Tip: Strong Bench, Puny Pecs

Your PR is pretty darn good, but your chest is, well, sad. Here's why and how to fix it.

Categorized under Training

Here’s a question I received recently:

“I’m a former powerlifter turned bodybuilding-style lifter. I’m a strong bench presser but can’t get my chest to grow. What’s going on?”

That’s clearly an indication that your triceps and/or delts are taking over the brunt of the work. They’re receiving most of the growth stimulus instead of your chest.

There are several reasons why that can happen. Here are the two main ones:

  1. You may have a body type that puts either the triceps or delts (or both) in an advantageous position when pressing.
  2. You may have emphasized triceps and/or delts over the pecs for a long time.

Because of the influence of Westside Barbell, many powerlifters put a lot of emphasis on the triceps during assistance work. That’s likely the best way to train when you either compete in geared powerlifting or use a very large lower back arch when bench pressing.

A bench shirt gives you a lot of help in the bottom half of the range of motion, the portion when the pecs are typically doing most of the work. The sticking point with a bench shirt is often at the end of the ROM, where the triceps are the key muscle. For that reason, geared powerlifters put a lot of emphasis on getting the triceps stronger, causing the pecs to receive much less attention.

As for the large arch under your back, this technique is often used to shorten the pressing range of motion and give you better leverage. Powerlifters will often lower the bar more toward the lower portion of the chest, then press up in a straight line. Again, to shorten the ROM.

This will help you lift more weight, but it’ll also reduce the action of the pecs. And once again, powerlifters who lift like this usually emphasize the triceps in their training.

If you’ve been training like this for a few years, it’s quite possible that your triceps became dominant and your nervous system “learned” to rely on the them more than your pecs. So now, every time you’re doing a pressing exercise like bench press, incline bench, or dips, you’ll rely more on the triceps than the pecs. This will make the problem even worse over time.

Body type also plays a big role in which muscles are dominant and what will be the optimal exercise strategy. When it comes to pressing muscles, people with longer limbs will be more effective at stimulating the pecs and the triceps will be the hardest to develop. In order:

  • Easiest: Pecs
  • Middle: Delts
  • Hardest: Triceps

As such, they don’t require as much direct work for the chest or modifications to put it in a favorable position.

On the other hand, when you have shorter limbs, the triceps will be at a mechanical advantage when pressing. Depending on shoulder width, the delts can also be at an advantage. The pecs are thus the hardest to develop. In order:

  • Easiest: Triceps (if narrow clavicle) / Delts (if wide clavicle)
  • Middle: Delts (if narrow clavicle) / Triceps (if wide clavicle)
  • Hardest: Pecs

Compared to the long-limbed lifters, they’ll need more targeted work for the chest.

If you have short limbs (wingspan similar to height), relying on big pressing movements as your main chest work will simply not be very effective.

If you have short limbs and a narrow clavicle, I’d recommend one main pressing movement and 2-3 isolated exercises for the pecs. Pick either a wide-grip bench press, the Nilsson press or a dumbbell press (keeping the elbows out, almost in line with the shoulders) as the pressing movement.

The wider grip reduces the mechanical advantage that the triceps have and promotes a larger pec stretch (the muscle being stretched the most is the muscle being recruited the most). Then add 2-3 of the following:

  • Power Flye
  • Pec Deck (with hands at shoulder or mid-chest level)
  • Incline Cable Flye
  • Squeeze Press
  • Dumbbell Flye Press

If you have short limbs and a wide clavicle, you need to take both the triceps and delts out of the movements as much as you can. I’d still go with one pressing movement and 2-3 isolated exercises.

Use a slight decline for your pressing movement to reduce delt involvement. So either a wide-grip slight decline bench press or a slight decline dumbbell press. As for the isolation exercises, pick from these:

  • Cable Crossover
  • Decline Cable Flye
  • Decline Dumbbell Flye
  • Decline Squeeze Press
  • Pec Deck (with hands at lower pec level)

You can also use pre or post-fatigue to emphasize the focus on your pecs. This means combining your pressing movement with an isolated exercise as a superset.

Here are three potential strategies:

1. Pre-Fatigue Activation

Start by doing an isolated pec exercise and then go to your pressing movement. Don’t push the isolation exercise anywhere near failure. If you push too hard, you’ll fatigue the pecs too much and will actually use them less in the pressing movement. Use the isolated movement as contraction practice. Focus on squeezing the pecs and stop 3-4 reps short of failure.

2. Pre-Fatigue Burnout

Start the superset with an isolation exercise for the triceps, going to failure. Then do your pressing movement. By weakening the triceps, you’ll force your body to rely on the pecs more. Of course, you’ll use less weight at first, but see this as a re-programing superset you do for a few weeks to learn to rely on the pecs more when pressing.

3. Post-Fatigue Burnout

This is the most straight-forward approach. Start with your pressing movement and then immediately go to an isolated exercise for the pecs and train it to failure. This ensures they’ll have been fully stimulated by the combo. It’s important to rest longer between sets (3-4 minutes) to avoid having too much residual pec fatigue that would diminish the use of the pecs in the pressing portion of the next set.

Related:
The Very Best Push-Up for Pecs and Power

Related:
The Best Chest Training Tips. Period.