OK, so the legendary George Best wasn’t known for his chest, but this didn’t stop the Cockneys naming one of the largest, most aesthetic, and most recognisable muscle groups after him. In fact, the late George Best should count himself lucky here, seeing as the singer songwriter and former British soldier James Blunt had a certain part of anatomy assigned to his name which is far less easy to explain to the Grandkids!
So how do you go about slapping lumps of meat all over your chest region whilst maintaining balance and symmetry?
The ‘chest’ is a generalised term given to a group of muscles known collectively as the Pectorals (Pecs). The Pecs are surprisingly complex, there is far more to them than the visible slabs of meat we all love and admire on the likes of Arnold and Ronnie! The large visible Pectoral muscles you can see are comprised of the three sections of the Pectoralis major (Martini and Nath, 2009).
This muscle originates and extends from the sternum (bone in the centre of the chest area) and inserts at the humerus (funny bone); this connection is what allows flexion at the shoulder joint e.g. the movement needed to perform the dumbbell butterfly. The term ‘major’ indicates that this muscle is in fact the largest of the chest muscles, and it is this fan shaped muscle that delivers most of your bench press strength. However, the picture (right) illustrates how the Pec major can be divided into three main sections which include the upper (green), middle (orange) and lower chest (red). Seeing as it can be divided into respective sections, it makes sense that we target them individually when we train. This will be covered later on in this article (Martini and Nath, 2009).
Underneath the Pec major is a thin, triangular shaped muscle that surprisingly originates from your third, fourth and fifth ribs and inserts/anchors at the scapula (the protruding bone directly behind your chest). This part of your chest is responsible for the driving force that is generated when you perform, for example, an explosive press up with a mid-air clap, with it anchoring deep into your chest cavity towards your back, the force it generates is deep rooted and powerful. However, it is relatively small compared to the Pec major making it particularly susceptible to injury if you push a little too hard (Martini and Nath, 2009)!
The Pec minor works with the Serratus anterior (see below image) which also originates between the first and ninth rib and inserts/anchors at the scapula, the same place as the Pec minor. Its role is to pull the scapular forward, which contributes to the pushing movement required for bench pressing. When you consider the movements involved with basic punching, you’ll notice that it’s very similar to bench pressing. Therefore it is no coincidence that Sly Stallone was famed for his fan like Serratus muscle resulting from all the training he put in for his boxing role in the Rocky films!
Similar to how the Pec minor works with the Serratus anterior, the Pec major also works in unison with the Lattisimus Dorsi (Lats) making them antagonistic pairs meaning they oppose one another in order to maximise the other muscles potential. The Pec enables us to push, whilst the Lats allow us to pull, an example is the bench ‘press’ and the lat ‘pull’ down when exercising in the gym.
It is important to note that the triceps are the stabilising muscle when performing a press exercise. They prevent your arms from collapsing in onto you at the top of the movement. You can make the triceps work harder by reducing the distance between your hands when holding the bar.
FYI, the ideal distance between your hands for hitting the middle of your Pec major and minor is approximately 50-60cm, this way you are placing most of the emphasis on your chest and not your triceps (Martini and Nath, 2009).
So now that we hopefully have a better understanding of what makes up our chest, we can initiate a full assault on it in order to make it bigger, and better!
This list of exercises is by no means exhaustive, but it is a great basis to work from. The best place to start is with compound exercises such as the bench press with a barbell and weighted plates, a dumbbell press or a weighted dip. My advice would be to start with the bench press, but make sure you have somebody to spot you i.e. somebody to stand over you guiding your movements.
This is in case you hit a sticking point (and you will) or you feel like you want to go on to failure, but fear you might not make it to the top! You’ve probably seen the poor chap who had no option but to casually roll the weighted bar down his chest, onto his lap, and swiftly make for the changing room! Poor fella…trust me, I’ve been there! The barbell is generally easier than the dumbbell press as the weight is distributed more evenly over the bar, whereas stability is compromised when using dumbbells which actually results in the recruitment of more muscle fibres making it a very useful exercise for overall muscular development.
In order to fully maximise your pectoral development, be sure to hit all the Pectoral musculature. Follow these basic exercises on chest day and you can walk out the gym knowing you have stimulated every last Pectoral fibre, helping to promote maximal, well rounded growth!
Flat Bench Press
Keep the bench flat ensuring your hands are approximately 50-60cm apart, lower the bar down to the part of your chest that is between your clavicle (collar bone) and nipples (excuse the term). In effect, you should aim to lower the bar to the part of the muscle you wish to work.
To increase size and definition use a weight that allows you to perform 3-4 sets with a rep range of 10-12.
Incline Bench Press
In order to recruit the upper Pecs you should make sure the bench is at a 10-20 degree angle. By elevating the angle of the bench whilst continuing to push directly up in a straight line, the bar or dumbells should naturally finish above the upper chest concentrating the weight on this area. Again, aim for the bar to finish on the part of the chest you wish to exercise.
To increase size and definition, perform the same rep range as above using a weight that allows you to perform 3-4 sets with a rep range of 10-12.
Decline Bench Press
The decline bench press basically changes the angle of the press which enables you to lower the bar to the lower section of your Pectoralis major. The distance for this range of motion is markedly reduced but there is a tendency for people to try and press as they would when performing a flat bench press which results in them hitting the bar rests or letting the bar fall towards the spotter. If you’ve not done these before, use a spotter to support you and try to push the bar away from yourself as opposed to directly up, but do be careful not to then fall the other way…nut crackers come to mind :s
To increase size and definition, perform using a weight that allows you to perform 3-4 sets with a rep range of 10-12.
Reverse Grip Presses
When performing a reverse grip, your palms should be facing your chin. The reverse grip bench press can be done on a flat bench with no angle. The range of motion starts from directly above your upper chest and outwardly arcs towards your lower chest on the decline. You should finish directly above your upper chest on the incline which again concentrates the weight and muscle squeeze on the upper pecs.
There are both positive and negative movements involved with the bench press. The positive phase is known as the press, and the negative is the return to your chest. Spotters are integral to this movement as negative reps are best performed with a heavier weight than usual or when you have completed a full set and wish to overload the muscle.
Dips can also target your Pecs, particularly your lower Pec major. In order to place emphasis on the chest instead of the triceps (although some tension on the triceps is inevitable) the key is to lean forwards which in turn opens the chest out resulting in the recruitment of the lower segment of the Pec major and also the Pec minor. If you can comfortably manage your body weight, try applying a weighted dip belt with a weighted plate hanging from it, hold a dumbbell between your thighs or ankles, or alternatively ask an attractive young lady if she fancies a piggy back! A spotter can also help you should you struggle nearer the bottom of the rep.
If you feel you still have a little bit left in the locker after your chest session, try burning out with basic press ups. This is a safe way to completely exhaust your Pectorals without dropping the bar or dumbbells onto yourself!
Remember to Supplement!
In order to cash in all of your hard work it is imperative that you consume approximately 30-40g of liquid protein within 30-60mins after your workout. Liquid protein, whether it is made up from a protein powder, ready to drink protein or a liquid vial, is absorbed into the system at a far greater rate than food based protein which requires both preparation and digestion.
A perfect Protein would be Optimum Nutrition’s 100% Gold Standard Whey or XL Nutrition’s Xtra Whey Protein. If you are new to weight training or you have recently increased the weight you are lifting then also consider Optimum Health’s Ultimate Glutamine which has been proven to reduce the onset of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), combined with Optimum Health’s Omega Oil Blend to support the repair and integrity of those poor old ligaments and tendons that bear such a load (Llewellyn, 2009).
Martini, F, H and Nath, J, L. (2009). Fundamentals of Anatomy and Physiology. 8th Ed. San Francisco: Pearson Education.
Llewellyn, W. (2009). Sport Supplement Reference Guide. FL: Molecular Nutrition.