The classic chest-and-tri’s combination gets a modern makeover.
By Mike Carlson
At the 2017 Mr. Olympia weekend, host Bob Cicherillo announced that one of the single greatest bodybuilding talents in history would be returning to the stage: Flex Wheeler. Considered the best bodybuilder to never win a Mr. Olympia (he had the misfortune of hitting his peak during the overlapping careers of legends Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman), Wheeler had Golden Era-level aesthetics but with enough size to compete with the new wave of mass monsters who were entering the sport in the late 1990s. A tiny waist, a dramatic V-taper, and an amazing back double-biceps pose netted him five first-place finishes at the Arnold Classic and two runner-up spots at the Mr. Olympia. Peter McGough, the best bodybuilding writer of all time, dubbed him “The Sultan of Symmetry.”
“I am so excited about his comeback,” says strength coach and kinesiologist Brian Richardson, MS, CPL2, NASM-PES, the co-owner of Dynamic Fitness in Temecula, California. “Flex Wheeler’s physique was flawless. He had super round, full pecs. When you think of aesthetically pleasing in bodybuilding, he was the end of an era before the big ugly physiques that were just ridiculous became popular.”
In honor of the return of one of the all-time great sets of pecs, we programmed this classic chest-and-tri training session, with some modern tweaks. During Flex’s pro bodybuilding career, which spanned from 1993 to 2003, he may not have even seen some of these exercises, such as bench pressing with chains. (Although in his avocation as a very serious and accomplished martial artist, he may have been introduced to explosive push-ups and other complex bodyweight movements.)
“Pairing the chest and triceps is traditional. They work well together because all of your push patterns are extensions of the elbow on concentric load,” Richardson says. “The triceps is a good synergist and a good stabilizer for your push patterns.”
In recent years, a trend has been to move away from pairing these push muscles together. Some people believe that the chest exercises wear out the triceps too much, leaving little in the cellular gas tank to fuel a workout of their own. But the submaximal loads that are optimal for a hypertrophy workout shouldn’t be affected by even a challenging chest session, Richardson says, especially if rest periods are appropriate for ATP replenishment.
Additionally, a chest/triceps workout jibes well with a four-day split training program (chest/triceps, back/biceps, shoulders, legs). It also leaves room for improvisation. If you want to bring up your chest or your triceps, you can sneak in a second push day and be fully recovered from the first workout.
“This is a great way to bundle your muscle systems up and get a lot of bang for your buck based upon time,” Richardson says.
This workout, designed by Richardson, mixes up rep schemes, loads, and tempo to introduce as much stimuli as possible to recruit both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. The workout begins with the Spider-Man crawl as a warm-up. This whole-body activity will have you huffing and puffing with a few sets. Next is the bench press with chains, which provide accommodating resistance that is lighter where you are the weakest and heavier in the stronger part of the rep. The explosive push-ups will be a novel challenge for many, but combined with the bread-and-butter dumbbell exercises, will help generate a massive pump.
Classic dips kick off the triceps portion of the workout. From there, the one-arm triceps kick back is paired with an exercise ball to present a stability and proprioception challenge that will place demands on the core musculature. The workout finishes with diamond push-ups combined with a hand-eye movement drill that Richardson uses with his pro athlete clientele.
This program may not resemble the chest and triceps workouts that Flex Wheeler was doing 20 years ago as an open class IFBB bodybuilder, but it will likely be similar to what Wheeler will be doing as he prepares to return to the stage in the new Classic Physique division. This well-rounded workout can enhance symmetry, flowing lines, and quality muscle mass, which are hallmarks of both the exciting new IFBB class and the returning legend. IM
Do your shoulders a favor and add in a few quick rotator cuff exercises on chest day. A perfect warm-up or cooldown can be a few simple supersets of X’s and T’s. Stand in an athletic position holding one end of an exercise band or rubber tube in each hand. Make an X with your hands by bringing the right hand over your head and the left hand down to your side. Next, bring the left hand up and the right side down. After about 20 reps, move to the T’s, sometimes called “pull-aparts.” Reach your arms out straight to the sides at shoulder height, stretching the band as you go.
Exercise Sets Reps
Spider-Man Crawl 3 20 yards
Bench Press With Chains 5* 12,10,10,8,6
Explosive Push-Up 3 12-15
Dumbbell Incline Press 4 10
Dumbbell Decline Press 4 12
Bar Dip 3 12
One-Arm Dumbbell Kickback 2 12 (each side)
Diamond Push-Up With Davies 3 15
*First set is a warm-up. Light weight should be used and the bar moved rapidly.
Get into the top of a push-up position and then drop down to about four inches above the floor. Your elbows should be close to forming a right angle. Push with one arm as you reach with the other arm. When you reach forward, bring the opposite knee as close to its same-side elbow as possible. Repeat this pattern until you travel 20 yards. Remember to maintain integrity in your hips. Keep them at the same distance from ground for the entire length of the crawl. Don’t let them get sloppy and rotate back and forth.
Bench Press With Chains
To set this up, you’ll typically have a smaller chain on each end of the barbell that hangs down and holds the heavier chains. Each heavy chain should weigh about 20 pounds with approximately three or four links already on the floor at lockout. Perform this like a traditional bench press, lowering the bar to about a fist’s length from your chest. (If you have a huge chest, the bar may touch your pecs.) Then reverse direction and press the bar until your elbows come to full lockout
Get into a push-up position with a box or medicine ball on the outside of each hand (you’ll need two). Drop into a push-up and then powerfully explode upward and land both palms on the raised platforms. Fully extend the arms at the top. One at a time, slowly bring the hands back down off the boxes, then repeat the move.
Dumbbell Incline Press
Adjust a bench so that the incline is roughly 30 to 45 degrees. Lie faceup on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand just outside your shoulders. 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 come back down and repeat.
Dumbbell Decline Press
Lie down on a decline bench. Bring the dumbbells to chest level and shoulder width, with the palms facing away from you. Breathe out and press the dumbbells up using your pectoral muscles. Lock your arms in the contracted position, squeeze your chest and hold for a second before slowly bringing them down. Maintain full control over the dumbbells at all times.
Get into the starting position on a set of parallel bars, with your arms locked out and supporting your weight above the bars. Breathe in as you slowly lower yourself downward with your torso leaning forward about 30 degrees and your elbows flared out slightly. Descend until you feel a stretch in your chest, but don’t go deeper than a 90-degree bend in your elbows. Slowly extend your arms and return to the starting position. Make sure to squeeze the chest for a beat at the top of the movement.
One-Arm Dumbbell Kickback
Get into a staggered stance with your left foot forward and a dumbbell in your right hand. Bend at the waist and place your left (non-working) hand on an exercise ball. Keep your back flat. With your right elbow tucked against your side, flex your triceps and extend your right arm behind you. Squeeze at the top for a full second before returning to the start.
Diamond Push-Up With Davies
Get into a close-grip push-up position by making a diamond shape with your hands. Perform a full push-up, then step your right hand out to the side. Touch your right hand with your left hand and immediately step your left hand away from your right hand. Touch your left hand with your right hand and then come back to center and recreate the diamond shape with your hands to begin the next rep. Keep your core engaged throughout the movement, and don’t let your hips arch or sag.