If there’s one bodypart people are perpetually dissatisfied with, it’s the chest. No one seems completely happy with his or her development there. Women are forever concerned with developing their ‘busts’ (sounds painful!), while men are obsessed with their ‘pecs.’ It’s not uncommon to see trainees of both sexes doing rep after rep and set after set of bench presses, incline and decline flyes, cable crossovers, pushups and at least one pec machine.
The tragedy is that the very enthusiasm that fires their workouts is what holds them back from making pectoral progress and often causes them to become frustrated with training altogether. Enthusiasm for training is one thing, but left unchecked, it results in overtraining.
If your goals are indeed to increase your size and strength in the pectoral region, you want to learn about the muscle group’s function and then provide resistance in a manner that activates the greatest number of muscle fibers possible.
If you’ve been following the Max Contraction series, you know it’s the only training methodology that supplies the target bodypart with the maximum resistance in a position of full contraction for the entire duration of the set. Here’s how to adapt it to stimulate maximum growth in that region of the torso that all bodybuilders wish to improve.
But First a Little Anatomy and Kinesiology
The chest is a more complex muscle group than most of us would imagine. It’s made up of three different muscles: the pectoralis major, the pectoralis minor and the serratus anterior. To develop your chest fully, you must stimulate all three to grow, which you can only accomplish through high-intensity training, and the way to do that is via Max Contraction.
The pectoralis major starts on the shoulder blade and inserts on the front surface of the sternum, the aponeurosis of the external oblique and the cartilage of the true ribs. By ‘true ribs’ I mean the front extremities of each of the first seven pairs of ribs that are connected to the sternum in front by means of the costal cartilage. The fibers of the pectoralis major converge and form a thick mass, which is inserted by a flat tendon into the top of the upper-arm bone.
If you raise your arm and then pull it back toward you, the pec major acts along with the latissimus dorsi (the V-shaped muscles of the upper back) and teres major to draw your arm down to the side of your body. Its isolated action is to adduct and draw the arm across the chest, which also rotates the arm inward.
The pectoralis minor is underneath the pec major’in fact, it’s completely covered by it’and arises from the upper margins and outer surfaces of the third, fourth and fifth ribs near their cartilage. It inserts into the coracoid process of the scapula, which is that little bump of bone on the top of your shoulder. The action of the pectoralis minor is to depress that point of the shoulder and rotate the shoulder blades downward. Additionally, in times of forced respiration, the pectoralis muscles help in drawing the ribs upward and expanding the chest.
The serratus anterior, or serratus magnus, starts at the outer surfaces and superior borders of the upper eight or nine ribs and the intercostals between them. The fibers pass upward and backward and insert into various portions of the ventral surface of the shoulder blade. The serratus carries the shoulder blade forward and raises the vertebral border of the bones, as in pushing an object away from you. It also assists the trapezius in raising the acromion process and in supporting weights on the shoulder and assists the deltoid in raising the arm.
So, after all of that anatomy, physiology and kinesiology, what are the best exercises for stressing the muscles of the chest? Given that the pectoralis major draws the arm down and across the chest, you need a Max Contraction exercise that will fulfill both of those functions. The best one for the job is the fully contracted position of a cable crossover. You can also use a machine flye, but only the fully contracted position.
As the primary action of the pecs minor is to lower the shoulders, the fully contracted position of decline cable flyes’performed, again, on a cable-crossover machine’best fills the bill for Max Contraction. As the serratus anterior’s function is to carry the scapula forward, we will perform an MCS set of three-quarter-contraction incline barbell presses.
Max Contraction Points to Bear in Mind
To recap from previous installments of this series: The most important factor influencing the rate of skeletal-muscle growth is intensity of effort. In order to progressively grow larger and stronger muscles, you must first give your body a reason to grow, a.k.a. a stimulus. You cannot induce muscle growth merely by performing what’s already well within your body’s capacity. You can only induce muscle growth by making a maximum effort, which is precisely what Max Contraction was engineered to achieve.
When you contract a muscle group fully against resistance, it will activate the most muscle fibers it can to assist with the task until they are fatigued and finally spent to where they can no longer support the resistance. At that point the contraction must be broken, and you return the resistance slowly to the starting position of full extension. As soon as you can no longer hold the contraction, you have effectively exhausted all (or at least most) of the fibers.
It’s important to recall that with Max Contraction you initiate each rep in the position of full muscular contraction, which is what separates it from other methods, such as isometrics. In that case you initiate the movement when the fewest number of fibers are activated’that is, the beginning, or starting, position of most movements; for example, the bottom quarter of the press and curl’and the effort never progresses beyond that level of minimal muscle fiber involvement.
With every Max Contraction set you focus on achieving maximum fiber recruitment over a 45-to-60-second period. Each fiber in the target muscle group should be spent, to the point where you can no longer continue to contract against the resistance.
While specializing on any bodypart, you should never train more than three days per week (e.g., Monday, Wednesday and Friday). For Max Contraction training you work the specialized bodypart first in the session and then cover the remaining bodyparts with one Max Contraction set each taken to absolute muscular failure.
Here’s the routine:
1) Kneeling cable crossover
2) Decline cable crossover
3) Strongest-range incline barbell press
4) Leg extension
5) Standing calf raise
6) Seated cable row
7) Strongest-range deadlift
8) Standing dumbbell curl
9) Bench dip
Kneeling cable crossover. Take hold of the two overhead cable-crossover pulley handles and kneel dead center between them. From a position of full extension’with your arms completely outstretched and above head level’slowly draw your arms downward and slightly forward until your hands just cross over one another in front of your thighs. Hold that fully contracted position for 45 to 60 seconds, and then rush to your next chest exercise.
Decline cable crossover. Have a training partner slide a decline bench over to the exact spot where you were kneeling for the previous exercise. Taking hold of the floor-pulley handles, lie on the bench so your head is at the bottom and your feet are hooked under the roller pads at the top. With your arms fully outstretched, slowly draw your arms upward and inward until, once again, your hands cross in front of your lower abdomen. Hold that fully contracted position for 45 to 60 seconds, and then run to your next (and final) chest exercise.
Strongest-range incline barbell press. This exercise should be performed only in a Smith machine or a power rack’where there are built-in safety pegs to catch the resistance if you can’t support it. Sit on an incline bench in the Smith machine or rack, and remove the barbell from the pins. Slowly lower the resistance a short distance’perhaps four inches’and sustain that position for 45 to 60 seconds, at which point you should hit failure. Slowly lower the resistance onto the pins. Rest briefly before continuing with the next exercise.
Leg extension. The leg extension is unparalleled for isolating the quadriceps muscles on the tops of the thighs. Other exercises can work the quads as thoroughly, but none can do it as efficiently or as directly as leg extensions. Quite simply, there are no weak links in the movement’it’s powered solely by the strength of your quadriceps. Hold the fully contracted, knees-locked position for a full 45 to 60 seconds before advancing to your next exercise.
Standing calf raise. Position yourself under the shoulder pads of a standing calf raise machine so the balls of your feet are on the block and your heels are almost touching the ground. From that position of full stretch, slowly contract your gastrocnemius, or calf, muscles until they’re fully contracted. Hold that contraction for 45 to 60 seconds before lowering back to full stretch and rushing on to your next exercise.
Seated cable row. You’ll need a strong floor-pulley attachment to perform this exercise properly. Take hold of the handle and lean forward from the waist to start the movement from a position of full extension. Slowly contract your lats, drawing your elbows in behind your torso. When you’ve drawn your elbows as far back as you possibly can, hold for a full 45 to 60 seconds, and then rush right to your next exercise.
Strongest-range deadlift. This is an excellent movement for developing the erector spinae muscles of the lower back. Its muscle-building abilities don’t stop there, however, as deadlifts work almost every muscle in the body and stimulate phenomenal overall growth. As with the incline barbell press, this one is best performed in a power rack. Position a relatively heavy barbell so it’s resting on pins or supports that are set at upper-thigh level. Bend over at the waist and take an over-and-under grip, with one hand over the top of the bar and the other underneath. Your hands should be approximately 14 inches apart. With your hands tightly clenched, lift your torso to an upright position using only your lower-back muscles as prime movers and continue until you reach the maximally contracted position. From there slowly bend over approximately three inches and sustain the contraction for 45 to 60 seconds.
Standing dumbbell curl. Pick up a pair of dumbbells and hold them at your sides. Slowly curl them up toward your shoulders until they reach the fully contracted position, and hold that position for 45 to 60 seconds. Then slowly return the dumbbells to the starting position and immediately go to your next exercise.
Bench dip. This is an excellent upper-body developer’some call it the upper-body squat’but it focuses mostly on the triceps brachii of the upper arm. You need two benches, one to place your feet on and the other to put your hands on. The bench for your arms should be just slightly behind your back so that you activate the secondary function of the triceps, to draw the arm down and behind the midline of your body. Position your feet on the bench in front of you, and extend your arms’in a locked-out position’on the bench behind you. (Ideally, the bench should be elevated so that your feet are higher than your hips. From that position slowly break the lock in your elbows and then hold that position for 45 to 60 seconds. That, in its brevity, is the chest-specialization routine. Remember, though, that the stronger you become, the greater your ability to make inroads into your recovery ability and, consequently, the easier it will be to overtrain. That’s why intermediates should not use the standard Monday-Wednesday-and-Friday routine, which gives you only 48 hours between sessions, but instead should take 72 hours’at least’between workouts.
If your chest development is less than impressive, give this Max Contraction chest-specialization routine a try and watch underpar pecs become a problem of the past!
Editor’s note: John Little is a leading innovator of bodybuilding training. Watch for his latest book, Fast Mass: The Max Contraction System, in early ’04. IM