Have you heard of Calum von Moger? He's a highly successful bodybuilder, three-times winner of Mr Universe, and now a prolific online personal trainer. Check out his chest workout YouTube video in Golds Gym, Venice, California (the mecca of bodybuilding). Notice how Calum does several warm-up sets before attacking the heavy weights, to flush blood into the muscles and get himself mentally prepared. Never rush into heavy weights from cold, or you risk injury.
Calum performs incline barbell press, then flat machine press, then incline dumbbell flyes (to hit the upper chest) and more. See how he performs each movement with strict form and through the whole range of motion.
As a personal trainer in London, I'm always keen to learn from personal trainers abroad, to get fresh insights into the latest training techniques which I can then use to benefit my clients. Calum von Moger is one such role model.
A very effective method to build your chest at home without any equipment is the 100 pushup challenge. Start with a warm-up, limbering up your arms and shoulders. Then perform as many reps as possible, then rest for 1 minute, then perform the second set, and so on until you've reached 100 reps. Make a note of how many reps you complete in each set. Then test yourself again 3 days later, after your muscles have recovered, and try to do 100 reps in as few sets as possible. A good goal to aim for is 25/20/15/10/10/10/10.
The famous Arnold Schwarzenegger (bodybuilder, Terminator, Governor of California) had one of the best-developed chests of any bodybuilder. He was a firm believer that a key element of chest development is the development of your back muscles. Here's what he says in his book Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding (published by Pelham Books):
"There is, in fact, a prominent interdependence between chest and back muscles. The chest will not reach its full potential size unless the latissimus dorsi muscles of the upper back are fully developed." He goes on to say that you need a strong rib-cage to maximise your chest development, and this means working on your intercostal muscles with exercises like dumbbell pullovers (an exercise I'll focus on shortly on This Week's Exercise page, so keep an eye out).
You can't get away from the face that your genetics also play a part in chest development. One personal training client in north London asked me if anyone can build a big a chest as a competitive bodybuilder, and the answer is no. Sergio Oliva, one of the all-time great bodybuilders, built a huge chest from barbell bench-presses alone, and admitted that his chest developed easily. Another great bodybuilder from a past era, Reg Park, had the genetic advantage of a huge rib-cage. But even if you're not genetically blessed, there's always room for improvement, always things you can do to improve your chest muscles.
Around 12 years ago I had a bodybuilding personal trainer in north London, the Russian guy I've mentioned a few times in these pages. He had an awesome chest, broad and thick. He explained it was the result of the sheer variety of angles at which he attacked his chest muscles. So make sure you build your chest with a wide range of exercises. For example, don't just do flat bench-presses with a barbell. Attack the chest from all angles with dumbbells as well as barbells. Every gym has one guy who only does flat bench press with barbell! Before long he will suffer shoulder injury, and develop a very imbalanced physique. Don't let that be you. Most benches have an series of incline/decline settings. Make good use of them.
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Don't just stick to just one chest exercise. Work your chest with a range of dumbbell, barbell, and machine exercises. Remember, the pec major, your main chest muscle, has a clavicular portion (that connects with the clavicles, or collarbones) and a sternal portion (that connects with the sternum, or breastbone, which runs vertically down the centre of your chest). Make sure you exercise both portions. Incline presses (so your upper body is raised at a 30 - 45 degree angle) work the clavicular portion more, which develops your upper chest. Flat presses put greater emphasis on the sternal portion.
Be sure to include some decline bench presses, where your head is lower than your legs. Most good gyms have a decline bench. This develops the sternal portion of your chest, as well as a very important but neglected muscle called the serratus anterior, which stabilises your shoulder-blades, stops them winging out, and improves the posture and appearance of your upper body. By flattening your shoulder blades, a well developed serratus anterior widens your shoulders, because the serratus pulls your scapula (shoulder blades) into better alignment, by pulling your shoulders back and broadening your chest.
A summary of chest exercises to include in your workouts:
You can perform this exercise with either dumbbells or barbell. The advantage of dumbbells is that each side has to work independently, which builds up the weaker side faster, and also you can achieve a greater range of motion at the bottom of the movement with dumbbells than with a barbell. I prefer dumbbells because the movement feels more natural. Just make sure you don't lower the dumbbells too far down (or too fast) as this risks injuring your shoulder muscles.
If you're getting shoulder pain during the bench press, this indicates you've got weak rear shoulder muscles, rotator cuff muscles, muscles round your scapula (shoulder blades), and upper back muscles (traps and rhomboids). A range of rear delt exercises, external rotation exercises (for rotator cuff), and pulling exercises for upper back will help get these muscles stronger. Then you'll have the strength and stability to perform the bench press without pulling the shoulder muscles forward into an unnatural position.
Inhale deeply (fill your lungs) as you slowly lower the weights, hold your breath at the bottom of the movement, and only exhale (breathe out) as you reach the latter part of the upward press. By not exhaling too soon, you maintain stability as you begin the pressing movement. Exhale sharply: this gives you extra power in the press. Think of it as blowing the weights upwards. Don't lock out your elbows at the top of the movement, as this can damage your elbow joints, and you lose the benefit of continuous tension in the chest muscles. Pause briefly at the top of the movement, and repeat.
The flat press works the sternal portion of your chest (mid-chest), whereas the incline press emphasises the clavicular portion of your chest (upper chest). The decline press hits your lower chest.
(flat and incline) - I remember a personal trainer in chelsea London SW3 who I hired a while back. He emphasised the value of lowering the dumbbells really slowly (negative phase), for a count of 3 seconds, to maximise the time under tension.
(incline, and flat) - Safer than a standard bench press, but it's still worth having someone to 'spot' you on this machine, so you don't get trapped by the weight! The only disadvantage is that it locks you into a too linear plane of movement, which some physios think is bad for the shoulder joints.
you can very the range of movement with a pec dec machine, so for instance you can perform a really heavy set with a more limited range of motion to protect the shoulder joint, or a lighter set with a greater range of motion. Simply adjust the setting of the arm-pads. You might also need to adjust the seat position.
perform these from the knees initially, if a full pushup is too much for you at first. There are many variations of the pushup, one of the most under-rated exercises on the planet.
you can target all portions of the chest with cables, by varying the angle of movement, and also vary where the cables are attached. For instance, a great exercise for upper chest is to set the cables high, and cross over with your elbows and hands kept high and in line with your clavicles (collar bones). If you cross your hands at the peak contraction, this produces the best effect. Imagine you're hugging a swissball (big stability ball), that's the movement you need, rather than simply pressing straight ahead of you.
If you're in any doubt about your exercise technique, invest in a few sessions with a personal trainer, who will ensure you're exercising safely and effectively.
A few personal training tips for your chest routine: Always do some warm-up sets with a light weight, before going heavier. When you rehearse good technique with lighter weights immediately before lifting more challenging weights, you'll reduce the risk of injury. And make sure you vary your chest routine. Don't do barbell bench press every time!