Q: Recently, IRON MAN has become my favorite mag. I love the X-Rep routines [in Train, Eat, Grow]. I’ve been working out for only about two years, but I’ve gone from a 6’1”, 170-pound bean pole to one of the bigger guys at my gym at 215 pounds. I’ve gotten great gains in muscle and strength. My only problem has been my chest. It is fairly strong; I’ve benched more than 300 pounds. Still, it’s small. Is there anything that I can do to help it out a bit more? I think it can get big because of the long length of my pecs.
A: First of all, congratulations on the great gains you’ve made over the past two years. Adding 45 pounds of muscle in that short time is very impressive.
I can relate to your question because my chest was one of my stubborn bodyparts when I first started bodybuilding. Like you, I had long pec-muscle attachments, so I knew it could be a great muscle group for me if I could develop the size and thickness it needed to fill out.
To build the mass in my chest, I basically stuck with the basics and worked on building strength on the core movements—including barbell and dumbbell bench presses, barbell and dumbbell incline presses, incline- and flat-bench flyes, dumbbell pullovers and dips.
I typically performed two pressing exercises for my chest, one flat and one incline. My third exercise was a flye, and I finished with either dips or pullovers.
I didn’t want to overtrain my chest, so I stuck with three or four sets for my first pressing exercise, three sets for my second pressing exercise, three sets of flyes and two or three sets of dips or pullovers. That was about 12 sets for my chest workout—enough volume to stimulate muscle growth but not so much as to slow my progress.
The barbell bench press is probably the most popular exercise in the gym, and for good reason. It’s a great movement for building bigger pecs. To get the most out of it, however, you need to perform it correctly, maintaining focus on your pecs rather than the assisting muscles.
Many guys are so concerned with the amount of weight they’re using in the bench press that developing the chest muscles becomes an afterthought. It’s important to use the proper technique and stress your pecs instead of seeing what your max is.
I always take a wide grip on the bar in order to feel my chest more than my triceps or deltoids. When your upper arm is parallel to the floor during the movement, your forearm should be perpendicular to your upper arm. Using that wide of a grip focuses the stress on the outer pectorals and less on the triceps.
I notice that many people grab the bar closer so they feel tighter and stronger during the exercise, but the closer grip stresses the triceps more than the chest. If you want to build your chest, throw out your ego, and don’t worry about how much weight you’re using.
When you space your hands wider on the bar and keep your elbows pulled back, you’ll really feel the movement in your outer and lower pecs. Arch your lower back and keep your shoulders pulled back during the exercise, and your chest will benefit immensely.
When using dumbbells for the flat- and incline-bench press, you can achieve a greater range of motion by bringing the dumbbells lower than you can with a barbell. It’s important to keep your elbows wide and get a deep stretch at the bottom before bringing the dumbbells back to the top for a great contraction.
Back then I liked combining a barbell pressing exercise with a dumbbell pressing exercise instead of doing one or the other. The barbell exercises are excellent for building mass and strength, while the dumbbells provide a greater range of motion with heavy resistance. I normally did barbell bench presses with incline dumbbell presses or incline barbell presses with dumbbell bench presses.
It’s not uncommon to be very strong on barbell and dumbbell presses and still have weak pectoral development. That means that your arms and deltoids may be stronger than your chest and are taking most of the stress during those exercises. One way to overcome it is to incorporate flyes into your chest routine.
Flyes enable you to isolate the chest muscles while still using a heavy resistance. By bringing the dumbbells out and wide during the movement, you force your pecs to work hard without assistance from the triceps or deltoids. Just because it’s an isolation movement, however, doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to use heavy dumbbells.
I like to do flat-bench dumbbell flyes in the same way that Arnold did them in “Pumping Iron.” I bend my legs at my knees and keep my feet off the floor to isolate and feel the exercise more in my pecs. I would also have my training partner help me for a few forced reps at the end of the set so I could get stronger on the exercise and use more weight. At my strongest I was using 100-pound dumbbells for flat-bench dumbbell flyes.
Dumbbell pullovers are great for expanding the rib cage and building the hard-to-reach serratus anterior muscles. Pullovers also build the inner-upper pecs, an area of the chest that is often bypassed on basic barbell and dumbbell pressing exercises.
I typically did two to three sets of dumbbell pullovers at the end of my chest workout. It would stretch my tight, pumped chest muscles as well as the cartilage in the rib cage. Having a bigger rib cage helps your whole upper body look more expansive and wider in the front double-biceps and side-chest poses.
For the workouts where I didn’t use dumbbell pullovers at the end of my chest routine, I would do wide-grip dips for lower pecs. I always tried to use dipping bars that were set wide, and I would bend over at the waist so my upper body was tilted toward the floor. I focused on going very deep to feel the stretch in my lower pecs before pushing back up about three quarters of the way; that enabled me to focus more on my chest than my triceps.
Here are two advanced chest-training routines that I used to transform my chest from one of my weakest body-parts to one of the strong points in my physique. Remember to concentrate more on the form of each exercise so you feel it in the area of your chest that you’re working. Push yourself to get stronger in the six-to-eight-repetition range and you’ll eventually build the thickness and mass that you need for an impressive chest.
Barbell bench presses 4 x 6-10
Incline dumbbell presses 3 x 6-8
Flat-bench flyes 3 x 6-10
Dumbbell pullovers 2-3 x 10-12
Dumbbell bench presses 4 x 6-10
Incline barbell presses 3 x 6-8
Incline flyes 3 x 6-10
Wide-grip dips 2-3 x 6-10
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com, or send questions or comments to John@NaturalOlympia.com or to P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.com. Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at www.NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM