Pro Tips for a Bigger Chest

February 2, 2012

By Mike Carlson The biggest problem with training chest is that even people who are new to the gym automatically assume they know how to do it: Get under a bar, bring it to your chest, push it back up off your chest and viola! Wrong. The fact is, the muscles in your chest are like the plot of a Cold War espionage novel: There are subplots, double agents, betrayals, conflicting agendas and innocent bystanders. It’s anything but the straightforward linear experience it appears to be. The five experts on this month’s panel weigh in on what works and what’s a waste of time when it comes to building a strong and perfectly shaped chest. Much like a well-constructed chest-training program, their answers encapsulate everything from direct bombardment to a subtle seduction of the pectoralis muscles.

Johnnie Jackson, IFBB Pro

Age: 40 Height: 5’8” Weight: 238 pounds (contest); 258 pounds (offseason) Hometown: Fort Worth, TX Best Placing: 2007 IFBB Atlantic City Pro Bodybuilding, 1st; 2011 IFBB Australian Pro Grand Prix XI, 2nd

Most effective chest move: Bench Press

What’s so good about the bench press? The bench press rules when it comes to building a thick chest. Because of my strength and the weight I’m able to move, I gained a lot of thickness through benching. What’s your best-ever bench press? I’ve done 545 pounds raw, 600 in gear. What’s an overrated chest exercise? Over the years I’ve found the decline bench press to be unnecessary. I really don’t think it hits the lower part of the pecs like everyone thinks it does. It doesn’t isolate the bottom half of the pec the way incline hits the top half. How often do you train your chest? I train chest once a week, same as all my bodyparts. What kind of sets and reps do you use? Depending on the day, [workout partner] Branch [Warren] and I will do 3–4 sets of 5–6 exercises. We’ll do anywhere from 15– 20 reps. We train with a lot of weight and a lot of volume. Our bodies don’t have a choice but to change and grow. The low reps/heavy weights are good for maximizing power, but if you’re trying to get that density as well as some conditioning, you need that 15–20-rep range. Any special techniques or tricks for training chest? I throw stuff in here and there. A lot of it comes in during contest prep. Leading up to a competition we’ll do a lot of drop sets. It helps my conditioning, burns more calories and creates more separation. Is there a non-chest move you use to improve your development? Yes, triceps. When I was young my brother taught me if you wanted a better bench you needed to work on your triceps. I did that and my bench went through the roof. I benched 305 when I was 16. Are bum shoulders just a fact of the weight-training lifestyle? My shoulders are good, more or less. We stretch and do a lot of shoulder warm-ups on chest day. We do the usual prehab stuff for the rotator cuff like the move where you slowly swivel your bent arm up and down. We’ll do some arm swings and make sure we are loosened up. What’s a common mistake you see when guys bench? They put their feet out in front of them and don’t use their lower body to stabilize themselves. You need to line your heels up with your hips and then lean back and drive your heels into the ground. It’ll make you arch your lower back a little bit, but that’s OK. You get up on your feet and stabilize yourself a lot better, so you can concentrate on doing the lift and not worry about swaying from side to side.

Josh Bryant

Background: When Bryant was 22 years old he became the youngest person to ever bench press 600 pounds. In 2005 he won the Atlantis Strongest Man in America competition. He’s now a trainer at the world famous Metroflex gym in Arlington, TX, where he coaches powerlifting champions Al Davis and Orlando Green, who are becoming known as powerbuilders — strength athletes who look more like bodybuilders than the stereotypical wheezing slabs of muscle and fat you might see at a powerlifting meet. Age: 30 Height: 6’0” Weight: 268 pounds Hometown: Fort Worth, TX Contact:

Most effective chest move: Heavy Weighted Dips

What’s so good about heavy weighted dips? You have to use your core to stabilize the load, so it’s almost like a squat for your upper body. The squat is the king for overall growth and hormonal release, and I put dips into that category for the upper body. When you do a weighted dip, go to parallel. Don’t make it a partial movement and don’t make it too deep to put any undue stress on your shoulders. To hammer the chest, get a little bit more of a forward lean. What’s an overrated chest exercise? I think the pec deck. The hormonal response your body gets from heavy training with free weights is unprecedented over any single-joint cable or machine move. I’m not saying machines are bad, but to me, they’re the condiments while the bench press and dips are your steak. What’s your best ever bench press? It was 620 pounds. How often do you advise your clients to train chest? For bodybuilding-type goals I recommend once a week. For a more strength-oriented program I’d say two days a week. What sets and reps do you use? I like between 20–25 sets total, attacking the chest from different angles. For instance, myofibril hypertrophy is going to come from more of your strength stuff, 6–10 heavy reps. But your sacroplasmic hypertrophy is going to be your higher rep range. For bodybuilding, you have to attack it from all angles; heavy weight, high reps and continuous tension. Any special techniques or tricks for training chest? “If an athlete I’m training needs a break from going heavy, I’ll have them do tempo training. The goal is to be under tension for at least 45 seconds, but hopefully closer to 60 seconds, for each set of dumbbell bench presses. We’ll do a five-count down, a one-count at the bottom and then a three-count up for six reps. Then, they’ll immediately do six reps as explosively as they can. It’s like training beyond failure.” Is there a non-chest move you use to improve chest development? I like a lot of triceps work, heavy front raises, and a lot of heavy upper-back work. They indirectly develop your chest because if you bring up your weaker areas you’ll get a stronger bench press, lift more weight and get bigger pecs. Are bum shoulders just a fact of the weight-training lifestyle? There’s a lot you can do for your shoulders. First of all, you need to make sure you have a balance with the backside of your body, so you need to do a lot of heavy back work. A lot of it has to do with the way your body is built, too. If you have a long humerus bone you’re going to be way beyond 90 degrees at the bottom of a bench press, and that puts a lot of pressure on your shoulder joint.

Monica Mark-Escalante, IFBB Figure Pro

Background: A successful IFBB figure pro, Monica Mark-Escalante is also the co-owner of a private training gym called Sports Pros in Claremont, CA. She trains several physique competitors as well as athletes of all types. Age: 28 Height: 5’1” Weight: 105 pounds (competition) Hometown: Claremont, CA Contact: Best Placings: 2009 Team Universe Figure Nationals, overall winner; 2010 Figure International Arnold Classic, 11th; 2010 Europa Super Show Dallas, 4th; 2011 California Pro, 5th

Most effective chest move: Incline Dumbbell Press

What’s so good about this incline presses? I’d say the dumbbell incline press. Most guys lack upper-chest development, which is why I like this move. When my clients do it I always make sure they have their head pressed firmly into the upholstery of the bench, because it’s going to help their strength during the pressing motion. What’s an overrated chest exercise? The Smith-machine bench press, because it stabilizes the weight for you. The rotator cuffs don’t have to work and it ultimately creates imbalances that may lead to injuries. I think people like it because it makes the lift easier since they don’t have to stabilize the weight. How often do you train chest? I have my clients work chest twice a week. One workout in which chest is the main emphasis of the workout, and then another day I have them squeeze in about three chest exercises during another bodypart. For instance, I’d have them work chest all by itself on one day and then add some chest moves on their shoulder day. What sets and reps do you have your clients perform? I usually keep it in the range of 6–10 reps and no more than 20 sets for the entire workout. I might have them do two warm-up sets, so they’ll perform 18 working sets. We do about six exercises. Any special techniques or tricks for training chest? I use forced reps a lot. I’ll help them get the weight up on the concentric part of the movement and then I’ll have them focus on the eccentric part of the move. We usually do this on the last set of an exercise. Is there a non-chest move that you use to improve chest development? I think that strengthening the rotator cuff is very important, as it has the greatest impact on developing strength and growth in that area. Before we do any pressing movements I have my clients warm up their rotator cuffs with external rotations. I’ll use either rubber bands or the Free Motion machine. It’s like a cable machine but with arms that move. I’ll set it toward the midline of the body and the clients hold their elbow to their side and rotate outward. Then they switch sides and perform internal rotation, bringing it toward the midline of your body. I have clients do three sets of 15 reps for each side. Are bum shoulders just a fact of the weight-training lifestyle? I’ve seen the external rotation exercises help out a lot. Those combined with proper stretching can really help. But if you’ve been beating up your shoulders for years it’ll take some time to build up the rotator cuff and match the strength in your chest.

Andy Haman, IFBB Pro

Age: 46 Height: 6’0” Weight: 264 pounds (contest); 280 pounds (offseason) Hometown: Colorado Springs Best Placing: 2008 Masters NPC Nationals, superheavyweight and overall winner; 2009 Atlantic City World Championships, 9th

Most effective chest move? Partial Cable Crossover

What’s so good about it? A couple of years ago I started doing what I call a “cable crunch,” [MMI refers to this as a partial cable crossover] and it made huge improvements in my pecs. It’s like a cable crossover, but I call it a crunch because it’s almost like an ab crunch where I’m doing just a small move with my pecs. I’ll get into a pulley machine with just a slight bend in the elbows, and I’ll go from touching the handles together to just about halfway back. From midline to full contraction it’s a pretty short move. What’s an overrated chest exercise? Dumbbell flyes are notoriously performed incorrectly. So many bodybuilders use too much weight. A lot of guys try to get to that 100-pound dumbbell because they perceive it as the right thing to do. But there are few pro bodybuilders who do flyes with more than 60–75 pounds. They could use 150s, but they don’t because they’d end up cheating. You just want to feel the muscle contracting. Any special techniques you like to use for training chest? In the last two and a half years I’ve gone to a completely different type of program. I start with 4–5 sets of the cable crunches I mentioned; then I move onto a giant set of flat, incline and decline bench presses. I’ll start with 135 pounds on all three, and I’ll do a set of 20–25 reps on the flat bench and then immediately repeat on the incline bench and then repeat again on the decline. After I rest for 2–3 minutes, I’ll add weight and the do another giant set. I’ll do 4–5 sets that way moving up in weight each time. That’s the whole workout. Why such a high rep range? It’s not about the weight anymore. It’s about peak contraction and concentration. I’ve achieved a level of development where I just need to make sure I get enough blood to that bodypart on a regular basis. I don’t need to annihilate it every time I train. How often do you train your chest? I train chest once a week. On a good day it’s 35–40 minutes and I’m out the door or on the treadmill. Are bum shoulders a fact of the weight-training lifestyle? My shoulders are good. I think a lot of guys try to power through any pain. If you’re feeling something, like a click or twitch or pain, it’s your body telling you to stop what you’re doing and hit it from a different angle. A lot of guys insist on doing bench no matter what, and it can be detrimental to your strength and development. What’s your best-ever bench press? My best was 675 pounds for a single when I was 41 years old.