Next to the arms, the chest is most bodybuilders’ favorite bodypart. Everyone wants to have huge pecs like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lee Haney’a chest that stretches the shirt to the bursting point and commands attention when you walk into a room. More than any other bodypart, the chest represents masculinity. A bodybuilder who has a flat, sunken chest is like a peacock without feathers.
The main exercise bodybuilders use to develop their pecs is also, without a doubt, the most popular exercise in gyms all over the country. Compared to ball busters like squats and deadlifts, the bench press is very comfortable to perform, and it’s the universal symbol of strength. ‘How much do you bench?’ is the most common response when people learn that someone trains with weights. So most bodybuilders don’t need extra motivation to train chest.
When I started bodybuilding, my chest was one of my weakest bodyparts. I was blessed with naturally wide clavicles, which contribute to the overall width of my upper body; however, my pecs’although I was lucky that they’re attached both long and wide’were very flat, and they didn’t fill out my bone structure the way I thought they should. I needed to work on the size and thickness of my pecs in order to match the width of my shoulders.
To build that thickness, I applied the same principle that I use to build all other bodyparts: I used heavy weights on the basic exercises. Despite the popularity of the bench press, I’m still amazed at how often I see skinny bodybuilders in the gym doing set after set of cable crossovers or lining up at the fancy new chest machines to develop their pecs. If you want to build your pecs, that approach is wrong, wrong, wrong!
The pectoral muscles usually respond best to the basic exercises performed with barbells and dumbbells. Leave the fancy machines and cables to bodybuilders who already have huge, thick pecs or to those who are only interested in toning up their chests and aren’t looking to build pecs that you could rest a glass of water on while they’re hitting a side-chest shot.
After years of experimentation I’ve discovered the best exercises for transforming flat, thin chest muscles into thick, full pecs that look good from any angle. Since there are actually several exercises that are very effective, I’ve come up with a pair of excellent result-producing chest routines.
Since I usually work every bodypart’except for abs and calves’once a week, I alternate the two programs, using each one every other week. Using two different routines prevents the muscles from adapting to the same exercises, which could reduce the growth stimulation.
At the first workout I use basic exercises that hit all areas of the chest for maximum growth. It stimulates growth in the middle pecs, the upper pecs, the outer pecs and the upper-inner pecs.
Bench presses. I begin my assault on my chest with the bench press. The king of the upper-body exercises is still the best movement for adding inches to your pecs, triceps and anterior deltoids. The key to making it a primary chest exercise is the way you execute it.
After lying on the bench with your feet firmly planted on the floor, take a grip on the bar that’s slightly wider than shoulder width. Many bodybuilders make the error of holding the bar too close’only shoulder width or less’in the mistaken assumption that using a closer grip will make them stronger. Although a narrow grip may feel stronger, the truth is that it activates the triceps more than the target muscles, which makes it less of a chest movement. For maximum chest stimulation use a slightly wider-than-shoulder-width grip.
After taking the bar off the bench-press rack, slightly arch your lower back and stick your chest out, a position that puts your pecs at the forefront of the action and reduces the impact on your front deltoids. I’ve seen many people do just the opposite. They let their chests cave in and overextend their arms at the completion of the movement, which turns one of the best chest movements into a great front-deltoid builder. To hit your pecs, expand your rib cage and keep your pecs held high throughout the bench press’and all other chest exercises as well.
As you lower the bar, be aware of where your arms are during the movement. As the bar descends, pull your elbows back to stretch your pectorals and keep triceps involvement to a minimum. Allowing your elbows to drift forward will turn the bench press into more of an upper-arm exercise than the chest masser it was designed to be.
Many people who say that the bench press does nothing to build their pecs are probably using too much weight and sacrificing form for ego. Maintain perfect form and develop your strength on the bench press slowly, and your pecs will respond. They won’t have a choice.
I usually do five sets of benches. Three of them are essentially warmups for the final two sets, which I perform all out with the heaviest weights possible. The rep range varies from 15 on the first set to 12 on the second set and 10 on the third. For the last two critical sets I use a weight that allows me to get five to six reps before I hit failure.
Incline dumbbell presses. After I finish my bench presses, I’m ready to train my upper-pectoral muscles. The incline dumbbell press is one of my favorite chest exercises because it enables me to use heavy weights while I’m getting the stretch and contraction of an isolation movement. The combination of the two factors makes for a real mass builder.
I use an incline bench that’s positioned at a 30-degree angle. If you can find a bench that has a hump at the lower-back level, you’re in luck, as it will automatically arch your back, causing your chest to stick out so you keep your shoulders out of the movement and really hit your pecs.
Begin the exercise with your palms facing forward and your elbows pulled back at shoulder level. Arch your lower back with your rib cage expanded and feel the stretch in your upper pecs before pressing the dumbbells back overhead. Don’t push the dumbbells up in a straight line. Instead, bring them together at the top of the movement in order to achieve peak contraction in your upper pecs.
As you lower the dumbbells, attempt to touch your front deltoids with the inside plates. The arc of movement should resemble an upside down V. I remember watching a videotape of Rich Gaspari performing this movement, and he actually tilted the dumbbells outward at the bottom to get an exaggerated stretch, which gave him an even greater contraction when he pushed the dumbbells to the top. It must have worked because Rich’s pecs were not only thick, but they were also hard and striated, a look that comes from hard, intense training.
I do three sets of incline dumbbell presses. The first is moderately heavy for 10 to 12 reps and allows me to get into the groove of the movement. The next two sets are much heavier and only let me get a maximum of five to seven reps. Those are the real mass builders.
Flat-bench dumbbell flyes. Once I’ve blasted my upper and middle pecs with two basic exercises, I move on to an isolation movement that takes the exhausted triceps out of the action. Attempting to do another pressing movement would most likely result in my triceps giving out before my chest. Dumbbell flyes allow you to use free weights with heavy poundages without involving the triceps. To perform the exercise properly, lie on a flat bench with your feet off the floor. I like to bend my knees and cross my legs at the ankles. By elevating my feet, I put all the tension on my pecs and get no help from my legs. As I hold the dumbbells overhead with my palms facing each other, I expand my rib cage and keep my chest high throughout the exercise.
Keeping my elbows slightly bent, I slowly lower my arms in a wide, circular arc so the dumbbells travel down and out. Maintaining the position of my arms, I squeeze them back up to the starting point, which is directly over my chest. To keep constant tension on my outer pectoral muscles, I stop the movement about 10 inches short of where the dumbbells would touch.
I like to think of the analogy that Arnold used in the book Pumping Iron’that it’s like hugging a tree. Keep your arms bent, but make sure to arc them out as they descend to the bottom of the rep in order to really stretch your pecs.
The flat-bench flye is an awesome exercise for the outer pecs. It keeps the triceps out of the movement but still allows you to use heavy poundages in order to bulk up the pecs. Just be careful not to bend your arms too much and press the weight back up with your triceps. Don’t make the mistake of turning the exercise into a flat-bench dumbbell press. Remember, it’s a flye movement.
I do three sets, starting with 10 reps on the first set with a moderate weight to get the feel of the movement. Then I increase the weight over the next two sets, aiming for six to eight reps on each.
Dumbbell pullovers. To finish off my pecs, I do good old-fashioned dumbbell pullovers. Lying across a flat bench with only my upper back making contact with the bench, I hold a single dumbbell by placing the palms of my hands on the underside of the plate at one end.
I keep my hips low throughout the movement and take a deep breath, expanding my rib cage while simultaneously lowering the dumbbell until it’s on the same plane as my head. I keep my elbows slightly bent, but my arms stay in the same position throughout the exercise.
Because my pecs are so pumped at this point in the workout, I really feel the pullovers in my upper-inner pecs. Since the movement is essentially over the head, the upper pecs get most of the tension and the close grip ensures that my inner pecs are also affected.
In addition to the upper-inner pecs, dumbbell pullovers also build the often neglected serratus muscles, which are short, thick muscles located at the top of the rib cage and add a lot to the finished look of the abdominal region. The pullover is one of the best exercises for that hard-to-develop muscle.
Another benefit is the effect pullovers have on the rib cage. They’re often recommended for teenage bodybuilders in order to expand the rib cage. I can attest to the effectiveness of that, as I began training at 14 and used the dumbbell pullover at every chest workout. Today my rib cage is very full and wide, an asset in bodybuilding competition in such poses as the side chest, the front double-biceps and the front lat spread. Bodybuilders who lack a big rib cage often appear narrow when viewed from the front or side.
I do two to three sets at the end of my chest routine, starting with a moderately heavy dumbbell for 12 deep reps and following with a heavier dumbbell for eight to 10 reps. Pullovers are much more effective when you use a full arc’from overhead to parallel to the bench. Good form is very important.
At this session I use completely different exercises that work the same areas of the pectoral muscles’middle, upper, lower and upper-inner’I trained at the first workout. Switching exercises every other week gives my pecs variety and helps them avoid becoming stale. Even so, I’m still using basic exercises with barbells and dumbbells to develop size and thickness in the pecs.
Incline barbell presses. Because the upper-pec muscles, which they target, are so important, I always begin my second chest workout with incline presses. The incline press is a basic barbell exercise that’s similar to the bench press in that it’s a great mass builder, and as with the bench press, I perform it first in the workout, when I have the most strength and energy available. Think power and mass when you perform incline presses. I use a bench set at a 35-degree angle and lower the bar to my clavicles, making sure I keep my elbows pulled back to get the maximum stretch in my upper pecs. I grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width in order to involve the upper pectorals more than the triceps. It’s also important to hold your chest high, with your lower back arched, in order to place more stress on the pecs and not the front delts. It’s easy to let the hips sink when you’re in the incline position, which reduces the arch in your back and places more stress on your front delts instead of the pecs. For that reason concentration is very important on incline presses.
The upper-chest muscles are essential to developing massive pecs. Most bodybuilders have a tendency to build their lower pecs at the expense of the harder-to-develop upper pecs. In fact, you’ll never see a bodybuilder with overdeveloped upper pecs and underdeveloped lower pecs. The reason is that bodybuilders generally overemphasize exercises such as the bench press, which targets the lower- and outer-pectoral regions.
When I’m doing inclines, I often think of Dorian Yates’ video ‘Blood and Guts,’ in which he performs incline presses with 425 pounds and simply manhandles the weight in textbook form. I do five sets. The first set merely warms up my elbows and shoulders and pumps blood into my upper pecs. On the second and third sets I gradually increase the poundage and shoot for 10 and eight reps, respectively. On my last two sets I use a heavy weight that will only let me get five to six reps. Those are the high-intensity sets that really build mass in the upper-pec region. Flat-bench dumbbell presses. Now that I’ve thoroughly blasted my upper pecs, I move on to a basic exercise that builds the outer chest. Flat-bench dumbbell presses enable me to handle heavy poundages and also get a superior stretch because I’m using dumbbells instead of a barbell. I start with a pair of moderately heavy dumbbells, recline on the bench and do one set, arching my lower back and holding my chest high. I concentrate on pulling my elbows back in order to stress my pecs and keep my triceps and front-delt involvement to a minimum. I lower the dumbbells as far as possible, aiming to tilt the dumbbells out at the bottom position for a great stretch in my outer pecs.
I keep my elbows pulled back at the bottom and then drive the dumbbells back to the top. I visualize an upside-down V as I push the weights together and squeeze my pecs at the top. It’s essential to use a full movement on this exercise because dumbbells let you get a great stretch and contraction that you don’t get with a barbell.
I do three sets. The first is only moderately heavy so I can establish the correct pathway for the dumbbells. Keeping the elbows pulled back, tilting the dumbbells at the bottom position and squeezing the pecs at the top are all important elements of correctly performing this exercise. I increase the poundage on the second and third sets, aiming for six to eight reps apiece.
Incline flyes. Keeping with the pattern I established in workout 1, I do two basic movements followed by an isolation exercise. Since I just worked my outer pecs with flat-bench dumbbell presses, I now focus on the upper pecs with my third exercise. Incline flyes target the upper chest in a way that incline presses cannot.
Just like flat-bench flyes, incline flyes isolate the pectoral muscles while still allowing you to use heavy weights. I set the incline bench at a 30-degree angle. I keep my elbows slightly bent with my palms facing each other. I slowly lower the dumbbells for a full stretch, maintaining my arms in the same position as when I began the exercise.
The arc of movement for the incline flye is down and out. As you lower the dumbbells for a full stretch, it’s important to keep your arms semistraight so the weights descend outward in a half circle. If you bend your elbows too much, you’ll use your triceps to push the weights back up and eliminate the exercise’s effectiveness.
As you raise the dumbbells back to the top position, use the power of your upper pecs to squeeze the weights up. For the last one-third of the movement I twist the dumbbells to really isolate my upper-inner pecs’I touch the plates so the dumbbells form a V over my face. I’ve seen other bodybuilders do the opposite, touching the dumbbells together so they’re in the same position as the top of an incline dumbbell press’an upside-down V. That tends to involve the front deltoids too much and takes the upper pecs out of the movement. Bringing the plates together in a V will isolate your upper-inner pecs more.
I do three sets. I start with a moderately heavy weight and increase the poundage over the next two sets. I usually perform 10 deep reps on the first set and six to eight reps on the next two sets.
Decline dumbbell presses. I finish off my chest workout with declines. I recently added this movement to my chest routine after seeing Ronnie Colman’s video. Coleman has one of the best chests in professional bodybuilding, and his lower pecs are especially impressive. They actually bunch up and striate when he hits a side-chest shot.
I use a moderately heavy weight for decline dumbbell presses. My pecs, front delts and triceps are pretty fatigued at that point, and it doesn’t take much to finish off my pectorals.
I use a steep decline bench set at 45 degrees. After lying on the bench with a dumbbell in each hand, I pull my elbows back and press the dumbbells straight up and together to work my lower pecs. Controlling the weights is very important, since the body is in such a precarious position. I lower the dumbbells very slowly before ramming them back together at the top.
I only do two sets. I’m able to do another pressing movement at the end of my chest workout because my arms get a rest during the incline flyes; however, my pecs and triceps are exhausted after two sets and any more would be useless.
Here are my two mass-building routines. Give them a try and you’ll develop your best chest ever.
Bench presses 5 x 6-12
Incline dumbbell presses 3 x 6-10
Flat-bench flyes 3 x 6-10
Dumbbell pullovers 2-3 x 6-10
Incline presses 5 x 6-12
dumbbell presses 3 x 6-10
Incline flyes 3 x 6-10
Decline dumbbell presses 2 x 6-8
Editor’s note: John Hansen is a champion drug-free bodybuilder. He has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe. Check out his Web site at www.naturalolympia.com for more information on custom training programs and nutrition information. You can send e-mail to [email protected] or write to P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. IM