Chest Training – Train for growth not for ego!
“So, how much do you bench?” As you are reading this article that may be a question that you have been asked many times! It seems to be the measure of alpha male prowess when you are chatting to someone in a bar. You are rarely asked, “how much do you deadlift?” or “how much do you squat?” Yet out of these movements I have mentioned, the bench press is probably the one where technique between training for a maximal lift and training for aesthetics varies quite considerably. Sure there may be slight changes in foot placement when deadlifting or squatting for a maximal lift as opposed to when focusing on muscular aesthetics, but for the most part the technique is the same.
The bench press however is quite different. For this reason it is no wonder that one of the most common errors I see in the gym is a guy trying to push as much weight as possible for reps on a bench press rather than focusing on working the muscle group they are trying to improve. This then spills over to other chest exercises too, take cable crossovers for example, it seems that the “cable-press-over” has become one of the most common moves you will see in most gyms! With the focus on moving as much weight as they can, the individual ends up doing something closer to a press with cables rather than a crossover.
Like many others starting out with an ectomorphic body shape, the chest was a weak point for me, despite poor technique on most exercises to begin with, my arms and shoulders still grew easily, but the chest was always stubborn. It was only after I became more experienced, applied more focus to perfecting my form and developing proper mind-muscle connection that the size of my chest started to improve exponentially. The mind-muscle connection is key when training any body part for size, but perhaps strangely for an anterior body part, it is more difficult to develop with the pectoralis muscles than many other muscle groups.
So how do we go about improving our technique and start maximising the growth potential when it comes to chest training? Firstly, I would advise making the development of this mind-muscle connection the main focus of your chest workouts. This will invariably mean a reduction in weight to start with, but start to focus on feeling the chest working rather than the amount of weight you are using, ensure you take the muscle through a full range of motion and can squeeze the pecs together in the contracted state.
So going back to the bench press. One common error relates to the hand placement on the bar, which is frequently too wide. Sure, if you go too close with the grip the focus will switch more to the triceps, but too wide and you are reducing the range of movement that the muscles will go through. Taking a grip only slightly wider than shoulder width will enable a deep stretch as you lower the bar and a tighter squeeze in the contracted position. When in this contracted position, it is important not to lock the elbows otherwise tension will be taken off the pecs momentarily, reducing the total time under tension throughout the set and hence reducing the stimulus for growth. A major
difference between the technique used in powerlifting and correct technique when training for aesthetics is the recruitment of other muscle groups. To reduce the workload on the anterior delts keep the shoulder blades pinned back against the bench throughout the set. Again, you may need to reduce the weight to do this, but we are training for the development of your physique, not for ego!
Dumbbell flies are another movement that is all too often performed incorrectly in the gym. Either by performing a half fly half pressing movement like previously mentioned with respect to the cable crossovers, by not taking the muscles through a full range of motion, by reducing the tension on the chest at certain parts of the movement or by the use of momentum. When a client is struggling to work their chest correctly with dumbbell flies I will often take them to the cable station for crossovers, or the pec deck. On these pieces of equipment it is easier to get the client to focus on working the chest muscles throughout. Take crossovers for example; maintain a slight bend in the elbows, ensure that the muscles are allowed to fully stretch on the eccentric phase of the rep and then, maintaining the slight bend in the elbows, forcefully contract the chest muscles. I suggest stopping about 2 inches before the cables touch and squeeze the pecs together. Once the client is feeling the chest working throughout the whole rep, feeling the muscles stretch on the negative and feeling them squeeze on contraction, I will reintroduce dumbbell flies where these same principles need to be transferred across. It is too easy to allow momentum to take over in this movement, but maintaining the bend in the elbows throughout, lowering the weights under control to a deep stretched position and forcefully contracting the pecs to raise the dumbbells to a position where they almost touch (but don’t bang together!) will go along way to helping with your chest development!
For videos giving detailed information on training techniques as well as sample chest workouts, take a look at my members section