Optimized Chest Training: Everything You Need to Know

Building huge, defined and completely developed pectorals is the hallmark of a great physique. Yet, many gym goers struggle to put size on their chest. Most of them follow the cookie cutter pec training formula of bench press, incline press and flys, only to end up with oversized front delts and puny pecs. If that sounds like you, it's time to overhaul your chest training based on biomechanics and common sense.

In this article, I’ll explore the way that the pectorals are designed, how they work and what movements you need to do to train them for optimal muscle growth.

The pectoralis major is a fan shaped muscle with fibers that run from the middle of the upper torso to the top of the upper arm bone (humerus). There are three parts to the pec major, based on the origin point of their muscle fibers:

  • Clavicular Fibers
  • Sternal Fibers
  • Costal Fibers

About 75 percent of these fibers are the sternal fibers, which originate on the sternum. Another 15 percent sit above the sternal fibers, originating on the clavicles. The final 10 percent are below the sternum, attached to the upper ribs.

With the muscle there are two types of muscle fiber: type 1 and type 2. Type 1 muscle fibers are more engaged when you do endurance type training, such as high rep resistance training. Type 2 fibers are called on for more explosive, shorter duration work. When you do low rep, heavy weight training you are calling mainly on Type 2 muscle fibers.

In order to work both Type 1 and Type 2 fibers, you need to include both high rep (up to 50) and low rep (down to 6) sets.

The function of the pectoral muscle is to move your arms forward and across your body. It also assists in the inward rotation of the arm.

For an exercise to effectively work the chest, it must do the following:

  • Move the operating lever (the upper arm) toward the muscle's origin.
  • Move the muscle fibers through their complete range of motion
  • Be early phase loaded, where the exercise is harder at the beginning

The problem with most of the popular chest training exercises is that, while they move the pec fibers forward, they do not bring them inward. As a result, they are not moving through the fiber’s full range of motion. Think of the barbell bench press. Because your hands are fixed on the bar, there is no way you can bring them in towards each other as you push the bar up. As a result, you are robbing yourself of 50 percent of the potential benefit of the exercise.

Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, you cannot work separate parts of your chest. As we’ve already seen, the fibers have different points of origin but the same insertion point on the upper arm. That means that every time you move your arm, you are activating all of the pec major fibers; it doesn’t matter what angle your body is at, you won’t be able to isolate the clavicular (upper), sternal (middle) or costal (lower) fibers.

Your chest muscles, along with every other muscle in your body, have greater strength potential during the first third of a pressing movement. So it makes sense to provide it with a greater resistance during that part of the exercise. The way to achieve that is to use cables as your form of resistance. Pressing the cables forward, in and slightly downward (at a 30 degree angle) will maximally stimulate all of your pectoral fibers.

So, what do we learn from all of this?

The traditional formula of flat bench press, incline press and flyes is less than ideal for optimum chest training. You should replace the flat bench press with an exercise that allows you to bring your hands in and slightly down as well as forward. You can do it with a double pulley cable machine as well as with a pair of dumbbells. However, the cable machine has the added benefit of early phase loading.

Position an adjustable bench in front of a double pulley machine, facing away from it with the pulleys set at shoulder level when you are seated. Now set the seat back to a 30 degree angle. Sit on the bench and grab the pulley handles with elbows at shoulder level and bent at 90 degrees. Now press your arms forward and together, squeezing the pecs in the fuly contracted position. Reverse and repeat.

Adjust the angle on a bench to a 30 degrees decline. Now grab a pair of dumbbells and position yourself on the bench, lying back with the dumbbells held at arm’s length above your sternum. Slowly lower the dumbbells out and down until your upper arms are in line with your torso. Be sure that your elbows are at a 90 degree angle, not allowing your forearms to drift in. Now press the dumbbells up and in together so that they touch in the top position. Lower under control and repeat.

Set the pulleys on a double cable pulley machine at the highest level and adjust them so that they are shoulder width apart. Stand in front of the machine, facing away from it and grab the handles.

In the starting position your upper arms should be at shoulder level with elbows bent at 90 degrees and hands pointing toward the floor. Now push your arms down and together so that your hands touch in the bottom position. Reverse under control and repeat.

Here's a workout you should try:

To optimally work the chest you only need to do one exercise, so long as it is an excellent exercise. You now know the 3 best exercises to work your pecs. I recommend rotating through them so that you do the seated cable press on workout one, the decline dumbbell press on workout two and the standing decline cable press on workout three. Perform between 10-12 sets with a range of reps to maximally stimulate the pec fibers. Here is an ideal rep structure that will build mass and strength:

  • Set One - 30 reps
  • Set Two - 20 reps
  • Set Three - 15 reps
  • Set Four - 12 reps
  • Sets Five & Six - 10 reps
  • Sets Seven & Eight - 8 reps
  • Sets Nine & Ten - 6 reps

If you prefer to mix up your workout for variety, follow this workout pattern:

  • Seated Cable Press - 4 x 30/20/15/10
  • Decline Dumbbell Press - 4 x 12/10/8/8
  • Standing Decline Cable Press - 3 x 8/6/9

Train your chest every 5 days to provide the ideal amount of time for rest, recuperation and regrowth. This effectively has you training each bodypart twice per week, which aligns with the majority of studies on the subject. In 2016 a meta analysis by Brad Schoenfeld, Dan Ogborn and James Krieger analyzed ten studies and found that training each bodypart twice per week resulted in greater hypertrophy than training it once per week.

In this article, we have turned the conventional method of chest training on its head. If you’re happy with the results you’re getting, stick with the cookie cutter routine that you’re used to. But, if you’re ready to transform your pec workouts by training both smart and hard, you now know what to do:

  • Choose either cable press (seated or standing) or the decline dumbbell press.
  • Do 10-12 sets, with reps pyramiding from 30 down to 6.
  • Train chest every 5th day

This simple 3-step formula is the key to building an awesome chest. Discover it for yourself.

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Steve Theunissen is a freelance writer living in Tauranga, New Zealand. He is a former gym owner and personal trainer and is the author of six hardcopy books and more than a hundred ebooks on the topics of bodybuilding, fitness and fat loss. Steve also writes history books with a focus on the history of warfare. He is married and has two daughters.

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