You’re no rookie, so forget the bench-press basics! Cellucor athlete Craig Capurso and Bill Geiger are here to serve up some of the best chest-training advice you probably never considered.
If you’re a fairly experienced lifter looking for concrete ways you’ve never thought of to jump-start your chest training, you’re in the right place. I’ve spent 23 years writing training articles for muscle magazines and Bodybuilding.com, and I’ve recruited one of Cellucor’s top athletes, Craig Capurso, to share the best tips and techniques for training chest.
1. Front-Load Your Workout With A Strength Emphasis
I cringe, I really do, when I see “4 sets of 10-12 reps” across from each exercise in a chest-workout table. That, to me, is a recipe for going nowhere.
The workouts I write for Bodybuilding.com almost always have one thing in common: At the start of your training session, when your energy levels are highest, you push the heaviest loads in a rep range of 6-8. Sure, you can do sets of 12 reps on your first exercise, but that means you’ll be handling a lighter weight and taking it to the upper end of the hypertrophy range. That’s not a smart trade-off on your first exercise, because that’s the only time during your training session you’ll be able to handle your heaviest loads.
“Go for broke in the beginning, when your energy is at its peak, and use a ‘no excuses’ mentality in your push to build muscle,” says Capurso. “When you begin to fatigue, take your training to failure with other measures besides simply using heavy weights.”
How heavy is heavy? To start, keep it around 80-85 percent of your one-rep max—a weight you can do for about 6-8 reps. This has a more significant impact on mechanical tension, which affects the integrity of skeletal muscle cells and is thought to have great influence on muscle growth. After your first exercise, cumulative fatigue will continually bring down your ability to lift your heaviest weights.
Use a multijoint press as your initial exercise on chest day. These movements recruit a larger degree of muscle mass and result in a greater anabolic stimulus. That means your biggest pool of movements is the bench-press family.
2. Use Variations To Target Your Pecs In Different Ways
If you visited an ice cream parlor and saw only three flavors—chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla—that might be fine…for a while. But pretty soon, you’d grow tired of the lack of variety. The law of diminishing returns works similarly in your chest workout. Your body adapts to exercises by growing bigger and stronger, but if you do the same exercises repeatedly for months on end, your body gets “bored” and your growth reaches a plateau.
Perhaps the easiest way to change things up is to trade in that fixed bench for an adjustable one. Adjustable benches open up a vast new array of exercise variations. Set your adjustable bench to a flat position, then move it up one notch. Ever trained at this slightly inclined angle? What if you take it up another notch, or even slightly higher than your normal incline position, until it’s fairly steep? Each of those adjustments makes slight changes to how the chest musculature is recruited, as well as the contribution from the delts.
The steeper the bench, the higher up on your chest the point of maximal stimulation becomes—at the expense, of course, of also dialing up delt recruitment. Similarly, if your gym has an adjustable decline bench, you can introduce slight variations in how you perform declines through slight repositioning.
You can adjust bench angles with your dumbbell presses and flies, as well as with chest exercises you do on the Smith machine. By varying the equipment you use (dumbbells, barbell, machines) and your grip width on barbell exercises, you can multiply the number of ways you target your pec fibers. Close-grip benches better target the inner chest fibers, whereas a wider grip hits the outer pecs more effectively.
3. On Bench Presses, Focus On Liftoffs And Lockouts For A Few Weeks At A Time
Bodybuilders normally train to maximize muscle growth by including exercises from different angles to work the pecs more thoroughly. But let’s take a page from the strength-trainer’s playbook. When performing bench presses, determine where your sticking point lies in the range of motion. Is it in the push off your chest, in the lockout, or somewhere in between? The answer should determine your training strategy. Before I elaborate, let me offer a note of caution: Whatever strategy you choose, consider training in a power rack for both safety and effectiveness.
Building strength out of the hole: If your sticking point is just off your chest (bottom third of the range of motion), don’t think bouncing the bar off your chest will help; that just makes the movement easier. Instead, work to make it stronger using a method called “paused bench presses,” aka dead benches.
When lowering the bar, you normally reverse direction all in one motion, which enables built-up elastic energy to assist. But if you allow the bar to settle on the safeties in a power rack, that built-up energy dissipates. You’ve now made the movement harder, which ties in with the short-term training strategy of building up your strength in that portion of the lift. The safeties should be set just above your chest. Pause 2 seconds before powering out of the hole. Stay tight throughout.
Building strength near the lockout: If you have trouble locking out at full arm extension, never fear. You can use bench-press boards or reposition the safeties in the power rack so that you’re training over just the top third of the ROM. You’ll be able to use more weight than you would normally for full-range reps. The bench press follows an ascending strength curve, meaning you’re stronger the farther the bar is from your chest. Because this kind of training is restricted to that portion of the movement, you’ll be able to overload and train your nervous system to handle heavier loads than it would normally experience.
Building strength along your entire range of motion: You’ve probably seen serious lifters using bench-press bands or chains. And you might have wondered what the heck they were doing. Well, these apparatuses increase the resistance the farther the bar travels from your chest. That technique more closely follows the ascending strength curve associated with bench-press movements. Bands and chains allow you to incorporate what’s called “variable resistance”; you’re pushing less weight where you’re weakest and more weight where you’re strongest.
4. Pinch Your Shoulder Blades Together When Lowering The Weight
Chest training might strike you as being simple—lower the weight to your chest and push back up to full arm extension—but that simplistic explanation doesn’t tell the whole story. Let’s consider the negative rep on the bench press.
As you lower the weight, an act that stretches your pectorals, comfortably retract your shoulder blades. This allows your pecs to open up and fully stretch. It also places less stress on your delts and more on your chest. You’ll notice this as your chest expands like a billowing rooster’s. As a result, you’ll be better able to generate more force through your pecs while stabilizing and protecting your shoulders.
“At times, I’ve been guilty of overcompensating on the bench press with too much shoulder activation, especially when the going gets tough,” says Capurso. “Drive your shoulder blades back into the pad in a retracted position to open up your chest and make the move more effective.”
This movement may not come naturally, but keep it in mind as you do your negative reps. Practice with light-weight sets of bench presses, where you consciously retract your shoulder blades, until it becomes second nature. It’s a technique you can use with any kind of equipment and any of the bench-press angles I’ve discussed above.
5. Never Open And Close At The Elbows During Fly Motions
So far, I’ve purposely stayed away from good-form pointers, because I believe most people who use poor form have no idea they’re doing so. But on chest day, one form blunder is so cringe-worthy that it needs to be called out: turning the fly, a single-joint movement, into a multijoint movement.
The key with flyes (called cross-overs when standing between the pulleys) is to lock a very slight bend in your elbows and maintain it throughout the entire set. Your hands should stray from your body during the negative, requiring your outer pecs to help power them back together at the top. If the angle in your elbows is 30 degrees in the extended position, it should be about 30 degrees at the top—and everywhere in between! That angle should remain constant.
Sure, it is easier to press the weights back to the top instead of maintaining the single-joint elbow position. If you’re guilty of this, you’ll not only notice a change in the degree of bend in your elbows, but that the motion also follows a straight line rather than an arc. A pressing motion requires elbow extension, which means the triceps are now engaged. Sure, you can press your single-joint cable movements, but why would you want to? You’re stronger when you’re stabilized on a bench.
“Many trainers overcompensate the fly movement by changing it into a multijoint movement rather than focusing on the intent of the exercise,” says Capurso. “Nobody is ever going to ask, “How much you fly, bro?” so stop trying to max this exercise out. Focus more on the mind-muscle connection here, and you’ll get a far superior pump in your pecs.”
Our recommendation is to be especially mindful of how you complete each rep when doing single-joint movements so they don’t turn into presses. Practice on the pec-deck machine if you must. Doing so locks your elbows in a slightly-bent arm position. That’s the same arm position you want to duplicate when doing the motion on cables or with dumbbells.
- Vandenburgh, H. H. (1987). Motion into mass: how does tension stimulate muscle growth? Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 19(5 Suppl), S142-9.