Why You’re Probably Doing It Wrong
The chest may rival the biceps as the calling card of the upper body, but it’s lost some steam since its Arnie heyday. You can actually plot its declining trajectory since the golden 70s.
With the droves of pigeon-bosomed physiques roaming around the gyms these days, we might be missing a few tricks. There’s a lot of effort going in, and not much to show for it. People with years of lifting tucked under their belt still have droopy pecs that get dominated by oversized front delts. No matter how hard they train, the shoulders steal all the love.
This also happens to be the classic all gear no idea look, where half the testosterone gets diverted to the shoulders and traps. It’s not pretty, and that’s not just my OCD for asymmetrical physiques. If you’re using anabolic ammunition, there’s little excuse for sleeping on chest day.
The fact is, you can’t expect to bench way to a big chest. The game plan is the same as with any muscle. Hit the muscle with enough stress to cause it to adapt, rinse and repeat for a few years. But progress can fizzle out long before you test any genetic limits. Progressive overload only works when the tension is actually getting through to the target muscles. Adding plates only gets you so far.
That’s because chest training suffers from the same predicament as glutes. A lack of isolation, and the neglect of variation.
Luckily, none of this comes with complicated solutions. And by understanding the mechanics of chest training, you’ll be able to dial your training in further. Do the exercises that work, ditch the fluff. Specificity will always beat out the kitchen sink.
Dominant Front Delts
The bench press may be a fantastic chest exercise, but it’s also annoyingly good at bringing the front delts into play. So while the pecs do end up contributing, they don’t get pushed enough to adapt, because the tension gets shared around. The same goes for any pressing movement. The front delts, upper traps, and triceps can all get involved to the detriment of the chest. You could be benching 120kg, and only 60kg gets through to the pecs.
The net result here is lost energy, lack of stress on the chest, and the inability to take it to complete failure.
It’s the front delts that tend to cause the most problems, as they have a nasty habit of jutting forward when the weight gets heavy. With protracted shoulders, the pecs are placed at a disadvantage, and the front delts end up driving the movement. When you rep out on a bench press, you don’t stop because the chest has tapped out. They’ve got plenty left in the tank.
There’s no need for an EMG kit to figure this one out, just pay attention to how your shoulders are feeling. If they’re constantly tight and sore after chest sessions, it may be time to brush up on technique.
So the solution here would be to try and switch off the delts during a pressing movement, and thereby allow you to actually stress and fatigue the pecs. When setting up for any chest exercise, arch the back and squeeze the shoulder blades tight before initiating the movement.
By improving the arch, more force gets pushed down through the shoulders, keeping them pinned down. While squeezing the shoulder blades allows the lats and traps to act as stabilisers. With more stability, the chest is freed up to its explosive best. Technique is all about the setup. You don’t want to be stuck fixing the bar path when its already wobbling.
Pulling back the shoulder blades also allows the chest fibers to stretch to their full reach. The eccentric (stretching) phase actually outperforms the concentrix (flex) for hypertrophy gains, and you’ll be missing out if you’re not covering every inch of the active range.
Ideal exercises – Any horizontal exercise – Barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press, dumbbell chest flyes, floor press, smith machine press.
Inability To Isolate The Chest
This is where I can make my case for machines. In a programme tailored for building muscle, they simply have to be included. Even if they’re sat uncomfortably close to the cardio section. The arch is the biggest move you could make for improving chest activation, but it’s not going to offer much isolation.
The stabilisers will still be churning away to keep the bar from making a quick getaway. The shoulders, triceps, rotator cuffs, and traps, will get fatigued over a chest session. If you’re hopping from one bench to the next, they will run out of gas, leaving the chest high and dry. The goal of a hypertrophy session, usually, is to take the target muscle to near-complete shutdown. That requires a little game management.
Machines come up trumps in this situation, because they do the stabilising job for you. The smith machine will cause more chest activation than the bench press. It also causes less stabiliser and systemic fatigue. This doesn’t mean the smith is better, but it does make for a useful exercise. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition. The bench press could still use some extra numbers.
Then you have the various cable flyes and other chest machines, allowing the chest to be attacked from every conceivable angle. The stabilisers get to recover, the pecs get pushed to the brink, and the muscle fibers worked from all angles. Machines may lack the imposing weight of barbells, but they more than make up for with feeling. Plenty of it.
Ideal exercises – Literally anything you come across – Cable flyes, smith machine press, hammer strength machines
Lack Of Upper Chest Work
The chest can be split into three chunks by the alignment of the fibers.
Lower – slanted down towards the stomach
Middle – cutting straight across
Upper – slanted up towards the neck
The middle fibers get worked regardless, but the upper and lower need specific exercises where the movement of the elbows align with the fibers. With a decent arch, the bench press turns into a lower chest movement. You almost end up pushing the bar down rather than up. The shoulders also shut off as you depress your elbows, and that makes lower chest work feel much more isolated on the pecs. Whereas incline exercises will inevitably start to grind on the shoulders.
People tend to side with decline movements for that reason. This ends making the upper fibers even weaker relative to the other two, and the chest takes on a sad, droopy look. A strong upper chest gets you the top shelf that fills out the v-taper. T-shirts fit like a dream. And since the lower chest receives plenty of love during the bench press, there’s little need to isolate it. If anything, the incline work needs to be the focus of chest day, taking up at least 50% of the workout. Hit them hard and heavy while the shoulders are still fresh, then move on to decline movements once the front delts start to bottom out.
It might be hard to actually isolate and feel those fibers at first, especially with standard bench movements. So this is exactly where cable flyes come in handy. Unlike the dumbbell version, the shoulders don’t get bombed at the top of the movement.
Ideal exercises – Incline bench press, Incline smith press, Incline cable flyes, Incline dumbbell hex press, Landmine chest press
Ultimately, everyone runs into weak points in the gym. Muscles that just refuse to budge, no matter how much volume gets thrown at them. That’s the fun of bodybuilding. Without the stumbling blocks, the sustained challenge, it ends up being another hobby that fizzles out after a few months.
That’s the reward of bodybuilding. Identifying weaknesses, coming up with creative solutions, then leaning in. Rinse and repeat. It’s a dopaminergic pursuit that acts like jet fuel for mental and physical wellbeing. Enjoy it for what it is.