Chest. After biceps curls the bench press is probably the most popular exercise among bodybuilders. Often called the king of the upper-body movements, the bench press is considered to be essential for building big pectoral muscles. If you look back, you’ll note that the guys who had the biggest chests were all bench press advocates, from Reg Park in the ’50s to Sergio Oliva, Serge Nubret, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu in the ’60s and ’70s, to Bertil Fox and Lee Haney in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s hard to think of a single champion in the past 40 years who had a big chest and didn’t consider the bench press his number-one chest exercise.
Despite that fact, many bodybuilders find that bench presses do little for their pecs. I should know. I was one of them. All I seemed to get out of benching was big front delts, some triceps development and large lower pecs. I just couldn’t build my middle and upper pecs. It wasn’t until I met master trainer John Parrillo in 1990 that I learned how to bench-press properly for full pec development.
John told me I had to learn how to set up my pectoral girdle correctly so I could place the mechanical advantage squarely on the pecs. Once I learned how to do that, my chest became noticeably thicker and fuller in a matter of weeks. In fact, I felt a major difference after the first workout.
Here’s how you can become a pec bench-presser too:
‘Lie back on the bench and take a tight grip on the bar; placing the hands an inch or two wider than shoulder width seems best for most people. Next’and this is absolutely vital’roll and work your shoulders under your body. You do that by pushing them down toward your waist and back into the bench. It sets up your pectoral girdle correctly. You must maintain that position on each and every rep. Keep pushing your shoulders down and back at all times.
‘Next thrust your chest forward and begin the exercise. At the top of the movement lock out your elbows while you push your sternum up. That’s the opposite of what most experts say to do. Most trainers instruct you to push the bar up only two-thirds of the way to keep constant tension on the pecs, but if you don’t lock out, you won’t activate your upper pecs. At the same time you’re locking out your elbows and arching your sternum, try to squeeze your shoulders down with your lower lats and pectoralis minor.
‘There’s one more very important point. The bar should not’I repeat, not’travel up and down in a straight line. You should move it in an arc, sort of a modified S. The overall plane in which the bar travels should tilt backward toward your head, but initially, as it leaves your chest, you should push it up and out toward your feet. That’s the bottom of the S. After several inches the bar naturally starts curving back, which is the halfway point of the S. Continue pushing it up on a backward-tilted plane, then right at the top as you lock out, move it forward a bit, which forms the top part of the S.
Try this technique with a light weight at first until you get the action down correctly. If you do your presses that way, you should even feel your upper pecs working, not just the lower or middle-lower pecs, as you normally would. You won’t believe how much your chest will thicken up after a few weeks of benching properly.
Speaking of upper pecs, many gyms have incline benches welded at angles of 60 to 70 degrees or more. That’s too steep. Pressing at that angle involves too much deltoid. The ideal angle for building pecs with incline or decline work is 25 to 30 degrees, which enables you to activate more pec tissue and less delt. If the benches in your gym are too steep, use an adjustable incline/decline bench and press from the power rack or Smith machine.
You can also try placing a few boards or plates under a flat bench to create your own low-incline or low-decline bench. Mohamed Makkawy used to do his benches that way. He called them 20 degree bench presses, and he much preferred them to regular flat-bench presses.
I had the opportunity to observe former world champion Paul Jean-Guillaume doing an unusual version of cable crossovers that works the upper pecs. Instead of taking the high handles and pulling them down in front of his crotch, Paul faced away from the machine, stepped slightly out from it and grabbed the low handles. He pulled them up from behind his body, creating pull on his pecs, then brought his arms up over his face and crossed them at the top. That isolates the upper pecs and works the difficult-to-build inner-upper pecs.
The inner pecs are indeed tough to develop, but narrow-grip incline presses on the Smith machine can help. Hold the bar with your hands 12 to 15 inches apart’that is, narrower than shoulder width. Do the reps smoothly, strictly and with concentration, trying to isolate the upper pecs and feeling the action in the inner-upper-pec area. Setting up your pectoral girdle as described above can help you isolate your upper pecs. By the way, that setup works great for dumbbell flyes too.
Vince Gironda and his disciples favored an unusual and little-known exercise for the outer pecs called the 30 degree decline cable flye. Position a 30 degree decline bench in the center and several feet in front of a cable crossover machine. With your head at the low end, reach back behind your head to grab the low-cable handles at approximately 45 degree angles. You should be far enough away to feel some pull and tension on your pecs.
Pull the cables in wide, sweeping arcs so they finish above your body at crotch level. Tense your pecs hard and then slowly return to the starting position. High reps work best on this movement, so aim for at least 12 per set.
If you have difficulty getting the right action on decline cable flyes, picture the exercise as a cable crossover done while you’re lying on a decline bench.
Pro bodybuilder Mike Christian gave me a helpful tip that’s improved my chest. When doing dumbbell flyes and presses, turn your wrists at the top of the movement so that the dumbbells form a V over your chest and try to touch your elbows together instead of the ‘bells. It’s just a twist of the wrists, but that twist definitely gives the inner pecs an even harder contraction. The technique works on both flat-bench and incline movements. Next month I’ll move into tips and tricks for sweeping lats. IM