Complete Pec Development
Q: My pecs won’t grow no matter how strong I get on the bench press. What gives?
A: I know the feeling. I naturally had great shoulder strength and development early on, and that tended to translate over into virtually all of my pressing (flat, incline, overhead, etc). The drawback? Because I was delt-dominant, my chest lagged behind.
There’s always going to be some muscle groups that will be subpar compared to others, no matter how much specialization you do for them. But I do believe in giving everything the ol’ college try.
So let’s talk about some principles you should be adding to go from being bird-chested to pectacular. (Totally cheesy, but I’m rolling with it.)
1. Train chest early in the week or whenever you’re fresh.
This shouldn’t be an issue with most gym bros. Monday is International Chest Day, after all.
2. Get the chest out in front.
With all pressing and flye movements you need to set the scapula deep into retraction and depression. Think about getting the shoulders down into your back pockets, and keeping the sternum high.
When you look at this from the side, you’ll see that the pecs get into a deeper stretch, which will increase their activation, and you’ll reduce the involvement of the anterior delts.
A little “hack” here is to use a foam roller or rolled up towel in the middle of your back in order to facilitate a deeper setting of retraction.
The towel is a pretty strong reminder to hold it there as well.
3. Push to the centerline of the body.
This can be an internal cue to help establish better mind-muscle connection for the pecs as well. In all of your pressing, think about moving the arms to the centerline of the body to maximize pec activation and shortening.
For a lot of guys who press in order to “train the movement” for strength, they simply press straight up. But if you want to get the pecs to contract as hard as possible during a press – and you do for hypertrophy purposes – then think about driving the hands towards the center of your torso.
The external cue for this, if you’re pressing with a bar, is to think about bending the bar in half so that it would end up in a “U” shape. Just make sure you hold that deep scapula retraction and depression to bias the pecs in the pressing. Don’t let the shoulders roll forward at any time.
4. Know that leanness matters.
There’s no “inner pecs” really. That’d be the sternal area of the pecs. And here’s the real reason why a lot of guys think they need more mass in there: they carry too much body fat to see the separation between the pec muscles. If you want that bad-ass pectoral “split” that runs down the middle, then don’t be fat.
5. Understand arm angles for complete pec development.
The pecs have three different areas: the clavicular pec or upper chest where the fibers are attached to the clavicle; the sternal or middle portion of the pecs that attach to the sternum; the abdominal head of the pectorals which originates from the external oblique, often called the lower chest.
If you want to bias a certain area of the pecs, you need to be aware of the angle of the humerus to the pecs themselves. This, and not the angle of the bench, will dictate what area of the pecs is the most activated and doing the brunt of the work.
You hit this area more when the arms drive from the side of the body to the centerline of the torso.
You hit this area more when the arms drive at a 45-degree angle upwards, towards the centerline, in relation to the torso.
You hit this area more when the arms drive towards the hips and the centerline in relation to the torso.
Prioritize movements based on what area of the pecs you’re trying to bias over the others.
6. Stress the pecs at different lengths.
Not all movements stress the pecs equally in the range of motion. An incline press or flat press stresses the pecs maximally at the mid-point in the range of motion. A dumbbell flye places the greatest amount of torque on them in the bottom position where they’re maximally lengthened. And a pec-deck or cable crossover tends to stress them more in the fully shortened position.
It’s a good idea to stress the pecs through all of these different ranges so that no fiber is left behind. So how would this look in program design?
Hit the sternal pec area: Do the dumbbell bench press for two drop sets of 8/8/8.
- Take the first 8 reps to failure
- Reduce the weight
- Take another 8 reps to failure
- Reduce the weight
- Take another 8 reps to failure
- Repeat one more time
Hit the upper and lower pecs: Superset the low-to-high cable crossover with dips.
- Do 8-10 reps on cable crossovers to failure
- Do as many reps as you can on dips with bodyweight
- Repeat one more time
Hit the upper pecs: Use an incline dumbbell press, barbell press, or Hammer Strength incline press (shown in video).
- Do 10-12 reps to failure
- Rest 60 seconds
- Then try to get half the number of reps you achieved on the first set
- Rest 3 minutes
- Repeat one more time (technically this ends up being 4 total sets)
Hit the sternal and lower-pecs: Superset the flat bench dumbbell flye with a slight decline dumbbell press. Do 2 rounds of 10 reps on each.
- Do the dumbbell flye with a weight you can only get 10 reps on
- Then adjust your bench so that it’s on a slight decline
- Do presses with the same dumbbells you were using for the flyes for max reps
Creating the slight decline is easy. Just prop the end of your bench on a couple plates to create the decline. Use a slight angle because if it’s too deep then you’ll struggle to stay on the bench.
This routine just an example, and there’s a ton of variations for movements and stressing the muscle at different lengths. The majority of guys usually need a bit more “upper” pecs because so many start out as bench monkeys.
What Lifters Can Learn From Each Other
Q: You competed in both powerlifting and bodybuilding. What did bodybuilder Paul learn from powerlifter Paul, and vice versa?
A: One thing that powerlifting Paul learned from bodybuilding Paul was how important it is to train muscles and not just movements. That was a huge lesson.
Once I left powerlifting behind and dove back into bodybuilding, I really saw the vast differences in the two. Outside of the fact that you’re using barbells and dumbbells in both, I don’t think they could be any more dissimilar.
With powerlifting you want to put the body in the most mechanically advantageous position as possible to move the greatest amount of weight. It’s actually quite counterproductive, and I see a litany of competitive powerlifters show up on social media each week with new tears and strains.
Powerlifters should have some periods where they think and train like bodybuilders. More muscle means better leverages, and more muscle increases maximum strength potential.
When you’re trying to focus on muscular development (bodybuilding), you actually want to put that muscle into the least advantageous position so that it has to work much harder during the movement, i.e locking down the joints in a way that reduces the involvement of other muscle groups.
Problem is, most powerlifters become very one-dimensional in their training thoughts. I fell into the same trap. I forgot that despite the fact that maximal strength is largely neural based, the muscles are still moving the weight. I know, that’s a newsflash, right?
I continued to suffer from adductor strains when my squat would begin to climb. Simply training the adductors on the “good girl machine” rectified that problem. I had a similar problem later with my quads. Weight would go up, quads would sustain a strain.
I knew my quads needed to get stronger, but I was already doing high-bar paused squats with over 600 pounds, and front squats with 455 for reps. Surely I had strong quads. Wrong!
Due to years of perfecting my squat for my leverages, I’d really learned how to load up the hips and rely on them to do the brunt of the work. This meant that my hips were capable of squatting 635 pounds, but my quads were capable of, well, far less. Which is why anything in that range often resulted in me straining a quad.
I decided one day to rectify this and remove my superlative birth-giving hips from the equation. This meant hack squats, where the hips couldn’t contribute as much, and my measly quads would be forced to bear the brunt of the load.
It wasn’t much of a load. I struggled with three plates for a set of ten on hacks. That was a very humbling day. But it also let me know I was on the right track. I knew that if I got strong as hell on hacks, then my quads would be able to contribute to my squat and not be the weak link.
I followed up all of my squats with 1-2 sets of hack squats for 10-15 reps. I was living in the “anything over 5 reps is cardio” mantra at that time, so I can’t explain in words how awful this was. After a few months of being diligent with this plan, both my hacks and my barbell squats ascended. I hit a gym-best 660 pound raw squat with good speed months later. My quads stayed attached to the bone, thankfully.
I think all powerlifters should be training for muscle growth and bringing up weak muscle groups for at least one twelve-week training cycle during the year. The problem is, most don’t want to do that. It’s hard to get out of your own head as a powerlifter. Squat, bench, deadlift… every week, all year.
I believe both powerlifters and bodybuilders can benefit from having training cycles where they focus on the other objective. Powerlifters should have some pure hypertrophy training cycles to shore up weak links, and bodybuilders should do some cycles where they focus on getting stronger on a few basic lifts.
Doing so will carry over into moving heavier loads in the traditional bodybuilder rep ranges, which should manifest into more muscle growth.
Deloads For Non-Competitors
Q: How do I know when to deload? Should I even worry about it if I don’t compete in powerlifting?
A: In a perfect world, we’d be able to figure out the exact number of days a week to train, with the exact amount of volume that stimulates growth and improves performance without ever feeling burned out or tired. And in that perfect scenario training would never have to stop.
Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world, so mental, physical, and emotional burnout from training is a real thing. For the non-competitor (who isn’t trying to time a training/recovery cycle to create supercompensation for competition) what are the benefits of deloading?
- It gives the sympathetic nervous system a break.
- It gives the lifter time to reflect on the previous training cycle. That reflection allows for better planning on the next training cycle.
- It gives the joints and connective tissue a break. You only have so many revolutions in those things.
- It allows for higher levels of strength and fitness to manifest through the multifaceted elimination of fatigue (systemic, muscular, mental, emotional). Sort of like a mini supercompensation.
Here’s some real talk for you. If you don’t pay attention to the signs of being rundown from training, then you’re probably going to end up getting some “forced rest” from injury. Training is a metaphysical undertaking, especially if you’re training hard. That taxes virtually every physiological system you have. So it just makes sense to take some time off to allow for total systemic recovery.
As for when you should deload, here’s the method I use:
- Every six weeks, do some self assessments. My self assessment was to ask myself if I was hungry or full. Confused? Lemme explain.
If you’re living in primal times and need to find food, then dopamine is going to be elevated because finding food is kind of important when it comes to survival. It’s the neurotransmitter for motivation, achievement, and attainment. Once you get food, and eat a lot of it, your serotonin levels will rise and you’ll feel satisfied.
I’m oversimplifying, but the point is that the brain is constantly analyzing in order to assess the risk of pain or injury against the satisfaction of winning or achievement. Your brain knows when you need to rest. If you’re paying attention to that feedback you’ll heed it and rest, not be a dumbass and keep pushing through.
- At six weeks, I’ll analyze if I feel full or if I’m still hungry. Do I look forward to walking into the gym to load up the bar (hungry), or would I rather be doing anything other than that (full)?
Do my joints hurt? Is my perception of effort really high compared to what it was last week or the week before, i.e. “these workouts feel tougher than they did two weeks ago.”
- When I realize I’m full and know I need to deload, the first thing I do is take at least three complete days off. If I need more, I take it. I’ve taken as much as ten days off; I just didn’t want to go back into the gym during that time.
- I wait until enthusiasm returns. That means I’m not ruled by the ridiculous notion that all of my gains are going to dry up while I’m resting.
Once I start feeling the itch to return to the gym, I don’t. That’s right, I don’t yet. I sit down and write out my potential programming and think about what it is I’d like to accomplish in the next training cycle.
- After that’s ironed out I use one to two weeks of break-in training where I slowly ramp the effort and intensity back up.
There’s a myriad of ways to deload, but this is the way I’ve found that works best. Regardless of what method you choose, adhere to the full three-days off no matter what your deload protocol might be.
Simplifying A Fat Loss Diet
Q: I’m so confused about how to diet for fat loss. Are there some really simple rules that would cut out all the confusion?
A: Dieting for fat loss is THE most simple concept to understand.
The two variables that are the most important:
1. Figuring out your maintenance caloric intake.
For most people, maintenance caloric intake is going to fall somewhere between bodyweight x 13-15. You don’t need to go out and punch in a zillion numbers to some TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) calculator. Just use a normal calculator and you’ll arrive within ballpark range.
2. Making sure you’re getting adequate protein.
Adequate protein is usually 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. Yes, bodyweight. Stop asking if it’s “lean muscle.” No one needs to go get a DEXA scan to figure out their protein intake.
Now do this:
- Eat quality protein at every meal and get at least 20 grams of it in… yes at every meal.
- Eat all of the vegetables you want during the day.
- Eliminate hyperpalatable foods that fire up the reward circuitry in the brain. Don’t act like you don’t know what they are. Oreos, pizza, doughnuts, potato chips, ice cream, etc. Overly processed foods make people overeat.
- Eliminate sugary drinks. This includes fruit juices. Most of these have little to no nutritional value.
- Push the majority of your carbs into the peri-workout and post-workout meal.
- Manipulate your overall fat and carb intake to your preference.
- Stay on maintenance caloric intake for two weeks, then reduce calories by 10% through the reduction of carbs or fats (once again, based on preference). Protein should never be reduced once it’s dialed in. Continue reducing calories through carb and or fat elimination until fat loss goals are met.