Biceps and chest.
The two workouts that guys never miss…and the two muscle groups that they have the most trouble developing.
There are good reasons for this.
Except in the cases of genetic windfall, the biceps are small, stubborn muscles that take an inordinate amount of time and work to develop.
The pecs are larger and stronger than the biceps but, in most cases, start from basically nothing.
Modern, sedentary living just doesn’t involve the chest muscles to any significant degree and thus most guys and gals new to weightlifting are embarrassingly weak on the bench press.
Don’t despair, though.
No matter how small and weak you may feel your chest is…you can build that superhero, “armor plate” chest that you really want.
And this article is going to show you how.
“Help, my chest is too small!”
That’s one of the most common lamentations I hear from guys all around the world.
Well, this is a misguided goal.
The reason is merely “adding size” to your chest won’t necessarily give you the look you want.
For example, check out the following picture:
He has a good physique but look closer at his chest, and at the upper portion in particular.
Do you notice something?
All his mass is on the lower and outer portions of the pecs, with little-to-none in the upper and inner portions.
This is extremely common, is the direct result of training mistakes, and, fortunately, is correctable.
I’m speaking from experience here. Check out the following picture of me from a few years ago:
Look at the upper portion of my left pec (the right looks bigger than it is because of how I’m holding the phone).
As you can see, I too had a very bottom-heavy chest with little development up top.
I got to work on it shortly after taking that picture, however…doing exactly what I’m going to share in this article…and here’s where I am now:
Again, focus on the upper portion of my pecs. Quite a difference, no?
“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “Isn’t the whole ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ chest thing a myth?”
I’m glad you asked…
The two biggest mistakes most people make in their chest workouts are:
1. Focusing on the wrong chest exercises.
Many people focus too much on machines and isolation exercises, which are of secondary importance in building big, “armor plate” pecs.
2. Focusing on high-rep training.
This mistake will stunt the growth of every major muscle group in the body and is particularly detrimental in a smaller muscle group like the pecs.
If those two points go against a lot of what you’ve heard and/or assumed about chest training, I understand.
I used to do every chest machine in the gym and used to think that smaller muscle groups responded better to lower weights and higher reps.
Well, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about lifting and building muscle naturally is the more you emphasize compound movements and heavy lifting (80 to 85% of 1RM and higher), the better your results.
And in terms of training the chest, that means a lot of heavy barbell and dumbbell pressing with supplementary work like dips and flyes.
“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “[SHREDDED FITNESS MODEL] does a billion reps in his chest workouts and has amazing pecs… What gives?”
If only you had his #dedication. All 2 grams of it that he injects every week.
I know, that might sound cynical, but it’s true.
When the right steroids enter the picture, achieving muscle growth is mind-numbingly simple: sit in the gym for a few hours every day doing rep after rep after rep, exercise after exercise, and muscles get bigger and bigger.
In fact, when steroids are involved, focusing on high-rep training is generally recommended.
Steroids cause muscles to grow rapidly but don’t help tendons and ligaments keep up, so weights that feel manageable can simply be too much for connective tissues.
This is a common way that steroid users screw up their joints.
There’s another reason why steroids produce abnormally large shoulders, traps, and pecs (the upper portion in particular).
These areas of the body are quite dense in androgen receptors, which are special types of proteins in cells that respond to certain hormones in the blood (including anabolic hormones like testosterone).
Thus, when large amounts of anabolic hormones are introduced into the body, the shoulders, traps, and pecs are hyper-responsive and grow very quickly and can reach freaky levels of size.
Don’t be discouraged, though.
You can build a great chest without drugs. It just takes a bit of know-how, hard work, and patience. The strategy is simple enough:
1. Focus on lifting heavy weights in your chest workouts.
If you want your chest to get big and strong, you’ll want to focus on the 4 to 6 or 5 to 7 rep range.
2. Focus on the chest exercises that safely allow for progressive overload.
As a natural weightlifter, you can take this to the bank: if you don’t continue to get stronger, you won’t continue to get bigger.
The number one rule of natural muscle building is progressive overload, which means adding weight to the bar over time.
Well, certain exercises don’t lend themselves well to both heavy lifting and progressive overload. For example, heavy dumbbell flyes increase the risk of injuring your rotator cuff muscles.
Another aspect of your chest training that you have to get right is volume, or the total amount of reps you do each week.
This is especially important when you’re doing a lot of heavy weightlifting because the general rule is this:
The heavier the reps, the fewer you can do each week.
Heavier weights necessitate more recovery, which means you can’t do as many reps every week as with lighter weights without risking overtraining.
When your training emphasizes heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
This not only applies to the chest but to every other major muscle group as well.
Before we dive into exercises and workouts, let’s talk about a contentious aspect of chest training: the “upper chest.”
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The “upper chest” debate has been going on for a long time.
Do you need to do chest exercises specifically for the upper chest? Or do all chest exercises stimulate all available muscle fibers equally? And even more to the point, is there even such a thing as the “upper chest?”
Well, I’ll keep this short and sweet.
There is a part of the “chest muscle” that forms what we call the “upper chest.” It’s known as the clavicular pectoralis and here’s what it looks like:
While this muscle is a part of the big chest muscle, the pectoralis major, the angle of the muscle fibers is quite different. Thus, certain movements can emphasize the main head of the pectoralis and others can emphasize the clavicular head.
Notice that I say emphasize, not isolate. That’s because all movements that emphasize one of the two do, to some degree, involve the other.
Nevertheless, proper chest development requires a lot of emphasis on the clavicular pectoralis for two simple reasons:
The best way to ensure your upper chest doesn’t fall behind the rest of your pec major in development is to do a lot of incline pressing.
Reverse-grip pressing is helpful too, and we’ll talk about that soon.
Alright, now that we have basic training theory under our belts, let’s look at the best chest exercises for building muscle and strength.
Like with most muscle groups, there are scores of chest exercises you can choose from but only a small handful are really necessary.
In fact, the list of the best chest exercises is quite small:
These exercises are all you need to build an impressive chest. Period.
Forget cable work, dumbbell flyes, push-up variations, machines, and every other type of chest exercise out there. They are not nearly as effective as the above three core, foundation-building lifts.
When it comes to bench pressing, the main drawback of using the Smith Machine is it produces smaller gains in muscle and strength than the free weight bench press.
One of the major reasons for this is the Smith Machine has a fixed, level bar that moves on a fixed, vertical movement path. The free weight bar, on the other hand, requires that you stabilize it to keep the bar level and prevent horizontal swaying.
I used to do all my bench pressing on the Smith Machine and never got higher than 245 pounds for a few reps. When I first switched to the free weight bench press, I struggled with 185.
That was several years ago and I’ve since built my bench up to 295 for 2 to 3 reps. (Not outstanding by any means but respectable.)
The Power Rack is your best friend.
A standard free weight bench press station is fine if you have a spotter, but if you don’t, you’re probably not going to be able to push yourself as hard as you want for fear of dropping the bar on your face.
Even if you have a lot of weightlifting experience and a good feel for your body and when you’re going to fail, there are going to be times where you either could have squeezed out another rep but didn’t go for it or where you do go for it and get stuck.
Enter the Power Rack. Here’s a fantastic one made by Rogue, which I highly recommend:
The safety arms are what make it so useful. Set them at the right height and they will catch the weight when you fail. Here’s how to do it:
Let’s now review how to perform each of the major exercises given earlier properly.
There’s a reason why every well-designed weightlifting program includes the bench press as one of its core exercises. It deserves much of its mystique.
The fact is the bench press is one of the best all-around upper body exercises you can do, training the pectorals, lats, shoulders, triceps, and even the legs to a slight degree.
That said, although it looks simple enough, the bench press is a fairly technical movement. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll eventually hit a plateau…if you’re lucky enough to avoid injury.
That’s why learning proper bench press form is crucial. It makes sure you can progress safely in your bench pressing.
So let’s look at how to bench press properly, starting with proper body position.
Once you have your equipment ready, it’s time to get your body in the right position to press. The first two steps are:
1. Lie down on the bench and adjust so your eyes are under the bar.
2. Raise your chest up and tuck your shoulder blades down and squeeze them together.
You should feel tightness in your upper back, and you want to maintain this position throughout the entire lift.
3. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
Hold the bar low in your hands, closer to your wrists than your fingers, and squeeze it as hard as you can.
Your wrists should be straight up and down, not cupped (bent toward your head). This prevents wrist pain.
A good way to check your grip width is to have a friend get behind you (looking at the top of your head) and check the position of your forearms at the bottom of the movement.
You want your forearms to be as close to perpendicular to the ground as possible. That is, straight up-and-down vertical, like this:
As you can see, the position on the far left is too wide, the middle is too narrow, and the far right is correct.
4. Slightly arch your lower back and plant your feet on the ground, directly under your knees, shoulder-width apart.
You don’t want your back flat on the bench and you don’t want it so arched that your butt is floating above it.
Instead, you want to maintain the natural arch that occurs when you push your chest out.
5. Unrack the weight by straightening your arms and then moving it horizontally until it’s directly over your shoulders.
You’re now ready to press.
Set up the same way every time you bench press, whether you’re just warming up or going for a PR.
It’s a good technique-building habit that will pay off in consistently better lifts and a lower risk of injury.
The first thing you should know about the pressing movement is how to tuck your elbows properly.
Many people make the mistake of flaring them out (away from the body), which can cause shoulder impingement. This mistake alone is the main reason why the bench press has a bad reputation as a shoulder wrecker.
A less common mistake is tucking your elbows too close to your torso, which robs you of stability and strength.
Instead, you want your elbows at a 50- to 60-degree angle relative to your torso. This protects your shoulders from injury and is a stable, strong position to press from. Here’s a helpful visual:
In the bottommost position, the arms are at about a 20-degree angle relative to the torso, which is too close. The middle position is the ideal one–about 60 degrees–and the topmost is the common mistake of 90 degrees.
So, now that you know the proper position of the elbows, let’s get back to the movement itself.
Keeping your elbows tucked and in place, lower the bar to the lower part of the middle of your chest, around your nipples.
Yes, the bar should touch your chest–no half-repping!
You should lower the bar in a controlled manner but shouldn’t be deliberately slow about it. (Super-slow reps aren’t better for building muscle.) About 2 seconds down is correct.
Once the bar has touched your chest (touched, not bounced off of), you’re ready to push the bar up.
Although it’s called the bench press, it’s better to think of the ascension as pushing rather than pressing.
That is, picture that you’re pushing your torso away from the bar and into the bench instead of pressing the bar away from your torso. This will help you maintain proper form and maximize power.
The bar should move up with a slightly diagonal path, moving toward your shoulders, ending where you began: with the bar directly over your shoulders, where it’s most naturally balanced.
Lock your elbows out at the top–don’t keep them slightly bent lest you drop the bar on your face.
When ascending, nothing changes with anything else you’ve learned thus far about body position. Your shoulder blades remain down and pinched, your elbows tucked, your lower back slightly arched, your butt on the bench, and your feet on the floor.
Don’t try to press the bar directly into the hooks because if you miss, it’s coming down on your face.
Instead, finish your rep with the bar directly over your shoulders and your elbows locked and then shift the bar horizontally into the uprights.
Alright, that’s quite a bit to visualize so a good video is in order. Here’s what it all looks like in action:
The good ol’ flat barbell bench press is a staple in many weightlifting programs but is usually accompanied by several variations.
The incline bench press is one of the best of these variations because it helps build the upper portion of the chest more than flat or decline pressing.
I prefer 30 degrees, but some people prefer an incline closer to 45. I recommend that you try various settings ranging between 30 and 45 degrees and see which you like most.
The bar should pass by the chin and touch just below the collarbones to allow for a vertical bar path.
Here’s a video that shows proper form with the barbell:
While it’s not a direct replacement for the barbell bench press, the dumbbell bench press is a worthwhile exercise.
One of the things I like about it is it allows you to increase the range of motion beyond the barbell press. Here’s how I like to do it (this is incline, of course, but you get the idea):
Technically my butt shouldn’t be moving–I was trying to move up in weight here and got a little overzealous–but what I wanted to show you was how I rotate my hands at the bottom of the rep and bring the dumbbells low.
This increases the range of motion without increasing the risk of injury, and I’ve found this very helpful in progressing with the weight and developing my chest.
The narrower your grip on the bar, the more work your triceps have to do.
This is undesirable when you’re focusing on training your chest, but it’s one of my favorite ways to train the triceps. And, incidentally, stronger triceps means a stronger (regular) bench press.
When doing a close-grip bench press, your grip should be slightly narrower than shoulder-width and no closer.
You’ll see many guys place their hands just a few inches apart, and this is a bad idea—it puts the shoulders and wrists in a weakened, compromised position.
The rest of the setup and movement are the same as the regular bench press: the shoulder blades are “screwed” into the bench, there’s a slight arch in the lower back, the feet are flat on the floor, and the bar moves down on a slightly diagonal path, touches the bottom of the chest, and then back up.
If your shoulders or wrists feel uncomfortable at the bottom of the lift, simply widen your grip by about the width of a finger and try again.
If it’s still uncomfortable, widen your grip by another finger width and repeat until it’s comfortable.
Here’s a good instructional video:
The decline bench press is popular among some people but I’m not a fan. Thanks to its reduced range of motion, it’s just less effective than incline and flat pressing.
A common argument made for doing decline presses is working the lowest portion of the pectoralis major, but I prefer dips for this.
The bottom line is you can never do a single set of decline bench press and still build an outstanding chest.
The reverse-grip bench press is an often-overlooked variation of the bench press that has merit.
It involves flipping your grip around on the bar (so your palms face you) and not only is it easier on your shoulders but it also is particularly effective for targeting the upper chest.
Here’s how to do it:
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.
A good chest workout focuses on heavy lifting and includes work that targets the upper portion of the pecs. Higher-rep training can be included but it should come later in the workout, after the heavy sets.
You can learn more about programming workouts in my books Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger, but I want to give you a simple workout that you can do for the next 8 weeks to see how my advice works for you.
What I want you to do over the next 8 weeks is perform the following chest workout once every 5 – 7 days:
Incline Barbell Bench Press
Warm up and 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
Flat Barbell Bench Press
3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
Dips (Chest Version)
3 sets to failure
That’s it–just 9 heavy sets for your entire workout with 3 optional bodyweight sets.
This will give your muscles enough time to fully recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.
For instance, if you get on the incline bench and push out 6 reps on your first set, you add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set and work with that weight until you can press it for 6 reps, and so forth.
I guarantee that if you do this workout and eat right for the next 8 weeks, you’ll be very happy with how your chest responds.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your chest (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- and long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.