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Q&A: Muscle-Shape Tweaks and Pressing Techniques

7305-train4Q: Can I change the shape of my pecs?

A: It depends on what you mean by “shape.” If you mean the shape of the outline of your pecs, you can’t change that.

Say you have a rounded lower-pec line—or perhaps you have a square one-—and perhaps you have a prominent space between your pecs or your individual pecs are side by side with next to no space between them. Such issues of shape are genetically determined and can’t be changed by training.

If, on the other hand, you mean the shape of the mass inside the outline of your pecs, you can change that. Building greater pec mass will produce change, but to what degree depends on the extent of the additional mass and how it’s spread over the entire pec area. If you have little mass in your upper pecs but a lot in your lower pecs, a better balance of mass throughout your pecs will produce a more aesthetic result.

All that said, only if you shed any excess bodyfat will your pec shape and development be clearly revealed.

Q: What’s the best way to perform the dumbbell bench press?

A: Have an assistant hand you the dumbbells one at a time while you’re in position on a bench, especially if you’re using very heavy dumbbells. With two assistants you could receive both dumbbells at the same time. The alternative is to get the dumbbells into position by yourself. Sit on the end of a bench with the ’bells held vertically on your thighs. Center your hands on the handles. Keep your elbows bent, your chin on your chest, your back rounded, and, with a thrust on the ’bells from your thighs, roll back on the bench, and position your feet as you would for a barbell bench press. With your forearms vertical and your hands lined up with your lower pecs, inhale fully to fill your chest, pull your shoulders back, and immediately begin bench-pressing.

With dumbbells you don’t have to position your hands as if holding a barbell. Use a parallel grip or one somewhere between that and the barbell-style pronated grip. You can change your wrist position during the course of each rep if that feels most natural for you.

If the backs of your hands, wrists and forearms are in a straight line during the dumbbell bench press—or any pressing movement—the dumbbells could fall out of your hands. Your hands must extend rearward sufficiently so that you can grip the dumbbells securely, but don’t let them extend your hands to the maximum, because that could mar your lifting technique and injure your wrists. (Grip the dumbbells firmly; the slacker the grip, the less action from the flexors on the palm side of the forearm, which translates to less muscular counteraction to the rearward bending.)

Use a medium-wide grip, and press in a similar pathway to the barbell version—vertically or with a slight diagonal line toward your head. Keep the ’bells moving in tandem, as if they were linked. Don’t let them drift outward from your torso or let one get ahead of the other.

Don’t use an exaggerated range of motion. Descend to a point no deeper than you would with a barbell. Pause at the bottom for a second (while staying tight), and then press up smoothly, under control. Pause for a second at the top, or until the dumbbells are stationary, and smoothly perform the next rep.

Your control may be poor at first, but with practice you’ll develop control over the dumbbells.

Fixed-weight dumbbells usually increase in increments of five pounds or 2.5 kilos. So going up usually means a total increase of 10 pounds, which is large. Stick with a pair of dumbbells until you can comfortably do several reps more than your target count before going up in weight.

If you use adjustable dumbbells, you can use smaller increments than five pounds provided you have small disks. Even if you use fixed-weight dumbbells, you can attach two small disks to each dumbbell. Use strong adhesive tape and ensure that the disks are securely attached. Over time, build up to the weight of the next pair of fixed-weight dumbbells. For proper balance attach the small disks in pairs to each dumbbell, one at each end. A better choice: Small magnetic plates [like PlateMates, available at].

A spotter should crouch behind your head, ready to provide assistance. If that becomes necessary, he or she should apply force with one hand under each elbow—but it’s strictly for assisting you to get a tough rep up in correct technique. A single person can’t simultaneously take a pair of ’bells from someone who fails on a rep. If that happens, you’ll need two spotters.

Don’t push this exercise to failure. Even when you’re training hard, stop one rep short of failure so you don’t risk losing control. That could cost you an injury. Even an alert spotter may not be able to prevent loss of control of both dumbbells.

A spotter or, better still, two spotters can take the dumbbells off you at the end of a set. Alternatively, get off the bench while holding the dumbbells: Lower the ’bells to your lower torso; keep your forearms, arms, shoulders and chest tight; and lift your bent knees as high as you can. With the ’bells touching your thighs and your chin on your chest, immediately throw your feet forward and roll into a seated position. It’s especially easy to do if a spotter places his or her hands under your shoulders and helps you to roll up.

—Stuart McRobert


Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s first byline in IRON MAN appeared in 1981. He’s the author of the new BRAWN series, Book 1: How to Build Up to 50 Pounds of Muscle the Natural Way, available from Home Gym Warehouse (800) 447-0008 or www


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