Redefine your chest workout and carve out a new level of striated mass with this high-intensity workout from former competitor and current supplement CEO PJ Braun.
By Michael Berg, NSCA-CPT
Pull Quote: “Most men have too big of an ego to start with 25-pound plates, but I make sure to leave my ego in the parking lot.”
Pull Quote: “When prioritizing the chest, most of the focus should be centered around incline exercises. I’ve never met another human that had too much upper chest development. It is just not physically possible.”
Considering the reverence bestowed on the bench press, bodybuilding beginners can be excused for their exuberance. Guys will bench relentlessly, chasing ever-higher totals to impress their friends with—all while unintentionally throwing their pectoral development completely out of whack.
“I started weight training when I was 13 years old, and like most young boys, I benched almost every day,” recalls PJ Braun, a former powerlifting and bodybuilding competitor who now runs his own supplement companies, Blackstone Labs and Prime Nutrition. “As a teen, my best number was a 330-pound bench press. However, later in life, I have found this fun exercise to be detrimental in many ways.”
One way is mechanical. “Ergonomically, the motion isn’t ideal for a pure focus on the chest,” he points out. “In fact, it puts you in position to externally rotate your shoulder, and a lot of shoulder injuries occur when this over-rotation is abused with too much weight.” With that in mind, Braun has devised a chest regimen that sidesteps the classic barbell bench press without giving up the benefits pressing provides.
Giving No Quarter(s)
Now 35, the full-time CEO has stepped away from competition—but not from lifting. “At this stage, I have no desire to be a mass monster,” he admits. “The goal now is to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible so my workout focuses on refining and improving the details.”
Braun hits chest with a high-volume approach, with supersets, tri-sets, lots of reps and minimal rest periods. “No two workouts are identical,” he explains. That said, he offers up an example of what a chest workout of his may entail on any given Tuesday, where the bodypart generally falls in his weeklong split.
“I’ll start on the Smith machine, doing incline presses,” the Boca Raton, Florida, resident says. “I’ll begin with 25-pound plates on each side and do a set of 20. Most men have too big of an ego to start with 25s, but I make sure to leave my ego in the parking lot.”
From there, he’ll add a second 25 to each side and again go for 20 reps. This pattern continues until he has five plates loaded on each side. At that point, he reps to failure—then starts stripping off a set of 25s at a time, going to failure at each stop until he’s back to a single plate per side.
“Next, I like to super set a Hammer Strength press with some sort of dumbbell flye,” Braun explains. “I may also do a tri-set here. That may be an incline dumbbell press followed by a machine press, then a flye. I constantly vary these as far as order and exercise selection, but I’ll do four to five sets and aim for the 12- to15-rep range.”
To finish, Braun heads to the cable crossover station, repping out five sets of standard crossovers. “I love to finish with these,” he says. “From workout to workout, I’ll vary the plane of motion in which I’m bringing my arms across my body.”
Braun, who also owns a clothing company with his wife—former WWE Divas Champion Celeste Braun (nee Kaitlyn)—called Celestial Bodiez, isn’t afraid to mix up any number of variables to make each workout the most stringent challenge possible.
“I’ll vary my rep tempo, even from set to set,” he says. “I like to take reps very slowly through four-second negatives. And if that isn’t hard enough, try slowing down the positive contraction to four seconds—talk about an intense burn! The basis of my training philosophies stems from my belief in maximizing and manipulating time under tension [TUT]. That is, the amount of time your muscles are contracting under load.”
As for anyone who’s struggling with a lagging chest, Braun urges perspective. “We all have our lagging bodyparts,” he says. “We can’t get too frustrated if we see someone repping 315 easily or who has a really well-developed chest, because, hey, that guy may be looking back at you saying, ‘Man, I wish I had that guy’s calves.’ So few of us are without weakness—even the best pros in the world have a bodypart that they’d like to bring up.”
Smith Machine Incline Press
Start: Lie on an incline bench set at approximately 30 to 45 degrees set inside a Smith machine. Spread your legs slightly with your feet flat on the floor. Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip—unconventionally, Braun prefers a grip just inside shoulder width instead of the usual wider alternative. Rotate and unrack the bar and hold it directly above your upper chest.
Action: Slowly lower the bar to your upper chest. Without bouncing it off your pecs, powerfully press the bar back up to the starting position. Pause momentarily in the top position and begin the next rep.
PJ Says: “Many would argue that my close grip is more of a triceps exercise, but actually having a narrow grip allows for a longer range of motion and a much deeper contraction. Because of my injuries, I do prefer the Smith machine now, but in my 20-plus years of bodybuilding, I would say that more than three-fourths of that was spent doing the free-weight version of this exercise.”
Incline Dumbbell Press
Start: Adjust a bench so that the incline is roughly 30 to 45 degrees. Lie face up on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand just outside your shoulders.
Action: Powerfully press the dumbbells upward, stopping when they’re an inch or so away from each other—don’t let them clang together, which dissipates tension on the target muscles—then slowly reverse to the start and repeat.
PJ Says: “I often vary the angle of the bench incline from week to week. Just that little change stimulates the muscle from different angles.”
Hammer Strength Press
Start: Adjust the machine so your back rests comfortably against the pad and your feet are flat on the floor. The handles should be aligned right at or just below shoulder level when you sit down.
Action: Powerfully press the handles away from you until your arms are fully extended (without locking out your elbows). After a pause and a squeeze, slowly bring the handles back toward your chest. Don’t let the weight touch down between reps.
PJ Says: “This is one of my favorite exercises. By keeping the seat very low and the handle high near your collarbone, you get a much deeper, more intense stretch and contraction through the upper part of your chest. It’s important to always keep the elbows elevated to properly engage the pecs—you have to be careful with that, because it’ll feel more comfortable having them down.”
Plate-Loaded Machine Bench Press
Start: Lie face up on a bench-press machine with your feet flat on the floor. Grasp the handles with an overhand grip.
Action: Keeping your wrists aligned with your elbows and your elbows pointed out to your sides, press the handles upward, driving the weight away from you until you almost lock it out. Then lower it to the start, not allowing the handles to touch down between reps.
PJ Says: “This is an excellent machine to really focus on the prime mover without worrying about stabilization. Because of that, I suggest challenging yourself to go heavier than you would normally on a free-weight press, within reason, since the risk of injury is lower.”
Start: Stand in the center of a cable crossover station with your knees slightly bent, your focus forward, and grasp D-handles attached to the upper pulleys.
Action: With your palms facing downward and elbows bent slightly—you’ll want to lock them in this position throughout—flex your pecs to pull the handles down and in front of your waist. Pause a moment for a peak contraction, then slowly allow the handles to return to the start position. Don’t let the weight stacks touch down between reps.
PJ Says: “Although considered a finishing exercise, this move can be used countless ways simply by changing where you’re bringing your arms. From a standing position, I’ll often keep my arms very high, almost perpendicular to the floor, and mimic a baseball throwing motion, really accentuating the stretch through the top part of the chest.
PJ Braun’s Chest Refinement Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Smith Machine Incline Press 12* 20/failure
Incline Dumbbell Press 4-5 12-15
Hammer Strength Press
Plate-Loaded Machine Bench Press 4-5 12-15
Dumbbell Flat-Bench Flye 4-5 12-15
Cable Crossover 5 15-20
* He’ll do six sets pyramiding up, starting with 25-pound plates and adding a 25-pounder each set, doing 20 reps apiece for the first five and then going to failure on the heaviest set; from there, he’ll strip a plate off each side and go to failure until he gets back to one plate.
PJ Braun’s Training Split
Day Bodypart Trained
Notes: “I have followed this split for a few years now. I find it allows for optimal recuperation, especially with the high amount of shoulder injuries I’ve had in the past,” Braun says. “I also often add a few sets for lagging bodyparts on various days.”
Name: PJ Braun
Lives: Boca Raton, Florida
Profession: President of Blackstone Labs, Prime Nutrition, Celestial Bodiez, and Tee Tee Fan Club
Likes: Big boobs
Dislikes: Small boobs
Favorite Clean Meal: Fish
Favorite Cheat Meal: Chicken parmigiana
Drives: Ferrari F12berlinetta, Weistec Supercharged Mercedes SLS, Z06 Corvette
Listens To: Everything, but I prefer metal when working out
Last Book Read: Boring science journals and studies that probably interest nobody. A great recommendation to any business owner, though, is The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. It’s a book I feel is greatly responsible for the growth of all of my companies.
Favorite Movie: I’m a movie buff, so this is the hardest question so far. I think I’ll go with Goodfellas.
Facebook: PJ Drew Braun