Question: Jay, my question is about how to build a bigger chest. I heard that the bench press is a crappy chest exercise. Is this true? If it sucks, what’s better?
Answer: The bench press is a good exercise, if somewhat risky and dangerous for a lot of individuals.
I’m not a huge fan of it because it can beat up your shoulders pretty good if you use crappy form (as most people do) or aren’t built for the exercise. When you bench press correctly you use more triceps and front delts so the pecs don’t bear the brunt of the load.
Some people try to combat this problem and isolate the pecs more by bringing their elbows out wide and lowering the bar up higher on the chest (the way that bodybuilding magazines typically show you how to do it).
This is a shoulder injury waiting to happen, so that’s not an option to even consider. I did these many years ago for a few months before I knew any better and my shoulder has never been the same since. Don’t make the same mistakes that I did.
How to Make the Bench Press Safer
If you’re going to bench press be sure to keep your elbows tucked at forty five degrees to your side, shoulder blades pulled tightly back and use a grip no wider than shoulder width. The bar should be brought down to your nipple line, not your neck. That’s a far safer way to do them.
Another way to make the bench press safer is to use bands and do reverse band presses, as popularized by Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell Club. The bands deload the bottom of the exercise, where the most stress occurs, and allow you to press heavy weights more safely.
You can also put chains on the bar for a similar effect. As you press the weight up the chains come off the floor, adding more weight to the top portion of the exercise. So it gets heavier as you press it to lockout. But the weight is lightest in the bottom range where your shoulder is most vulnerable.
The Best Type of Barbell Press
My personal preference and a much better option for building the chest is the low incline bench press with the bench set at no higher than 30 degrees.
This reduces the injury risk and hits the pecs far more effectively; especially the upper pecs, which most people are lacking. I would recommend using a 20-30 degree angle over flat bench presses in most cases. Former six time Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates used this as his staple chest building exercise and it would be hard to argue with his results.
Again, use a somewhat narrower grip (around shoulder width or a hair wider). If you have access to a neutral grip or angled grip bar I’d recommend using it as that can make the exercise even less stressful on the shoulders.
To keep the tension on the pecs and off of the joints and connective tissue you’re going to want to stop the bar 2-3 inches off your chest and 1-2 inches shy of lockout.
This advice is blasphemous in many hardcore strength training circles but these constant tension style pumping reps that you see professional bodybuilders (think Big Louie in Pumping Iron) do with a limited range are better (and safer) for pure muscle building purposes.
Obviously this advice wouldn’t apply to someone who was looking to measure their strength in some sort of contest. Full range only in that case.
Any type of barbell pressing should be done for 5-8 reps when the main goal is to build muscle, unless you are an advanced lifter, in which case you can bump the reps up a bit.
Non-Barbell Chest Exercises
Equally as effective is the low incline dumbbell press. The dumbbells allow a more natural range of motion and are less stressful on the shoulders. You can also do dumbbell presses on a flat bench and a slight decline as well. Both are good options.
Dumbbell presses should be done for sets of 6-12 reps. When you’re strong, even doing sets of six could be risky so you might have to go with sets of eight and above. If you’re a newbie keep the reps at 6-8.
Dips are another chest exercise that should be part of your chest building arsenal. If done with a forward lean, your feet in front of your body and elbows flared out just a bit these are an excellent movement for adding size.
If these give you shoulder problems avoid them or try doing them on rings instead. The freedom to move about into more natural ranges of motion can make a huge difference.
A range of anywhere from 6-15 reps can work on dips.
Any discussion about how to build a bigger chest wouldn’t be complete without mentioning pushups. Pushups of all varieties will always remain among my top chest builders. My favorites are weighted floor pushups with your hands on pushup handles or hexagon dumbbells (either having a partner hold a plate on your back, wearing a weighted vest or wrapping a band around your back) and suspended pushups using the Jungle Gym or gymnastics rings.
When performing suspended pushups remember that the function of the pecs is to draw the arms across the midline of the body. Because of that it’s best to set the straps about five feet apart from each other to make the exercise harder. By setting the straps far apart from each other, you make the pecs function in this way as you press/pull yourself back up from the bottom position.
You have to do it and feel it to appreciate what I’m talking about, but I don’t think you will find a better chest exercise than this. If, like Frank Rizzo of the Jerky Boys, you have a chest like a wet blanket, then I highly recommend you give this exercise a try.
If you have been training properly for more than two years and have built up considerable size but your chest is still lagging behind you can consider adding some suspended flys in as well. These should only be done after you have completed your big pressing exercises. One or two sets of 10-15 reps with constant tension on a suspended fly will finish the pecs off nicely.
Just remember that the most muscle mass is built with big compound exercises and that nobody with less than 2-3 years of training experience has any business messing around with flyes or any isolation movements in general.
At the end of your chest workout, when you’re fully pumped, you’re going to want to hit a 60-90 second deep, fascial stretch. This was popularized back in the early 90′s by John Parillo and can be quite effective. Be sure that you’re only feeling the stretch in the belly of the muscle and not the joints. Getting into pushup position with your hands and feet on boxes is one option. The other is to hold a very light pair of dumbells in a fly/press type position on a flat bench.
Now you know how to build a bigger chest. I expect some before and after pics. Females only.