduce anterior deltoid incorporation.

OK, so, why don’t we simply angle the elbows back up to where they need to be while bench pressing? Well, if we did that, we’d be meeting the bar with our necks. Good angle, very uncomfortable. And not very safe. What can we do to make that movement easier and safer? We step over to the dreaded Smith machine. OMG! No serious bodybuilder would ever go near a Smith machine! Well, in this case, the ends justify the means, so we’ll suck it up, ignore the laughs and go for it. The Smith machine is going to allow us to incorporate steps, 1, 2 & 4, so the next exercise is really going to hit the upper pecs. It’s important to find a Smith machine that extends upwards on a slight angle. Some extend vertically, but that’s not going be as effective. If that’s all your gym has, I guess you’re going to be stuck using that one. OK, to perform the exercise, place a bench in the Smith machine and set it at a 20-30deg angle. The upwards angle of the machine should extend over your head, not towards your feet. Lie on the bench and position it so that when you lower the bar, it meets your body directly above your clavicles. Yes, right on your neck. Remember to keep your head slightly upwards to avoid catching the bar between your neck and chin. START WITH A LIGHT WEIGHT and perform your incline pressing movements as normal except instead of grasping the bar completely, rotate your hands outwards so that the bar is resting on the meat of your thumb & palm and barely touches the pinky finger of your open hands. You’ll probably have to disengage the bar catches before you position your hands. Lower the bar to your neck and extend fully upwards.

STEP #5: Exhaustion. I feel that fully exhausting your muscle groups is the only way to make big gains. This is what works for me. It may not work for you. I always finish my workouts with a light exercise and completely blast whatever group I’m working that day. For chest, it could be pec deck supersets or even pushups, but exhaustion exercises should always be done with the help of a spotter or on a machine/movement that won’t allow you to drop weights on your face. Therefore, I do not suggest barbell bench press as an exhaustion set.

OK, so let’s get this party started. The following workout incorporates all of the steps listed above, and is exactly what I did during my chest workout yesterday.

1. Incline barbell bench press (remember to lower the incline or place a weight plate under the bench feet)

One warm-up set + three working sets of 10. Increase the weight on each set. (I ALWAYS try to reach failure on my last working set off every exercise)

2. Incline dumbbell press. Again, remember the angle of the bench. Rotate the handle outward as you reach full contraction and squeeze for a two count on each rep.

Three working sets of 10. Increase the weight on each set.

3. Incline Smith machine press. Refer to step 4 for instructions.

Three working sets of 10. Increase the weight on each set.

4. Incline cable crossovers. Refer to step 3.

Find a weight you can do for 12 reps and use that weight for three sets until failure.

5. Pec Deck drop sets.

Pick a weight you can do for 10 reps. Perform that set and immediately reduce the weight ands perform another set. Continue as you work your way down the weight stack.

That’s it. 13 sets for chest day. None of these 30-set workouts. Just intense, effective training. You should really feel the pain for the following few days. I know I’m really feeling it today. This workout should not be performed more than once a week. If you’re just beginning your bodybuilding endeavors, you can alternate this workout with a more-general chest workout. If you’re an advanced trainer and you’re looking to bring your out your upper pecs, use this method for 4-6 weeks as it will still work the entire chest, but will focus on bringing the upper pecs more inline with what you’ve already accomplished. As always, I can’t stress enough proper form, intensity, nutrition, recovery and supplementation.

Dave Minella is a WNBF Pro bodybuilder. Any questions about this article or about bodybuilding in general may be sent to

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