Most guys make the same old rookie mistakes when it comes to building an impressive, developed chest that’s also strong and functional.
Truthfully, the chest is one of those groups that serves a bit more purpose for appearance than it does for performance.
That doesn’t mean there’s no point in training it; every muscle has a function.
But it does mean that a very developed chest isn’t as athletically applicable as say - a developed set of glutes or hamstrings.
But hey, for most of us, let’s face it: Part of hitting the iron hard every day is to get a body that looks fantastic.
So it’s worthwhile to make sure we’re all on the same page as to what yields results for chest development, and what doesn’t. Allow me to help.
Big Mistake: Your Holy Grail is the Barbell Bench Press
There’s nothing to say the barbell bench press is a bad exercise; heck, it’s a staple movement for upper-body strength as deemed by many members of the old school. But it’s important to look at it for what it is – and the answer is not a be-all and end-all chest developer.
It’s kind of like saying the deadlift is the best glute developer to rely on. We’re looking at movements that insist on a fixed pattern, and are more compound in nature (and less isolated). Trying to rely on such lifts for development of a specific muscle group can end up being disappointing.
There are other movements that can aid the development of the pectoralis (which actually can be broken up into two parts, not just one). Having an internally rotated grip, and pressing on a fairly set path will only target certain pools of motor units.
And if you’ve got a history of bad shoulders, it may end up wreaking further havoc on those joints. For chest development, it’s time to consider some superior alternatives.
Low Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
You can’t get much better than this when it comes to chest stimulation, and here’s why.
The low incline allows the upper chest to get slightly involved, and the use of dumbbells allows the wrists and elbows to change position as the rep progresses. That proves to be a real shoulder saver over the long-term, and could mean the end of chronic pain.
Usually, it doesn’t take as much loading to feel the training effects of the lift because each side is individually responsible for moving its load. In other words, I’ve never seen a 300 pound barbell bench presser completely duplicate his rep totals with 150 pound dumbbells.
Dumbbell pressing creates an “honest” lift compared to barbell variations, and the best part about them: You can train to failure with a bit more confidence. A spotter is always welcome, but if you’re lifting alone and you reach failure, it’s easy to bail.
One thing: In general, I’m of the belief that dumbbells generally aren’t for 1RM’s. So my tip would be this - Stick to your barbells for your top end strength work and use the dumbbells for volume work.
Dips are a highly underrated chest developer that deserve more attention than they receive. Before I get into their particulars, it’s important we get one specific discrepancy out of the way:
Death to Bench Dips!
Doing dips off the edge of a bench while stacking 45 pound plates in your lap is a sure-fire ask for an eventual accident. But more importantly, it’s quite trying on the shoulder capsule. It never borders on safety to bear load from an internally rotated position, and that’s exactly what bench dips ask of a lifter’s shoulder.
The hands are positioned completely behind the body, and you’re getting a pump for your triceps at the expense of your labrum and subacromial space. The worst part is, there’s no “technical fix” for this position. You can get your chest up as high as you want, and pull your shoulders back as best you can; you will still be bearing load from an internally rotated position.
A better, safer option would be to use parallel bars. The hand position is neutral, which allows the head of the humerus to roll back where it belongs. This is the kind of dip I’m referring to here.
Mistake: You’re staying too vertical and cutting your ROM
Staying straight as an arrow and going to a strict 90 degrees while doing dips is something common among skinny folk. The truth is, you’ll hit the triceps a little, but you’ll never facilitate the true development of the chest, arms, and shoulders this way.
A better cue is to lean forward at the waist (or tilt the entire body forward). As long as your shoulders can handle it, look for a deep stretch in the pecs and triceps by dipping deep below 90 degrees at the elbow joint. This will hit every triceps fiber and brutalize the lower pecs in the process.
Dip Tip: Use Fat Grips
Many times, bar thickness can be a silent killer as far as joint discomfort is concerned, and simply increasing the surface area of the object you’re pressing can create a much more comfortable environment for the joints in question, as the load is now being distributed throughout a greater percentage of the hand (Really - It makes a difference!).
Investing in a pair of fat grips are worth the 30 dollar pocket plunge. Set your fat grips up on the bars like I’ve done in the video, and enjoy the benefits. The first few sets will take some getting used to, but the rest will be smooth sailing.
Do Push Ups
The push up is an exercise many feel they have graduated from once they’ve learned to press a couple hundred pounds. Just because they’re unloaded doesn’t mean they can’t be instrumental in developing the chest and propagating shoulder joint health.
Positioning push ups at the end of your workout can serve as a great burnout method for an already fatigued chest. At the same time, they allow the shoulder blades to move around and produce mobility that standard bench pressing unhealthily disallows (more on that below). If plain push ups are too vanilla for your liking, spice things up by using a staggered stance, or a single arm deficit.
If You’re Gonna Barbell Bench, Do it Right!
Proper form for a bench press is hard to come by in a gym, despite it being hands down the most popular movement, especially amongst the younger stock. It’s important to learn the basic fundamentals of how to apply force and keep yourself safe from a horizontal position, and here’s a checklist on how to do that:
- Tuck the feet so they’re at a 90 degree angle under the knees, or slightly tighter.
- Create space under the lower back; your hand should be able to pass underneath it.
- Pinch the shoulder blades together, and never let go of that. It will keep your ribcage high.
- Make the elbows reflect where the bar travels. Don’t overflare or overtuck the arms.
- Use the feet to drive into the floor on every press. The body should help the bench press.
If this list isn’t clear enough, here’s a video for the visual learners.
Incline bench with dumbbells more often. Do more dips. Go heavy with barbells, and do all of the above with good technique.
Such simple instructions that one would be surprised how many people botch. Get started on the right foot by putting these points to use, and your body won’t deny you the gains they’ve been working for.