Let's face it, building a nice set of pecs is just about every gym-goers first priority. There's a reason so many people envy the strongest bench presser in the gym, but what if it could be you who was the strongest? What’s holding you back?
Unfortunately, many people have no clue how to properly train the pecs, and this often results in poor chest development and increased risk of injury (trust me, you don't want to tear a pec if you plan on leading a bodybuilding/fitness lifestyle).
Thankfully, this article will cover five simple, effective tips that detail how to build a better chest. Read on below to start optimizing your chest training!
TIP 1: Mix up the angles on pressing movements
Many gym-goers lack solid chest development because they only do flat pressing movements; try incorporating more decline and incline presses in your routine to maximize the stimulation of the pecs. In fact, electromyogram (EMG) analysis suggests that the decline bench press actually stimulates more of the pecs than a regular flat bench press does.[i]
Moreover, decline presses are much harder to “cheat” on because your feet are elevated off the ground, forcing you to keep your butt on the bench and drive the bar with your upper body only. Incline presses, on the other hand, stimulate more of the anterior deltoids and upper chest.
TIP 2: Keep your elbows tucked on pressing movements
A major risk factor when doing any chest pressing movements (with free weights) is the chance of a pectoral tear (which can pretty much end your lifting career if it’s severe enough). To minimize the risk of tearing a pec or pec tendon, make sure you keep your elbows tucked in close to your sides when pressing; this allows you to perform the movement with maximum power and safeness since you're incorporating more of your triceps.
Most beginners flare their elbows way out to the side when they first start training, and this places a lot of unneeded stress on the chest and rotator cuffs (and when the weight gets heavy enough, it almost always results in an injury). I’ve seen guys who could max out with 405lbs on the bench that tore their pec during a warm-up set of 185lbs, all because they had their elbows flared out to the side.
TIP 3: Make Sure to Warm Up the Rotator Cuff Muscles
A second major risk factor when doing any chest pressing movements or shoulder pressing movements is injuring the rotator cuff muscles (which lie inferior to the deltoids). A torn rotator cuff can sideline you for months, so be sure to warm up properly by doing external and internal shoulder rotations with light weights (as pictured below). Performing even two to three sets of shoulder rotations (10-15 reps each) can significantly enhance your rotator cuff integrity and allow you to execute pressing movements safely.
TIP 4: Train your chest more than once a week (preferably 2-3 times)
Many trainees go into the gym on Monday ("International Chest Day") and annihilate their chest...but then they don't train it at all again until the following Monday. This is a major no-no; training any muscle group once a week is greatly inhibiting growth potential in the long run. Studies continually show that the muscle protein synthesis (MPS) response to an intense weight training session is pretty much back to baseline 72 hours after that session.[ii]
Basically, you're missing out on a lot of growing opportunities if you only train your pecs (or any muscle) once a week. Instead, it's better to split the volume over several training sessions in a given week. So instead of doing say 16 sets of chest on Monday, do 8 sets on Monday and 8 sets on Thursday. Within those two days, you can push the weights even more since you’re not doing so many sets.
TIP 5: Row, row, row your back...
The lats (and entire upper back) provide your foundational support throughout pressing movements. Having a strong, wide back makes benching much more efficient and increases stability.
It's all too common to see people only train their back with vertical pulling movements (like lat pulldowns), which is why their back lacks thickness and width. Always start your back training with a heavy/intense free-weight rowing movement (such as barbell rows or dumbbell rows); these are the meat and potatoes of building a dense, massive back.
Go hard and heavy on these movements, keeping explosiveness and power in mind to overload the muscles in the back. Keep the pulldowns in line for later in the workouts when your back (and biceps) are slightly fatigued.
Hopefully these tips have given you some better insight on how to build a bigger, stronger chest (in a safe manner). Incorporate these five tips into your training and you are bound to get those pesky pecs to start growing! And of course, don't forget to nourish yourself properly to fuel the muscle building process.
[i] Glass, S. C., & Armstrong, T. (1997). Electromyographical Activity of the Pectoralis Muscle During Incline and Decline Bench Presses. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 11(3), 163-167.
[ii] McGlory, C., Devries, M. C., & Phillips, S. M. (2017). Skeletal muscle and resistance exercise training; the role of protein synthesis in recovery and remodeling. Journal of Applied Physiology, 122(3), 541-548.