Q: I’m 32 years old and have been training properly only about nine months. I have seen a little development and strength gain but less than I would like. My chest is a particular sticking point, especially in the lower pecs, where I want full definition. I typically do flat-bench dumbbell presses, flat-bench or decline flyes, incline presses and dips. I always try to do a little more each week in terms of weight or reps, but it has not translated into visible results. I know that mass gains do not come overnight, but still it’s discouraging when I train very hard—as I always strive to do, including using drop sets and 4X training—and do not see results. I try to eat properly, certainly very cleanly—five or six meals a day with 170 to 200 grams of protein and sufficient complex carbs—and take in simple carbs and sugars at the correct time. I usually train four days a week: Monday: legs; Wednesday: back, shoulders; Friday: abs, chest; Sunday: arms. I’m 5’11” and weigh about 182 pounds. My arms have struggled to grow too, and I’m starting to wonder whether I might be predisposed genetically to not gaining any real muscle size. Is there anything you can suggest?
A: I wouldn’t classify yourself as a hardgainer just yet. You’ve only been training for a short period of time, but I think I could make some suggestions to help you get past your sticking points and make progress.
The first thing I recommend is that you cut back on the number of sets and exercises you’re doing for chest. With four exercises each workout and, assuming you’re doing three to four sets per exercise, that adds up to 12 to 16 sets for chest. You will get much better results with fewer exercises and sets.
My chest routines have always been really basic. I stick with two mass-building exercises as the core of my routine, typically doing one flat-bench pressing exercise and one incline-pressing exercise. Presses allow you to use more resistance to overload your chest because you’re targeting the muscles of your chest along with your front deltoids and triceps.
In addition to the two pressing exercises, I add dumbbell flyes. Flyes isolate the chest muscles without the assistance of the triceps; however, the stretch and contraction nature of the flyes really helps to develop the pecs. When using dumbbells instead of cables or a machine, you can still employ heavy resistance and more develop mass.
I noticed that you’re doing three exercises for your lower chest: dumbbell bench presses, decline flyes and dips. I guess you’re doing that because you want more definition in your lower chest; however, doing more exercises for certain area of the muscle will not add definition. Hardness and definition are created by reducing overall bodyfat. The less fat you have on your body, the more definition your muscle groups will show.
Developing the lower chest area will give you more fullness and size in that portion of the muscle and will make your chest look better, but doing more exercises will not speed up the process. You are better off doing just one key exercise for the lower portion of your pecs.
My lower chest always responded well to barbell bench presses. I feel the outer pecs more when I use dumbbells, but doing presses with a barbell really stresses the lower pecs.
On barbell bench presses keep your elbows wide with a wide grip on the bar. Using a closer grip will build the triceps more than the chest. Bring the bar down to your lower pecs. Pushing the weight up from that position will really develop the lower chest.
In addition to a flat-bench press, you should do one exercise for the upper pecs because that’s usually a very difficult area to develop. Again, I stick with a basic exercise like incline barbell or dumbbell presses.
You mentioned that you’re training very hard and doing drop sets and 4X training. At this stage of the game, with only nine months of serious training behind you, the most important thing is to get stronger and bigger instead of trying to kill the muscles every time you train.
By cutting back on your sets and sticking with just three basic movements, you will be able to put the energy into using heavier weights and slowly building up both your strength and mass. Developing the muscle tissue takes time but by making slow gains each week, you should definitely begin to add more muscle to your chest and other -bodyparts.
For example, I just finished up a six-week power cycle. I slowly added resistance to the basic exercises I was using by sticking with the program that I mapped out. I never trained to failure, but I was gradually building up the resistance I was using each week. At the conclusion of the six-week cycle I had made significant gains in my arms, my chest and my legs. Training hard is always important, but the idea of progressive resistance doesn’t mean you have to annihilate the muscles at each workout to get results.
You glossed over your diet, but you mentioned that you eat 170 to 200 grams of protein each day. That doesn’t even equate to one gram of protein for each pound of bodyweight. If you’re training hard and trying to add muscle, you need much more protein than that. At 182 pounds you should be eating at least 225 to 230 grams of protein a day.
You also need to eat lots of complex carbohydrates if you’re trying to get bigger and stronger. Carbs from sources like oatmeal, whole-wheat and Ezekiel bread, sweet potatoes and brown rice will supply your muscle cells with the glycogen they need for intense workouts and proper muscle recovery.
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com for more information about how you can be a part of his exciting, new Natural Olympia Fitness getaway. Send questions or comments to [email protected] Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.com. Listen to John’s radio show, Natural Bodybuilding Radio, at NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM