Take a look at a Roman suit of armor. What do you notice?
You probably notice that the armor is, well, jacked. It has rock-hard abs, sculpted lines, and it's inevitably topped with a powerful chest. No doubt about it, the pecs have been a symbol of strength and power for thousands of years. No wonder Mondays are International Chest Day in gyms all over the world.
What do these modern iron warriors do to build their chests? They bench press, of course. But do you want to know the truth? Can you handle the truth, Lieutenant Kaffee?
Okay, here it is: While the bench press is a fine exercise, it's actually not the most effective chest builder for the aesthetic lifter.
A standard barbell bench press uses, by nature, a limited range of motion or ROM. The bar simply hits your chest and limits your effective range of motion. And since most lifters see the bench press as a chance to flex their egos, they use tricky body positions and even shorter ROMs so they can press more weight, making it less effective for muscle-building.
Oh sure, that's fine for a powerlifter in competition who wants to use every trick in the book to shorten the ROM so he can push more weight, but not so fine for a person wanting to target the pecs and body build.
Add to that the fact that a lot of people are triceps benchers. In other words, their tri's are so strong that they tend to take over for the pecs in the bench press. Many lifters even bring their anterior delts into the equation.
Well, we have a crazy idea: Let's get back to building the pecs, shall we?
Here are a few of the best chest exercises and techniques we've seen for doing just that.
#1: The Chest Dip
Remember the rules for getting the most out of triceps dips? To emphasize chest hypertrophy, reverse those rules:
- Try to use the widest set of dipping bars you can find. Go too narrow and you'll hit mostly triceps, not chest.
- Lean forward. An upright body position targets the triceps, remember? So lean forward to transfer most of the workload to the chest.
- For those that have trouble "feeling" the chest during dips, don't lock out at the top. This keeps the tension on the pecs and prevents the triceps from taking over.
Unless you're very new to resistance training — or very fat — or very female — you'll need to add weight for chest dips. A dipping belt, a weighted vest, or simply holding a dumbbell between your feet will do the trick. We like the latter because it allows you to quickly drop the additional load if needed, which is handy for this pec-destroying favorite:
The Jettison Technique for Dips
- Hold a dumbbell between your feet and perform around 12 reps of chest dips. Choose a dumbbell heavy enough so that you reach failure somewhere in that rep range.
- Once you can't do another rep in good form, drop the dumbbell, and with no rest continue to rep out until you again reach failure.
- Now, with as little rest as possible, have a partner make a platform with his hands and place your ankles or tops of your feet on that platform. Now, he isn't going to lift your legs, rather, you're going to push off of him as needed until you can no longer do another rep in good form.
No training partner? Well, we're not crazy about those Gravitron-style assisted dip/pull-up machines, but use one of those for this step if needed. Just don't let us see you. We will point and laugh.
- Rest for a couple of minutes, then repeat twice more. Be prepared to yelp in pain when steering the car the next day.
Here's another great chest dip technique we picked up from Chad Waterbury:
"These are great for chest and core development," says Waterbury, and he's right. Think of this as an exaggerated chest dip with an athletic bonus.
Here's how you do it: Start in the top position of a dip. Lower your body straight down. When you reach the bottom, shift your body forward as you push up. You'll need to keep your body rigid from head to toe, just like a gymnast on the rings.
#2: "Next-Level" Push-ups and Flyes
Here at T Nation we've seen just about everything when it comes to training. So how do we separate the truly effective stuff from the sounds-good-on-paper-but-doesn't-work junk? We look for patterns.
One such pattern occurs with something we call the "next-level" push-up. Several performance coaches and hypertrophy experts have "discovered" this method of turning the boring and often too-easy push-up into a chest-building powerhouse. And when that many experts independently discover something, it usually means it's going to be damned effective.
To perform, simply attach your rings or straps to the top of a power rack or cable crossover machine and lower them until they're just off the floor. Get into a push-up position while holding the rings or handles and get to work.
That's it! But don't be surprised if you shake like Candlestick Park during the '89 World Series when performing suspended push-ups.
The Suspended Flye
If the push-ups get too easy, try some suspended flyes, a favorite of Coach Christian Thibaudeau, who places them into his strength-stability workouts.
Using the same push-up position, imagine doing a flat bench dumbbell flye, only instead of facing up, your body will be facing down. And instead of holding dumbbells for resistance, you'll be holding rings or Blast Straps and using your body weight.
Warning: This one can be intense. You may want to begin by doing suspended flyes on your knees, you know, like how your little sister does push-ups in PE class. Not that you're a weak little girl or anything. No way, not you.
The Slide Push-Up
Finally, here's one more variation from the same basic school of thought: the slide push-up.
"The slide push-up applies resistance to the horizontal adduction action of the pectorals," notes Waterbury. "This is one of the best chest-building exercises I've ever come across, and very few people even know about it!"
Slide push-ups can be performed on a linoleum or wood floor with a small towel under each hand. A set of ValSlides, a favorite of Coach Mike Boyle, will do the trick, too. (We bet a pair of furniture sliders would work as well, for a fraction of the price.)
With slides or towels under your hands, assume a traditional push-up position. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lower yourself until your chest touches the floor, then push up while simultaneously pulling the hands together. At the top position, the thumbs should almost be touching.
Next, "walk" your hands out to the original starting position and continue for the desired reps. "If you're advanced," says Waterbury, "push your hands out to the starting position instead of walking them out."
#3: Triple Dumbbell Press
We first read about this one back in the 90's, and it probably existed before then. Whatever the origin, it works!
Thibaudeau notes: "This might just be the most complete and effective way to train your chest. It will thoroughly stimulate most of the muscle fibers of the pectorals, causing them to grow out of proportion at an alarming rate! Sound good? Wait until you've tried it to thank me; the effectiveness of the exercise comes with a price to pay: pain!"
The exercise is really a combination of three exercises:
High-incline dumbbell press
Low-incline dumbbell press
Flat dumbbell press
All three are performed as one set, using the same weight. You first perform high incline dumbbell presses until you reach muscle failure. Then you rapidly adjust the bench to a low incline and continue to perform reps until failure. You once again adjust the bench, this time to a flat bench position, and rep out. This is one set.
Note the little trick that's happening here: You're starting with the weakest position: high inclines. You're fatiguing as the set continues, sure, but you're also moving to a stronger position each time — low incline, then flat, which is your strongest position. Cool, huh?
"This is a very intense method," warns Thibaudeau. "For most people, two or three such sets will be more than enough. Do not use this powerful technique too frequently as it's tremendously stressful on the body — which is why it's so effective!"
#4: Eccentric Incline Dumbbell Press on Swiss Ball
Long ass name, but an extremely effective rut-breaker that's been field-tested by Charles Poliquin on numerous athletes.
Situate yourself on a Swiss ball. Press the dumbbells up as if you were doing conventional dumbbell bench presses. Once you get close to locking out, keep your torso stable, but lower your hips as much as possible. Now lower the dumbbells in this incline position.
Since you're weaker in the incline press than in the flat press, you'll use the strong leverage from the flat position to help you get the load up in preparation for the eccentric (negative) part of the movement. In effect, you're doing a flat bench on the way up, and an incline bench on the way down, thus overloading the clavicular pecs without the need for a spotter.
We learned this one from Igor Svendleton, the legendary European bodybuilding coach who can put 100 pounds of pure, drug-free muscle on any bodybuilder in only four weeks.
Thing is, Igor lives in a remote mountain cave and leaves it only to hunt musk-ox. Bodybuilders who want to train with him have to climb the mountain naked and beg him for his tutelage. But, those who are accepted come back down hyoooooge!
Okay, we made that up.
Sorry, it just sounded more interesting than saying that fly-aways are the invention of an exercise scientist named Jerry Telle. We mean, really, what can a guy named Jerry teach us?
Actually, quite a lot! Telle explains: "The wider the dumbbells, the more tension experienced by the pecs. Why, then, not start a set with heavy flyes and, as the athlete fatigues, gradually move the dumbbells closer to the body? That way, you get max tension on every rep."
So, begin with a set of flyes (flat, incline, or decline). When you feel you're a rep or two shy of failure, change your arm position into a position mid-way between a flye and a bench press. Knock out a few more reps in this stronger position. When you're about to fail again, switch into a standard dumbbell bench press position and rep out until failure. That's one set, nancy-boy.
Now, we've found that you can modify this extended set by using as many arm position changes as possible. Start with a very wide flye, moving the hands in a little each time and putting more bend in the elbows. Each stronger position will allow you a few more reps until you're finally just performing a dumbbell bench press. Ouch.
Now, we're not saying to completely give up the good ol' barbell bench press, but if your goal is building a big chest, remember that there are other options. And if you just can't not bench, here's a final tip from strength coach Ian King:
"Many lifters with superior triceps strength fall into a trap by using the closer-grip bench press too often. It certainly builds great triceps, but it's not the best for chest development. To balance chest development, you need to spend as much time with an extra-wide grip as you do with the extra-narrow grip. Those with strength 'in close' need humility to train bench with a wider grip."
Now, go build your own suit of armor!
Exercise Models: Christine Pendleton and Beau Myrick
Location: Gold's Gym, Abilene, Texas