by Adam Bentley T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- Slight variations on the basic lifts will build a stronger and denser chest.
- Benching with loads greater than 80% of your 1RM makes almost every muscle fiber contract as hard as possible.
- Tweak your grip width and your bench angle to target the clavicular and sternocostal heads separately. This will help maximize overall chest development.
- Using elastic band resistance in push-ups can produce similar levels of muscle activity as in bench presses.
- Performing your push-ups with your hands touching is much more effective than doing them with a wider grip.
- The pec deck is preferable to the dumbbell flye because it allows you to maintain muscle tension throughout the movement.
Supercharge Your Pecs
Want your pecs to reach superhero status? Then find the exercises that give you the best return on your investment.
Despite what many lifters believe, the basic lifts will do the trick. But you’ll need to supercharge them with a few tweaks to get a strong, dense chest.
5 Pec-Building Tips
- The flat bench press is your money exercise. It’s what you can load up the heaviest, meaning it’ll give you the greatest overall stimulus.Go anywhere from 22 to 32 inches between the index fingers. If you can’t exactly figure out where that is, grip just before or on the power rings on each end of a standard barbell.
- Set the incline bench press wherever you’re strongest. This will be somewhere between 30 and 50 degrees. Using the incline bench press is going to shift the emphasis onto the clavicular head. Aim for around shoulder width, or one thumb’s length from the smooth edge of the barbell.
- Perform band-resisted push-ups. Place a resistance band behind the back and hold in place under the hands. You’ll want to make sure to have the bands high on your back so that they don’t catch your elbows.
- Perform isolation exercises for more reps to chase the pump or stretch. Specifically, the pec deck, bent-forward cable raise, and dumbbell flye stress the pecs well and will enable you to keep the tension high, fill the muscle with blood, and take the muscle through its full range of motion.
- The pec deck is probably the best isolation exercise for chest. Keeping tension on working muscle is the key for hypertrophy. Unlike bent-forward cable raise or the dumbbell flye, the pec deck allows you to maintain muscle tension throughout the movement, even around peak contraction when the hands are close.
Exercise Sets Reps
A Flat Bench Press, Wide Grip 5 4-6
B Incline (30-50°) Bench Press, Narrow Grip 4 8
C Band-resisted Push-ups, Narrow Hand Placement 3-4 10
D Pec Deck or Cable Bent-forward Flyes or Dumbbell Flyes 2-3 12-20
Are There Different Parts to the Pecs?
Although the goal is to build a thick slab of muscle across your chest, the pectoralis major really is made up of at least two parts: the clavicular and sternocostal heads.
In most cases they work together, but each head has slightly different anatomy and functions. To develop the whole chest, it’s smart to train the functions of each head.
The Upper Chest
The clavicular head is also known as the “upper chest.” The muscle is anchored to the part of the collarbone nearest the sternum, runs across the chest, and attaches on the upper arm.
You might notice in some (very shredded) people that the clavicular head is separated by a groove from the sternocostal head and sometimes the deltoid too, making it look like a separate muscle.
An underdeveloped clavicular head can be the difference between the chest looking full or looking like a pair of sagging man-boobs.
Because of how the clavicular head attaches across the chest, it’s active in more movements than just horizontal flexion. In fact, the clavicular head is also very active during shoulder flexion-type movements, which bring the arm from your sides to overhead.
As such, those powerlifting-style bench presses done with the elbows tucked are likely still involving the pec muscle to a large extent, but probably with a big focus on the clavicular head.
In fact, studies have found that muscle activity in the clavicular head is greater during narrow-grip bench presses than during wide-grip bench presses, regardless of bench angle.
The Middle and Lower Chest
The sternocostal head can be thought of as both the middle and lower chest. The muscle is anchored along the length of the sternum and runs across the chest to attach on the upper arm.
It’s referred to as both the middle and lower chest because the muscle is made up of six to seven different individual segments that overlap each other in a fan-shaped arrangement. It’s much bigger in size than the clavicular head and makes up approximately 75% of the pec major.
Because of how the sternocostal head attaches, it’s the primary horizontal flexor. However, it’s involved in more than just horizontal flexion; it performs shoulder adduction when the arm is below the horizontal. Think of a lateral raise, but exerting force in the opposite direction.
What Do the Pecs Actually Do?
The pecs, or more properly the pectoralis major, link the sternum (the bone in the middle of your ribcage) and the clavicle (your collarbone) with the humerus (your upper arm).
Although the pec major is classified as a chest muscle, it actually functions to move the shoulder. Assuming you’ve used the pec deck machine or done some dumbbell flyes at least once in your life, you’ll already have a pretty good idea that the pec major is very active in shoulder horizontal flexion, or even hugging.
When performing a bodybuilding-style bench press or push-up with your shoulders at right angles to your upper body (or close to it), you’re basically using horizontal flexion of the shoulder but adding elbow extension at the same time.
What Type of Muscle is the Pec Major?
There’s not a lot of data to go on when it comes to pectoralis major fiber type. What little info there is indicates a greater proportion of type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers. One study reported 65% type II and another reported 58% type II.
Although the research is limited regarding the effects of heavy loads or light loads on hypertrophy in type I and type II muscle fiber areas, lots of researchers believe that training with heavy loads and low reps produces greater hypertrophy in type II fibers, while training with lighter loads and high reps causes greater gains in size in the type I fibers.
This might be partly why old-school routines, built around first moving heavy weights and low reps, produce better results in terms of chest development than pump-focused programs.
Can’t Beat the Bench Press!
When it comes to putting the chest to work, research shows that you really can’t beat the bench press.
Performing the bench press with loads greater than 80% of your 1 RM results in almost every muscle fiber of both the clavicular and sternocostal heads contracting as hard as possible (>90%), not to mention that muscle activity tends to increase from the start to the end of a set.
While the traditional bench press does a good job of building the chest, there are a few tweaks you can use to squeeze every last drop out of the movement:
- You need to alter your grip width and your bench angle to target the clavicular and sternocostal heads separately, which will help maximize overall chest development.
- Use a wider grip to target the sternocostal head of the pectoralis major. This works much better than a narrower grip width, which will primarily target both the triceps and the clavicular head.
- Be sure to use a flat or a 15-degree decline bench press for the sternocostal head. For the clavicular head, use an incline bench angle around 30-50 degrees.
- Combining the above recommendations will produce even better results. For targeting the sternocostal and clavicular heads separately, you can split your bench presses into two types:
sternocostal bench press — flat or 15 degree decline, with wide grip
clavicular bench press — 30-50 degree incline, with narrow grip
Preserve the Push-Up!
Research has found that using elastic band resistance in push-ups can produce similar levels of muscle activity as in bench presses, and even produce similar gains in strength over long-term trials.
Simply grab opposite ends of the band with both hands and stretch it behind your back before getting into a push-up position.
Since exercise variety is almost always a good thing for maximizing gains in muscular size, incorporating both bench press and push-up variations into your programs is a win-win scenario.
Although the push-up is a great exercise for the pecs (however you perform it), research has found that performing your push-ups with your hands touching is much more effective than doing them with a wider grip.
This might be because they’re simply more challenging when done that way, so be prepared for some surprisingly tough moments, especially if you load up on the elastic band resistance.
Don’t Bench on a Ball!
Research has shown that benching on a stability ball involves lower muscle activity in the pectoralis major than bench presses on a stable bench, probably because they require you to use lower loads.
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