It Starts With Technique
The majority of people use the wrong technique when pressing. Their two biggest mistakes are:
- Shoulders rounding at the bottom
- Shoulders coming off the bench at the top of the rep
These two mistakes immediately reduce chest recruitment and increase the stress on the shoulders. In fact, those who complain of pain at the front of their shoulders when pressing are usually committing one of these mistakes. What you want to focus on when pressing to keep good form is:
- Shoulders back and down at the bottom
- Keeping your chest up throughout the rep
When you first adopt this technique, you might find your strength takes a little hit. But after a few weeks you'll be stronger, and more importantly the stress will be placed on your chest rather than your shoulders.
Improving Stability and Mobility
One of the reasons people struggle with their pressing technique is a lack of stability and/or mobility in their shoulders. More specifically, it's almost always the lower traps that are weak.
It's not surprising if you've never heard of the lower traps. They're not sexy and most people can't even see them (unless you're very lean). They're important, though. They bring the shoulder blades down, which makes them critical to healthy and strong pressing.
Remember, if you can't keep your shoulder blades locked down when you press, you won't be able to keep your chest up, which will lead to the mistakes mentioned earlier. The trouble is, our deskbound culture has given us overactive upper traps, which creates a lot of instability in the shoulders when the strength of our lower traps doesn't match.
How to Increase the Stability of Your Shoulders
Always start an upper body workout with at least one of the these movements. If you're new to this and need a lot of work, do all of them daily.
1 – Scapular Wall Slides
This is the most basic version of lower trap activations movements, especially for those who lack the mobility to do the advanced movements below. Focus on trying to flatten your back against the wall and keeping as close contact with your arms to the wall as possible. As you raise your arms up, don't shrug.
2 – YTWs
This combination will fire up all the muscles in your upper back and rotator cuff. The Y portion will specifically work the lower traps. Before raising your arms, bring your shoulders down and then lift and pause at the top.
3 – Handcuffs
These are called handcuffs because of the position you end up in on each rep. These might be tough, though, if you're stiff in the shoulders. You might have to practice doing movements 1 and 2 before you graduate to this one.
4 – Band Pull-Apart Variations
While not primarily a lower trap exercise, performing different variations of the band pull-apart is always a good way to keep your shoulders healthy and to practice pulling them back.
When you do the above exercises, think quality and not quantity. This is all about precise muscle recruitment and creating stability.
How to Increase the Flexibility of Your Shoulders
In addition to doing the exercises above, you may also need to work on your flexibility. If so, do the following:
1 – Static Stretching
Throughout the day, stretch your pecs and lats for 30-60 seconds at a time. Don't do this just before working out, though, as it may temporarily weaken you.
2 – Over and Backs
These really stretch out the biceps, anterior delts, and pecs while also building stability and strength in the rotator cuff. Do 50 of these every day. You'll see big improvements in shoulder mobility and chest size in just 30 days, especially if you really struggle on these initially.
3 – Extreme Stretching
This is a more advanced technique, but it works wonders for chest development and increasing shoulder mobility. To do it, start with a light pair of dumbbells and get into the bottom position of a neutral-grip dumbbell press. Concentrate on getting the elbows as low as possible while lifting your chest up as high as possible. Hold this for 60-90 seconds and make sure you feel the stretch in your chest, not your shoulder joint.
The Best Chest Exercises
Now that you've created more stability and corrected your technique, you need to pick the right exercises.
Two things constitute a good chest exercise: You should be able to feel your chest over its full range of motion and not feel it in the joints. And you should be able to load it progressively over a long period of time (think presses, dips, and push-ups vs. flyes). Sure, you can screw around with ten different flye variations, but you should think of flyes as just icing on the cake – not necessary, but occasionally nice.
Chest training is also very individual because what exercises work the best depends on your limb length, mobility, injury history, etc. Here are some general guidelines, though:
- Dumbbells beat barbells for most people. You can use a bigger range of motion and they're generally safer.
- Slight angles are better than steep angles (for most). There's much less stress on the shoulders.
- Most people should opt for incline over flat or decline angles.
- Weighted push-ups and dips are underrated as chest builders. The ring push-up in particular is one of the best chest exercises as it matches the anatomical function of the pecs (to draw the arms across the midline of the body). Here's Tom Morrison with a quick tutorial:
- The flat bench press is overrated. It's a great exercise to develop upper body strength and build an initial base, but beyond that it's sub-par for chest development.
- The floor press is a great exercise if you're injury prone or a long-limbed lifter.
Pick 3 to 4 exercises and train them progressively while recording how each exercise feels. Scrap ones that aren't working, and keep the ones that are. After a while, you'll be able to find the exercises that work for your body.
Optimal Loading Parameters
The chest grows best from slightly lower rep ranges than other muscles. The pecs are performance muscles and explosive in nature so they should be trained accordingly. The 6-8 rep range is perfect, with some secondary work performed in the 8-12 rep bracket.
As always though, the key is progressive overload with perfect form, no matter which rep range. If you've taken the right precautions with your stability work, optimized your technique, and picked the right exercises, you should be on the right path.
Performing endless sets and reps is not the goal. Getting stronger is number one and volume is second. You should only be doing the volume that allows you to continue to recover and gain strength. Track your workouts in a logbook to gauge if this is happening. If not, you may be doing too much.
Effective Chest Workouts
Train chest twice a week, or every 3 to 5 days with two different rep ranges. Contrary to Flex magazine, you don't need 30 sets of chest coming from 10 different exercises! Instead, pick 3 to 4 exercises to get really good at, and then split them. Examples:
|A||Low Incline Dumbbell Press||2/1||4-6/6-8|
|B||Incline Barbell Press||2/1||4-6/6-8|
|A||Feet Elevated Ring Push-Up||3||8-12|
|B||Mid Incline Dumbbell Press||2/1||6-8/8-12|
Here's another option:
|B||60-Degree Incline Dumbbell Press||2/1||4-6/6-8|
|B||Machine Chest Press||3||8-12|
The split you use doesn't matter too much, but the heavy/light system throughout the week works great in getting strong across multiple rep ranges.
A lot of guys complain of droopy man boobs. If you want an easy fix to make your chest look better, get leaner. Once you're down to 8-10% body fat, focus your dietary efforts on building muscle mass.
Combining a surplus of calories and nutrients with progressive lifting will lead to growth over time. Be patient, though, as growing muscle in weak areas takes time. You need to be consistent and trust the process.