This new Q & A column is about building a muscular and aesthetic physique. It's not about breaking strength records or reaching speed and power personal bests.
A lot of T-Nation readers are training only to improve their appearance, and even if the current trend is to dismiss these individuals training only for aesthetic purposes, I think it's perfectly fine to train that way. Training hard to build a great body is just as difficult, if not more difficult, than training to improve performance. It's about time people realized it.
You wanna train to look good? Don't be ashamed to say it!
In & Out for Big Pecs and Tri's
Q: Thib, I loved the tips you gave out in the first part of this series. I especially liked the ones about how to stimulate the triceps or chest more by using the double contraction technique. Do you have any other tips I can use to stimulate these muscle groups?
A: I sure do! I have one that's extremely simple, almost too simple, but it works great to switch the muscle activation during a bench press.
The trick is to exert strength against the bar either inward or outward. Your hands don't really move of course; it's a static action. In the first case (inward) you try to bring your hands closer together. In the latter (outward) you try to spread the bar.
"In" equals more pectoral and anterior deltoid activation. "Out" equals more triceps activation. "Spreading the bar" is used by competitive powerlifters to increase triceps activation (competitive benching is mostly a triceps exercise). However, it can also be very useful for bodybuilders wanting to emphasise the development of a certain muscle group.
For example, an athlete who has very strong triceps will have some problems maximally recruiting the chest when performing the bench press. The triceps are so strong that they take on the bulk of the work. By exerting force inward against the bar, our lifter will take the triceps out of the movement to a relatively large extent while switching more of the stress toward the pecs and delts.
Be warned that at first you'll have to lower your weights. This is because you're taking your strongest muscle group out of the movement. However, if you're training to build muscle, you should remember the following:
The objective is not to lift weights but to make the muscles perform loaded work.
In other words, the quality and intensity of the muscle contraction is more important than the weight used if training for aesthetic purposes. Now, that doesn't mean to use light weights! It means you should focus on obtaining the strongest muscle contraction and the greater intramuscular tension on each rep. Obviously, the more weight you can lift while properly contracting the muscle, the more growth you'll stimulate because muscle tension is proportional to force output.
The only thing I'm saying is that simply because you'll be using less weight at first doesn't mean that you'll be stimulating less muscle growth. It means that you're actually performing a different exercise (even though it looks the same from an onlooker's point of view), so you have to build strength in that new move.
This technique can be used with all types of barbell pressing exercises depending on the results you seek:
Decline bench press pushing "in" – mostly sternal portion of the pectorals
Decline bench press pushing "out" – mostly triceps
Flat bench press pushing "in" – both portions of the pecs and anterior deltoids
Flat bench press pushing "out" – mostly triceps and lateral head of the deltoids
Incline bench press pushing "in" – clavicular portion of the pecs and anterior deltoids
Incline bench press pushing "out" – triceps, lateral, and anterior heads of the deltoids
The Cure for Narrow Shoulders
Q: Christian, I've got a weird problem. I'm very strong in most shoulder exercises: overhead press, dumbbell press, even lateral raises! But my delts are actually not that impressive. In fact, when wearing a shirt I actually look a little narrow. Got any ideas?
A: Chances are the anterior head of your deltoid is overpowering. As a result, it takes on the bulk of the work during all pressing exercises.
As for the lateral raises, I'm willing to bet that you're doing them wrong. As a result, you're stimulating the front delts to a much greater extent than the lateral head of the deltoid. So, you have strong front delts, which are probably relatively well developed, but weak lateral delts.
You probably look relatively thick from the side, but appear to be narrow from the front or back. This is understandable since the lateral head of the deltoid is the principal factor involved in looking wide (besides your bone structure.)
Most overhead pressing exercises focus primarily on the anterior portion of the deltoid. Don't get me wrong, the lateral head is obviously participating too, just not to the same extent as the front portion. So while overhead pressing is a must if you want big shoulders, you also need fully developed lateral heads.
Before I continue, I want to say that some people can get huge and complete shoulders doing only overhead pressing, but not everybody. Those with some structural "irregularities" or muscular imbalances need more isolation work. That's where the lateral raises come in.
Now, I know that you're already doing them, but as I mentioned I think you're probably doing them the wrong way. When you think of lateral raises you normally think it's just about the simplest exercise in the world. How complex can it be? Well, believe it or not, it can actually be quite complex! Several factors can affect muscle recruitment during a lateral raise, including:
1) Type of grip.
2) Trunk inclination.
3) Lifting angle.
Let's go over those.
1) Type of Grip
The table below illustrates how different hand positions can affect the amount of work performed by each of the three heads of the deltoids:
Most of the time you'll see people performing lateral raises with an "upward" grip. This is most noticeable at the top of the movement where the front portion of the dumbbell is higher than the back portion and the wrist/hand is higher than the elbow. This type of grip places a bit more stress on the anterior head compared to the lateral head. In someone with an overpowering front delt, this is magnified.
While a pronated grip will be good enough for people with balanced shoulder development, in your case it's probably not enough: your overpowering anterior delt will still end up doing too much work. So I suggest using a "downward" grip where the back end of the dumbbell is higher than the front end in the finished position.
You should drive the weight up by focusing on lifting your elbows instead of your hands. The picture in the table illustrates the correct finish position. This will put more stress on the lateral head.
2) Trunk Inclination
Trunk angle can also influence muscle recruitment. The more you're bent forward, the more rear deltoid you'll recruit. As you stand up you'll start to involve the lateral head more. When you're actually leaning backward (seated at the incline bench for example) more of the stress is placed on the anterior head.
So if you want to minimize anterior deltoid activity, I suggest using a slight forward lean. I prefer to lie chest first (chest supported) on a high incline bench rather than simply bending forward. This prevents any form of cheating. The bench angle should be as steep as possible, just short of being perpendicular to the floor.
I want to clarify something: you'll see in the next paragraph that the arm angle while lifting is very important. If you're leaning forward a bit but are lifting your arms in front of you, you'll still hit the anterior portion of the deltoid. When you "suffer" from anterior deltoid dominance, every one of the three factors involved in muscle recruitment should be correct.
3) Lifting Angle
The illustration below shows which portion of the deltoid takes on the bulk of the work depending on the lifting angle.
If you lift the dumbbells straight in front, the anterior delts do most of the work. Let's call this "angle A."
If you lift in front and sideways, the anterior and lateral portions are heavily involved. Let's call this "angle B."
If you lift straight sideways, the lateral portion does more work. We'll call this "angle C."
If you lift behind your body line, the posterior head comes into play more, but the lateral portion is still very active. Let's call this "angle D."
Everything in between angle A and angle B will lead to more anterior than lateral deltoid stimulation, especially in those with anterior dominance. So to maximize lateral head work, you should lift in the "angle C" or even "angle D" zones.
If you want to perform a perfect lateral raise (to stimulate the lateral head) you should lift the weight straight sideways, or slightly behind your body line. Have the trunk slightly inclined forward and use a "downward" hand position at the top of the movement.
Thick & Meaty Pecs
Q: CT, so far you've had programs on shoulders, biceps/triceps, back, and lots on quads and hams. But how come you don't write a program solely about building thick and cut pecs (not about bench press PR)? Most people have problems developing their chests, including me.
A: Having thick and meaty (not to mention mighty) pecs is a goal of many trainees. In fact, along with getting big arms, I think that it's the most popular goal of all those who frequent the gym regularly. It's a fact that some people have trouble building a large chest. This can be due to several factors:
1. Strength imbalances: Overpowering anterior deltoids or triceps take stimulation away from the pectorals in most exercises.
2. Genetic predispositions: If an individual is more "slow-twitch dominant" in the chest, he might have a problem building it up. Furthermore, guys with narrow ribcages are also at a disadvantage since a large ribcage can promote the illusion of a big chest.
3. Improper exercise technique: Very few coaches explain the proper lifting technique to stimulate the targeted muscle group appropriately. Most trainers will be content if their client is lifting the weight in the same manner; they actually don't teach their trainee how to properly perform an exercise to develop the desired muscle. As we saw earlier with a super simple exercise like the lateral raise, even small technical adjustments can make a significant difference in muscle recruitment.
So what we want out of a good pectoral program is:
• Placing the chest agonists (deltoid and triceps) in a mechanically disadvantaged position so that the pecs can do most of the work.
• Adjusting lifting technique to place most of the stress on the pectoral muscles. Remember, when training to build muscle you shouldn't focus on "lifting weights," but rather on contracting the muscles against resistance. In that regard, a lifting technique that will allow you to lift the most weight isn't necessarily the one that'll build the muscles you want.
For example, a powerlifting squatting technique (very wide stance, hips back, torso at a 45 degree angle) will give you the best levers to make a big lift. However, as a quadriceps exercise (for a bodybuilder) this type of lift is basically worthless. A narrow-stance squat performed with the torso as upright as possible will place more stimulation on the quads despite using smaller weights.
This illustrates that heaving heavy weights for its own sake, without regard to correct targeted tension, won't necessarily help you build the muscle groups you want. Don't get me wrong, gaining strength will make you bigger and more muscular, but not necessarily in the area you want to develop.
• Use training techniques that will force the chest muscles to perform more work and be under high tension for a longer period of time.
• Use different types of rep ranges to hit all the different muscle fibers so that even if you're slow-twitch dominant you'll get some growth.
Here's a program that does just that:
A. Bench Press
Lower the bar to the upper part of the sternum (approximately 1" below your collarbone). Use a relatively wide grip (around 5-6" wider than shoulder width) and lower the bar with the elbows flared out (contrary to a powerlifting bench press where you keep your elbows close to your sides).
It's also very important that you elevate your ribcage; try to make it as high and as full as possible. This will place the pectorals in a position to take over the front deltoids. Finally, during the whole movement, push inward with your arms (as seen earlier in this article).
Use the double contraction technique in the low position. Lower the bar to the chest, lift it halfway up focusing on tensing your pecs and not on lifting the weight. Lower it back down under control and lift it completely (still focusing on your pecs). Do that on each repetition.
5 x 4-6 reps
B1. Incline Bench Press
Lower the bar to your collarbone using a wide grip (slightly wider than with the bench press, so around 6-8" wider than your shoulders). Also keep the elbows flared out.
Lower the bar all the way down to your chest slowly (eccentric in 3-4 seconds) and lift it short of lockout (only perform three-fourth reps). Again, focus on pectoral contraction and not lifting the weight. Finally, during the whole movement, push inward with your arms.
3 x 10-12 reps
B2. Half Dumbbell Flyes
Lying on a flat bench, elevate your ribcage as much as possible. Lower the dumbbells as low as you can. In the low position you should actively try to stretch the pectorals for 2-3 seconds. Then you slowly lift the 'bells until they're halfway up. As always, you must focus on pectoral contraction. Only use the first half of the movement, then go back down.
The three key points are: intense stretch on each rep, elevated rib cage, constant pectoral tension. Think about lifting the weights with your chest instead of with your arms.
3 x 12-15 reps
C. Combo Dumbbell and Cable Press/Flyes
For this special exercise, attach the ankle belts to the dual low-pulley station and to your wrists. Grab a pair of light dumbbells (15-20 pounds should be enough). You'll perform dumbbells presses going from a pronation (normal) grip at the start to a neutral (hammer) grip at the finish.
Again, flair out the elbows on the way down and squeeze your pecs on the way up. When you reach failure, drop the dumbbells and perform cable flyes with the remaining resistance.
3 x 8-10 press + 3-5 flyes
D. Cable Crossover
Only perform one set of 100 reps with a very light weight. You can take some short pauses during the set, but the fewer the better. You don't have to lift slow on purpose but still focus on getting a good peak contraction at the finished position. You don't need to go all the way up either; bringing your elbows up to your shoulders is enough.
1 x 100 reps
I'll conclude this installment by repeating something I've said numerous times. It's that important!
To build muscle you should focus on contracting the muscles against a resistance, not on lifting weights.
Think about it.