1 – You Never Change Angles
Ever notice the dudes in the gym who only train on flat and decline presses? They all have chests that protrude at the bottom, but dramatically recede up by their shoulders.
When lifters overemphasize their lower pecs with flat pressing, they build an imbalanced chest. The result is a set of pecs that looks like that of young girl starting the road to womanhood: man boobs, or moobs if you prefer. That's why, except for the occasional pump set, most pressing should be done from 15-45 degrees.
In the interest of non-saggy pecs. Move your "flat" pressing up to 15 degrees. That's about the first notch on an adjustable bench. Then, keep your pure incline work at about 45 degrees to maximize chest development and balance muscle growth.
2 – You Don't Train Explosively
To maximize muscle building, the nervous system needs to fire at full speed to maximize fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment. After all, you can't train the muscle fibers that aren't "turned on."
Adding an explosive component to your training improves muscle fiber recruitment for the rest of your workout. The more muscle fibers we stimulate in training, the greater the growth potential from a workout.
Explosive training works best after your dynamic warm-up and before your main lifts. You'll prime the nervous system and maximize muscle fiber recruitment. Focus on generating as much power as possible on each rep. Pick one of the following for 3 sets of 5-8 reps before your main lifts on upper body training days.
Incline Plyo Push-Up
Medicine Ball Pop-Up
You can also use Post Activation Potentiation (PAP), which is a physiological adaptation that describes the immediate enhancement of force during explosive movements after a heavy lift.
In plain English, to use PAP, you'd do a relatively heavy strength training exercise then follow it with an explosive exercise. That explosive exercise is similar to the strength exercise. For chest training, that means you might do a bench press variation and an explosive body weight push.
Neural drive increases after the heavy exercise, allowing for greater power output in the ballistic exercise. The complex pair is then repeated for multiple sets. Over time, this enhanced neuromuscular efficiency improves the muscle's ability to generate power. Since your nervous system gets more efficient, you'll build strength and improve muscle fiber recruitment, both of which help you build muscle.
Here's a sample:
So, in week one, you'd do 5 sets of 4 on the bench press, but each set would be immediately followed by a set of 4 explosive push-ups, with 60 seconds of rest in-between the push-ups and the bench presses.
3 – You Spend Too Much Time With the Barbell
Barbell bench presses aren't actually that great for chest development. Most lifters focus primarily on maximizing the weight, but the journey to bench press stardom can lead to faulty form that includes high arches, wide grips, and minimizing the range of motion.
And barbell bench pressing murders shoulders. Yes, there are ways to change the bench press and optimize technique to make it better, but let's be pragmatic. Most lifters would rather bench their shoulders into oblivion than put in the necessary soft-tissue work, mobility, and technique work to maximize the safety of the bench press.
The solution is to continue using the barbell bench for strength, but with a low-volume approach. That way, you'll still get your nut every Monday with 3-4 sets of 3-8 reps. Then, move on and get your volume in with 30-50 total reps of moderately heavy weight for sets of 8-12 reps on dumbbell presses, dips, and cable presses. You'll get the strength work you want, and the joint-friendly, growth-promoting volume you need.
4 – You're Too Weak
Millions of guys spend two or three days a week working on their chests. Most of the time, nothing happens. Why? Because they've never taken the time to build a foundation of strength.
Focus on strength development first. It'll allow you to reach any goal. While it may seem effective to use every drop set and finisher in the book, all that is pointless without a solid strength base.
Without first getting strong, whether it be with dumbbells or barbells, you won't get bigger. According to numerous studies, maximum growth occurs with loads between 80-95% of your 1-rep max (1RM), as long as sufficient volume is used. This equates to sets of 2-8 reps, depending on the lifter.
This is why a base program like 5x5 works so well with beginners, but it doesn't work forever. Once you get near your genetic potential, lifting only heavy weights leads to stagnation. You need to make adaptations as you get stronger and more advanced. This requires a two-pronged approach.
First, train heavy to maximize muscle fiber recruitment.
Second, take advantage of high muscle-fiber recruitment with volume to stimulate mechanical tension, metabolic fatigue, and muscular damage (the three primary drivers of hypertrophy). Once your strength base is present, all high-rep work will be much more effective.
5 – You Have No Variety
Stimulate new growth by getting a little funky with these barbell bench press alternatives.
Close-Grip Medicine Ball Push-Up
Get in a push-up position, but instead of hands on the floor, the hands are grasping a medicine ball. You're forced to squeeze the ball, putting the chest and sternal fibers under non-stop tension. Use these at the end of your workout for two or three sets until failure.
This exercise makes you generate maximum force, stabilize, and continue to generate power under fatigue. These are a great finisher for two or three sets to failure at the end of your workout.
1-1-2 Bench Press
The unilateral press requires single-limb stabilization, which improves motor unit recruitment. These also increase time under tension, which will lead to muscular and metabolic damage triggering more growth. As a side benefit, your core fires double time to prevent you from falling off the bench.
2:1 Accentuated Eccentric Machine Press
These double the resistance on each arm during the negative. Perform a press with both hands on the concentric. Then remove one hand and lower the weight under control. Alternate hands for 3 sets of 6 reps per hand.
6 – You Can't "Feel" Your Chest
If you can't feel a muscle doing the work, it's not going to grow. If you're like most lifters, you feel your shoulders do all the work on pressing, push-ups, and flye variations. But what you really need to do is improve your mind-muscle connection to elicit chest growth.
First, mentally think about your chest doing the work. Don't jerk around the weight aimlessly. Focus, be present, and feel your way to success. If you have a training partner and are interested in results rather than what the neighbors think, have him apply light pressure to your chest as you do an exercise.
If you train alone or don't feel like getting poked during barbell presses, "squeeze" your hands together. Imagine you're pushing your hands together so hard the bar might snap in the middle.
Similarly, do push-ups where you spread your fingers and push your hands into the ground as hard as possible. Then squeeze your hands towards each other as if you were trying to bring your thumbs and index fingers together in the middle. This stimulates the adduction function of your pecs. This small tweak is enough to make your push-ups and bench presses vastly more effective for building muscle.
Another method that works well is pre-lift isometrics. At the start of your bench-press set with your arms extended in front of you, squeeze your hands together as hard as possible for 15-30 seconds. Then, move directly into your reps.
This helps you focus on the muscles you're trying to build while adding tons of isometric tension to spur new growth. Isometrics are still demanding on your CNS, so start light, about 75% of the weight you'd normally do.