WNBF Pro Dr. Andrew Chappell
Here’s a favourite chest workout of mine
|Bench Press||5||5, 5, 3, 20||3 minutes||90 %, 95%, 70% 1 RM|
|Weighted Dips||3||8||2 minutes||80% 1 RM|
|Incline Fly||3||10||90 seconds||75% 1 RM|
|Cable Crossover||3||12 – 15||60 seconds||Last Set Drop Set|
|Press Ups||1||Failure||–||Press up to failure|
Now let’s talk about how to train the chest and why I selected the aforementioned exercises, sets, rest period, intensity and advanced training techniques.
Anatomy of the Chest
The chest is composed of two muscles: the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. The pectoralis major is a large, fan-shaped muscle that covers most of the chest and is responsible for the: adduction, flexion, and rotation of the arm. The pectoralis minor, as the name suggests is a smaller muscle located underneath the pectoralis major, and is involved in the protraction and depresse the shoulder blade. Training days that involve a large number of chest exercises are therefore typically referred to as press days.
Training the Chest
When it comes to training the chest, there are several exercises that can effectively target the pectoralis muscles. These exercises can be grouped into the following categogries:
Incline Flat and Decline Positions
Incorporating both incline, flat and decline positions into your chest training can help to target different areas of the chest muscles. Incline exercises, such as incline dumbbell presses, target the upper portion of the chest, while decline exercises, such as decline barbell presses, target the lower portion of the chest. It’s a good idea to include a variety of these in any training plan and there’s a school of thought which suggests female athletes should only ever do incline since their upper pecs are only ever on show.
Dumbbells are a versatile and allow for a wider range of motion and better targeting of the chest muscles compared to barbells. Dumbbell exercises like dumbbell fly’s and incline dumbbell presses allow for a greater stretch of the chest muscles which can help with overall development and shape. Conversely though people typically can’t generate as much force using dumbbells because of their inherent instability, which means you usually end up working with lower loads compared to barbells or machines.
Chest training machines, such as cable crossovers or pec deck machines, offer a more controlled movement, which can be beneficial for isolation of the chest muscles. These machines are also useful for training the adduction movement pattern and are typically safer than a traditional set of fly’s. Moreover, chest press machines and smith machines can also be useful and again typically safer alternatives to the bench press or incline press. Machines can be extremely useful when it comes to incorporating advanced training techniques.
Barbell exercises, like the barbell bench press, allow for the use of heavier weights and can help to increase overall chest strength and mass. Weighted dips and push ups which focused on targeting the chest are another couple of exercise which can be extremely effective. I’ve heard people refer to dips as the upper body squat. If it’s weight you want to shift, this is ultimately where you’re going to do most of it using these exercises, it’s also often where you’ll find most of the gym bros hanging around as well.
Considerations for rep ranges and advance training techniques
Much has been written about rep ranges, and you should alter your rep range depending on your goal, e.g. strength hypertrophy endurance. However, I would say that if you want to improve your overall chest development then you need to increase your 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, & 20 repetition max. Essentially you need to train all the rep ranges and you need to get good at them all. That doesn’t mean doing singles as part of your training plans, but it does mean that you have to spend some time lifting heavier and lighter. Using percentages of your 1 rep maximum (1RM) is a great way of doing this, alongside using scales like reps in reserve (RIR) or rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Moreover, with any plan, particularly bodybuilding you’re going to want to do some advanced training techniques, probably 1 or 2 per session as muscle mass is built as a consequence of mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage.
Percentages of 1RM
Using percentages of your 1RM allows for consistent progress tracking and the ability to target specific training goals. For example, training with lighter weight at a lower percentage of your 1RM (e.g. 60-70%) can help build endurance, while training with heavier weight at a higher percentage of your 1RM (e.g. 80-90%) can help improve muscle strength. The great thing about percentages is they can keep you honest. The numbers don’t lie. If your program says use 80% of your 1RM then you know what out need to do. Moreover it allows you to track your progress by comparison to your 1RM.
Advanced Training Techniques
Advanced training techniques, such as supersets, negatives, rest-pause, cluster sets, and partials, can help increase intensity and provide a greater training stimulus. For example:
- Supersets involve performing two exercises back-to-back with minimal rest in between, increasing the overall volume and intensity of your workout. You can do them agonist to antagonist muscles or across the same muscle group. Fly’s combined with press ups for example work well.
- Negatives involve performing the eccentric (lowering) portion of an exercise with a slow, controlled motion, putting extra stress on the muscles and promoting muscle growth. These are great if you want to test yourself and get used to handling a lot of weight. you can load up a bar with 110 to 120% of your 1RM and just practice the decent on a bench press. Make sure you have a spot though!
- Rest-pause involves performing a short set, resting briefly, and then repeating the same set, leading to increased muscle fatigue and a greater training stimulus. These are great if you’re stuck trying to progress with a rep range. Say you want to hit a set of 10 on the bench but can only manage 8 before you fail. The trick is to rack the weight at 8 reps, take a 10 to 20s rest and then try to push out another couple of reps. that way you get your ten over the course of a rest pause set. Over a few weeks you should hopefully be able to get the 10 without the pause.
- Cluster sets involve performing multiple reps with short rests in between, allowing for heavier weight to be used and promoting strength gains. These are structured rest pause sets. Great for getting strong. check out the scheme below for the explanation on how to perform them. For chest training though you probably want to stick with barbells and machines here, to save you messing about with dumbbells.
- Partials involve performing only a portion of the range of motion of an exercise, allowing for heavier weight to be used and targeting specific parts of a movement. This is a classic powerlfiting technique. You might be strong or weak at a specific point in the movement so with partials you can focus on that phase of the lift. Obviously if you can move past sticking points this can help you excel in all the rep ranges.
- Bands, Chains and Unstable Bars covers a broad range of training styles typically used to increase strength, or stability in the bench press. Similarly to partials, the addition of chains or bands allow the trainer to work harder at specific parts of a lift where you might want to make something harder or easier.
What Exercises are best?
Depends on the goal of the program and the individual, you’ll incorporate a variety of the aforementioned movements and techniques There’s a lot to consider and I talked extensively about this in the bicep training article (https://proprepcoaching.com/bodybuilding/building-big-arms-how-to-program-to-make-them-even-bigger/). If I was pressed though…(pun intended) I’d always er towards the use of the barbell bench press as a great exercise for any chest program for the following reasons.
The barbell bench press is used to increase muscle mass in the upper body rather than specifically to the pectoralis major. Although you sometimes might break a training programs down into body part specific days e.g. chest, shoulders, arms etc. I always suggest focusing on compound moves for the following reasons:
A) These exercise usually provide the most bang for their buck for the primary muscle group as well as the auxiliary muscles, (something which is important for frequency considerations)
B) With A in mind, a focus on these lifts based on judging experience usually leads to a far more symmetrical physique, they just seem to flow better. This often happens because compound lifts like bench press hit the shoulders, triceps, forearms, upper back, and core training leading to greater overall development compared to say using a chest press machine. Moreover, this is probably why you see people with poor technique suffering from poor symmetry.
C) To develop a classic physique, I’m a big fans of utilising free weights in keeping with golden era principles. Those guys looked great and that’s all they had. That’s not to say that we can’t use machines and every individual has different needs (injuries are a consideration), but free weights form the cornerstone of a golden era approach to programming.
The best movements and Muscle Activation Research
Activation is another interesting question, Electromyographs (EMG) allow you to measure muscle activation across a muscle while exercising. Muscle activation and force production is greater with stable vs unstable loads. Moreover, exercise intensity in terms of RPE is usually greater with stable surfaces. All this makes sense, if you have a solid surface to press from and you don’t have to worry about balancing anything then you can put more into lifting a weight. The ability to produce a high RPE seems to be essential for hypertrophy independent of the load and high degrees of mechanical tension are also know to be important. Hence why a movement like a barbell bench press is favoured. Although it’s not quite as clear cut as you think.
Here’s a sample of some studies representative of the area:
No difference between motor unit activation between Dumbbell flys, Dumbbell chest press, Barbell Bench Press.
Welsch, E.A., Bird, M. and Mayhew, J.L., 2005. Electromyographic activity of the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid muscles during three upper-body lifts. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(2), p.449.
EMG Activation is related to the instability of the exercise, where barbell and bench conditions perform better than dumbbell and swiss ball conditions.
Kohler, J.M., Flanagan, S.P. and Whiting, W.C., 2010. Muscle activation patterns while lifting stable and unstable loads on stable and unstable surfaces. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(2), pp.313-321.
Barbell bench press EMG and RPE activation is greatest by comparison to eight other chest exercises
Schanke, W., 2012. Electromyographical analysis of the pectoralis major muscle during various chest exercises(Doctoral dissertation).
Stable loads result in similar EMGs in pectoralis major with Dumbbell, barbell and smith machine, although triceps EMG activation is greater in barbell vs dumbbell and smith machines
Saeterbakken, A.H., van den Tillaar, R. and Fimland, M.S., 2011. A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. Journal of sports sciences, 29(5), pp.533-538.
Flat vs incline vs decline bench press variation indicates limited difference on pectoralis major activation although influences bicep EMG, while grip variations affect triceps EMG. Flat, medium and wide grip variations are suggested for greatest 6 RM loads.
Saeterbakken, A.H., Mo, D.A., Scott, S. and Andersen, V., 2017. The effects of bench press variations in competitive athletes on muscle activity and performance. Journal of human kinetics, 57(1), pp.61-71.
Wider Grips vs narrow grips result in the greatest pectoralis major activation. Hence the need to alter the grip when hitting the triceps.
Jagessar, M. and Gray, M., 2010. Optimizing development of the pectoralis major. Sport Journal, 13(1), p.7.
Muscle activity changes with exercise intensity, velocity of movement, fatigue, mental focus, movement phase and stability conditions, such as bar vibration or unstable surfaces. The most important factor for EMG activation is exercise intensity. E.g external load or RPE.
Stastny, P., Gołaś, A., Blazek, D., Maszczyk, A., Wilk, M., Pietraszewski, P., Petr, M., Uhlir, P. and Zając, A., 2017. A systematic review of surface electromyography analyses of the bench press movement task. PloS one, 12(2).
Finally, the program laid out at the outset is for the advanced trainer. If you’re new to training you’ll probably get by just nicely by doing between 5 to 9 sets per week for chest. Use the information in this article and you’ll be able to put together an effective training program. If however you’ve been training for a few years and fancy giving it a go, then I’d simply suggest warming up appropriately and perhaps including some sort of deloading component every 4 to 6 weeks. I followed that particular plan when I was training for strongman and Pro bodybuilding events. Finally, if you think we can help you and your interested in contacting us, then be sure to hit that sign up page and we’ll be in touch (https://proprepcoaching.com/sign-up/)