How to build Perfect Pecs
How do I get a full chest like Arnold's? What
exercises best hit the upper chest? What angle should I set the bench
to hit my upper chest? What exercises can I do to build the bottom part
of my chest? Are dumbbell flys a shaping exercise? These are by far the
most popular questions thrown my way while people are training their
To help answer these questions, you must first begin to look at genetics. Our abilities to gain muscle are as different as we look. Some people seem to be able to build a great looking chest no matter what they do. However, these people are few and far between. Most people must work hard and have a properly structured training program in order to build a decent size chest.
Everybody's chest will grow at different rates and have its own distinctive look. You cannot change the basic shape of your chest. Only Arnold can build a chest like Arnold. Using the "Austrian Oak" as motivation can be very helpful in attaining your goals, but thinking you can build a chest like his can be counterproductive. Let's put it another way: If you trained like Michael Johnson, the world record holder in the 200-meter dash, do you think you ultimately could run as fast as he can? Do you think you would even come close? This is not meant to discourage anybody but to help you make reasonable goals. Take what you have and strive to make it better.
In some poses, Arnold's upper chest looks so thick that it seems as though he could set his beer on it. Wouldn't that be awesome to be able to do that at a bar? What exercises did he perform to get that look? At what angle did he set the incline to target that area? Let's look at this from an anatomical viewpoint. Is the upper pec really a body part? No, it's not. Actually, what is considered the upper pec by most is really the clavicular part of the pectoralis major. When the pectoralis major is fully developed, it does give the impression of a "shelf-like" appearance to the clavicular portion of the chest.
As to the questions about actually training to target the clavicular part of the pectoralis major, there are studies that suggest an increase in the angle of the bench does not mean an increase in the work load to the upper pec. Many studies have also pointed to the fact that the higher the incline, the more you'll activate the deltoid muscles. To make matters even more confusing for you, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning has published a few studies showing that using a narrower grip is much better at stimulating the upper pecs than adjusting the angle. Now what do we do?
What we're going to do is start from the beginning. I am going to give you a workout that I promise is going to stimulate your pectoralis major more than it ever has been. But, we must first concern ourselves with the basics. As I alluded to earlier, the shape of your chest is the shape of your chest. Don't think that there is a magical exercise that's going to change that fact. This goes for any body part for that matter. If we could change the shape of our muscles, don't you think all pro bodybuilders and fitness athletes would be doing it? Our muscles will grow in a genetically predetermined fashion. In many books and magazines, several authors talk about mass exercises and shaping exercises. Whatever! Show me the proof. Arnold is by far the most accomplished and admired bodybuilder in history, yet I haven't see anybody with arms or a chest like his in any gym or contest I've ever been to. Is it because nobody wants to look like him? Don't get caught up in the game of trying to make your muscles look a certain way. Take what you've got and make it the best it can be by working your chest correctly.
When working your chest, don't be so concerned about what part of the muscle you're stimulating. You'll be hitting your chest from a variety of angles with some basic guidelines, so all your bases in that regard will be covered. It's important that you first learn how to feel the muscle that you're working. I'm sure that many of you have heard of the "mind/muscle link." Concentrating on and feeling your chest work is as important as the exercises themselves. Using tempo during your sets is going to help your concentration level.
Many of you who have read my previous articles
are familiar with tempo.
It is one component of weight training that's commonly overlooked. I cannot talk about designing a workout without talking about tempo. It's widely accepted among bodybuilders and strength athletes that you should lift weights under control, yet most of them haven't a clue as to what that really means, or how it can affect their training. Tempo is by far the least-used tool by most people who weight train, including bodybuilders and strength athletes.
To understand tempo you need to understand "time under tension," TOT or TUT. TUT is simply the amount of time a muscle is under tension. To develop muscle mass the appropriate amount of time a set should last is between 20 and 60 seconds.
Tempo is the speed of your reps. It is expressed and recorded by three- or four-digit numbers representing the seconds required to complete a rep. Example: 402 (four, zero, two) or 50X0 (five, zero, explosive, zero). Using the bench press, the first digit is the speed at which the weight is lowered (negative), the second digit is the amount of time you pause once you've reached your chest, the third digit is the amount of time you take to raise the weight (positive), and the fourth digit, if used, is the amount of time you take before lowering the weight again. If an "X" is used, it means explosive, or as fast as possible.
When the proper use of tempo is employed, the muscles are truly doing the work. Slow speeds make the muscles work harder by eliminating momentum and bouncing. Slowing down the pace increases the amount of muscle tension and the duration of the stimulus. Tempo will also force you to pay close attention to form. This will help you concentrate on the movement and the muscle you're working. However, as with any other aspects of training, it should not be used by itself.
Slower speed training should comprise most of your training. But just like you need to vary your reps, varying your speeds will also elicit a greater effect. As stated earlier, muscles require a variety of stimuli. Stick with the basic principles, find out what works for you. Then, throw in a wrench once in a while to keep your muscles and nervous system guessing and adapting.
The following workout is for the first four weeks of a 12-week program. A workout should be altered in some way every three to five weeks. In the first four weeks your average TUT is going to be 50-60 seconds. The second four-week program in your cycle should use rep ranges and tempos that yield a lower time under tension. For instance, instead of performing eight to 10 reps with a 4020 tempo, try six to eight reps with a 3020 tempo. The TUT will be a little lower, but you're going to be lifting heavier weight, thus changing the stimulus. Variety in training stimuli in a systematic fashion is crucial to your success.
And remember, always train to get strong. The stronger you are, the more tension you put on your muscles. The more tension on the muscle, the greater the growth response. Strength is relative so don't compare your dumbbell press with somebody else's. As long as you're making progress, you're getting the job done.
Now let's get down to business. The first exercises (that's right, exercises -- plural) we're going to do are the flat dumbbell fly and the Iso-wide chest press. We're going to superset these two exercises. If you don't have a Hammer Strength Iso-Wide Chest Press then use another type.
The superset is going to last approximately 60 seconds. To accomplish this we are going to need to do relatively low repetitions. We're going to do between four and six reps on each exercise. The tempo is going to be a little on the high side. For the flat flys the tempo will be 4030, and on the Iso-row the tempo will be 3030.
The set will go like this. After you warm-up
properly, perform a set of flat dumbbell flys to a point at which you
fail between four to six repetitions. Make sure to use the specified
Once you finish your last rep, immediately go to the Iso-row or whatever press you're going to use and perform four to six repetitions to failure. Again make sure to use the specified tempo. Take a three-minute rest after this set is complete.
The second exercise is going to be an incline press. My exercise of choice for this particular workout is the Incline Iso-chest Press. Choose whatever exercise you would like to do for an incline movement, but don't use an incline with an angle more than 35 degrees. As the incline increases the use of your anterior deltoids (front of the shoulder) increases. Reserve working your delts on the day you train them. Use a 4030 tempo and do between six to eight repetitions. Take a three-minute rest after the set is complete.
The third and final set for chest is going to be another superset. The first part of the set is going to be kneeling cable x-overs. Use a 4030 tempo and do between four to six reps. Once you finish your last rep of cable x-overs immediately move to the second part of the set, stability ball push-ups. Use a 4040 tempo and do between four to six reps.
The closer the ball is to your feet the more difficult the exercise becomes. If you need more resistance, have somebody push down on your traps and scapulas while performing the negative portion of the exercise. But if you've done the workout correctly you probably will not need the extra resistance.
As you probably noticed, there are only three working sets used in this high intensity routine. For this to work you must take the muscle to failure on each set. For most of you this type of training is probably very foreign. This type of training, however, is very effective and is gaining popularity. I've been using high intensity training (HIT) since 1994 and believe it's the most productive. In future articles I am going to go into great detail as to why HIT training is so effective and how you can incorporate it into your routines.
Got a question for Mike? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.