Whenever I start with a new client, I always have a consultation with them before we jump right in to training. In that consultation, we discuss several things including nutrition, health history, training protocol, and of course goals. Especially with my male clients, a well- defined chest is always high on the list of goals. And why shouldn't it be? Who doesn't like a nicely chiseled pair of pecs? In this article, I will be outlining some classic exercises that are great for building that highly sought after chest of steel.
Just as with all other muscle groups, optimal results for the chest are best achieved by using a full range of motion. Range of motion (ROM) is defined as the number of degrees that an articulation (joint) will allow one of its segments to move. However, there may be circumstances present, such as shoulder injuries that would require using a limited ROM. In these cases, it is very important for the exerciser to stay within a comfortable ROM and not push himself to the level of pain. Reduced flexibility is another common factor. Extremely tight pectoral muscles, which are very common in men, can also impair a full ROM when training the chest. In this situation, consistent flexibility training must be incorporated for the chest as well as any other muscle groups that happen to be tight. These are important concepts to keep in mind when performing the following exercises.
The Push- Up:
Sometimes the most traditional exercises are still the most effective. There are many variations of the classic push- up, but I will be describing the classic format here. The exerciser should begin in a plank position: on the hands and the balls of the feet, facing down with the hands placed slightly outside the shoulders. On an inhale, the exerciser should then lower slowly toward the floor, leading with their chest until they feel a stretch going through their pectoral muscles. At that point, the exerciser should exhale and press up to the original starting position while squeezing the pecs. Care should be taken to not lock the elbows at the top of the movement and also to not allow the belly to sink toward the floor during the lowering phase. The belly button must be drawn up and in toward the spine at all times in order to protect the lower back during this exercise. Each exerciser should do as many repetitions as they can in good form until they reach muscular fatigue throughout the pecs.
The Bench Press:
During the classic bench press, the exerciser must be lying supine (facing up) on a bench. The placement of the hands on the bar should allow for a 90 degree angle of the elbow joint on the lowering phase of this exercise. Again, this will fall slightly outside of the shoulders. The bar should then be gently lifted off the rack and slowly lowered toward the chest on an inhale. The bar itself should be directly over the nipples and should be lowered until a comfortable stretch can be felt throughout the pecs. The exerciser should then exhale, squeeze the pecs, and press the bar back up to the starting position without locking the elbows at the top of the movement. Beginning exercisers may want to use machine equivalents of this free weight exercise or hire a personal trainer who can spot them effectively and teach them proper form on a one on one basis.
The Cable Crossover:
This exercise is highly effective for training the pectoral muscles but is also rather complex. Injuries can easily occur on this exercise if not done properly so I highly recommend hiring a trainer or getting a demonstration from an experienced lifter. Using a dual adjustable cable system, handles for this exercise should be placed at shoulder level. The exerciser should first center himself directly in the middle of the system, then grab one handle at a time and bring them into his chest. He should then step forward with one foot while still keeping the handles at the chest. The arms should then be pushed forward with the palms facing each other. Once the arms are fully extended, the palms must be turned face down. The exerciser will then slowly bring his arms back toward the cable system on an inhale until a 90 degree angle is achieved in the elbow and a comfortable stretch is felt going through the pecs. He will then exhale and press forward just as in the push- up and bench press exercises. However, this time he will cross his arms completely over one another at the end of the movement, squeezing the pecs. Care should be taken to alternate arms during the crossover action (right over left, then left over right). Once muscular fatigue is reached, the exerciser must finish in the extended position with his arms crossed over one another. The hands should immediately be brought to the chest, and the exerciser should then step backward behind the cables. I have seen many people hurt themselves by not bringing their hands back into their chest, but rather allowing their shoulder to go into extreme hyperextension to return the weight, which can damage the rotator cuff. The crossing effect of this exercise actually provides a larger ROM for the pecs than the other listed exercises which is what makes it so effective. However, as you have read, it is complex and care should be taken to get a live demonstration before attempting to perform it.
The Dumbbell Fly:
The exerciser should begin sitting on the end of the bench holding the dumbbells in his lap. The dumbbells should then be raised to chest level as the exerciser lies back to a supine position on the bench. The arms should then be extended upward with the palms facing each other. On an inhale, the exerciser should then lower his arms toward the floor until a slight stretch can be felt going through the pecs. This time only a slight bend in the elbow should be utilized unless previous shoulder or elbow injuries require a sharper angle. The exerciser will then exhale, squeeze his pecs, and push his palms back toward each other until he reaches the starting position. Once again, care should be taken to not lower too far in this exercise as it can place significant stress on the rotator cuff.
To understand the "squeezing" action of the pecs during these exercises, I often use the "coin" analogy with my clients. I have them visualize a coin between their pecs and tell them they need to trap it with their pecs during the pressing movements of these exercises. Somehow, this little technique has proven very effective. As with any other muscle group, mental focus must be placed on the chest as you are working on it. And of course all of this training would be a complete waste of time if proper nutrition is not utilized, especially when it comes to getting adequate lean protein to rebuild muscle tissue after it has been broken down during training sessions. For more information on proper nutrition, please visit my website. These exercises are important in developing a well- defined chest, but in and of themselves, they are not enough. They are just a part of the overall package. Now get lifting!
Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last thirteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website, www.MichaelElder.com.