Total Chest Training: Maximizing Strength, Size, & Toning

total chest training gym pec training workout bench press pectoralis bodybuilding

Chest training is as easy as 1, 2, 3 sets of bench press right? WRONG! Training your chest, or more accurately described as pectoralis major and minor, requires a fully integrated approach like any other muscle group or training goal. Whether you are training your chest for strength, muscle mass, or toning it takes a variety of training techniques and exercises to do it right.

Arnold Schwarzenegger had a huge and ripped chest...
he did more than just bench press
Traditional barbell bench press is usually the first place a person starts when training their chest. That or the basic pushup. While both of these exercises have their place, they are not usually the most effective methods of building up pectoral strength and size. In fact, check out any academic study performed with electrodes placed on the pectoralis major muscles and you'll find that barbell bench press and pushups stimulate more deltoid and triceps than pecs! What did scientists that stimulated pectoral muscle fibers more than anything? Dumbbell bench press and cable chest flies! So obviously you want to focus on those two exercises as the backbone of your workout, although you can certainly incorporate plenty of other chest exercises as well for a well-rounded and varied chest workout.

Dumbbell bench press is king for many reasons. Besides being a major pectoral muscle stimulator, it also allows greater freedom of movement which is better on the joints. The increase in required stability and coordination over barbell bench press also requires more calories because more muscles are needed to perform the movement. And finally, dumbbell bench press is much harder to cheat on or perform unevenly when compared to its barbell counterpart. With a chest press machine or a barbell you can often maintain a straight bar even if you are pushing much harder on one side, (usually your dominant side). You continue the set because the bar is straight but you end up becoming stronger on your dominant side, and weaker on your other side. This leads to size disparity and chest/shoulder/rotator cuff injuries in many lifters. Also, dumbbell bench press still allows you to lift a very large amount of weight, much more than cable chest flies will allow. Incorporate both dumbbell bench press and dumbbell incline (only 15-30 degrees of incline to emphasize chest over deltoids) bench press. Aim for 3 sets of each after you are warmed up but early in the workout so you're not too fatigued.

For a toned and even chest you gotta train right!
Next on the priority list comes cable chest flies. You can perform both cable and dumbbell chest flies in your workout, but put more emphasis on the cable flies. Why more stock in the cable flies? They provide constant tension throughout the entire range of motion unlike dumbbells, which provide require almost no muscle fiber recruitment during the range of motion point where the dumbbells are directly over your chest (although you still see a lot of people tapping the dumbbells together at the top of dumbbell chest flies). Chest flies of either type also provide a little more of a stretch and range of motion compared to chest presses which can be good for maintaining shoulder flexibility. You can isolate the chest even more by setting up a bench near the cable machines, this way you can avoid wasting energy on body stabilization. Make sure to contract the muscle as hard as you can and not just go through the motions half-assed.

So now, if you warmed up correctly (see example workout below) and do 9 sets of these exercises correctly, you should start to be getting some major chest fatigue. You can then finish them off and hit your deltoids/triceps as well with some flat barbell bench, incline barbell bench, dumbbell chest flies. You won't be able to lift as heavy on these lifts, but you won't have to. If you want to emphasize lifting heavier weights on barbell bench (for improving your 1 Rep Max for instance), than you'll have to perform these sets earlier when you are more fresh. Now, even if you've screwed up until this point and still have some gas in the tank, do some pushup and bodyweight dip burnout sets for the total muscle failure that will require your body to adapt by the muscle recovering bigger and stronger than ever. And by failure, I mean you fall on your face (preferably on a mat or carpet) trying to do your last pushup because the lactic acid buildup is so high and your body's energy systems have been completely taxed.

Final Advice

While you're primarily focusing on stimulating pectoral muscle, most chest pressing / flies / dip / pushup movements do tend to involve significant amounts of deltoids and triceps. So guess what, if you want to improve your chest workouts and lift more weight or get more reps, you'll certainly need to strengthen your triceps and deltoids as well. If you like to train your triceps and deltoids on your chest day, that is also a very effective muscle group split. This article and example workout below are for those looking to do a very high intensity chest workout once per week. Another thing to note is you won't be doing much chest training at all if you don't take care of your shoulders with proper stretching, deltoid strengthening, proper lifting technique, and most importantly rotator cuff strengthening (think internal and external rotations). Also, your chest training won't yield the results you're looking for if you don't compliment it with proper nutrition, stretching, rest, and healthy lifestyle.Hope you enjoyed the article and enjoy the workout example below. Feel free to customize it more specifically to your goals. Get that chest in shape and good luck!

(x = 1 set of usually 6-12 reps for muscle mass emphasis)
Chest Workout (once per week) Example:

Warmup: 20 Pushups Wide Stance
Warmup: Dumbbell Front and Lateral shoulder raises with light weight
Warmup: Light set of Dumbbell Flat Bench Press (15 reps)

3x Dumbbell Bench Press
3x Dumbbell Incline Bench Press
3x Cable Chest Flies (resistance bands if needed)
2x Barbell Bench Press
2x Barbell Incline Bench Press
2x Dumbbell Chest Flies
2x Dumbbell Incline Chest Flies

Burnout set: Bodyweight Dips until failure
Burnout Set: Wide Pushups until failure

*Note: This is a simple yet effective workout example. As with any workout regimen, you will need to change up the workout every 4-8 weeks to avoid adaptation and plateaus. This is done by manipulating the exercises performed, angles, grips, repetition scheme, rep speed, modality used, rest between sets, weight, bands/chains, frequency of workout, and other variables or advanced training methods such as compound sets, drop sets, super sets, monster sets, and negative reps/sets. All important topics for other articles!

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