by the Editors T-Nation
In the first installment in this series, we addressed a variety of ways to turn you into a pull-up machine and build a back that gets attention. The next topic for discussion is the "best pec exercises."
Some guys are seemingly born with the ability to build massive, thick pecs. Everything they do makes their chest pump up – bench presses, flyes, pullovers, even push-ups leave their t-shirts stretched at the seams.
However, other guys ain't so lucky. Low rep, heavy work leaves them with little more than a triceps pump and achy shoulders, while higher-rep work delivers a burn but not much else in the way of size or strength.
Levers, genetics, and work capacity all play a role in how it shakes down, but that doesn't mean you can't maximize the efficacy of your programming. So if your goal is to build a set of man boobs on par with the great Arnold (Arnold of the 1970's and 80's, not the latest frumpy reboot), here are 6 different rationales and recommendations.
My favorite chest exercise is the medium grip bench press – not too close, not too wide. This is because I love powerlifting and seek a bigger bench, and I've found that this grip-width allows me to train my bench three times per week with no issues.
However, if seeking maximum pectoral hypertrophy, exercises that allow for a slight pec stretch during their performance reign superior:
Flat and incline dumbbell presses
Flat and incline dumbbell flies
Weighted push-ups from handles
These exercises are also inherently more risky for the shoulder joint, so caution should be employed.
If you want to obtain a chest pump, bottom-half chest movements work well. For example, try busting out sets of 20 reps of bottom-half push-ups from handles or bottom-half bodyweight dips. Cable crossovers work well for this purpose, too.
Other pec training tips:
Studies show that narrow-width push-ups work the pecs better than wide-width push-ups, and one study showed that close-grip incline presses worked the upper pecs better than wide-grip incline presses, which is consistent with its role as a shoulder flexor. Don't underestimate narrower grip pressing for pec hypertrophy, especially considering that it's better tolerated by most folks.
Lots of old-school guys including Arnold liked dumbbell pullovers for pecs. A recent study showed that it worked the pecs better than the lats. Consider throwing this exercise in from time to time, as it may activate certain fibers that don't get targeted through pressing movements. I much prefer using a dumbbell compared to a barbell for pullovers.
When conducting my EMG experiments, I learned a valuable lesson, which you can check out in this article. Essentially, benching like a bodybuilder with 225 pounds activated the pecs to a greater degree than benching like a powerlifter with 275 pounds. That surprised me!
If you experience shoulder issues with bench pressing movements, don't give up. There's probably a variation that you can perform pain-free, such as close-grip bench presses, floor presses, or neutral grip dumbbell bench presses where you don't go down too far and limit the stretch. When you find your variation, stick with it exclusively and avoid the temptation of going back to more risky exercises.
Here's a sample chest routine:
Exercise Sets Reps
A Competition Style Bench Press (with pause) 5 5,3,1,1,1
B Incline Ddumbbell Press 2 8
C Cable Crossover 2 12
D Bottom-Half Push-Up from Handles 3 20
Choosing my favorite chest exercise is tough – there's a few that bug my shoulders so I discard those, but that aside, I like a bunch of em'.
I'm not married to any one exercise and I like to switch it up from time to time (every 4-6 weeks or so) to keep from stalling and getting bored.
I think the bench press is the best overall upper body strength builder, but in terms of the best chest builder, it's not one of my personal favorites – I've never really felt it in my chest all that much and it starts to piss off my shoulders when I do it too much.
As far as chest development goes, my top five personal faves would be:
Low incline dumbbell press
Incline bench press
Dumbbell floor press
One-arm dumbbell press
However, if you forced me to narrow it down to one, it'd probably be ring flyes – at least today.
Why ring flyes? If you've done them before then you know exactly why. If you haven't, try them and I think you'll see where I'm coming from. I've never had an exercise fry my chest so badly.
They're very advanced though, and they may not jive with those with certain shoulder issues. BUT, if you can't do them for whatever reason, ring push-ups are just about as good and are much more user-friendly, so that'd be my next recommendation.
In the video below, I show both ring flyes and ring push-ups with bent-arm flyes in between – which is a great exercise in its own right and is also a great progression to work towards full flyes.
If you're able to crank out full flyes, this makes for a hell of a mechanical drop-set that's guaranteed to have your chest hating you the next day (and probably the day after too).
Ask me my favorite chest exercise next month though and you very well might get a different answer. And that's okay. I think for optimal chest development, it's best to use a variety of different exercises.
Still, I don't like using a bunch of different exercises in the same workout. I've done that in the past, but I tend to get better results sticking to one chest exercise per workout and hammering the hell out of it (4-6 sets) and then switching to a different exercise the next workout.
I'll press 2-3 times a week, so that's 2-3 different exercises per week. So I'm still getting plenty of variety, I just break it up so that I can give each exercise a full effort when I'm fresh, and it allows me to hit the chest with greater frequency because I usually don't get too sore.
While it's borderline blasphemous for me to admit it, and at the expense of inciting people to reach for their pitchforks, I really (and I mean really) dislike benching.
Due to lousy leverages (namely, long arms) I've never been good at bench pressing, and I've had to fight tooth and nail throughout my training career to get to (and maintain) a "respectable" number. And by "respectable," what I really mean is that 300-pound barrier that many guys set as their benchmark (pun intended).
My best bench press is 315 pounds, and I in no way consider that an Earth shattering number – nor all that impressive. But it ain't too shabby either, especially taking into consideration that it's raw, that my leverages make it so that I'm better suited to deadlift, and that I don't really ever place a priority on my bench numbers.
But, you know, chicks dig the bench press, and I'd be remiss not to go into some detail on how I like to attack it when I – along with my athletes and clients – want to attempt to bench a Mack truck.
As noted above, while some guys can just look at a barbell and get stronger, I really have to work at it to see marked improvement.
That notwithstanding, one protocol I've been using as of late with great success is something I snaked from strength coach Jamie Smith, from Total Performance Sports in Everett, Mass.
For one, I think if someone's goal is to get stronger (and by extension, bigger) you have to work in the low(er) rep ranges, albeit still include some "money" sets where you try to get as many reps as possible. This latter point not only makes you hate life, but it's fun as hell to boot.
For simplicity sake, let's just state that 5 reps is the "holy grail" where you get a nice blend of both strength and hypertrophy training.
Using Prilepin's Chart (which is a chart that depicts the optimum number and range of reps given a certain percentage to increase strength), we can see that when working in the five-rep range, one should be using 75-80% of their 1RM.
A. Bench Press 3 x 5
Set 1: 5 reps at 70% 1RM
Set 2: 5 reps at 75% 1RM
Set 3: 5+ reps at 77.5% 1RM (for as many reps as possible)
Now that's nothing new, but here's where Coach Smith's system separates itself.
In that last "money" set (where you go balls to the wall and perform as many reps as you possibly can), add 2.5% to your cluster set for every rep you complete above five (see below).
So let's say your current 1RM is 300 pounds and you calculate your numbers as follows:
Set 1: 5 reps at 210 pounds
Set 2: 5 reps at 225 pounds
Set 3: 5+ reps at 232.5 pounds (rounded up to 235, because only Momma's boys round down)
With that last money set you were able to eke out 8 reps (an additional 3 reps above the goal of 5). That means we're going to add 2.5 % to our cluster set.
B. Bench Press Cluster @77.5% 1x1 (x5)
Figuring out the percentages, since you performed 3 additional reps (2.5% each rep), you'll add 7.5% to 77.5% for a final load of 85% of your 1RM.
So now you're going to perform one cluster set of five singles at 255 pounds (85% of 1RM) with 20-30 seconds rest in between each rep.
Of course, this percentage can either increase (upwards of 90+ % of 1RM, which is ideal for strength gains) or stay around the same depending on how many reps you get on that last set above.
The beauty is that it's a system that allows guys to ramp up their reps (money sets), but also not shy away from low(er) rep training which helps improve strength levels like nothing else.
The best exercise for chest mass is undoubtedly the bench press.
To build size you need to choose exercise(s) that let you use considerable weight combined with significant isolation on the working muscle. The bench press is exceptional on the weight side of things, and pretty good on the isolation side as well.
Now to build strength you need exercises that allow you to use a lot of weight combined with a high level of skill. Most people can use the most weight on the bench press compared to other full ROM pressing exercises, and the bench press (being a free weight in three-dimensional space) requires a good amount of skill to perform well.
There are a million good chest routines for both size and strength. For size I like the classic bodybuilding style routines – train your chest 1-2 times a week for 12-20 sets total per week.
Hitting chest hard on one day (say Monday, haha) with 3-4 exercises and then "cheating" and hitting shoulders and triceps with a chest element again (i.e., close-grip bench and dips) on Thursday or Friday works great.
Instead of outlining a routine, here are some good tips to use in the gym:
If you're weak out of the bottom, pause each rep for a second on your chest.
To stay tight and keep the focus on the pecs, touch your T-shirt, not your chest. (Jennifer Thompson shared that little gem with me.)
To train for size use constant tension. Touch your chest as suggested above, then press up three-quarters of the way, then come back down. Ideally have a partner put their hands out so you know where three-quarters is and it's consistent. Easier to do, of course, but good for size.
For strength, a good tip no one talks about is to roll the wrist forward (flex it) slightly just before/during your sticking point. The wrist will usually extend a bit on the way down so reverse that position as you press.
This keeps the bar moving and allows you to work through your sticking point. It also goes well with flaring the elbows out at the right time, but don't do this if you use a suicide grip. To reiterate, this is a very slight movement – your knuckles might move 1 centimeter forward, but it's worth trying.
The negatives of the bench are that it can be harder on the shoulders so make sure your form is good, and if your shoulders are already jacked ,then you'll need to find a substitute. Neutral (semi-supinated, or palms facing each other) grip dumbbell presses, board/floor presses, push-ups and even machines can all have their place in your routine and tend to be more joint friendly.
Trying to convince the average gym-goer not to put too much focus on chest development is like trying to convince your buddy not to go into the Champagne Room with his life savings during his bachelor party – you may be right, but you're not going to get very far. So, if you're going to blast those pecs, you may as well be as smart as possible about it.
When it comes to building both strength and size in your chest, it's hard not to begin by discussing the bench press and its variations (dumbbell bench press, incline bench press, etc.).
I usually recommend performing these movements with a neutral grip whenever possible by using tools such as a log bar. The hand position allows for a greater range of motion than the more typical pronated grip while providing less stress on the shoulder joint.
When moving to straight barbell benching, I always cue the "tucked elbow" (elbows close to the rib cage) rather than the "flared elbow" position that most people want to use. If you're new to keeping your elbows tucked, you may have to sacrifice some load at first but your shoulders will thank me later. Not to mention, you'll end up with diesel triceps, so there's that.
A few additional barbell benching tips: start with your eyes directly under the bar so you don't clip the bar catches as you're pressing. And be sure keep your feet on the floor and your ass, upper back, and head on the bench throughout the entire set. Not doing so makes you look like a 16-year-old kid on his first day at the YMCA.
I do like to program chest flyes in hypertrophy phases as they isolate the pecs quite well, allow for a variety of angles, and can supply a large amount of volume without a ton of joint stress. I almost exclusively use cables for my flye variations such as high-to-low, low-to-high, parallel, and lying flat on a bench.
Finally, I'd be negligent if I didn't recommend attending to your posterior deltoid and rotator cuff strength and health to offset some of the effects of overdoing it on pressing movements. Make sure exercises such as face pulls, Powell raises, reverse flyes, and cable external shoulder rotations are part of your program.
And now that you've got a Superman chest and bullet-proof shoulders, you're ready to take on those bouncers in the Champagne Room and rescue your buddy. Remember, friends don't let friends fall in love in strip clubs.
It's no secret that 90% of males have an undying obsession with the bench press. Maybe it's because the bench press was the first exercise we all performed in the gym, or perhaps it's because "How much ya bench?" is the second most commonly heard question among teen weightlifters (after "Yo, can I get a spot?").
Benching is a vital lift for powerlifting – hello, it's one of the big 3 – but for building a symmetrical chest most lifters can do better.
For one, the flared approach most bodybuilders bench with can be murder on the shoulders. Most of us who work out plan on doing it for the next 50 years or so, and bench presses – especially the flared elbow variety – don't rate very high on the "exercises I think I'll be dominating at age 90" list.
Second is most guys, even bodybuilders, bench too heavy. Maybe it's the stigma related to a powerful bench press and the whole "Bench Press Mondays" thing, but even the most "no sets below 12 reps" bodybuilder will find themselves dipping into the low-rep ranges on the bench press. And that's where injuries happen.
Finally, bodybuilding is all about symmetry, and in the vast majority of guys with imbalanced pecs, it's the upper pecs that require extra attention. And this is where the flat bench press must take a back seat to better options.
Variations of the incline press are ideal for bodybuilders lacking an upper chest. They not only target the portion of the pecs closer to the clavicles, contributing to the coveted "Look ma, I can balance a beer on my boobs" look, but according to John Meadows, they also serve to help "fill out" the anterior delts, leading to a broader, more superhero-like appearance up top.
The question is, what degree of incline is best, a steep incline or more moderate one? While the answer for bodybuilding purposes is probably "the angle you've never done before" we do know that the difficulty increases as the incline angle increases, which we can exploit through mechanical advantage drop sets. In other words, decreasing the incline as the pecs fatigue.
So here's a Frankenstein mash up of two classics: Vince Gironda's 8 x 8 "honest workout" system method and the mechanical advantage dumbbell press routine popularized by Charles Poliquin in The Poliquin Principles. If this doesn't give you an upper pec pump then you need to contact Heidi Montag's plastic surgeon for a new set of wonder twins.
You're going to do 8 sets of 8 reps of incline dumbbell presses using three different incline angles. How many sets of each angle you do depends on the point where your performance drops below 8 reps per set.
Set the incline bench at 60-65 degrees and do a set of incline dumbbell presses for 8 reps, using approximately 70% of your 1RM. In other words, you'll be leaving some reps in the hole, which will feel easy – at first.
Now rest just 30 seconds – that's crucial – and do a second set of 8 reps. Don't be surprised if that light weight suddenly got a significantly harder. Rest 30 seconds and do another set of 8 reps.
Continue this process until you fail at or below 8 reps, whereupon you'll decrease the incline to 50-55 degrees and repeat using the same weight. Your performance the next set should improve a bit (depending on your conditioning), thus allowing you to get at least 8 reps.
Rest 30 seconds and repeat until your reps drop below 8 again, whereupon you'll drop the incline another notch, to 40-45 degrees. Stay at this angle until you've completed all 8 sets.
If this is too easy – you bang out all 8 sets at the first incline level – then either the weight is too light (go heavier next time), you didn't adhere to the rest intervals, or your rep speed is too fast (a 2020 tempo is ideal).
This system involves considerable volume and delivers a great pump, which, if you've been paying attention, builds muscle like nobody's business. It also hits multiple angles and taps into a variety of motor units while avoiding the pattern overload problems that come with high volume pressing routines.
One last thing: as Dan Trink says, don't flare your elbows – tuck them close to your ribcage, which will spare your shoulders and ignite your triceps.
Pump It Up!
Okay Sport, you should be well equipped to start building a set of heroic pecs that will make your fellow gym rats green with envy.
Just remember, there's no set "best system" so just pick a program and run with it for a predetermined amount of time – say 4-6 weeks – and don't change anything. After you're done, evaluate your strength/development and try the next routine on the list.
Life is too short to not fill out the pec portion of your prized wife beater shirt – change your routine and get on the fast track to exceptional pec development.