Fitness Distilled

Chest Workout Overhaul

It’s the middle of summer, and there’s still time to bulk up your chest a bit for T-shirts and beach trips. I think that, of all the body parts, the chest is the one most guys train with the greatest consistency and effort, and also the most misguided programming.

A very typical, old-fashioned bodybuilding workout for the chest is as follows.

Bench Press
Sets: 4  Reps: 12, 10, 8, 6

Incline Dumbbell Press
Sets: 4  Reps: 12, 10, 8, 6

Decline Bench Press
Sets: 4  Reps: 12, 10, 8, 6

Cable Crossover
Sets: 3  Reps: 12–15

On the plus side, this approach doesn’t leave any stone unturned. It hits the pecs from all the major angles—head on, top, and bottom—and there are plenty of reps being done to flush as much blood into the area as possible.

nice-pecs (1)

Serge Nubret

On the down side, it’s a huge amount of work. We’re talking about muscles that are about the size of your hand—why would they need this much work? There’s a lot of overkill in the rep ranges, as sets of 12, 10, and 8 reps are going to work most of the same fibers. So if the goal is to keep adding weight each set and recruit stronger motor units in the pecs, this isn’t the best way to go about it.

This is a tough routine to recover from. Getting stronger on it actually works against you after a while, because it will be that much harder to recover from. To balance out all the pressing—which means a shortening of the chest and front delt muscles and a stretching of the upper back/rear delts—you’d need to do anenormous amount of rowing on your back day.

For pure gains in pec size, I’d favor something like this:

Dumbbell Twist Press
Sets: 3  Reps: 10

I learned this from “Mountain Dog” John Meadows. It’s just a db press where you rotate your wrists so your pinkies face each other in the top position. “Unscrew” your hands as you come down and repeat. The localized burn in your chest is exceptional.

Smith Machine Incline Press
Sets: 4  Reps: 8

I think machines usually take a distant second to free weights most of the time, but if you’re an intermediate lifter whose goal is to really isolate and pump up a specific muscle, they work better than barbells and dumbbells. Pyramid up in weight each set but stick to eight reps. The last one should take you to failure.

Do a shoulder dislocation stretch between sets. Hold a band with a grip that’s outside shoulder width and swing it over and behind your head with elbows straight. You’ll feel a stretch in your shoulders and pecs and it will enhance the blood flow.

Pec Minor Dip
Sets: 3  Reps: To failure

Do dips but with arms totally straight so it’s just your shoulders moving. Hold the top position a second and squeeze hard. This targets your pec minor which most chest workouts don’t hit deeply. The next day you’ll feel like somebody stabbed you BEHIND your chest. It’s a weird sensation.

This workout hits the chest from different angles but doesn’t waste any energy. The twisting press and pec minor-focused dips better isolate the chest. Instead of continuously tightening the pecs and shoulders, the band stretch opens them up and builds some prehab work into the routine.


Shoulder dislocation stretch

Here’s a routine for a bigger chest that’s more strength focused. This could be used by a guy who wants to build up his bench press as well as his pecs. It’s similar to a routine Boston trainer Ben Bruno had me doing.

Bench Press
Sets: As many as necessary  Reps: Work up to a 5, 3, or 1RM

The point is to train heavy and work up to a max for the day. So you could go for 5 reps, 3 reps, or an all-out max. Get there by doing low-rep sets and gradually increasing the weight to preserve energy and fire up the central nervous system.

Overhead Press
Sets: 3  Reps: 5
Sets: 4  Reps: 6–10

Pushup On Handles
Sets: 3  Reps: To failure

Perform pushups with your hands on dumbbells or pushup handles that allow you to get a deeper stretch in your pecs in the bottom position.

Triceps Cable Pushdown
Sets: 3  Reps: 12–15

For these, point your elbows way out to your sides. This turns the movement into more of a close-grip bench press and makes the triceps activation more specific to benching and therefore more applicable.


Ask how she got her chest.

On this one, we get some heavy work in to boost the bench press and then hit the pecs directly, followed by the lats, shoulders, and triceps, which all support a big bench press. This is a good example of “training economy”—getting a little work in for a lot of areas in one session. It also features the pushup, which is often forgotten by guys who fall in love with pressing exercises, but it’s still a powerful pec builder. Especially when done on handles to increase the range of motion.

Try thinking along these lines and you’ll have a bigger, stronger chest by summer’s end.

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