Not many muscle groups have their own international day, so next time you pop to the gym on 'Monday Chest day' make sure you have read this article by Ross Gilmour to learn how to get the most out of the day...
Building a pigeon chest, man cleavage, shelf, percolating pectorals, whatever the name, a good set of chesticles is certainly a commonly shared goal by men the world over. It provides stature to how a man carries himself. For the ladies, pressing heavy weights makes them feel totally badass and is of course important within a balanced training program. After all, Monday is international chest day right?
Jokes aside, I have an observation I’d like to share with you, one which I’m sure you can relate to. If you and I were to walk into just about any commercial gym on a Monday evening, what do you reckon we would see? If I were a betting man, I’d wager you would see a plethora of cringe worthy bench press, dumbbell press, dumbbell fly’s, cable fly's and many other bastardised variations of said movements. I’d also wager an equal amount of partial reps and the local bro’s putting on way more weight than they can realistically handle.
Then there are those who genuinely have the best intentions. They are cautious about lifting more than they can handle and not sure if what they are doing is right. The thing is they are petrified to ask for help.
Last but not least, there's the trainee who trains well. They have made decent progress over time but are now finding themselves stuck in a plateau, feeling frustrated about a lack of progress.
We have all been in one or more of these scenarios at some point right? Or perhaps we still are and don’t even realise it. Yet, there is a commonality that we all share.
We all want to make progress. We want to reap the rewards for our efforts.
“Just Lift More Volume Bro”
Not so fast bro...
We know that progressive overload is extremely important for building mass. Lift more weight, add more reps, increase volume, de-load, then rinse, wash, repeat all over again, that simple right? Not exactly.
Because if it were, gains would be flowing a plenty consistently and predictably. If we look purely at intensity and volume, we fail to consider what is ultimately the end game for any muscle building endeavour. Muscle tissue knows tension. It knows contractile force. Your muscles don’t have a Scooby Doo what weight you are lifting.
You want me to get to the point right?
The end game is Torque.
Now this is not an article about torque or advanced biomechanics, but I need to make sure we are all speaking the same language before charging forward to the sexy practical stuff.
Since this article is about growing some impressive pecs, I will revert from diving into the nitty gritty of torque and advanced biomechanics...If needed, I would recommend you check out THIS article on my profile to get giddy on the details.
Before I elaborate, one of the key lessons from that article is this…
Weight is a component of Torque.
For many of you reading this, such terminology may not be new. For others, diving into exercise biomechanics may be a road less traveled… and that's cool.
The takeaways to apply in practice will be usable by all, so hang in there!
Grow The Parts You WANT To Grow!
You would think my next point is common sense, yet if you had to ask the majority of lifters at your local gym why they are performing a specific chest exercise, the answer would be about as clear as a dehydrated mans piss. Most exercises selected for chest training are dictated by tradition and protocols dictated by fitness magazine and Fitness Celebs from “The Gram”.
We don’t have to rely on either. Rather, we can draw up motion, forces and the actual demands placed upon a muscle.
When looking at an exercise, we can determine whether the resistance profile matches the strength profile in the way we require. Take the traditional Dumbbell Pec Fly. Sure, you get a great amount of the torque in the fully lengthened (stretched) position, yet for the majority of the movement there is very little stimulation due to the resistance being too light from the mid to shortened position.
Movements that allow you to match the strength and resistance profiles are going to maximise stimulation of the target muscle.
Want to maximise tension of the upper pecs in the shortened position? Then the lines of force and profiles have to work with this intention in mind.
I like how Joe Bennett (aka @thehypertrophycoach) summarises the importance of targeted exercise execution. You can train and get bigger overall, or you can train and grow in the areas you want to grow.
Having full control over the Pec fibres you actually want to stimulate is a game changer for building a barrel chest!
You Can’t Train The Upper and Lower Pecs The Same Way...
At least not entirely! This simple fact is due to the different functions of the main pec fibres:
The Clavicular Head
The Sternocostal Head.
It is important to note that just about all chest exercises work both heads to some degree. Some place more emphasis on the Clavicular head whilst others the Sternocostal Head.
Both heads share certain actions of the shoulder joint and scapulae:
Shoulder internal rotation
Shoulder horizontal adduction
It is in the differences where a different approach to execution must be made. The Clavicular head assists with shoulder flexion, while the Sternocostal head assists with shoulder extension. The Sternocostal head also has additional scapular roles, such as scapular depression & downward rotation.
As a result, the cues used for the coaching emphasis on either head are slightly different and similarly our intent when performing the relevant exercises.
The Upper Pecs
For the Clavicular/Upper pec fibres, flat and incline setups are generally best. These setups allow us to work with the shoulder flexion role of the upper pec fibres. These fibres run laterally from their insertion on the clavicle, so when the arm is abducted to a point where the insertion points on the humerus and clavicle line up optimally, we get a very favorable joint profile to generate tension towards adduction. Therefore, exercises where the elbows line up with the height of the shoulders (within reason and mobility capabilities) will provide the biggest bang for your buck. It just so happens this is where the longest moment arm can be created.
These are 3 Upper Pec Exercises I’ve found to be incredibly effective, both for myself and the clients I coach.
1. Pronated Shoulder Height Cable Fly’s With Foam Roller - Short Position Focused
Video URL: ( https://youtu.be/QS-Tn7Pav64 )
Key Execution Points:
Set the cable up in line with chest/shoulder height.
The bench setup just in front of the line between the 2 cables.
A long foam roller placed on the seat, which will allow your shoulder blades to wrap around the roller for increased range and movement quality.
Grab the cables by the ends with no handle attachment with palms facing down.
Press your feet into the floor, pushing back into the roller.
Ribcage down, T-spine extended and core braced.
Start by pressing out to the shortened position and set your scaps.
Create tension by thinking “bicep to bicep” in the shortened position.
Maintain tension as you open up the arms and stop at the end of your active range.
Pause then, once again, create tension with the “bicep to bicep cue” and physically move the biceps closer to each other.
In the shortened position, bias a little internal rotation for an extra hard contraction!
2. Reverse Band Wide Grip Bench Press
Video URL: ( https://youtu.be/J2WgOe7hEnU )
You need a power rack ideally for this one.
Reverse band setup with a band hanging down in line with the bar path he weight will move in.
IMPORTANT: load the bar with some weight first before adding the bands, trust me!
Setup as per your usual bench press setup with a wide grip (relative to what’s wide for you).
This is more of a guillotine style press, with the elbows travelling wide and bar in line with your upper chest (clavicles funnily enough!).
Pause at the bottom.
In the bottom position, think about “squeezing the bar together” as if you are trying to shorten the bar. This about creating inward tension (adduction).
Keep that squeeze on the bar as you press out to the top.
Stabilize, then repeat.
3, Cuffed Shoulder Height Cable Presses
Video URL: ( https://youtu.be/DUAFleiJ9mI )
You need a set of cable cuffs for this variation. You can use handles, it’s just not as good!
If your cuffs are big enough, strap above the elbow, otherwise below will still work albeit a little uncomfortable.
Same setup as the cable fly’s shown previously, except the bench about a foot further forward, since we are emphasising the mid position.
Start with your elbows bent at 90 degrees in the lengthened/stretched position., elbows in-line with shoulder height.
From the start position, with scaps set, press as if performing a regular cable chest press.
To really get that intense contraction, think about moving bicep to bicep with a small internal rotation intention.
Create as much tension as possible, then hold onto as much tension as possible back to the start position.
The Lower Pecs
For the Sternocostal fibres, we want to also bias shoulder internal rotation, but this time towards extension. This is why Decline setups are best for the lower pec fibres, given we are already setup in shoulder extension from the start, we can really utilise this to our advantage. The fibres run laterally and connect to their origins on the sternum and ribs, so adduction is still an important emphasis here.
These are 2 awesome lower pec exercises, each with a slightly different emphasis. One focuses on shoulder extension and adduction, while the second movement allows us to really add more tension towards internal rotation to the mix.
1. Decline Bench Press with Partner/Banded Resistance
Video URL: ( https://youtu.be/liopgNQiokg )
Setup as per regular decline bench.
Either have a spotter help you with this or a light resistance band pulling bar from behind you.
Perform the bench press, resisting shoulder flexion by emphasising shoulder extension.
Feel that lower chest fire up like a Christmas Tree all year round!
2. Decline DB Bench Press with Internal Rotation & Extension Bias
Video URL: ( https://youtu.be/wA5MsIQTfUY )
When using Dumbbells on a decline bench, it’s always worth getting a spotter to help you setup.
Working within the Scapular Plane, take the elbows as wide as possible while lowering with control to the lengthened position.
Pause in the bottom then create that internal tension, as if you are going to push the dumbbells together without actually doing so.
In a smooth controlled transition, press the DB’s maintaining that internal tension.
Upon lockout, there are 3 key actions of intent.
Press as if you are pushing towards your hips so the dumbbells finish slightly ahead of the shoulders.
“Bicep towards Bicep” emphasising abduction.
Bias some internal rotation with the inside of the dumbbells turning slightly away from you.
Biomechanics For A Bionic Chest!
There is no need for your chest to feel sad and unnurtured! If you have been looking to find variations and cues to pack on some serious muscle on those chesticles, introduce these exercises into your routine! Who knows, if it also gets you thinking a little more about how important exercise execution really is, that’s a total win!
By Ross Gilmour