Whenever I see a bodybuilder with big arms, big shoulders and a flat chest instead of pectorals that are as thick and full as the rest of his upper body, I find it very disappointing. Rude bastard that I am, I’ll occasionally ask the guy about it, and usually I hear one of two things. The most common explanation is that he has ‘tried everything’ and ‘worked the shit out of it,’ but it refuses to respond. The other excuse is that he just has bad genetics for building a big chest.
Not that I usually say anything when I hear those excuses, but they’re both a bunch of crap. A lot of bodybuilders confuse hard work with smart work and think that as long as they’re training hard, they must be training effectively. Not so. As for genetics, only in very rare cases is it a legitimate limiting factor in chest development. It’s true that some men are predisposed to building big, beefy pecs without doing anything special to make it happen, but just about anyone should be able to slap enough meat on either side of his sternum to fill out a T-shirt. I might buy the genetics line when someone is talking about high-inserted calves, but not when it comes to the chest.
Here are my 10 basic rules for developing your chest to its fullest potential. The more of them you violate, the lower your chances of building the best chest possible become.
Swallow Your Pride and Ditch the Megaheavy Weights.
It’s time to grow up, you knuckleheads. Ninth grade is over, and unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, nobody gives a rat’s ass how much weight you can bench-press. While it’s a good idea to do sets in the pure strength range of one to five reps occasionally (see rule 8), you should perform most of your work sets with a weight that limits you to six to 12 reps. That means reps you can do on your own. If your so-called spotter is getting a wicked lat pump from doing bent-over rows to help you get the weight up, you’re fooling yourself into thinking that you’re actually bench-pressing. It’s a sign that you need to use less resistance. I’m always far more impressed when I watch a guy bench-press 225 pounds in good form and see his chest do the work than when some nitwit is cheating his ass off and relying on spotters to get a few pathetic reps with 315 or more. Antics like that will ensure that your chest will forever suck.
Make Your Chest Do the Work’Not as Easy as It Sounds.
I used to train with a big guy named Edwin who had these enormous round shoulders and arms. He also could bench-press 405 for eight reps any old time. Oddly, he had very little thickness in his chest. Eventually, we figured out that his front delts and triceps were doing almost all the work, which explained how they had grown to such immense proportions and left his pecs in the dust.
What separates genuine bodybuilders from run-of-the-mill weightlifters is their ability to feel the target muscle working during a set, that mind/muscle connection that eludes so many. John Parrillo and Greg Zulak have written extensively over the years about setting up the torso and arms properly to facilitate chest recruitment: Pinch the shoulder blades together, rotate your shoulders back and downward and arch your back slightly. I’ll add that you should do the reps fairly slowly, close to the old Nautilus guidelines of two seconds up/four seconds down. Using a slower rep speed enables you to focus better on the feeling inside your pecs as you force them to stretch and contract. You may need to start from scratch with lighter weights to master this feeling, but the weights will come back up soon enough. When they do, your chest will be on the road to magnificence.
Do Free-Weight Presses First.
I believe that a mix of free weights and machines delivers the best overall results when it comes to the chest’and most muscle groups, for that matter. Because you need significantly more balance and coordination to handle heavy free weights than you need for their machine counterparts, you’re always better off performing your free-weight presses first in your routine. Otherwise, your balance will be off, and you won’t be able to use as much weight on the free-weight movement, regardless of how much strength you actually have left. Your motor control diminishes as the workout goes on, often at a faster rate than the one at which your strength fades. So if you blast out four heavy sets of Hammer Strength machine presses and then proceed to dumbbell incline presses, you’ll find yourself wobbling with the ‘bells, a frustrating experience. Don’t compromise your results by having to use a lot less weight than you should. Just do the free-weight presses first, and then move on to machines.
While we’re on the subject of presses, it’s time for a word about redundancy. You should work your chest from a variety of angles, but you should never hit an angle more than once in a single workout. I’ve seen some guys slog through marathon chest workouts of flat-bench barbell presses, followed by flat-bench dumbbell presses, followed by inclines done with dumbbells and then in a Smith machine, followed by decline presses, and then they finish off with cable crossovers and dips. That violates rule 10, as you’ll shortly see, but more important, it represents wasted effort. Pick one type of flat press, one type of incline press and one flye movement. That should cover all the bases. If you’re specializing on chest or are just having one of those days when you’re fired up and want to do more, throw in a couple sets of decline presses or dips’but that’s it! Work hard on just a few exercises and save the extra energy for growth and recovery. You’ll thank me later.
Always Include a Flye Movement.
Presses are certainly the most important exercises for building chest size, and the majority of your effort on chest day should be devoted to them, but you also need to include a flye. If you don’t, you’ll neglect another function of the pectoralis major muscle, horizontal adduction of the arms, a.k.a. the hugging motion. For years I’ve endured all the nonsense about flyes, machine flyes and cable crossovers being ‘shaping’ or ‘defining’ exercises and watched so many misguided souls perform them with light weights and high reps. Man, are they missing out.
Do your flyes heavy, with weights that limit you to eight to 12 reps. You can wait until after all your presses are done, or do as I often do and sandwich them between pressing exercises to give your triceps and front delts a few more minutes to recover. I find it goes a long way toward ensuring that the weak links don’t crap out on you before your chest is thoroughly thrashed. ALL Rule 6:
Emphasize the Contraction.
This will probably come across as arrogant (not that I care), but my chest is pretty damned good. I could stand next to just about anyone, even most pro bodybuilders, and not feel insecure about my pectoral development. I attribute most of my chest growth to the fact that I purposely emphasized the contraction on every rep of every set I’ve done for my chest over the past 20 years. Here’s how I do it:
At the conclusion of every rep I forcefully flex my chest as hard as I can. That means the weight stops moving for a moment. Perhaps I can’t use as much weight as I could if I just pumped the reps out fast and never paused, but I’m sure that my way has resulted in far more overall pec mass. I’m convinced that if you haven’t been doing that, your chest isn’t as thick and full as it could possibly be. It’s also a surefire way to get a hellacious pump going (see rule 9).
Prioritize Upper Chest.
Far too many guys have what almost look like boobs instead of pecs. That’s because they’ve been slaves to the flat-bench press for years. Ironically, most of them know they should be starting off with inclines at least half the time, but they’re mortified at the thought of doing the flat-benches after inclines’they might not be able to bench as much weight as usual, and their training partners, Rocco and Big Tony, might ridicule them!
There are few things uglier than a chest that has muscle hanging in the middle and lower regions and virtually nothing up top near the clavicles. The bodybuilders who had the best chests ever’guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steve Reeves and Lee Haney’all had plenty of meat from top to bottom. Those old photos of Arnold hitting a side chest shot, where it looks as if you could set a couple of big beer steins on his pecs, turn up in the magazines all the time because even today, 30 years later, you rarely see such complete development.
If your pecs aren’t bottom-heavy yet, start with doing inclines at every other chest workout to make sure it doesn’t happen to you. And if you’re already sporting saggy pecs that look as if you’ll soon need a bra, you should switch immediately to doing inclines only. Don’t even try to argue with the logic behind that’you know I’m right.
Mix Up the Reps.
The longer you have been training, the more difficult it is to coax any further growth out of your muscles, the chest included. You can mix up the exercises you do and the order in which you do them, but you should also vary the reps. Don’t get caught in the rut of always doing eight to 12 reps for chest. Try other ranges: three to five, four to six or even go on the high side with 12 to 20 once in a while.
You can do different rep schemes within the same workout or plan cycles where you use certain ranges for given lengths of time (but be sure to pay extra attention to warming up when using very low reps). For example, many advanced bodybuilders devote the winter months to power cycles in which they use only basic exercises performed for three to six reps. That’s a very effective way to add mass, especially since they usually see even more growth when they increase the reps to six to 10 for the spring cycle and then 10 to 15 for the summer. Those are just suggestions. You’re free to come up with your own plan for mixing up your repetition ranges.
Always Finish with a Pump.
There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that achieving a pump in the target muscles during training is part of the process of muscular hypertrophy. Many bodybuilders make a habit of making sure that their final set of an exercise delivers a nice tight pump in the target muscle. You can use higher reps, preexhaust, supersets or giant sets to accomplish it. Beyond any actually physiological effects the pump may have on muscle growth, it’s satisfying and so keeps your confidence and enthusiasm for training high. If you don’t have those two mental attributes, all the best training knowledge in the world won’t do you much good.
Limit Overall Volume.
Overtraining is a very real phenomenon, despite what you often hear about its being a myth. ‘There’s no such thing as overtraining, only undereating and undersleeping.’ That statement’s been published a thousand times, but I happen to believe that it’s directed at steroid users, who have added recovery ability when they’re on a cycle. Generally, there is no reason a drug-free lifter should do more than 12, or at the very most 15, work sets for chest in any given workout. And that’s assuming that you train your chest once every seven days.
If you’re drug-free and following a split that has you training chest more frequently than that, you should adjust the volume downward. Three or four exercises for three or four work sets each is more than sufficient to stimulate growth if you apply the proper intensity to all sets. Anything beyond that won’t stimulate further growth, but it will start eating into your chest’s ability to recover and grow. I’ll also add that no matter how heavy a steroid dose you’re on, there’s no reason to ever do much more than 20 sets total for chest.
Editor’s note: Check out Ron’s Web site, www.ronharrismuscle.com. IM
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