If you’re a lifter, I guarantee you’ve been asked The Question. It’s almost like a prerequisite to even joining a gym: “Here’s your towel, your member key, and, by the way, how much do you bench?”
Although it’s often asked nonchalantly, the true intent of The Question is to find the answer to an even deeper question: How much of a man are you?
The truth is, unless you’re a powerlifter, how much you bench is irrelevant. In fact, if your goals are primarily hypertrophy and aesthetics, chasing some number on the bench may be detrimental to your progress.
Developing a full chest—one that looks like it could bench a ton—lies in proper science and proper application of training.
In this article, I will cover scientific principles, how to apply functional exercises for better neural and physical development, and also the proper methodology for building the strong, muscular chest you want!
Function and Anatomy (Don’t Worry, It’s Not Boring!)
The chest is comprised of two muscles: the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. These two muscles perform two functions: one is horizontal adduction (drawing the arms toward each other) and the other is flexion of the shoulder joint (pushing the arms away from the body). This tells us that there are only two movements that activate the pectoralis major and minor, and those would be presses and flies.
The chest also functions best in the plane of motion between 0 and 45 degrees from a prone position (that translates to ‘from a flat bench to a 45-degree incline bench’.) Now I know that you’re thinking “What about decline presses?” Decline versions of presses and flies involve more than the chest as a prime mover and though they can be included (depending on the structure and leverage system of an individual), they are not necessary.
Because we know that a) the chest is most efficiently stimulated in the 0 to 45 degree plane of motion, and b) its main functions are to push away from the body and draw the arms together, the main components of your chest workout should be presses and fly movements done in a flat or incline position of no more than 45 degrees.
How to Target the Chest
The most efficient way to develop the chest is to use mainly dumbbells for presses because they require you to perform both functions of the chest (drawing the arms together and pushing away from the body) for greater stimulation and overload.
As you perform presses, make sure to push the weight upward at first, and then as you get to the top of the movement, bring the dumbbells together for full contraction of the pecs.
To ensure that you maintain tension on the chest, do not go below parallel to the shoulders; this way the chest is in its fully stretched position, but you are not putting the stretch into the shoulders. A phrase coined by my mentor Scott Abel is “a muscle that is stretched with resistance will receive the most overload,” so making sure you keep tension mainly in the targeted muscle is very important.
Now this is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t ever use barbells for presses, but the majority of your training protocol should be geared around dumbbells and cables. Cables, tubing, dumbbells, and even machines can and should be used for fly movements.
The barbell bench press performed the traditional way – feet on the floor – is a poor choice for chest development for a majority of individuals, especially for those with bad leverages (long arms). If your goal is to just press as much weight as possible, then the traditional approach is the preferred set-up. But if you’re looking for size and full development, we need to make a few adjustments.
Start by placing your feet up on the bench. By doing this, you lose stability in your hips and knees. The joint stress transfer goes to the shoulder joint, the pectoralis major becomes the prime mover, and your chest receives the greater amount of overload, which is what we want. Now you’re ready to rock.
A quick note about dumbbell flies: I see a lot of guys going extremely wide on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift. This is wrong. A fly performed with DBs should be more of a modified press in order to avoid stress on the rotator cuff and shoulder joint in general. As you descend, drop down at the elbows, making a semi-circle. As you perform the concentric portion of the lift, straighten your arms toward the top of the motion and squeeze your chest, without letting the DBs touch in order to maintain tension.
Overall, good form is essential with any exercise to ensure that you are targeting the intended working muscle and not just letting any muscle lift the weight from point A to point B. We seek quality contractions on each and every rep so that the muscle we are targeting receives the most overload.
When just focusing on weight, most people tend to lift the weight up instead of contracting it up for maximum stimulation.
The Quality of Each Rep
One of the main goals for a bodybuilder or any athlete should be to increase one’s Training Efficiency Percentage (TEP), which is defined as the percentage of reps in a given set that forces an adaptive response. When this is increased, the intensity of the set and reps increases, as well as the stress on the targeted muscle. This causes more of an adaptive response. Therefore, you want to make sure to train intensely on every rep of every set, focusing on training the muscle and not your ego.
Lastly, overall intensity is the key to any workout. I’m not talking about doing a one-rep max; I’m talking about exertion levels. When lifters come as close to their maximum workload capacity as possible, they will get much bigger payoffs in the end.
Allen Cress looks the part and also has a 400lb bench press to his name
Functional training is a great tool that can be used within a training protocol to stimulate the muscle in a different way than with traditional exercises. I’m going to show you one of many ways to implement this concept for better chest development (and no, it doesn’t involve wobble boards or other weird stuff) .
The basis of functional training is to train movements and not specific muscles. If applied correctly, functional exercises can fit into a program to induce more hypertrophy, which is what all bodybuilders and most regular individuals want. It also enhances balance and proprioception, which lead to better overall development.
Traditional training can cause severe muscle imbalances, arthritic joints, and a narrower range of motion over time due to training in a single plane of motion. Build-up of scar tissue, adhesions, and inflammation can also occur, leading to diminishing or no returns. Functional training can be used as a hybrid approach to correcting these problems and/or preventing them from happening in the first place. Functional exercises target the muscle differently, without adding any external resistance or load, so the recovery time is much shorter.
For example, medicine ball (MB) crossover pushups are a great functional exercise for the chest. The range and plane of motion involved in this exercise stimulates the chest neurally as well as physically. Activation potential, fiber recruitment, and rate of force production (explosiveness) within a working muscle or movement are extremely important to anyone looking for better development.
These movements should be placed on a separate day from your traditional chest day, such as an addition to leg exercises on leg day. One other benefit to placing them on leg day is the increase in metabolic demand due to the pairing of two exercises that target two different muscle groups. The functional exercises will not interfere with the leg recovery, but will induce greater oxygen debt, and thus helping to increase workload capacity.
Sample Hybrid Chest Workout
A single workout is not a program, and a collection of exercises is not exactly a workout or a program. What you do the day before and after a certain training day does matter and needs to be taken into account.
I design programs as part of a bigger picture and not one be-all/end-all program that will achieve all of your goals. It is a collection of programs over time with proper progression that teaches the body to handle greater intensity loads and to adapt to stress placed on the body.
That said, it’s always helpful to have a guide.
The following workouts are designed to be part of a body-part split that trains each muscle once per week and is intended for intermediate to advanced level trainees. There are three different workouts for chest. Rotate each workout from week to week, keeping them in the given sequence for a total of four repeats, which will give you three months worth of workouts.
The breakdown during the week is as follows:
Step Outside the Box and Try Something New
You must work hard and work intelligently to get the best results. Your body adapts to the stimulation and stress you place on it, which is why it’s important to select proper exercises to suit your body’s needs and to ensure that you stimulate your body in such a way as to cause an adaptive response.
More often than not, a serious lifter’s gains can be attributed to changing something in his program, thus providing the body with a new stimulus. On the other hand, when a lifter gets stuck in a period of muscular stagnation, the first instinct is often to go back to a program that worked well in the past, rather than trying something new. This is a huge mistake! You need to step outside the box and take a chance if you ever want to take it to the next level.
So if your goal is to develop a full, round chest that just pops out of your shirt, stop being overly concerned about how much you bench and get on the right path to effective training. Give this program a try if you’ve been stuck in a canyon-sized rut for a while. Soreness and growth are guaranteed!