Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
A bigger, better chest was a goal most of us had once we picked up a barbell for the first time. Broad, powerful-looking pectorals signify that you indeed “lift bro.” But what if your current routine has fallen stale? What if you’ve tried all sorts of tricks and techniques to get your pecs growing again with no substantial amount of success?
There are numerous ways to gain strength and increase your bench press numbers. Variable resistance including bands and chains, rest pause training, low rep protocol, partial reps, lockouts, board presses and many others all lead to a stronger bench press, however, this article will focus on building the chest muscle tissue. Hypertrophy, muscle growth, takes a completely different approach than that of gaining strength and throwing up some big bench numbers.
Although there does seem to be a link between gaining strength and muscle growth, each is still independent regarding its focus and training practices. Yes, a stronger muscle will be a larger muscle and vice versa, but only to a certain extent. Many powerlifters don’t exactly have massive, muscular pecs and most bodybuilders aren’t breaking records in the bench press, but all have larger pecs than the average man.
Olympic and powerlifters attempt to move a certain amount of weight over a specific distance, period. Muscle mass is nowhere in the equation and performance is the singular goal of lifting more weight. Training is then replete with heavy lifts, ancillary work for supportive reasons and a close eye on fatigue.
Bodybuilding, on the other hand, is the practice of building muscle tissue. Increasing mass with little regard to absolute strength involves a whole new perspective as opposed to strength. Building muscle mass is more about fatigue, frequency and time under tension.
Here’s the kicker. Knowing the specific needs of each goal you would think that every gym-goer was training to be a powerlifter. Look in your local gym and observe people bench pressing weight they have no business lifting, spending tons of time on the barbell bench press and focusing every ounce of effort focusing on low rep training, maxing out every week in hopes of a bigger chest.
The fact is people are simply training the wrong way. They have a goal of bigger pecs but their training reflects that of strength. So, the first thing to do is to shift your mindset from that of pure strength over to muscle building. Sure, strength will be a welcome side effect but we will mainly focus on some techniques to help build more muscle tissue.
8 chest-building tips
Below are 8 unique chest-building tips and techniques to get you growing again. No, I am not talking about adding in training volume, performing higher reps, drop sets or other commonly written and practiced techniques. As those do help with progress, they are talked about ad nauseam and easily applied.
These also aren’t one-time fixes that result in little to no benefits to your physique. These will be long-term fixes to give your pecs the real-world boost for results you will actually see. Fixes and protocols that you may never had considered before or were afraid to try. Put a few into practice and see how your chest will expand, change and grow.
Chest Builder #1 - Get fatigue-minded
First and foremost, get your head on straight and determine once and for all if you are in this for a stronger bench press or more muscle. Each will feed off the other but if you want more muscle mass then fatigue will be your new goal. Don’t worry about numbers, personal records or impressing your friends, it’s time to lay down the law and get focused on fatigue.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be concerned with progress, however. Progress is still an important factor in resistance training for mass; just don’t be solely driven by maxing out and how much you are benching presently. Recruiting more muscle fiber and fatiguing those fibers should be your goal. Performing sets of triples, doubles and singles will do little to properly fatigue your muscle fibers and grow a muscular chest.
Your concern should focus on proper technique, form, function, stretching and contracting. This is where the old mind-muscle mentality comes into play in a big way. By targeting your muscle instead of worrying about the weight plates over your head you will better learn how to establish that mindset and be successful at building real muscle. I always like to say that you shouldn’t go to the gym to lift weights; you should go to work your muscles. Have complete control of the weight, don’t let it control you.
Chest Builder #2 - High frequency
I have a great friend of mine who sports some pretty massive pecs and triceps. Even to this day, with very little training, those said muscle groups pop out from under his shirt with impressive muscularity. He once told me his “secret” without even knowing it was the real key to his success.
When he was a teenager he would perform hundreds of push-ups and dips every single night. He thought this was going to get him huge since he hadn’t joined a gym yet – in reality, this early training set him up for an advantage later on. Since performing all those sets for his chest and triceps he created an incredible network of efficient nervous system activity for those body parts. His pecs and triceps became easily stimulated because his muscles on a cellular level were being primed all those years. By training them at such a high frequency his body had no choice but to adapt and grow.
Do you ever notice individuals who train their legs often, such as track athletes, have huge thighs? They train them every single day. You too can benefit from this increase of frequency. Training your chest twice or even three times per week (with lower volume per workout, of course) will be unlike any technique you have ever tried. Pumping blood and stimulating your nervous system more often will force your pecs into new growth.
Chest Builder #3 - Bodyweight training
Before you stop reading and write this off as another ineffective full of empty promises article, read on. Bodyweight training has its rightful place in any training program. The ability to manipulate your body in such a way as to add appreciable muscle with a side of strength should be a part everyone’s arsenal. Also, combined with high frequency training, moves such as the push-up are an indispensable tool.
Floor, inclined and feet-elevated push-ups and parallel dips can be challenging and great finishers to your current routine. By taking control of your body instead of a barbell or dumbbells makes the pecs function in a totally different way. Instead of balancing the weight overhead you are required to stabilize your shoulder girdle, midsection, glutes and legs all the while stretching and contracting your pecs properly.
To execute the push-up properly take a position with your hands a few inches wider than your shoulders, your feet several inches apart and your torso straight with your abs flexed and stable. Descend toward the floor with your elbows about 45 degrees from your torso, either touch your chest or stop an inch before, pause and then push off while tensing your pecs by trying to force your hands together. This simple action will focus the stress on your pecs and away from your shoulders.
Chest Builder #4 - Chest ladder
The chest ladder is more a general term with many options to choose from. One of the most effective is the isometric hold ladder. Start with a manageable number of reps such as six and perform six perfect push-up reps: slow descend and then flex the pecs as described above. After six reps, hold the contracted position for six seconds by trying to force your hands together without moving them. This will help flex the pecs for the isometric hold. Immediately after, perform five reps with a five second isometric hold. Then go to four reps, three reps, two reps and finally one rep with a one second hold.
Sounds easy? Wait until you try it. If you are practicing good form and technique and squeezing with everything you have, you will be screaming from the intense burn this will produce. This will also help build that coveted mind-muscle connection I talked about earlier. Either as part of high frequency training or tacked onto your current routine, isometric holds will ramp up any program and create not only a new training stimulus but also add a little variety and challenge.
Chest Builder #5 - Correct set-up
You’ve heard it a million times from me in nearly all my articles: Proper form is a must. This is never more important than when talking chest training. Way too many individuals try to bench too much weight while contorting and convulsing their bodies into Kama Sutra positions risking life and limb (literally) to press the bar up by any means necessary. Locking out the loaded bar becomes priority one.
As mentioned before, when talking about building pectoral muscle having the powerlifter mindset will do little for sculpting your physique. Pressing egotistical weight just for the sake of lifting it off your chest still takes proper technique - not only for better performance but for safety as well.
Properly executing a press, fly, push-up or any other form of pec punisher requires correct form if maximum results are your goal. A common tip for most chest moves would be to set your shoulders up a certain way as to maximize chest contraction and minimize deltoid involvement. To do this on a flat bench press, for example, shift your shoulders down toward the floor and down to your waistline. This should help you expand your ribcage and create a small gap under your lower back from the bench. With your upper back and glutes making contact with the bench and your feet firmly planted on the ground, tense your thighs as if you want to push off but without actually moving your upper body. Now you are all set to take full advantage of pectoral contraction.
Chest Builder #6 - Nonlinear resistance
Are you still lifting the same amount of weight with roughly the same number of reps at the same rate of speed? Can you look at any chest day of the last year and find little to no difference in your program? If so, are you surprised at your lack of progress? No, I am not about to tout the advantages of muscle confusion, I am talking more specifically about the use of linear versus nonlinear loads and the result it has on muscle growth.
Numerous studies have purported the increases in muscle growth and strength regarding a nonlinear load variation. When subject used this type of protocol they simply built more muscle. To explain, a linear protocol would have you gradually shift your percentage loads (i.e. weight) higher or lower as the program progressed. A nonlinear type plan would have you undulate or shift the load up and down as the plan progressed.
For example, if you trained chest three times per week the first day would be 8-12 reps, the second day 4-6 reps and the last day 15-20 reps. Notice there is no gradual pattern that fits neatly on a bar graph – the loads are variable day to day and week to week. Of course it goes without saying that the ego has no room in a plan like this and it will certainly put a little variety and fun back in your stale training program.
Chest Builder #7 - Giant circuits
Right along with bodyweight training, giant sets/circuits often get a bad rap when it comes to packing on the mass. Remember my friend with the big chest and triceps? He basically went nonstop in circuit fashion attacking those body parts over and over again. There is nothing to refute that this would not apply to weight training as well. Remember, fatigue is the goal and giant sets remedy that need quite well.
A giant set is just three or more exercises done back-to-back with little to no rest for a certain number of rounds or for time. They can be referred to as supersets, giant sets, circuits or complexes. The goal is to force the muscle or muscle groups into total fatigue while building muscle mass, muscle endurance and some cardiovascular advantages as well. The trick to structuring such a program would be to pay close attention to when to place compound moves, isolation moves, high stability moves and weight versus body weight exercises.
For example, under normal circumstances, you should place exercises that require a high degree of stability and technique at the beginning of the program and those that require less such as those that utilize machines and are safer near the end. This will not only help with performance, it will also enable you to perform those technical lifts with better form and technique relegating the “easier” stuff toward the end when less focus on form is required.
Chest Builder #8 - Clean up your training
Don’t fall victim to the old regimen of bench press, incline press, fly and cable crossover. I pretty much summed up most Mondays for everyone. Let me ask you this: Has it worked? Are you really progressing or do you just get a good pump and go home? If that works for you, I am sorry you have read this far and to have wasted your time. But if you are like the rest of the 99% of the population that struggles to see results then you may need to heed all of these points listed and do a little house cleaning with your current program.
Do you find yourself on the pec deck a lot, doing set after set? Flys? Cable crossovers and any other new contraption supposedly promising yourself it will isolate your pecs and grow a big chest? Your chest training program may need some cutting and trimming. The big, multi-joint exercises (the ones that give you the most bang for your buck) are the best to focus on. Flys, cable work and other machines are all fine and good but are only good if you already have a big piece of mass to carve up. You can’t sculpt a pebble.
Clean up your training. Take out the useless stuff and dead weight and focus on things like barbell and dumbbell presses, different angles of push-ups and dips. Once you master those key exercises and build an impressive set of pecs will you then benefit from a few isolation moves to help refine and shape your chest.
Wait and see
Some of the above may seem like no-brainer pieces of advice, but take stock of your current routine, be honest with yourself and adjust things the right way sans ego. If more muscle growth is your goal forget the personal records and start training toward your goal instead of trying to impress your buddies. There is no way around hard work so stay patient, consistent and self-disciplined and the results you seek will be yours.
great article, I liked the part with the isometric ladder, it's definitly going to be one of my future excercises. But I plan to do these with a twist. I perform the bodyweight push ups in a set of gymnastic rings, 2 inches of the ground. you can do push ups or fly's. this way even fly's are a compound movement. You use a lot of muscle to stabilize. And the more fatiqued you get, the harder its becomes to stabilize. Perhaps an idee for others seeking "something else"
Brad what would you recommend for sets and reps. Is it between 4&5 sets with 8 & 10 reps starting around 65% of 1rm?
This article makes a alot of sense to me. Its all about training for the goal and you article has helped me understanding the difference between training for muscle growth and strength. I think muscle growth has been my goal but as you said I allow my ego to make me train for strength.
Bingo! Thanks, I am glad it made sense.
Superb! I have to try this out for sure since I need that mighty look.
Amazing.Just what I needed for this hour and certainly will help me throughout my life.