We asked both the pros and the PhDs for their top pec training methods. Their answers may just surprise you.
What’s the single best way to build chest?
When it comes to strength training, a full range of motion is typically recommended for every movement in order to reap the most benefit. However, there are a couple of things which you must consider in your quest for size and strength.
Bodybuilders understand the importance of keeping tension on the working muscles and increasing the time under tension for each and every set. One advanced method they use to achieve this is called continuous tension sets, which is a technique that’s in direct contrast to locking out every rep.
Mel Siff author of “Supertraining” defines continuous tension like this:
“Any set in which each repetition is done smoothly without ballistic bounce, cheating, or significant pause at either end of the motion. Characteristically, the movements are executed fairly slowly without the joints locking completely at any stage of the exercise.”
To do the continuous tension technique, stop right before lockout at the top of the movement and immediately move into the eccentric (negative) phase of the next rep.
One way to further increase the muscular tension and metabolic stress is completing slow negatives by lowering the weight for a count of 3-5 seconds. This method takes advantage of the continuous tension sets by keeping the muscle loaded while increasing the time under tension.
Eccentric training can be especially beneficial as this phase causes the most muscle damage and leads to greater rates of protein synthesis post-workout. Studies have shown that your body can tolerate up to 1.75 times more weight eccentrically than it can concentrically. (You can lower more than you can lift.) If you haven’t been emphasizing the eccentric portion of your lifts, then you’re certain to increase muscle growth when you do.
The great thing about this is it allows you to workout at a higher intensity and higher intensity means greater stress, which means greater adaptation.
To build chest muscles more quickly, stimulate growth with HFT. You also need to challenge the muscle through its primary function. This advice applies to any lagging muscle group you’re trying to build.
The primary function of the pectoralis muscles is horizontal adduction of the shoulder joint, which is exactly what you see when observing a dumbbell flye or the pec deck exercise. The problem with these exercises is that they can beat up the shoulder joints when done frequently.
So my go-to exercise for chest growth is relatively new to my arsenal. It’s called the Swiss ball squeeze, and it’s proven to be the most effective way to build pecs while preserving shoulder health.
Stand and hold a large Swiss ball between your elbows. The ball should be big enough to keep the elbows wider than shoulder-width apart when you squeeze it with maximum effort. Do it as though you’re mimicking a pec deck exercise. Bend your elbows to 90 degrees and keep the upper arms parallel to the floor.
- Frequency: 6 days a week (take the seventh day off)
- Sets: 5 sets a day
- Rest: 60 seconds between sets
- Duration: Start with a 20-second maximum squeeze for each set, and then add 5 seconds to the squeeze every third day. So days 1 and 2 will be a 20-second squeeze; days 3 and 4 a 25-second squeeze; days 5 and 6 a 30-second squeeze, etc. Continue with this sequence until you work up to a 60-second squeeze.
It will take you three weeks to reach a 60-second squeeze, and you’ll achieve more chest growth in that time than you have in any other three-week stretch. Do this exercise in addition to your current chest training, either during your workout or as a stand-alone mini session. If you want even more chest growth at the end of the three weeks, use the same progression and go from 60 seconds to 100 seconds for each set.
As a bonus, I always have my clients squeeze their glutes maximally during this exercise. So at the end of the three-week phase their glutes are significantly larger as well. Two birds, one Swiss ball.
Also, increase your strength in medium rep ranges. The low-incline elevation will help you hit both heads of the pecs, and the dumbbells allow for a slightly greater stretch on the pecs compared to a standard barbell.
Go as deep as comfort allows to maximize range of motion. Work hard to control the lowering phase, especially down low in the stretch. Focus on feeling the pecs doing the work and squeeze them hard at the top of each rep.
It’s not necessary to touch the dumbbells together at the top of each rep, but if you feel that this helps you, then have at it. Perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps, then choose two other pec exercises.
For the first additional exercise, choose between a flat barbell press or a weighted dip. Perform 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps. For the second additional exercise, choose a type of flye, pec deck, or cable crossover. Do 2-3 sets of 12-20 reps. Finish off with 1-2 burnout sets of bottom-half push-ups using handles for as many reps as possible, making sure to feel the stretch at the bottom of the movement.
Do this routine for 6 weeks. During this time, strive for progressive overload on the low-incline dumbbell press, but not necessarily on the additional movements. Feel the pecs doing the majority of the work on every set. After six weeks, switch routines but revisit this protocol every six months or so.
If you want a huge chest, first appreciate the relatively complex primary and secondary actions of the pectoralis major, which is the chest muscle with the most potential for growth. The pec major is a big muscle that attaches broadly against the sternum, collar bone, and rib cage on the front side of the body. Because of the multiple attachment points, the fiber orientation of the pecs are also quite diverse and aligned in multiple directions all leading towards the attachment to the inside of the humerus.
So why are these origins and insertions good to know? Because it takes multiple angles, positions, and types of contractions to activate and fatigue all the fibers to initiate growth.
The pec is notoriously overtrained in the horizontal pressing plane (flat bench press). But many times, secondary actions of the pecs like horizontal adduction (flyes) and internal rotation are overlooked. Also, due to so many actions, the pec is usually trained in a partial range of motion, which is never a good thing when it comes to anterior chain muscles on the front side of the body that are already functionally shortened throughout activities like sitting.
But what if one exercise could tackle all of these actions of the pec and train them for growth and strength through a full range of motion? The “manual resisted hybrid dumbbell flye with iso-hold” will do it.
It’s a combination of a neutral-grip press, a flye action, and added resistance from a partner at the top of the range of motion.
The old school flye is great for training out of the stretch, but at the top of the motion, it’s harder to keep tension through the pecs. And while your partner will manually resist you during the raising portion of the lift, he shouldn’t force you into a bottom stretch, or resist at all during the lowering portion of the lift.
Add a 30 second hold in the stretched position on your last rep. This will expedite blood flow to the area and increase tension without adding more reps. Give this a try, but choose your training partners wisely.
When it comes to building pecs, take advantage of three key mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. Mechanical tension and muscle damage are the most important mechanisms. They involve overloading the fast twitch muscle fibers which have the greatest potential for strength and size gains.
The single most effective method you can use is heavy negatives on flat or incline barbell bench presses. Research shows that heavy negatives produce greater increases in size and strength than perhaps any other training protocol. This is likely because of the inordinate levels of muscular overload they force on the body, thereby requiring the highest threshold motor units to fire at near maximum to support the load.
By familiarizing the nervous system with supramaximal loads this also does wonders for increasing functional strength. That means more size through myofibrillar hypertrophy. In addition, heavy overloads maximize the testosterone response associated with lifting.
Unfortunately, heavy negatives can also be quite dangerous to perform even with competent spotters. This is why I recommend the Power Rack Eccentric Potentiation – (PREP) protocol. It’s the safest, most effective, and also most practical method for doing heavy negatives. Here’s one of my NFL athletes Jarius Wynn using it:
If you have access to weight releasers you can get a similar effect. Several sets of 3-5 reps will more than suffice because excessive muscle damage can actually impair recovery and growth.
Make sure your pressing technique is spot-on since heavy eccentric overload can spell disaster for your joints and connective tissue if your mechanics aren’t dialed in.
Once you’ve used heavier loads to trigger myofibrillar hypertrophy (functional growth due to the increase in number and size of the contractile units within the muscle) contrast it with lighter loads and continuous tension. This manipulates sarcoplasmic hypertrophy through metabolic stress and cellular swelling, which means you’ll be pumping the muscle full of blood.
Although there are a number of exercises that can be used, movements that involve continuous or constant tension such as squeeze presses, cable flyes, machine flyes, constant tension partial presses, ring dips, and eccentric isometrics will all do the trick. Maximize this response using several higher-rep sets to failure. Try 8-20 reps and engorge the muscles with as much blood and metabolites as possible. You can also expect a nice hormonal boost with natural increases in growth hormone and IGF-1 levels from this form of high intensity training.
A lot of lifters have decent strength in movements like the bench press, but few actually feel their chest during pressing. Being strong is great, but if you want to maximize muscular development you need to feel your target muscles working. This is a phenomenon called the mind-muscle connection.
First, make a decision to focus on the muscle, rather than the movement, when lifting. Using a dumbbell bench press as an example, lower the dumbbells to the outside of your chest and imagine your chest squeezing together through the rep, then squeeze as hard as possible at the top as if trying to make your pecs touch.
On a barbell bench press, squeeze the bar and imagine trying to bring your hands together while you press. This isometric action incorporates the adduction role of the pectoralis major for better chest recruitment. On push-ups, spread your fingers, push your hands into the ground, and squeeze your hands together as if trying to touch your thumbs and index fingers.
Second, pre-lift isometrics are a game-changer. If you’re not using them, you should. Here’s how that would look on cable flye.
- Do one rep of the movement and hold it, squeezing your hands together as hard as possible for 15-30 seconds.
- Then move directly into 8-15 slow, focused reps.
This isometric tension fires up a ton of muscle fibers while drastically improving your mind-muscle connection for the upcoming set. Use this method with flye or pressing movements for four to six weeks and you’ll notice massive changes to your pec development.
I’m going to have to go with Arnold’s reasoning back in his day. And his chest was decent. Train it from multiple angles. Lots of guys, even with all the information available today, still run over to the bench press and center their whole chest routine around it. But for a lot of guys, the bench press is a pretty terrible pec developer, especially if performed in the usual powerlifting style with your elbows tucked.
Your chest training, if it’s really lacking, should involve lots of different angles in pressing and in flyes (with cables and dumbbells). This will help to give more complete development, and the variation will also tend to help the lifter find what movements he feels hit the chest to the greatest degree.
For hypertrophy (rather than strength), the best two exercises I’ve found are wide grip, elbows flared out, weighted dips with a good stretch at the bottom, and your classic incline barbell bench press – again with a wide grip, making sure to lower it to just under your clavicle.
When you combine these two exercises, preferably as a heavy super set, you’ll get the pump of your life. I like to keep a three-second lowering and explosive lifting for the incline. Upper and lower pec emphasis, combined together, create significant growth.
My advice is directed toward women, because for some stupid reason, people keep telling us not to worry about building pecs… as if all we need in the area are boobs. This is so absurd that you can expect a strongly-worded article from me.
Bottom line? Any of the pec-building advice that these fine coaches have provided here is just as good for women as it is for men. And a female chest with muscle definition is gorgeous. But you’ll never get that muscle definition without actually building muscle. So build away.