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Q&A with Michael Furci - Building your chest and over-training

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Q: I've been working out for about four years. I train three to four days per week and have been pretty satisfied with my progress except with my chest. My shoulders and arms are starting to dwarf my chest. My workout has remained pretty much the same throughout my four years of lifting weight. I usually will perform flat and incline bench, flys, and maybe some cable x-overs at the end. I do three to four sets of each exercise. I always try to stick with basic exercises; however, this doesn't seem to be getting me anywhere. 

I would really appreciate some suggestions. I feel like I'm doing what most of what I read says to do. "Big bench, big chest." The only thing I seem to be getting from benching is bigger shoulders.

Jim C. 

A: Well Jim, I think you have already answered your own question. Four years is much more time needed to decide whether or not an exercise is yielding desired results. The time is well overdue for you to revamp your workout.

The first thing you're going to do is change the order of your exercises. Start your chest workout with flat flys. And I want you to do them as heavy as possible. I know right now you're in utter amazement that I would even suggest such a thing. However, you will find your chest will be targeted like never before. Because maximum weight is going to be involved, you are definitely going to need a spotter. Lie flat on a bench with the dumbbells at arms length directly above your chest. You should have a slight arch in your lower back. Your shoulders should be as far back toward the bench as they will go and should be locked in this position throughout the movement. Your scapula should remain retracted and stabilized. Do not at any time allow your shoulders to move forward. Take a deep breath and begin to lower the dumbbell slowly taking four seconds to reach the bottom, which is just above your chest. In any movement involving your arms with maximum weights, your hands should always remain in front of your body. Do not go for a big stretch while performing heavy flys. The farther your arms go behind your chest, the more vulnerable your shoulder joint becomes. Now slowly bring the dumbbells back to the starting position, taking four seconds. Again I cannot stress enough the importance of not allowing your shoulders to move forward as you push the dumbbells back to the starting position. If the shoulders come forward the stress will be diverted toward them off of the chest.

The second change to your workout will be how you perform the bench press. Grasp the bar with a closed, overhand grip with your thumbs around the bar. Your hands should be slightly wider than your shoulders. At this point your eyes should be directly below the bar. Your shoulders should be toward the bench as far as possible. Your scapula should be retracted and stabilized. Once you are in position, carefully move the bar from the rack to the starting position directly over your chest. Take a deep breath and slowly begin to lower the bar, taking four seconds. In the bottom position you'll be two to four inches above the middle of your chest. Keeping the bar slightly above your chest decreases to torque on the shoulders and keeps the tension where you need it. The lower the bar goes toward the bottom of chest, the more tension is put on the triceps and shoulders. Once you've reached the bottom position, slowly begin to raise the bar until your arms are fully extended. Take four seconds to raise the weight.

Using the above will definitely make a difference in your workouts. The tempo I described above, taking four seconds to lower and four seconds to raise the weight, is absolutely imperative. Performing your reps in this manner eliminates momentum, putting more tension on the muscles involved. The higher the tension is on the muscle, the better the growth stimulus. 

Keep in mind that even with a better workout you may not have the genetics to build a big, thick chest. That's not to say you can't make what you've got better. The point I would like to make is not to compare yourself with others. Do not look at Arnold's chest and get down on yourself. Arnold would have had a good chest if the only exercise he did were push-ups. There are people out there who just look at a barbell and grow. Genetics play the number one role in how much muscle you can put on. Get into the habit of competing with you and use others simply for motivation. 

Good luck. 

Q: For about three months I have been training using heavy negatives. I don't do them with every exercise. I will usually do them with a basic exercise first in the workout. The rest of the workout is done with regular sets to failure. For most of the three months I felt pretty good. Lately, however, I am starting to feel over-trained, or at least I think that's what it is. I feel like I can't get up to doing the workouts anymore. My joints are getting sore and I just don't feel good during the workouts. Should I cut the negatives back or cut them completely? Is what I am experiencing over-training?

Commerce Twp, MI 

A: Over-trained is exactly what you are, Derrick. The symptoms you have described are classic. Other symptoms include: restless sleep, loss of strength and, in severe cases, injury and even suppression of the immune system. As I've stated many times, over-training is the number one mistake of people who weight train. So you are not alone. Training with negatives is definitely a big part of your problem.

To my knowledge, there are no studies that show negative training gives you an advantage over regular training. It has been my experience as a strength and conditioning coach for over 15 years that there is no place for negative-only training. I have tried using negatives off and on throughout the years with professional athletes, bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts, and found that your ability to recover from workout to workout is compromised. I can tell you that I have not used negatives during training sessions for my clients or myself in more than five years.

The stimulus needed for building strength and muscle is accomplished through doing your sets with 100 percent intensity. One hundred percent intensity is accomplished by doing a set to the point at which you cannot, despite your greatest effort, perform another rep. The most important part of the muscle building equation, however, is recovery. If you do not recover from workout to workout, you will become a very frustrated individual. Doing too many sets and/or too many exercises can also impede your ability to recover. 

Because you did not give me any information on the workout you are currently doing I can't help you with it. So the only advice I can give is to first take at least one week off of training to allow your body to heal. When you resume training, use light to moderate weight the first week back. And finally, do not do negatives.

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