The chest is an area that many people strive to increase in size due to the visible and innate power associated with sizeable pectoral muscles. Here are 5 exercises and 5 tips that provide you with all the basics for growing your chest.
THE 5 EXERCISES
1. DUMBBELL CHEST PRESS
The barbell chest press is a very good of course but if I had to pick between the two it would be to use dumbbells. It allows you to get a greater stretch on the pectorals as you lower the weight and means you can’t rely on any stronger arm that you may have to help the weaker side lift the weight. Work two variations of the dumbbell chest press: one with flared elbows out to the sides and one with the elbows tucked by your side – you’ll feel the shift in muscular emphasis between the two but perfecting both will give you a brilliant all-round chest building base.
2. INCLINE DUMBELL FLYES
Both the incline and flat bench flyes give a great stretch on the upper and lateral part of the pectorals, but I choose the incline version for my preference based on a greater ability to squeeze the chest muscles together. Any exercise performed ‘incline’ compared to ‘flat’ will also focus the exercise higher up the muscle – thus, this focusses more on the upper pectorals – but having that 45 degree angle also helps perform the exercise more efficiently than performing the same exercises on a flat bench. This is because lying flat makes the pull of gravity more noticeable as it drags your pectorals towards the ground. Having the slight incline gives some power back to your muscles, and keeps the blood more evenly dispersed, allowing for a greater squeeze at the top of the action.
3. PRESS UPS
Your friend who is with you 24/7 – bring out the press up at any occasion for a quick chest blast. But it even has its place in a full workout with every piece of equipment around you. As long as you focus the tension on the chest, you can use it as a superset after a weights-based exercise. The lack of an added weight will allow you to continue to work the chest muscles beyond the number of repetitions you could perform with the former, weighted-exercise. This helps continue to deplete the muscle glycogen stores, allowing for greater rebuilding when you finally come to rest. There are also many variations to play with.
4. STANDING CABLE FLYES
This exercise uses gravity as your friend allowing for a great ‘pumping’ feeling. The slight bend forward from the hips and the squeeze that bringing your arms together provides on your pectorals, helps rush blood to the muscles and then trap it as it’s compressed. A great one to do at the end of the workout with as much intensity as you can muster but with a solid structure with only your arms and chest moving from the hinge at the shoulder joint.
5. PEC DECK FLYES
Machines definitely aren’t bad things. However, unless you are a beginner or are recovering from an injury, I would recommend machines, such as the pec deck, as ancillary exercises to your main dumbbell or barbell lifts. They can often work the muscles just as hard as dumbbells or barbells, but they also lock your form in place, which is great for preventing injury; however, with this comes the use of fewer muscle fibres. It’s another great exercise to add to the end of a session to flush the muscles and it’s also very good for experienced bodybuilders who are looking to sculpt specific definition in minor muscles as they near competition.
THE 5 TIPS
1. 10-12 REPS, 3-4 SETS, 1 MIN REST – MAKE IT HARD
Many bodybuilders and scientists have done the hard studies so you don’t have to. It has been shown that performing an exercise for 10-12 repetitions for 3-4 sets with 1-2 minutes rest in between each set increases muscle size most efficiently. However, many gym goers have a ‘cap’ at 12 reps in their head, no matter how hard it feels at that point. My tip is: don’t go into an exercise thinking you are going to perform 12 reps – this is too specific and will mean you probably won’t be pushing your body to the limits it needs to grow. Instead, go into an exercise thinking you are going to lift for as many reps as possible. It is then with experience that you find out what weight you will currently ‘fail’ at 10-12 reps. If you end up being able to do more than 12 reps, carry on until you find your failure point. Then, next set, increase the weight and once again lift as many as possible. Keep going with this until you find out what weight is hard enough for you to fail at 10-12 reps. You need to push your body to a point it cannot perform anymore for growth. Keep halting at a threshold you could carry on through and you won’t get the growth.
2. SQUEEZE YOUR CHEST AFTER THE LAST SET
Sometimes when you’re an experienced lifter you need an extra push to stimulate growth. After you’ve finished your final rep of your final set, put the weights down and then tense and squeeze your chest muscles. This will provide an extra isometric stress on the muscles that they can cope with (for a while) due to the lack of added weights and continual contractions that you’ve just been performing. Hold it for 5 to 10 seconds where you are squeezing as hard as you can. This will also flush your muscles with blood and help provide you with the sought-after ‘pump’. You may feel self-conscious in the gym as you tense and pose, but when it’ll help you get a better chest and feel great about yourself, who cares, right?
3. MAKE YOUR CHEST STRETCH
In any of the exercises above, make sure your chest stretches back on the eccentric phase as far as you can. Look to squeeze your shoulder blades together to allow the chest to open even more. You should feel a stretch on the part of the pectoral that joins up to the shoulder. Once this has stretched, you have recruited and stressed more muscle fibres than if you hadn’t have stretched that far. With more fibres being recruited and stretched further, more will repair bigger and stronger.
4. WORK ON YOUR TIME UNDER TENSION
Performing the chest exercises above will not necessarily give you a bigger chest. Yes, contradictory to the point of the article I know. But these are the exercises that will allow you to get a bigger chest if you…work your chest muscles. It sounds silly, but when you are performing these exercises, you have to feel your chest muscles working, all the time. Don’t let them rest. Make sure that from the start of the first rep to your failure point that it is the chest muscles that are getting the stretch and the squeeze – not primarily the arms or the shoulders. Focus on making sure that your chest’s time under tension is constant from picking up the weights to setting them down again. This will recruit the most muscle fibres and make sure that they work in the way that these exercises should allow them to.
5. USE A CONTROLLED ‘PUMPING’ ACTION
Once you have created that tension, you need to perform the exercises at the right tempo. In short: explode up and control down – whilst keeping the muscles always under tension, of course. When you explode up from the bottom of the movement to the top in about 1 second, you recruit your fast twitch muscle fibres. These are the largest muscle fibres and the ones that can grow in size the most. If you control the movement upwards in a slow action for 3-4 seconds instead, you will start to recruit your slow twitch muscles fibres. These are the fibres reserved for endurance which are less powerful and which can grow in size less. Slow twitch muscle fibres are recruited by endurance runners. Fast twitch muscle fibres by sprinters. The former have long and lean muscles. The latter have larger and more explosive, powerful muscles. Train like the sort of athlete you want to be. There is room for slow, controlled heavy training, but if you are solely looking for size, look to explode through the concentric (the hardest) phase of the chest exercise in 1 second and then return the weight back to the start in 1-2 seconds. Do not pause at the bottom and then explode up again. Continue in this way until you reach failure in this continuous ‘pumping’ action.
Chris James MA O.A. Dip
Director – Head of Fitness and Nutrition
Fitness Body Pro