In the first two installments of this series I discussed a number of exercise performance tips for the delts and traps, tips I learned from various bodybuilders during the 24 years I've been involved with lifting weights. I made the point that bodybuilding is a continuous education - if you can keep your eyes, ears and mind open, you can and should learn new things every year.
This month I'm going to discuss techniques for the chest. If these tips help you half as much as they did me, you're in for a real treat.
After biceps curls the bench press is probably the most popular exercise among bodybuilders. Often called the "king of upper body movements," the bench press is considered to be essential for building big pectoral muscles.
If you look back in history, you'll note that the guys who had the biggest chests were all bench press advocates, from Reg Park in the '50s to Sergio Oliva, Serge Nubret, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu in the '60s and '70s, to Bertil Fox and Lee Haney in the '80s and '90s. It's hard to think of a single champion in the past 40 years who had a big chest and didn't consider the bench press his number one chest exercise.
Ironically, despite the fact that the top men find them highly effective, many bodybuilders find that bench presses do little for their pecs. I should know. I was one of them. All I seemed to get out of bench pressing was big front delts, some triceps development and large lower pecs. I just couldn't build my middle and upper pecs that way.
It wasn't until I met master trainer John Parrillo in 1990 that I learned how to bench press properly for full pec development. When I met John, I was what he calls a "delt bench presser" instead of a "pec bench presser." John explained that the reason I got little pec development from my benches was because I relied on the strength of my front delts to push the weight up. He showed me that at the top of the movement I was dropping my chest - flattening it out at the time when I should have been arching it - and pushing up with my delts and triceps. That's why I had flat, underdeveloped pecs and full, thick front delts.
At the time I'd been training for more than 22 years and had written several articles on how to bench press properly. In these articles I'd warned about excessive arching of the back, which shortens the range of motion the bar has to travel; about bouncing the weight off your chest, using momentum to get the bar up instead of pec power; and about keeping your elbows from drifting forward, as that keeps the pecs from getting the proper stretch. I emphasized using strict form and deep concentration and trying to feel the pecs working during both the concentric and eccentric portions of the exercise.
None of this information was wrong or bad, but it wasn't the whole story. Even when I used what I considered to be strict form, my pecs didn't grow as they should have. I was perplexed and frustrated.
I wondered if perhaps bench presses just didn't - or couldn't - work for me because of my structure. I wasn't sure though; I know something was wrong, but I couldn't figure out what it was. Parrillo finally filled in the missing piece of the puzzle.
In order to become a pec bench presser and build full, thick pectoral muscles, including my middle and upper pecs (yes, believe it or not, the bench press is an excellent upper pec exercise if you perform it properly), John said I first had to learn how to set up my pectoral girdle correctly so I could place the mechanical advantage squarely on the pecs. Once I learned how to do this, my chest became noticeably thicker and fuller in a matter of months. In fact, I noticed some difference after a few weeks.
- Lie back on the bench and take a tight grip on the bar, placing the hands an inch or two wider than a shoulder width grip apart seems best for most people. Next- and this is absolutely vital - roll and work your shoulders under your body. You do this by pushing them hard down toward your waist and back into the bench. This sets up your pectoral girdle correctly. You must maintain this position on each and every rep. Keep pushing your shoulders down and back at all times!
- Next, thrust your chest forward and begin the exercise. At the top of the movement lock your elbows out while you push your sternum up. This is the opposite of what most experts say to do. Most trainers will instruct you to push the bar up only 2/3 of the way to keep constant tension on the pecs, but if you don't lock out, you won't activate the upper pecs. At the same time you're locking out your elbows and arching your sternum, try to squeeze your shoulders down with your lower lats and pectoralis minor.
- There's one more very important point. The bar should not - I repeat, not - travel up and down in a straight, vertical line. You should move it in an arc, sort of a modified S. The overall plane in which the bar travels should tilt backward toward your head, but initially, as it leaves your chest, you should push it up and out toward your feet. That's the bottom of the S. After several inches the bar naturally starts curving back, which is the halfway point of the S. Continue pushing it up on a backward-tilted plane, then right at the top as you lock out, move it forward a bit, which forms the top part of the S.
Try this technique with a light weight at first until you get the action down correctly. if you do your presses this way, you should even feel your upper pecs working, not just the lower or middle-lower pecs, as you normally would. You won't believe how much your chest will thicken up after some time spent benching this way, especially if you're someone who never got much out of this movement before.
Many gyms have benches welded at angles that are 60 to 70 degrees or more. This is too steep. Pressing at this angle involves too much deltoid. The ideal angle for building pecs with incline or decline work is 25 to 30 degrees. If the benches in your gym are too steep, use an incline/decline bench and press from the power rack.
You can also try placing a few boards or plates under a flat bench to create your own low incline or decline bench. Mohamed Makkawy used to do his benches that way. He called them "20 degree bench presses," and he preferred them to regular flat bench presses.
I had the opportunity to observe Paul Jean-Guillaume doing an unusual version of cable crossovers that work the upper pecs. Instead of taking the high handles and pulling them down in front of his crotch, Paul faced away from the machine, stepped slightly out from it and grabbed the low handles. He pulled them up from behind his body, creating pull on his pecs, then brought his arms up over his face and crossed them at the top. This isolates the upper pecs and also works the difficult to build inner-upper pecs.
It's easier to achieve this elbows out, high and wide position by twisting your palms so the bar runs diagonally across them. This puts your little finger on the top of the bar and your thumb underneath. If you lose your focus for even an instant, you'll feel less stress on your upper pecs, so really concentrate on keeping your elbows high and wide at all times, and those upper pecs will burn.
I've found that holding the bar diagonally across my palms also works well on flat or incline presses on the Smith machine. You really feel more stretch in the pecs. Try it and you'll see what I mean.
The inner upper pecs are indeed tough to develop, but my good friend Negrita Jayde told me about an excellent exercise that really seems to hit them hard - narrow grip incline presses on the Smith machine.
Hold the bar with your hands 12-15 inches apart - that is, narrower than shoulder width. Do the reps smoothly, strictly and with concentration, trying to isolate the upper pecs and feel the action in the inner-upper pec area. Setting up your pec girdle as Parrillo recommends and twisting the bar in your hands a la Scott seems to help isolate the upper pecs. Experiment and see what works best for you.
Gironda dips are nothing like parallel bar dips, which make a better triceps exercise than a pec movement. Vince specifies that the bar should be 32 inches apart - a minimum of 28 inches. You want to keep your elbows wide and in line with your body, not back and behind the body, as you'd place them when dipping for triceps. In order to achieve this elbows wide position, it's necessary to dip with your wrists reversed so your palms face out instead of in. Then, as you lower your body, hold your chest in a concave position, with your chin pinched to the chest instead of held high, and your feet in front of your body, not back and behind. Your body should look like a quarter moon, or C.
The key to placing the stress on the outer sections of your pecs is to keep your elbows as wide as possible at all times. Imagine that you are trying to make your elbows touch in front of your body - obviously, a physical impossibility, but a useful mental image - and use the pulling power of your pecs to ascend, not the power of your triceps. Just remain in that concave position, and don't let your elbows drift. Another important point is to go as low as you can to fully stretch the pecs but come up 3/4 of the way to maintain constant tension.
This movement is hard on the wrists and takes some getting used to, but if you can learn to do it properly, it's fabulous for the pecs. Don't give up on it just because your wrists hurt or you can't get the feel in your pecs during the first few sets, because when you eventually master this exercise your pec problems will be over and your shoulder problems will be just beginning. No, wait. Check this out:
For those of you who simply cannot do the Gironda dip because you lack the necessary flexibility in your wrists or your dipping bars are too narrow (you just can't do reverse grip dips on narrow bars), try this variation. Use a wide grip on the straight or V-shaped bars. As you lower your body as far as you can, you want to feel as though it's traveling slightly down and back. Then, as you start to ascend, arch your chest and come up and out at the same time. When you get to the top, arch your chest hard and squeeze.
As with the bar in the bench press, the body doesn't travel on a straight plane. It's actually a big arc, sort of a mirror image of a C. The bigger the arc, the more stretch your pecs get and the harder they work. Experiment with this movement until you achieve the proper arc, and you'll see what I mean.
In his heyday Arnold Schwarzenegger was famous for his wide, thick, flaring pecs and was considered an expert at dumbbell flye movements. In an article in the old Muscle Builder/Power magazine he revealed one of his favorite variations for working the outer pecs - constant tension dumbbell flyes. Instead of touching the bells together at the top, he stopped when the weights were 12 to 15 inches apart, about 2/3 of the way up. Then, as soon as he felt the pressure coming off his outer pecs, he'd immediately lower the dumbbells again, going as deep as possible to really stretch his pecs. If you need more muscle on your outer pecs, this movement will help you build it.
Another unusual dipping variation works the pec minor of the chest hard. I learned this one from John Parrillo, and I call it, appropriately, the "Parrillo dip." This movement is great after you've gone to failure on regular or Gironda dips. To perform it get into the top position of a regular dip. Keeping your arms locked, lower your body as far as possible, then press your body up, thrusting your chest up and out and squeezing hard at the top. Make sure that you don't bounce and that your elbows don't bend at all. It's an odd exercise and the fatigue you experience is vague and hard to pinpoint, but hard work on the Parrillo dip will lead to improvements in your chest.
Note: Paul Kelso on what he calls"Shrug Dips":
- Warm up with several sets of parallel bar dips. Resume the position but this time raise and lower the body on straight arms using only the action of the shoulder girdle. This is the direct negative of the common standing shrug. Lower the body by allowing the shoulders to raise toward the ears. Raise the body by forcing the shoulders down. Varying the angle of the body activates or stresses different muscles. Leaning forward Gironda-style will make the lats, serratus and pectorals scream and will promote mid-chest pectoral cleavage. A dip belt makes this one a winner.
Gironda and his disciples favored an unusual and little known exercise for the outer pecs that's called the 30 degree decline cable flye. Position a 30 degree decline bench in the center and several feet in front of a cable crossover machine. With your head at the low end reach back behind your head to grab the low cable handles at approximately 45 degree angles. You should be far enough away to feel some pull and tension on your pecs.
Pull the cables in wide, sweeping arcs so they finish above your body at crotch level. Tense the pecs hard and then slowly return to the starting position. High reps work best on this movement, so aim for at least 12 per set; 15-20 might bring you even better results.
If you have a difficult time getting the right action on decline cable flyes, picture the exercise as a cable crossover while you're lying on a decline bench.
Parrillo also gave me a good tip for doing dumbbell flyes. As with bench pressing you start out by properly setting up your pectoral girdle, working your shoulders under your body and keeping them pressed down and back into the bench. As you raise the bells try to touch your elbows together, not the dumbbells. This isolates the pecs better and provided more inner pec stimulation.
Mike Christian gave me a helpful tip on chest training. When doing both dumbbell flyes and presses, you turn your wrists in at the top of the movement so your palms face each other and try to touch your elbows together instead of the bells. It's almost the same as Parrillo's technique - you just add the twist of the wrists - but that twist definitely gives the inner pecs an even harder contraction. This technique works on both flat and incline movements.
If you need more cleavage and inner pec development, pec deck flyes are a good exercise for it. I have two tips to help you get the most out of this exercise. One comes from Rick Valente, who advises that you not push with your hands as you bring the pads together. Instead, push only with your elbows. Let your palms come off the pads and concentrate on pushing only with your elbows while you squeeze your pecs hard. It's a bit like the Parrillo dip for flyes. Just focus on touching your elbows together, not the pads.
I've also found that you can isolate your inner pecs more if you keep your shoulders down and back and your chest arched throughout the set. Rather than trying to touch the pads together, aim for squeezing your pecs together. When you perform pec deck flyes this way, your inner pecs contract harder and receive much greater stimulation, but don't hunch forward and flatten your chest, as this will lessen the tension on the inner pecs.