A big and strong chest.
If you asked most men what they where looking for it would be exactly that, a bigger chest and bigger arms. That’s why the bench press is always so busy. Chest day is the one day guys never miss, yet often struggle to build a chest that they are proud of.
By the end of this article you’ll know how to restructure your chest workouts to maximise strength, muscle growth and build a chest that you really want.
How to build a bigger chest
The first step to developing the chest you really want is to realise that most guys are training there chests wrong. Heck even I was for a while there.
The biggest problems with most chest workouts is:
1. Focusing on high rep training.
Too many gym goers are chasing a “pump” to the detriment of real gains.
2. Focusing on the wrong exercises.
This usually goes hand in hand with the guys doing higher rep training. Machines like the pec dec and other isolation exercises are secondary in importance to heavy compound, pressing movements.
If you’re like me and fell into the trap of focusing too much attention on high reps, drop sets, and super sets with isolation machines when you first started. Trust me, you’re not alone.
But the magazines and fitness models say this is the best way to go about it! What gives?
The common thinking behind higher rep training is that that it is safer on your joints, so you can do more volume and grow bigger without risking an injury.
The problem is that the people that high volume training works best for are usually on steroids. They can do rep after rep and continue to grow without risking an injury on their tendons and ligaments which wouldn’t be able to handle heavier loads at that same amount of volume.
Don’t be discouraged though.
You can achieve a a great chest without drugs and spending hours a day in the gym doing cable flyes.
Chest Training Principles
If you want to naturally build a strong, muscular chest you need to lift heavy and focus on building up strength in key lifts. It’s that simple.
Heavy Progressive Overload
Your chest will respond best to heavy compound lifts and progressive overload. I like to aim for the 4-6 rep range.
The bench press and incline bench press are going to become your new best friends.
A good rule of thumb is to aim for the majority of your compound sets to be in the 80+ percent of your 1 rep max.
See how to calculate your 1 rep max here
So if your max bench is 240 lbs you will want to aim for sets of 4-6 reps of 192 lbs and above.
The goal is to always continue to progress with your workouts. Which means adding more weight to the bar.
Biggest mistake I made when first starting out was not having a strategic plan for when to increase weights. I would just come into the gym and do my sets and then periodically I would through some more weight on the bar. I ended up making slow progress and very little gains.
This changed when I started focusing on lifting heavier and progressing my lifts each session.
Without continually growing stronger you won’t put on the size you are looking for. It’s that simple.
So for the example above where you are benching 192 lbs. Let’s say you get 4 reps at 192lbs to start. You would want to build that up until you can hit 6 reps. Once you get 6 reps, your next set you will add more weight and aim for 4 reps again.
To do this each session you should be focusing on getting an extra rep than you did last session.
Keep it simple guys. If you don’t continue to get stronger, you won’t continue to get bigger. The number one rule to achieving hypertrophy and adding muscle naturally is progressive overload.
Build Your Big Basic Lifts
I know I said this before, but the biggest mistake most people make is not focusing on basic, heavy, compound lifts.
Too many chest programs try and overcomplicate things by adding in lots of isolation movements.
Keep it simple.
Stick to the basic, compound movements, and lift heavy.
After all most of the isolation exercises don’t tend to work well if you’re lifting heavy. For example heavy dumbbell flyes massively increase the risk of rotator cuff injuries.
Forget about machines and pec decs. They can be useful at the very end of your workout, but the majority of your muscle and strength building is going to come from making consistent gains on the tried and true compound movements.
An important part of training your chest is getting the right volume, or total amount of reps you perform each week. This carries over and is important for all muscle groups.
Getting the right amount of volume is even more important when you’re program revolves around heavy weightlifting.
The general rule of thumb is:
The heavier the reps, the less you can do each week.
Makes sense right.
Heavier weights require more recovery. This means that you will be doing less reps and sets than you would be with a lighter weight program.
Mike Matthews says:
When your training emphasises heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
This applies to all muscle groups and not just the chest.
Train Your Whole Chest.
A lot of common chest workouts often focus heavily on the middle section of the chest.
To build a fully developed chest you need to build every section of the pectorals (particularly the upper chest.)
Developing a big upper chest will make your chest look fuller and bigger than it actually is. It also looks awesome in V neck t-shirts.
The upper chest is often the difference between having an aesthetic physic and not.
In some cases if your lower chest is too big and you haven’t spent enough energy working on your upper chest it can give the appearance of man boobs.
Training Your Upper Chest
There has been a lot of debate around the upper chest.
The common question is do you need to do chest exercises specifically to target the upper chest? Or do all chest exercises stimulate the muscle fibers of the chest equally?
In fact there is a muscle that forms the “upper chest” that is called the clavicular pectoralis.
Studies have shown that performing performing an incline bench press puts more emphasis on the clavicular head as opposed to ordinary flat bench pressing.
This doesn’t mean that flat benching doesn’t work the upper chest. Nor does it mean that incline pressing only targets the upper chest.
Both exercises have cross over effects on the upper and lower chest. The problem is the clavicular pectoralis is a stubborn muscle that takes much longer to grow. If you want to make sure your upper chest doesn’t fall behind your lower, you are going to want to do a lot of incline pressing.
It also turns out that incline pressing is a great exercise to hit your pec major (your main chest muscle) as well. It’s a win, win.
Best Chest Exercises
Now to the part that you’ve been waiting for. The best exercises to grow your chest bigger and stronger than ever before are:
- Incline Barbell Bench Press
- Flat Barbell Bench Press
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
- Flat Dumbbell Bench Press
- Weighted Dips (Chest Variation)
Forget the cable flyes, pecs decs and other machines.
These exercises are all you need to build a truely impressive chest. When it comes to naturally building strength and muscle you can’t beat heavy compound movements like these.
Leave the isolation movements to advanced bodybuilders that are trying to push the last little bits of size out of his muscles.
Incline Bench Press
The Incline Bench Press is one of the best variations of a flat bench. As we talked about earlier the incline bench press builds your upper chest more than flat benching does.
I like to train this before flat bench to make sure to work my upper chest the most I can.
1. Lie with eyes under the bar
2. Raise your chest up and tuck your shoulder blades back and under.
You want to keep your shoulder blades retracted like this throughout the entire movement. This helps to protect your shoulders from injury and makes sure you are putting the majority of the strain on your chest and not your shoulders and rotator cuff.
3. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width.
You want to hold the bar with your hands in a position that results in your arms being vertical throughout the movement like this.
4. Plant your feet on the ground and brace your core.
Your back should have a slight natural arch in it from retracting your shoulder blades. You don’t want it so arched that you butt is off the bench.
Keep your feet planted for a solid foundation, brace your core and glutes and you are ready to begin the movement.
Performing the movement.
When lowering the bar it is important that you keep in mind the angle that your arms are at in relation to your torso.
The mistake a lot of people make is by holding their elbows at 90 degrees to their body.
This might allow you to lift a little bit more in the short term but opens you up to all sorts of shoulder injuries.
The other less common mistake is tucking your arms in too close to your sides.
You should aim to lower the weight with your arms at a 50 to 60 degree angle to your body.
The image on the far right shows the proper angle your arms should be when performing the incline and flat barbell bench press.
For the incline bench press the bar should touch your chest just below your collarbones.
Raising the weight
Once you have touched the weight to your chest, you can begin the pressing movement to raise the bar.
It is important to keep your shoulder blades tight and retracted throughout the whole movement and your arms at the same angle.
Press the bar back up over your shoulders until your arms are pretty much straight to finish the rep.
Flat Barbell Bench Press
The Flat barbell bench press is a staple in the majority of workout programs.
The bench press is one of the best upper body mass building exercises you can do.
The setup for the lift and movement during the rep is basically the same as the incline bench press. However there is one exception with the flat bench press.
The bar should come down to the middle of your chest. Not your collar bones and definitely not your neck.
When performing the last rep of your lift make sure that you press the weight directly up as you would any other rep. Don’t try and press the bar back up into the hooks on the weight rack or you can risk the bar crashing back down on your face and neck if you fail to complete the rep.
This video explains how to correctly perform the bench press.
Dumbbell Bench Press
While it will never replace, heavy barbell bench pressing the dumbbell bench press is a good additional exercise to add to your routines.
The major benefit of the dumbbell bench press is the increased range of motion you can achieve in the movement. The dumbbell bench press will also help to mitigate any imbalances you have between your right and left side that can creep in from barbell training.
Dip – Chest Variation
The chest variation of the dip is an awesome bodyweight exercise for the upper body and chest.
The dip will train your chest, shoulders and triceps. Once your bodyweight becomes too easy you can add a weighted dip belt to increase difficulty.
See the video below for detailed instructions on performing a chest dip.
Best Mass Building Chest Workout
Barbell Incline Bench Press
3 Sets of 4-6 reps
Barbell Flat Bench Press
3 Sets of 4-6 reps
Dumbbell Incline Bench Press
3 Sets of 4-6 reps
Dumbbell Flat Bench Press
3 Sets of 4-6 reps
Dips (Chest Variation)
3 Sets of 8-10 reps (add weight if required)
Give yourself a full 3 minutes rest between each set. If this sounds long to you, that’s okay. If you’re going to be lifting heavy you need to give your body time to recoup strength before going again.
Once you can complete 6 reps on an exercise it is time to add more weight.
Remember the golden rule of muscle building.
You have to continue to add weight to the bar if you want your chest to grow.
That’s it for the best chest exercises.
The key, however, isn’t just doing the exercises–it’s progressing on them. That is, increasing the amount of weight you can move over time.
If you don’t get stronger, you won’t get bigger.
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