“Your pecs are crazy freaky, dude.”
“You have an ‘Arnold’ chest.”
“Bro, did you inject synthol into those things?”
“Man, your bra size would be, like, a triple F.”
“Eric, are those things real?”
“You could not have built those pecs naturally.”
“Peczilla is in the house.”
Those are just a few of the statements I’ve heard from friends, family, fellow bodybuilders and the general population in regard to my chest. Every single day I hear at least one comment about how big my pecs are. It’s funny: Even IFBB pros—most recently Branden Ray and Mike Liberatore (both of whom are seriously jacked)—have told me that I have a freaky chest and that they wish they had pectoral development like mine. I know my chest is not in the same ballpark as those of Arnold, Lou, Ronnie, Branch or Markus, but it’s fun—even if inaccurate—to hear comparisons made, especially as I train drug-free.
In addition to constantly hearing interesting comments and sometimes even jokes about my pecs, I also get frequent questions—as in daily e-mail, IMs and message-board and in-person inquiries—about how to successfully build a monster chest. Without a doubt a great chest and arms are the most coveted bodyparts and likely always will be. When I discuss pec pumping, however, I usually find myself talking mostly about what trainees are doing wrong. Rather than discussing sets, reps and routines, I focus more on the pitfalls that I see so many falling prey to in the gym.
So if you’re one of those lifters who want to be a bit more s-PEC-tacular, grab a protein bar, sit back in your favorite chair, and ready yourself for a little pec tutorial.
Pec Pitfall 1: Overreliance on the Bench Press
While I admit that in my early days of training I loved to bench-press, I never let it dominate my chest-training program. It was a valuable exercise just like any other and would take up only three to four sets of the 12 or so that I normally did when working the chest. I observe young guys in the gym these days, however, spending the majority of their time slaving away on the flat-bench press. Believe me, I understand the desire to bench-press big numbers, but the truth is that overworking it will result in just two things: an unbalanced look to the chest and a shoulder injury. Neither sounds too appetizing, does it?
Solution: Stop benching. Okay, that’s a bit extreme (and unnecessary), but it would serve you best to not always center your chest training on that one movement. In fact, I recommend that you use the bench press only at every other chest workout—I know, bodybuilding heresy—and that it most often be the second exercise in your routine, done right after an incline movement. The upper chest is a far harder area to build than the lower pecs, and thus you should give priority to incline pressing before the flat variety. I make sure to hit two incline movements per chest workout to assure that my upper pecs are stimulated adequately.
Pec Pitfall 2: Using Too Much Weight
While I would never tell trainees not to challenge themselves with greater poundages, when it comes to chest, that seems to be an obsession. The real problem arises when form is compromised just to satisfy the need to move a weight from point A to point B. It’s a sure road to injury, as well as to little or no gains in muscle size. To be a successful bodybuilder or even just successfully build yourself a solid, muscular physique, you simply cannot put weight before proper form, which means always remaining in total control of the bar or dumbbells and making sure your muscles are doing the work rather than momentum.
Another point to consider is that using heavy, low-rep sets too often—like one to four reps—even with tight form, is not going to increase muscle size as much as it will muscle strength. In order for muscles to hypertrophy, they need to remain under tension for a good period of time during each set—40 to 70 seconds being ideal. That fact should be a good hint to people who say things like, “I don’t get it. My max bench is up 50 pounds, but my chest isn’t any bigger.” Bodybuilding isn’t about max sets of one or two reps but about taxing type 2 muscle fibers and forcing tons of blood into the muscle, which generally takes sets of seven to 12 reps.
Solution: This is really simple—leave your ego at the gym door. If you’re interested only in how much weight you can push and pull, then perhaps you’re best suited to powerlifting. If, however, your greatest desire is to build a herculean physique, then you must begin to think about barbells and dumbbells as tools that help you maximally contract your muscles over and over. That means your focus can’t be just on moving a weight mindlessly up and down. You must move it with total focus—and that’s something you can’t do when attempting to lift maximum poundages. Yes, you do want to increase the amount of weight you lift on each movement as time passes, but again, only with strict form and with a tempo and/or range of reps that keep the target muscle(s) under tension long enough to stimulate the anabolic process.
Pec Pitfall 3: Not Using a Full Range of Motion
In my 20-plus years as a trainer and bodybuilder one thing I’ve observed is that the lifters who use a full range of motion on all of their movements tend to have the most completely developed physiques. That’s something I must have known instinctively even when I was starting out, as I was never one for half or partial reps, unless it was after I’d reached full-range-failure (hint: end-of-set X-Rep partials rock). I have always taken every rep on presses right down to my pecs and every rep on flye movements down to a very full stretch—and I believe that’s partly why I have built so much mass in that area. And while I’m strong, there are guys who are way stronger than I am who have much smaller chests. Just remember, the last third of any press uses more triceps than pec power, so you’re truly missing out if you go only halfway down.
Solution: Unless you have a deltoid injury or naturally very tight shoulder joints, there is no reason not to use a full range of motion on all of your chest exercises. It’s a version of pitfall 2, where trainees are concerned only with lifting more weight, and so they shorten their range of motion just to satisfy their egos or impress those around them. Don’t be one of those people. Make sure you touch your chest on all barbell presses and actually drop a little below the pecs when pressing dumbbells. When it comes to flyes or crossovers, make sure you get a full stretch on every rep, as an intense stretch under tension serves as a very powerful stimulator of muscle growth. Just make sure you’re fully warmed up before getting into your work sets, and pay attention to your rotator cuffs. Strong and flexible rotators will go a long way toward keeping you free of shoulder problems, as well as increasing upper-body strength.
Pec Pitfall 4: Lack of Angles
I’ve always been a big proponent of constantly changing exercise angles, as well as grip widths, in order to keep the body and mind from becoming stagnant. Even the slightest change in angle of push or pull, plane of motion and/or grip width will affect the muscles and central nervous system somewhat differently and recruit a unique group of motor-unit pools. Most lifters I have observed tend to stick with the same angles over and over when training chest, whether it’s the same degree of incline or decline, the same torso position on exercises like crossovers or the same plane of motion on all barbell and dumbbell presses and flyes. I rarely hear anyone speak of widening or narrowing the grip on barbell and machine pressing movements. That is a mistake. Not only will your body and mind eventually go stale without variation, but you will also never reach your maximum potential if you fail to stimulate all available muscle fibers in the pecs.
Solution: This is a very simple problem to fix my friends—just vary your grips and/or angles from pec workout to pec workout or within a workout. I quite often perform incline flyes or Smith-machine incline presses at angles of 60, 45 and 30 degrees during a single chest workout or perhaps change my torso position on crossovers from standing straight to 45 to 90 degrees from set to set. I always shift my grip around on the barbell or machine I’m using, going from narrow to wide or vice versa as the sets progress. The grip variations don’t have to be dramatic; even an inch or two will uniquely stress the muscles and central nervous system. Try it at your next chest session, and I promise you’ll feel a more intense pump and more complete soreness in the days afterward.
Pec Pitfall 5: Failure to Position Your Body Correctly
This is perhaps the most common pitfall that stands in the way of maximally effective chest training. Ladies and gentlemen, building a big chest is not as simple as lying on a bench, unracking a bar or a pair of dumbbells and pushing them from point A to point B. No, the body is far more sophisticated than that. Every chest exercise, whether bench press, incline press, dip, flye or crossover, requires you to begin the exercise before you even move the weight. Failure to understand and heed that will mean that you see very little result for your chest-training effort. Read—and then apply—the solution below very carefully, or your pectoral workouts will continue to be nothing more than extra triceps and anterior-deltoid work.
Solution: Here’s how to achieve the proper body positioning for effective pec pounding:
1) Lie on the bench and set your feet firmly on the floor.
2) Arch your lower back slightly.
3) Raise your rib cage high.
4) Squeeze your scapulae together.
5) Pull your shoulders downward and push them into the bench.
These principles apply to dips, crossovers, seated presses and machine flyes, with the exception of item 1—although the feet should always be firmly planted.
Now you’re right where you need to be to achieve maximum pectoral recruitment with far less deltoid and triceps interference. You must keep your body in this position throughout the set. It’s not enough to begin this way and then slowly fall back into bad habits as the set progresses. You must learn to “lock” your body in this position and stay there.
There you have it, fellow iron men and women, a little pec tutorial that should help you get far more out of every chest-training session. Although I cannot promise that if you follow my lead you’ll get daily comments about the size of your pecs, I can guarantee that your upper abs will soon be provided with just a little more shade.
Editor’s note: Eric Broser’s Power/Rep Range/Shock Workout e-program is available at www.X-Workouts.com. IM