Despite the "chest and biceps only" guys at every gym and Monday being International Chest Day, an awesome set of pecs is a rarity. It's hardly surprising though. Browsing through websites and magazines, you'll find conflicting information on chest training. Half the coaches out there say the bench press is the best damn chest exercise there is. The other half say it wrecks your shoulders, hits your delts and triceps more than your chest, and doesn't deserve its place in the bodybuilding hierarchy.
Then you've got the incline vs. decline argument. Judging by how many people suffer from man-boob syndrome where the size of the lower and mid portion of the pecs far outweigh the musculature of the upper section, you'd be forgiven for thinking that incline work is what everyone needs to focus on. Then suddenly, some fancy new EMG study comes out and indicates that the best chest-developer is the decline bench, and how inclines are actually much more of a shoulder exercise.
Confused? Yep, me too. At least I was, until I realized how to structure a chest routine for optimal development.
When you're looking for the fastest muscle growth in a particular area, you need to take a specialized approach. After you train a muscle group, your rate of muscle protein synthesis and your levels of anabolic hormones shoot through the roof. Awesome. Trouble is, this quickly dissipates and within 48 hours, your levels are almost back to baseline.
This is why full-body training is a better bodybuilding method than a lot of people give it credit for. The issue with full body training however, is unless you're a newbie you might not be able to get in enough volume and intensity each workout to stimulate maximum gains. So a split routine seems like a better option, right? Well, in a way. You can get in more volume and won't feel as fatigued during your workouts due to focusing on just one or two body parts, but on a traditional bodybuilding split, you'll only train a muscle once every five to seven days, meaning you're leaving a hell of a lot of that elevated muscle protein synthesis potential on the table.
You should instead opt for a specialization approach. This means hammering your chest hard and heavy, three times per week. First though, let's get a bit of admin out of the way. Not to be the bringer of doom, but during a specialization approach, you won't add any size to the rest of your body. Your chest is going to grow like a freaking weed and your shoulders and tris will get beefier too, but as for your quads, hams, back and biceps... they ain't going to grow much. Your focus will be on just maintaining them.
- Monday: Chest (Power/Activation Workout)
- Tuesday: Legs
- Wednesday: Chest (Strength)
- Thursday: Off/Cardio
- Friday: Chest (Hypertrophy)
- Saturday: Back/Biceps/Shoulders
- Sunday: Off/Cardio
Monday – Power/Activation Workout
Make this your first session of the week. The idea is to prime your body for the strength and hypertrophy sessions to come. I've found that by making the first weekly workout speed and power-based, clients perform better in the strength session a couple of days later than if they just go straight into a heavy, low-rep workout on Monday.
Start with some kind of activation move – a body-weight plyometric is ideal, so think regular clap push-ups, drop push-ups, or weighted plyo push-ups. Perform 4 to 6 sets of 2 to 3 reps (or as many as you need to feel like you're powerful and good to go) and focus on movement speed and explosiveness.
For your second exercise, go with a supra-maximal isometric exercise. This could be a hold with 100-120% of your 1 rep max, or a static press against pins in a power rack. Hit 5 to 6 sets of 10 to 20 seconds.
Perform a heavy partial exercise third. Five to six sets of three to five reps on board presses or pin presses would be ideal.
Finish with an isolation movement for 4 sets of 10.
The goal of this session is to move the bar quickly and explosively, while avoiding slow or grinding reps.
Wednesday – Strength Session
This is your heavy lifting session. Allow 48 hours after your activation session before hitting this.
Start with a bench press or a full range bench press variation such as Swiss bar presses, incline barbell presses, or presses with chains. Work up to one tough set of 3 to 6 reps, leaving one rep in the tank.
Next, hit an incline or decline dumbbell press for 3 sets of 6 to 8. Again, stop 1 to 2 reps short of failure on each set.
Throw in a weighted body-weight exercise next – either weighted dips, or a push-up variation such as decline push-ups, elevated push-ups or ring push-ups – for another 3 sets of 6 to 8.
Finish with 2 isolation moves, each for 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
Friday – Hypertrophy Session
This is the session every meathead looks forward to most. You'll get a serious chest pump, yet still move some heavy weight. The goal of this session is to get as much blood into the muscle as possible, which means higher reps, slower tempos, and shorter rest periods.
Kick off with decline barbell or dumbbell presses for 4 sets of 8 to 12. Move the weight fast on the way up, squeeze the peak contraction for 2 seconds, and then lower for a count of 2. Get a good stretch in the bottom position and then explode up again.
Your second and third exercises are a pre-exhaust superset, so prepare to be an equipment hog. Set up for some isolation work – cable crossovers, machine flyes, or dumbbell flyes work well – and perform a set of 10 to 12 reps using the same tempo suggested in the previous instruction. Immediately on completion of the set, jump into a barbell or Smith incline press using a wide grip. Same tempo again, aiming to keep constant tension on your chest. Complete 4 sets total.
Drop sets on the chest press machine are next. Pick any style of machine you like and perform 2 triple drop sets. Start with a weight you can move for a good 8 to 10 reps. Go to failure, then drop the weight by 20% and go to failure again. Drop the weight again by about 20% and rep out again. Rest 2 to 3 minutes, then go through a second triple drop. On completion of the last set, you can perform extra forced or assisted reps if you're training with a partner.
Finish with push-ups. This may sound a bit too much like a P90X workout to be included in a hypertrophy routine, but push-ups are the perfect end to a brutal chest session. Set a timer for 2 minutes and get as many reps as you can. You'll probably find that to begin with, you may even need to drop to knee push-ups to get in more than just a handful of reps. As you progress week to week, either increase your reps or bump up the time.
This is a chest specialization routine, but that doesn't mean you'll neglect your other body parts.
- Pick two other training days each week.
- Make one of these days a back and biceps workout (possibly with some shoulder work thrown in too if your delts aren't too beat from all the pressing work) and one a lower body day.
- Stick to mainly compound exercises and perform no more than five movements in each session.
- No exercises in your accessory workouts should be taken anywhere near failure. Going too hard in these sessions will impact your recovery, leading to sub-par chest growth.
- Stick to 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 10 reps on all exercises, leaving 1 to 2 reps in the tank on all sets.
- Don't aim to progress your lifts on these days – save your energy for the chest workouts.
After completing the four weeks, go back to a generic split or full-body style workout for two weeks and then move to a new routine. If you decide to run the chest specialization a second time, give it a good three to four months before you go again. Once you see the results just four short weeks can give your chest, it'll be time to bring your other body parts up to the same standard.