Chest is one of my favorite muscle groups to train and I think I am not the only one. In fact, have you noticed that everybody seems to hit chest on Monday? It’s just like Monday is the international chest day. That’s why I hit it on Tuesday, because all the machines are taken on Monday, hahaha.
Anyways, every guy wants to have a big chest, it looks good and gives you that superhero look and girls like it as well which is pretty cool. That’s why every gym newbie hits chest like crazy and can’t wait to make it grow. But most of the times the results you’re getting are nothing near what you expected – no size, no definition or poor development.
If this is you, read on and find out how to get a big muscular chest by following a very simple training plan.
Common mistakes in chest training
Using light weight
It has been scientifically and anecdotally proven that heavy resistance training is optimal for muscle hypertrophy. Heavy weight activate the fast twitching muscle fibers which are responsible for strength and which have the most potential for growth.
Heavy lifting also referred to as training high intensity means lifting weights that are 80-85% of your 1 rep max. This will mean a lot of heavy barbell and dumbbell bench press, usually in the rep range of 4 to 6 or 6 to 8.
In fact this is valid for all major muscle groups, not just chest. Training heavy promotes muscle growth. Training low intensity or low weight does not help too much.
That’s why you see a lot of skinny guys lifting light weights forever and not making any progress. Your focus should be on progressive overloading and getting stronger over time. You can do this by following a proper training plan, not just a workout routine. A workout routine is just a list of exercises you repeat each week, that’s it. A training plan is way of training is such a way that you make steady progress towards your goals each day; it’s a strategy that supports your targets.
Doing the wrong exercises
The only exercises you need to do for a big chest:
- Incline barbell bench press
- Incline dumbbell bench press
- Flat barbell bench press
- Decline barbell bench press
- Dips chest version
- Dumbbell flyes
Forget about the smith machine, the cable crossovers, pushups or other type of isolation exercises. Free weight compound movements are the key to a muscular chest. Anything else is just extra and definitely not necessary to build a great chest.
The top 4 exercises above are absolutely “must do” and the main drivers for muscle growth, while chest version of the dips and dumbbell flyes are great supplementary exercises that should be included at the end of a chest training day.
These exercises will get you an all-round well developed chest. You don’t want just a big chest. You want it to be correctly developed, having size in all areas – upper, mid and lower section.
Most guys have a well developed mid-lower chest and lack upper chest development due to poor training and due to ego lifting. When you want to impress someone in the gym you lift big and in order to lift big you do the flat bench or the decline. These two are much easier to do than the incline and this is a common mistake in many beginners – not focusing on upper chest development, which makes a great difference in the way you look.
A heavy bottomed chest doesn’t look aesthetic at all. Here’s what I mean.
A poorly developed upper chest looks bad, no matter how big your mid-lower chest gains are. As you can see there is no or very little separation between the pectoral muscle and the clavicle. That’s how poor upper chest development looks like.
Now look at a good developed upper chest.
Even if the size is not too impressive, the fact that the muscle equally developed gives a bigger and fuller look, definitely more aesthetic. You don’t need a whole bunch of size to look good, just have the muscle developed equally and a decent body fat percentage. Look at the separation between the chest and the clavicle.
The chest is made out of 3 individual muscles: pectoralis major, pectoralis minor and serratus anterior. These muscles make our arms move across our bodies, up and down and sideways.
We’re not going to get into details of each of them, but for the purpose of this article I think it’s good to know at least the 3 muscles that make up the chest and where they are located.
Is the biggest muscle out of the 3, it has a fan shape and it connects the stern, clavicle and some of the ribs with the humerus bone (close to the shoulder).
This is a much smaller muscle that is situated underneath the pectoralis major and it connects some of the ribs with the shoulder blades. It has a triangular shape.
Lastly but not least, serratus anterior is a muscle that doesn’t really look like being part of the chest muscle group from a training point of view, but from an anatomy lesson point of view it does so I’ve included it in here.
The serratus anterior attaches the pectoral muscles to the ribs, just as you see in the picture below.
Now, as you may notice, the way we refer to chest from a training or muscle building point of view – upper chest, lower chest, inner chest or mid chest – has nothing to do with the actual individual muscles that make up the chest.
Upper, mid and lower chest are not muscle groups, they are different parts of the same muscle which is in fact the pectoralis major. Depending on the angle you are working out your chest, different parts of it grow more than others – that’s all.
Also, all the chest exercises outlined above are not involving just the pectoral muscles, but are chest focused. These exercises bring in your triceps, your shoulders and probably other muscles depending on the form.
Upper chest is not a myth
Even though there is no such thing as upper chest from a medical or anatomy point of view, upper chest is a huge thing and literally is what makes the difference between a great chest and a not so great chest.
The upper chest is in fact the clavicular head of the pectoralis major, which is the very top part of the pectorals major muscle, hence the name – upper chest.
The reason for the big hype around upper chest is because this part of the pecs tends to lag behind if you don’t do a lot of incline pressing movements. If you are doing just flat bench press, flyes and smith machine you are on your way to getting a flat upper chest. A lot of beginners and even intermediates have this issue, that’s why the endless debate about upper chest and the multitude of forum threads on this topic.
If your upper chest is lacking it’s not because of your genetics, it’s because you don’t follow an optimal training plan and you don’t include a lot of incline pressing movements. Incline bench press puts more focus on the upper part of the pectorals major while still hitting the rest of the pecs.
How to perform correctly any bench pressing barbell chest exercise
Alright, so we already agreed that incline, decline and flat bench press are the best exercises for a solid chest, but the results you get from doing them will depend a lot on your technique and form. That’s why it is very important to learn how to execute them with perfect form.
This will prevent injuries and will help you make more gains by implementing progressive overload and by executing the movement so that you are putting more emphasis on chest development, rather than bringing too much triceps or shoulders into the movement.
Step 1: Use lock collars
If you are using the barbell make sure to put on lock collars to keep the plates fixed to the bar and to keep it balanced. This is a very important if you don’t have a spotter or if the bar gets destabilized because of your poor form. Safety first!
Step 2: Use the power rack if you don’t have a spotter
In case you train a lone and you don’t have a friend helping you on that last rep I recommend staying 1-2 reps short of failure in order to avoid getting yourself injured, or go ahead and use a power rack with safety arms that will save your life is you miss the last rep.
If your gym doesn’t have a power rack you definitely need to ask somebody to spot you if you plan on making a PR attempt or something crazy like that.
Step 3: Position on the bench
Once the setup is in place and you have your weights secured on the bar, you need to have a good position on the bench. No matter how tall or short you are, no matter if you are on the flat, incline or decline, you should always have the bar right above your eyes. That’s how you align.
You don’t want to be upper or lower on the bench than that or you may have trouble with un-racking and racking back the bar or you will hit the hooks that hold the bar when you go up and down with it.
Push your chest up, shoulders back a little bit and have your middle-upper back tight. The majority of the weight should be taken by your upper back, and very little weight should be on your lower back. Keep your back tighten this way throughout the set.
Your back should be arched on the bench, not flat.
Your feet should be on the ground, not in the air, right beneath your knees, but don’t push through your legs.
Step 4: Hand placement & grip
Put your hand on the bar just a little bit wider than your shoulder width. The distance between your hands should be set so that when you go all the way down with the bar your forearms are perpendicular on the ground.
You can set this up correctly by trying it just with the bar, no weights until you get it right. That’s the correct hand placement.
The secret for a good grip is to have your wrists and fists as tight as possible. This will prevent injuries and pain in the wrist joints. Also, the bar should be sitting more towards the back of the hand and your wrist should be straight up, not bent.
Step 5: Form/execution
Once you have everything above in check you are ready to start doing the actual exercise.
There are 3 parts that make up the exercise. There’s the un-rack of the bar, there’s the rep itself (going down and then up – or the negative and the positive as it’s often referred) and then there’s the re-rack of the bar. All of them are very important for avoiding injuries and for an optimal chest workout.
Take the bar of the rack by pushing it straight up until you have your elbows locked and your hands straight. Then align the bar so that it sits just above your shoulders / upper chest where it is balanced.
Next, bend your elbows and let the bar go down while controlling the weight throughout the movement. You should feel the tension on your chest and a little bit of on the triceps if you are doing it right.
The important thing that many people do wrong is not having proper elbow alignment versus the body. You should have your elbows at a 50-60 degree angle from your body – not to wide out and not to close together. This position allows proper shoulder protection and stability while putting maximum tension on the pectoral muscles.
Lower the bar so that it touches the lower part of your chest and then push it back up following the same path. When you have the bar up it should be right above your shoulders, just as it was before you started the negative (down) movement.
Incline bench press particularity: when doing incline bench press, the bar should go down just below your chin, on your upper chest, not at lower chest level. Anything else it’s the same. This exercise is great for building the upper part of the chest and I highly recommend doing it.
The angle of the bench should be typically between 30 and 45 degrees; however you will hit your delts more if it is too inclined. I like to have it at 30 degrees.
Decline bench press particularity: when doing decline bench press, the bar should go just a little bit lower than when doing the flat bench press – at the stern level, right below the nipples. Anything else it’s the same.
The decline bench press puts more emphasis on the lower chest, however it has a shorter range of movement and it is not as effective as incline and flat bench press. Dips are a good replacement of the decline bench press if you don’t like doing it or if you are just like me and you don’t really feel it in your chest.
Going up should be explosive quick and you should feel the chest contracting at the top of the movement. Lock your elbows at the very top.
Notice that the up and down movement is not 100% straight up and down. You start at shoulder level and end at lower chest level.
Once you are done with your reps you are ready to re-rack the bar. Do this with your hands straight up, elbows locked, and let the bar touch the uprights and then let it down on the hooks. Don’t do this with your elbows bent and don’t try to put it directly on the hooks. Let the uprights to the work, you just need to let it down.
Lastly but not least, don’t forget to breath. Breath in as you lower the bar and breath out as you push it back up.
Variations of the chest bench press
What I described above is the traditional way of doing barbell bench press. However you may see people doing different variations of the exercise, which are not necessarily wrong, they just allow different ways of putting the stress on the pecs and are usually done by advanced lifters that try to break through plateaus or are simply experimenting. Here are a few of these variations:
- Constant tension – not locking your elbows at the top
- Slow negatives – letting the bar down really slow (more than 2 seconds)
- Pause reps – having the bar sit on your chest for 1-2 sec, rather than just touch it before coming back up
- Half reps – doing the reps using half of the range of motion
Again, these are not considered to be more effective than the correct/traditional way of doing bench press, in fact they may be less effective, but are OK to try once you reach a certain level of experience in the gym.
Dumbbell bench pressing
This one is a great addition to the barbell bench pressing exercises which works pretty much in the same way, but allows for a greater range of motion because you are able to go down lower and stretch the pectoral muscle more and then you can put your hands together closer and contract the muscle better as you go up. So it’s superior from this point of view.
The downside is that you can go as heavy as you do with the barbell, mostly because you need to stabilize each dumbbell individually, as opposed to the barbell version where you have the bar making things easier for you from this point of view.
From an execution point of view, the same techniques should be applied.
Dips – Chest version
I find the dips to be great for developing the lower part of my chest and I include them in each of my chest days, right after I’m done with the pressing movements.
As you may know, dips are primarily a triceps focused exercise; however it can easily be tweaked to put more emphasis on chest. Here’s how.
First and foremost get a good strong grip of the parallel bars. Same as the bench press bar – have the parallel bars more towards the back end of your palm and have your wrist straight and tight. Have your elbows locked in and let your body hang. At this point your entire bodyweight should be sustained by your elbows more or less.
Next, before going up and down you need to adjust the position your body/torso correctly so that the movement is going to hit the chest more. This is the important part.
In order to put more emphasis on the lower chest, your upper body should be slightly lean forward while your legs should be pushed backwards a little bit to act as a counterweight and balance your body. You should be at a 10-15 degree angle from the vertical.
Once you are in this position bend your elbows and lower your body until the upper part of your arms (the bone that connects the elbow to the shoulder) are pretty much parallel with the ground. You can go higher than that if you feel any pain in the shoulders.
Then go back up again to the starting point and lock in your elbows again and repeat. Everything should be tight and you should control de movement.
This is primarily a bodyweight exercise, but you can add more weight if it become too easy to do.
How to warm up correctly
Now that we know what exercises to include in a chest training day and how to execute them let’s talk briefly about warming up correctly before getting to the heavy weights. This is a step that you should never skip or you’ll be on your way to snapping some shit up.
You only need to warm up before doing the first exercise of your routine, not before each separate exercise. Therefore, let’s say you start with the incline bench press. Here’s how a good warm up would look like:
- Do a set of 15-20 reps with the bar to get the joints heated and lubricated.
- Do a set of 12-15 reps with 50-60% of your working weight to warm up your muscles and get into the grove.
- Do a set of 1-2 reps with 90% of your working weight to see how the weight feels. Do only 1 or 2 reps, you don’t want to burn you off at this point.
And you are done and ready to get to work.
Doing 5-10 minutes of jogging, walking or other type of cardio does not mean you can skip the above weight lifting warm up. It’s OK to do it if you like to get the blood flowing (though it’s not necessary), but warming up on the first weight lifting exercise you do is mandatory.
Once you are done with the first exercise you can move on to the next one, using your working weight right from the beginning.
Alright then, what’s a good chest workout plan?
Here is my current chest workout which is great for strength gains and muscle building.
- Incline barbell bench press – 5 sets of 4 to 6 reps
- Incline dumbbell bench press – 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps
- Dips chest version – 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps
- Flat barbell bench press – 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
- Dumbbell flyes – 3 sets 8 to 12 reps
I do this only once per week, hence the high volume. If you are hitting chest twice a week you should drop the volume to almost half.
The above workout is quite high intensity, so I recommend resting about 2 minutes between each set.
Now, as I mentioned above a workout routine is just a bunch of exercises you repeat each week. That’s it. What you want to do is to have a workout plan. Have a progression plan. Track your strength and aim at squeezing in one more rep every week or every month, depending on your experience in the gym.
When you’ve reached 6 reps or 8 reps, increase the weight and start over at 4 reps or 6 reps. This is how you grow and this is how you get a bigger chest.
Have a plan for hitting plateaus, do different exercises, do different variations, work on your technique, find out where the problem is and break to those plateaus.