How to Construct the PERFECT Chest Workout
There are not many muscle groups as aesthetically impressive as strong, athletic chest.
As the centerpiece of your upper body and a key mover/stabilizer in any pressing movement, the chest represents one of the most important muscle groups to target whether you are a bodybuilder or a strength athlete.
Here’s how to construct the perfect chest workout for size by manipulating different training variables to bolster strength and your physique.
First Things First - The Compound Press
You are at your strongest at the start of your workout, you will want to kick things off with a compound pressing movement utilizing free weights. This can be any major pressing variation you like - barbell, dumbbell, flat, incline or decline, it does not matter! The following principles remain foundational across the board.
Considering this is the first movement, you are going to have to warm up. One of the best ways to do this is to incrementally build up to your working sets weight-wise. If your working weight is, say, 100lbs, you could utilize four sets that work up from 50, to 70, to 90 and finish at your working set of 100.
Keep the reps lower for those warm-up (say 4-6 reps) as not to exhaust yourself before you do your working set. Regarding reps on the working set, a good rule of thumb is to keep between 6-12 reps focusing on getting a full range-of-motion and solidifying your technique. This is right in line with the range scientifically found to produce the most muscle gain!
Set up & form is everything. Keeping your scapula retracted (shoulders squeezed together), ensure your upper back stays against the bench and that your lower back maintains a small arch. Keep your butt on the pad, feet driven into the ground and brace your legs as you lift.
With your elbows slightly flared, lower the weight down in a slow and controlled fashion, keeping your breathing stable and your core & posterior chain tight. Press the weight straight up and do not lock out your elbows.
A lot of people get the range of motion wrong with heavy pressing exercises by short-cutting it. Make sure you are controlling the weight all the way down to your chest and right back up to the top in a stable, athletic manner.
The Machine Press
While free-weights remain the undisputed champ regarding overall muscle recruitment, machine presses can also be a fantastic and useful tool. Since the weight is moving on a fixed plane, machine presses decrease activation from assistance muscles and stabilizers. This means you can focus a heavy amount of weight on the chest muscles alone. You can also increase the volume with a major decrease in injury risk (within reason).
Again, it doesn’t really matter what type of pressing machine you want to use. Just make sure you can add a significant amount of weight and that it enables you to engage the chest by pushing as opposed to squeezing (like a fly machine would).
Ensuring the seat is set at the right position so that the handles are not too high or low, sit with straight posture, chest out, and press the weight - explosive on the way up, slow and controlled coming down. Keep the tension on the muscle as you reach the top and don’t lock out.
If you started with a flat bench, go to an incline machine. The same goes for starting with an incline pressing movement; go next to a flat machine if you can!
Use less weight than you did on the first press, taking the reps a little higher at 10-15 reps and keeping to 4 sets like last time.
Isolation movements can isolate your chest like nothing else. The squeeze you can get from them is incredible!
On a flat bench, lay down holding two dumbbells with a neutral grip, and hold them above you parallel to your face. Slowly lower your arms down laterally maintaining a slight bend in the elbow and sink into the bottom part of the lift, keeping your scapula retracted and flaring out your chest for a good stretch.
When you’re at the bottom, squeeze and activate your chest to bring the weight back up to the initial, top position.
For this exercise, imagine you’re hugging a tree throughout each rep. Again, your arms should maintain a slight bend at the elbows, and it’s really important they remain rigid & stable during the whole set. Remember, you are lifting the weight with your chest - your arms are just the hooks holding the weight. It can help visualize this as you’re lifting.
Higher reps work great for these. Stick to 10-15 reps at 3-4 sets. Using excessively heavy weight here is pointless because achieving a ROM is vital to properly execute the movement.You will not achieve the proper stretch trying to PR on flies.
You can use variations, too, so if your gym has a pec dec or a machine fly, use that if you’d prefer!
The Cable Fly is another isolation movement where through lighter loads, you can achieve constant tension directly to the pectoral region. You want to maintain this tension throughout the full ROM to maximize pump/bloodflow. Like the DB fly, trying to PR on Cable Flies is pointless and futile. Keep the weight moderate and focus on ROM.
To perform, set the right and left pin to one of the top notches in the machine. Gripping the handles, stand straight, shoulder width apart and lean forward slightly. You don’t need to put one foot in front of the other; this changes the dominance between your pecs and can create muscle imbalances.
As you would a dumbbell fly, with a slight bend at the elbows you’re going to pull with your chest, bringing both handles in front of you. Slowly bring your hands back to the starting position with a nice stretch at the top, making sure you don’t take the tension off the muscle by releasing the weight.
Perfect for a high volume chest finisher, keep the reps high in the 15-20 rep range over 4 sets.
If you don’t have a cable machine, you can use resistance bands to get the job done!
So, there you have it - the perfect way to construct a killer chest workout! Starting with your bread and butter heavy compound, moving onto a heavy, but more focused machine based press, and finishing with two high rep, high volume isolation exercises.
Keep it simple, keep it safe, and go build yourself that award winning chest!