Q: I have difficulty getting my chest to develop fully; that is, in all sections’upper, lower, inner and outer. I’ve tried varying my exercises, but most of my development is in the lower and middle sections of my chest. I’d like to get more thickness in the upper and outer sections for more pectoral flare and more inner pectorals for more cleavage. Any suggestions?
A: Sounds as if you want it all. First of all, assuming you’ve trained hard for at least one year nonstop, understand that it’s completely normal to start noticing development problems with some of your muscle groups. What you’re experiencing is something all new bodybuilders go through as they learn about each individual muscle’s reaction to certain exercises. Not all muscles develop at the same speed. Indeed, some seem to develop very quickly and easily, while others develop more slowly and with greater difficulty.
Every bodybuilder has at least one or two muscle groups, or sections of muscle groups, that lag behind others. To keep your body in proportion and symmetrical, you have to start training smarter. It may be necessary to back off on the number of sets you do for your easiest-growing and best muscle groups so you can do more sets for your worst and slowest-growing muscle groups. Symmetry, as well as size and mass, should always be your goal as a bodybuilder.
While that seems logical and even obvious, you’d be amazed at how many bodybuilders ignore that basic rule and continue to blast away at their fastest- and easiest-growing muscle groups’ because they pump so easily and are so much more fun to train and actually cut back or even stop training their slowest-growing muscles altogether. That’s why you see guys with big arms and no calves or big pecs and no thighs or big biceps but poor triceps.
Another reason bodybuilders discover their muscles grow at different rates during that first year of training is that the routines are dominated by heavy, basic compound exercises’at least they should be’not isolation movements (bench presses and squats are going to build more muscle than cable crossovers and leg extensions). Basic movements such as squats, bench presses, bent-over rows and barbell curls tend to work the large belly of the muscle, which develops muscle mass and strength, while isolation movements generally work the smaller origins and insertions of a muscle, which are eventually necessary for full muscle isolation and development and symmetry. So after a year of mostly basic movements you may need to add a few isolation exercises to complete a muscle’s development or bring up a lagging bodypart.
It may well be that your exercise form is not good, so all the exercises that would normally develop the upper and outer chest such as incline presses, incline flyes and wide-grip flat-bench presses to the neck’don’t work for you because you do them in a fashion that puts all the stress and mechanical advantage on the lower pecs. Doing incline barbell and dumbbell exercises that are meant to work the upper chest (or upper section of the pectoralis major, to be more accurate) isn’t any guarantee that you’ll actually work the upper chest. Cheating, poor exercise form and trying to use too much weight, which forces you to get the weight up any way you can and bring in other muscle groups for support, ruining muscle isolation, can result in lopsided chest development.
Let’s look at the bench press, generally regarded as the best overall pectoral builder of chest exercises. Beginners and many intermediate bodybuilders don’t get the maximum pectoral benefit from bench pressing because they do them in what John Parrillo calls ‘deltoid-benching style,’ as opposed to pectoral-bench style. Delt bench pressers, as the term implies, involve their deltoids too much in the motion. They develop their middle and lower pectorals because they flatten their pectorals at the top of the bench press movement and push the bar up mostly with deltoid and triceps strength. Their pectorals work very little during a set. Hence they often have a large hollow at the top of the chest, and their lower pectorals are totally out of proportion to the upper sections. Their pecs hang and look in need of a cross-your-heart bra for support. It’s not very masculine looking and not very aesthetically pleasing either.
Likewise, they may have too much inner pecs and not enough outer pecs, so their chest looks bunched up. Wide, flaring pecs do for the chest what wide, flaring lats do for the back: increase V-taper and the illusion of more width. Of course the question is, How do you develop wide, flaring pectorals? Exercise choice and form are very important. Performing all flat-bench and incline barbell movements with a wide grip puts more emphasis on the outer pectorals, as does performing three-quarter flat and incline dumbbell flyes (that means stopping the bells about a foot apart at the top of the movement, a favorite of Arnold in his prime). Wide-grip dips, especially with an inverted grip on V-dipping bars, are also very good for outer pecs. Vince Gironda used to do this exercise almost exclusively for his chest development, and he had a noticeable ridge of muscle on the outer sections of his pectoralis major. Vince was living proof that the concept of noncontiguous innervation (meaning only one exercise is needed for full development of a muscle because they all share a common nerve ending) was just a lot of hot air put out by so-called experts who didn’t know what they were talking about.
Finally, whenever any muscle (or part of a muscle) refuses to respond to exercise, we have to wonder if there’s some kind of innervation problem or poor blood flow to the area. In other words, you may have poorly developed neuromuscular pathways or poor blood supply to the upper and outer sections of your chest, and because of that those areas refuse to pump up and develop properly. If you subscribe to the blood theory, which I do, how a muscle pumps is a good indicator of how well it can grow. ALL There are several ways to attack the problem of poor innervation and blood supply. The first is to do your exercises for the upper and inner pecs first in your routine and finish with your bench presses. So, depending on your priorities, you might do three sets of incline presses’with a barbell, a Smith machine or a pair of dumbbells’two or three sets of incline dumbbell flyes, followed by either cable crossovers or pec deck flyes for three sets to work the inner pecs, and then three sets of flat-bench presses. End the routine with two or three sets of cross-bench dumbbell pullovers for 15 reps per set. That’s a good chest workout that places priorities on the upper and inner pecs.
If you want more pectoral flare, do your incline presses and bench presses with a wide grip and your incline flyes by not coming up entirely as you do your repetitions. That is, stop your dumbbells about a foot from each other at the top of the movement, and then lower them down as far as possible for as much stretch as possible.
If your lower pecs are really overdeveloped in relation to your upper pecs, don’t do bench presses at all; do bench presses to the neck instead. That exercise is best done on the Smith machine because you don’t have to worry about balancing the bar. Bring your legs up and cross them over your torso for balance, and grip the bar between your thumb and forefinger of each hand. With this grip the forefingers and thumbs of each hand should point at each other as you hold the bar. Why use this grip? I know it sounds awkward, but there is a method to the madness. Three-time Mr. Olympia Larry Scott does his bench presses to the neck on the Smith machine this way because with his thumbs and forefingers pointing at each other his elbows must flare out wide and to the side. As he lowers the bar to his Adam’s apple, he concentrates on keeping his elbows high and wide. The stretch on the upper and upper-outer pectorals is fantastic. It’s important to focus on keeping your elbows high and wide (and pulled back in line with your shoulders) as you do the concentric part of your repetitions too.
By the way, if you use a wide grip, you can push the bar as high as possible and you will never fully lock out your arms. There will always be some bend in your elbows, and this maintains constant tension on the upper pectorals’or more correctly, on the muscle fibers of the upper pectoralis major. There really is no such thing as upper pecs and lower pecs, but it’s more convenient to talk about pectoral development that way, since bodybuilders have used those terms for decades. Far too many bodybuilders, in an attempt to keep constant tension on their pectorals as they bench, fall into the bad habit of performing half repetitions that over time get shorter and shorter. They never get a good contraction in their pecs because the stroke is too short.
If you’re ready for something a little more intense and would like to work every section of your chest, you can try the following chest workout. Do three supersets of each exercise combination, resting 60 to 90 seconds between each superset (two exercises done together in combination with no or very little rest between them). Finish off your pecs with three sets of cross-bench pullovers, 15 reps per set, or 1×15, 1×12, 1×10, using a heavier dumbbell on each set.
Here are the supersets. You can do them in preexhaust style’that is, doing the isolation exercise first before the compound basic movement’or in ordinary compound-superset style, doing the basic movement first and the isolation movement second. It might be a good idea to alternate your workouts’preexhaust supersets in one chest workout and compound supersets the next, to shock the muscle fibers and to prevent your pectoral muscles from adapting too quickly. For another variation you could even make every third chest session a straight-set workout. Here’s the preexhaust superset routine.
30 degree incline flyes 1 x 12, 10, 6-8
30 degree incline dumbbell presses 1 x 10, 8, 6-8
Flat-bench dumbbell flyes 1 x 10, 8, 6
Flat-bench presses 1 x 10, 8, 6
20 degree decline flyes 1 x 12, 10, 6-8
20 degree decline bench press 1 x 10, 8, 6
Cross-bench dumbbell pullovers 1 x 15, 12, 10
That’s 12 sets, not counting warmups. The routine works all sections of the chest and should result in pleasing, full chest development. And remember, you can do preexhaust superset combinations at every other workout and straight sets every third workout. Fine-tune the routine to your own personal needs. For instance, if your upper pecs are particularly underdeveloped, you might do incline flyes supersetted with incline dumbbell presses, followed by 10 degree incline flyes (elevate one end of the bench with a couple of plates) and bench presses to the neck instead of flat-bench flyes and regular bench presses’ or more upper-pec work. Then end with decline flyes followed by decline presses, and finish with the pullovers. If your lower pecs respond especially well with little stimulation, you could superset 10 degree incline flyes with regular bench presses or 10 degree bench presses. You get the idea. You know your body and what it needs better than I do: Create a routine that works best for you.
If you’re a little more advanced, you can add one set per exercise, a final set of 15 repetitions (that is 1×10, 8, 6, 15), making the final superset of each combination a real high-rep, superpump affair. That makes it a 16-set workout, so cut back on the volume of your workouts in other areas, particularly for your best muscle groups. Do maintenance training for your best bodyparts for a month or two while you specialize on your chest, and then return to normal training and reduce your chest training to straight sets and nine or 10 sets, tops. While specializing on the chest, it may be best to follow a one-major-muscle-group-per-day routine, as follows:
Monday: Calves and chest
Tuesday: Lats and lower back
Wednesday: Delts and traps
Thursday: Mini chest workout and arms
Friday: Hamstrings and quads.
Throw in a few sets of incline presses or bench presses to the neck on Thursday so your upper chest gets hit twice in the week. Start your workout with four sets of either wide-grip incline presses (your choice: barbell, dumbbells or Smith machine) or bench presses to the neck and then go on to arms.
Except for chest, try to keep your total sets per workout between 20 and 25 (if in doubt, less is better, so 20 sets or fewer is a good number to shoot for’that’s per workout, not per muscle group). Do a little ab work every day or every other day. IM