What’s the number one muscle group that every guy wants to train and build? You could probably guess it, the chest! A strong and defined chest is highly sought after by numerous guys going in and out of the gym every day. More often than not, those same people are spinning their wheels and are not noticing any gain in size on their chest. In this article I’m going to teach you how to effectively train your chest and get the most out of your training sessions. In order to develop a well-rounded chest, you need to understand the anatomy of the chest and how each muscle in the chest works. If you can optimally activate all areas of the chest, you will see noticeable gains! Fill out those t-shirts by understanding the biomechanics of the chest!
What Movements Involve The Chest?
Understanding what movements and lifts involve the chest will aid you in determining what exercises will be best for chest growth. There are two major types of movements that involve the chest and using both of them will help contribute to a better chest!
✓ Compound Presses
The most common and most widely used movement for activating the chest is compound pressing movements. All of the movements where you are pushing a weight away from your upper body are more likely than not going to involve the chest. Bench press movements from all angles will activate the chest and even something like shoulder press has a small stimulus on the chest.
✓ Horizontal Adduction (Flies)
Horizontal adduction occurs when someone performs a fly motion. When we separate our arms and extend away from our body during a fly motion, our chest fibers are elongating and then contracting at the top of the motion when we bring our arms back in.
The pectoralis major is the chest muscle that most guys in the gym are most interested in developing. It’s the largest muscle that helps make up the chest. The pectoralis major has three different subsections. They are the clavicular head, the sternal head and the abdominal head. Each of these subsections are activated during different motions and it is critical to know which movements emphasize which subsections of the pectoralis major.
✓ Clavicular Head
The clavicular head attaches at your clavicle and it runs across your upper shoulder girdle to connect to your humerus. When you hear bros in the gym referring to the “upper pec” or “upper chest”, this is the subsection of the chest they are referring to. The clavicular head is normally the most under-developed portion of the pectoralis major. It’s a difficult muscle to train and, when properly developed, it creates a great look for rounding out the chest. Typically, this muscle is better trained when performed on an incline. Your clavicular head is responsible for shoulder flexion, or the process of raising your arm over your head. In general, motions where you’re finishing with your elbows above your clavicle are going to be chest exercises that stimulate more of your upper chest.
Key Exercises for Development:
☐ Incline Dumbbell/ Barbell Bench Press:
Bench Press is the king of all chest movements. Performing several different versions of bench press allows for greater muscle recruitment and allows you to overload the muscle with the greatest amount of weight. Doing bench press on an incline will enable you to activate a greater portion of that clavicular head to help develop that upper chest.
☐ Incline Guillotine Dumbbell Chest Flies:
This is an exercise very similar to normal dumbbell flies. The difference between normal chest flies and guillotine chest flies is the angle of the bench and the direction your palms face during the movement. Like the exercise says, this will be performed on an incline bench instead of a flat bench. To perform the exercise, you will be replicating a normal chest fly with one minor adjustment. Instead of having your palms in a neutral position facing inwards, you’re going to have your palms facing forward as if you were going to perform a bench press. From this position you’re going to lower the weight like you would a normal chest fly, but keep your palms facing forward. Having your palms facing forward throughout the entire movement will stimulate the upper portion of your chest better than a traditional chest fly.
✓ Sternal Head
The sternal head is the largest subsection of the pectoralis major. It attaches at your sternum, runs across your chest and attaches to your humerus. This part of the pectoralis major is commonly referred to as the “lower pec” or “lower chest”. Exercises on a decline will activate this subsection.
Key Exercises for Development:
☐ Decline Bench Press:
Performing the bench press on a decline angle will allow for greater activation of the sternal head.
☐ High Pulley Cable Crossovers With Palm Supination:
Cable crossovers are a staple exercise incorporated in several training plans. The constant tension provided by the cables creates a different stimulus than normal free weight. If you do cable crossovers from the high pulley position on the cable machine, you can train your lower chest more effectively. To add on to this movement, if you turn your palms upward (supinate) when finishing the movement, you’ll activate the lower pec to an even greater extent!
✓ Abdominal Head
The abdominal head is the most overlooked part of the pectoralis major. It runs from a large connective tissue that surrounds your abdominal wall called the rectus sheath. It continues up across the bottom part of your chest and attaches to your humerus. This is a difficult muscle to train and there are limited exercises that optimally contract and elongate this muscle.
Key Exercises for Development:
☐ Dumbbell Pullovers:
Dumbbell pullovers can be a tricky exercise when first learning how to do them. They primarily work your abdominal head, serratus anterior, and your latissimus dorsi. To perform the exercise, start by placing a dumbbell standing up on a flat bench. Lie perpendicular (crossways) on a bench with only your shoulders sitting on the bench. Your hips should be below the bench and legs bent with feet firmly on the floor. Your head will be off the bench as well. Grasp the dumbbell with both of your hands and hold it straight over your chest at arms length with your arms fully extended. Both palms should be pressing against the underside of one of the sides of the dumbbell.
In this stance, one side of the dumbbell should be pointing towards your chest and the other end directly away from your chest. This will be your starting position. Keeping your arms straight, lower the weight slowly in an arc behind your head while breathing in until you feel a stretch on the chest. At that point, bring the dumbbell back to the starting position above your chest.
The pectoralis minor is actually a muscle that does not need a whole lot of attention. It’s a muscle that lies underneath the pectoralis major. The pecotoralis minor attaches at the top of the scapula and then attaches to the ribs. It plays a crucial role in our breathing process more than anything. It is going to be trained in normal day to day chest exercises; there aren’t any specific exercises to develop this muscle. Just train chest hard and you’ll also be training this muscle!
The single most overlooked chest muscle is the serratus anterior. Some don’t think to consider this muscle part of the chest muscles, but it plays a crucial role in shoulder health and a balanced physique. The serratus anterior becomes very visible and aesthetic in a really lean physique.
Key Exercises for Development:
☐ Weighted Push-Ups
Normal push-ups don’t create a great stimulus for our chest, but they do work our serratus anterior well. Doing normal push-ups with a weight on our back will not only help overload the pectoralis major, but help overload the serratus anterior and activate a greater stimulus on the muscle.
What Kind of Rep Range Is Optimal For Chest Development?
A common question amongst gym goers is, “What rep range should I train in for a particular muscle group?” For training chest, using different rep ranges will help to activate all possible muscle fibers that make-up the chest. There are 2 main types of muscle fibers that make-up muscle tissue. There are fast twitch muscle fibers, which are our explosive muscle fibers used in heavy loads, and then there are slow twitch muscle fibers, which are predominantly used in endurance circumstances like higher repetition sets.
Studies show that the muscle fiber composition of the chest is 60% fast twitch and 40% slow twitch. This means that it might be beneficial to train with heavier loads (ie. Rep Range 5-10) more often than lighter loads for more reps. However, training in the higher rep range will still be needed for overall growth of the chest.
Take Home Message
Know The Science, Notice The Gains!
Incorporating all of the previous information into your training routine will help you to push through a muscle building plateau and aid you in getting that rock hard chest! You’ll be a step ahead of the rest if you understand the science behind what you’re doing in the gym. Train hard and see results.