Contest Prep

There are many people out there who call themselves bodybuilders, but in my opinion, unless you have attempted to take the stage at least once in your life, you are just a weightlifter. There is a big difference between having a physique with some visible abs that looks good on the beach and the body that you see in competition, with striated glutes, paper-thin skin, and veins like you’d see in an anatomy chart. Many have attempted to step on stage, and many have failed. In my mind, that’s what separates a wannabe bodybuilder from the real deal.

Bodybuilding isn’t for everyone, and for some it just isn’t in the cards due to body structure and genetics. You don’t necessarily need to have superior genetics like Jay Cutler to compete, but contest prep does require discipline, hard work, consistency, and the drive to do what it takes to get results. At the end of the day, genetics (and the judges) may determine the on-stage winner; however, the fact that you may not receive a trophy doesn’t mean you are not a personal winner as long as you did everything possible to be your best on that day. As I tell my clients, if you enjoy the process and the challenge, then you have already won.


IFBB Pro Evan Centopani Weeks Out From the 2012 Arnold Classic

Where do you start? One general recommendation I make is to hire qualified help. Even with the information in this article, which is written in a general format, there are too many individual differences among potential competitors that must be addressed. An expert will be able to hone in on your particular body and how it works, and then will be able to apply tried-and-true principles to achieve specific results while avoiding the traps and pitfalls that can occur during contest prep. Also, a professional will provide an objective viewpoint and will be able to help you keep your mind on the right path; as the diet progresses, it becomes as much a mental challenge for some as a physical one.

The Diet:
A lot of bodybuilders believe there is only one single process to follow to get ready for a show. Most pick a certain number of weeks before the show to start dieting, usually 12-16 at minimum, and then just gradually drop their calories as the show gets closer. How early you should start your diet depends on your current condition and how much fat you are carrying. A good rule of thumb is to give yourself one week for every percentage point of body fat. Therefore, if you have roughly 12% body fat, start at 12 weeks out; if you are over 16% body fat, start at 20 weeks out.

There are also many bodybuilders who still follow outdated and useless practices during prep such as carb depleting and then reloading the week before the show; all that does is risk damage to the physique. I like to use methods that are based more on science and in-the-trenches experience and not merely on tradition. Always plan extra time for contest prep to ensure optimum fat loss and retention of muscle mass. Specifically, you want to maintain a relative calorie deficit rather than an absolute calorie deficit (an important point I learned from Scott Abel). The reason for this is that in an absolute calorie deficit, an athlete can and almost always will lose muscle mass, which we would prefer to avoid at all costs. In an absolute caloric deficit, the body will be more stubborn about giving up fat because it is in starvation mode, which is roughly 750-1000 calories below an individuals BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). In this state, the metabolism will protect fat storage at the expense of muscle in order to maintain energy expenditure.

For any diet, and especially for contest diets, a better approach is to use a relative caloric deficit in which an individual begins the diet at or near his normal BMR, which is the rate at which the body burns calories while at rest. Once the BMR has been established, the diet begins. There are various methods that can be used to prepare for a contest…the particular approach all depends on a person’s current needs state, how they have been eating up to that point, and their current condition. Some of these methods are: 1) staggering calories (one of my favorite methods), 2) carb cycling, or just a 3) a steady-state approach at or near the BMR, while introducing fat burning activities (such as a structured training program and cardio) to create a fat-burning machine rather than a fat-storing machine.


Dennis Wolf Also Weeks Out From the 2012 Arnold Classic – Looking HUGE!

So how do we figure out a person’s BMR? There are some good equations out there, but to keep things simple, just take your bodyweight times 12 or 14 if you are in decent shape (below 14% body fat) or your body weight times 10 if you are on the fatter side (above 15%). Next, subtract 300-500 calories from that number, depending on how much fat you have to lose. There are several factors that influence the BMR, including gender, hormonal levels, age, height, and background. Therefore, it would be useful to have a record of a few days worth of eating in order to poinpoint an individual’s current caloric intake and how closely it matches their calculated BMR. Once calorie consumption is assessed, then we proceed to choosing an appropriate diet strategy. I recommend breaking the calories up into five, six, or even seven evenly spaced meals throughout the day. In this way, the body is more easily able to process smaller amounts of food efficiently and to keep insulin levels steady.

Once the general eating strategy is set, it is then necessary to structure the diet in terms of fat, carb, and protein percentages. One point I want to get across immediately is that in a calorie deficit (as in a pre-contest diet), there will be no predisposition for your body to store fat from ANY energy source (carbs, fat, or protein). Therefore, when dieting, don’t be concerned that a certain energy source may make you fat (the usual targeted source is carbs); instead, focus your sights on determining the best strategy to optimize fat loss while insuring retention of your hard earned muscle. Carbs and fats are the protein-sparing energy sources– enough of these must be present in a diet so that protein can be used to build and rebuild tissue. If not, the body will use protein for the production of energy at the expense of rebuilding tissue.

A word on carbs: Carbs are not the enemy, but too much insulin may be a problem when trying to get ripped on a diet. The problem is that too much insulin and too little insulin can both result in feelings of hunger. Therefore, to control insulin levels, we should monitor physiological feedback after meals. If there is too much insulin, the body feels tired and the mind sluggish. If insulin is low, the body feels hungry, but focus and concentration remain clear. Finding a balance between these two situations then becomes a matter of tweaking the meals during a diet. Someone who feels tired and lethargic after a meal may be consuming too many calories at that particular meal. If he feels hungry, but is still focused and alert, then his body is in a fat burning mode. As time goes on most bodybuilders get used to the hunger…it’s just part of a typical contest prep!

Getting back to macronutrients, how do we decide the ratios of proteins, carbs, and fats? As an example, let’s take a 200-lb client. Protein needs would be roughly 275 grams, as I like to keep protein around 45-50% of total calorie intake during contest diets. Because his BMR would be around 2400 calories, according to our calculations, I would recommend that 50% of that should consist of 300 grams of protein (just take 2400, multiply by .50, then divide by 4). Now there are 1200 calories left to divide between carbs and fat. Using a carb-based diet as an example, I would keep carbs at 35-40% and fat at 10-15%. I have gotten many competitors into ripped contest condition using this model. In terms of fat loss, you should monitor bodyweight and the image in the mirror each week (the mirror will always overrule the scale weight) as well as your body’s feedback on hunger, focus, energy levels, etc.. Remember, this is one of many possible ways to diet for a contest, and it always comes down to an individual’s physiology. This is one of the best parts of what I do–manipulate and coax the body to come in shredded and watch it all unfold in front of me.

Also keep in mind that if the body is in a fat burning mode, water intake needs to be increased as well. During diet periods, more body fluids will be lost and replenishment becomes crucial. Proper fluid replenishment and electrolyte balance is important at this stage to maintain cell integrity and intracellular water levels. Therefore, sodium ingestion should also be kept quite high through the whole prep by using sea salt and certain condiments.

After you have taken all of these variables into consideration and have set a plan into action, you can then and only then look for other factors that may influence performance. Finding the right training protocol and minimizing stress levels are factors outside of the diet that can contribute positively or negatively to performance. The others, of course, are supplements and drugs. Too many readers already rely too heavily on pharmacological influences so I will not go into that subject. However, supplements can be put to use in pre-contest dieting. Products are called “supplements” for a reason–they supplement diet and training, but they do not take the place of them. Supplements exist to aid the process of fat loss and muscle retention but they will not replace bad training, coaching, or dieting, and will not fix what is wrong with your overall protocol.

Cardio:
When it comes to cardio, the more fat you have to lose, the more cardio you may need to do. Keep your cardio sessions at 25-45 minutes; longer sessions will cost you hard earned muscle. If you have a lot of fat to lose, the key is to start cardio at the same time as you start dieting. The problem most competitors have is that they tend to throw the kitchen sink at themselves from the start, whether it be cardio or diet. If you start out at six 1-hour sessions per day and plateau at eight weeks left, where do you go from there? Yes, you would initially lose a lot of weight, but once you hit that plateau, you have no option but to go to extremes. Two sessions per day on top of workouts? You want bodybuilding to add something positive to your life, not consume your life. Furthermore, if you go to these extremes, the after-effects once the contest is over could be dangerous, and this is something you want to avoid as much as possible. So you want to get the most out of the least when it comes to cardio—add it only when needed. I would not recommend you start with more than three sessions a week at 30 min each unless you are completely out of shape.


OG IFBB Pro Renel Janvier Knew How to Get Into SHAPE!

Keep your cardio at an easy-to-maintain pace. The rule of thumb is that you should be able to maintain a conversation but still build up a sweat. You are a bodybuilder, not a runner; save the high intensity stuff for your workouts and keep cardio at a comfortable level. Now I know some individuals like HITT, but for the most part, once you are a month or so into contest prep, you will more than likely end up burning off muscle with this approach. If you want to do it for the first few weeks, that’s good, just be cautious. The time of day at which you do your cardio depends on your lifestyle and other factors. Forget this idea that “first thing in the morning on empty stomach” is absolutely necessary. That may be the absolute best-case scenario, but if you don’t have a good bike or treadmill at home, and you need to drive to the gym or you do your cardio after training, it’ll be fine. Don’t sweat the small details, just maintain consistency with your diet and training program.


First of all, I want to point out that if you didn’t put in the hard work and a good plan to get ripped ahead of time, then no amount of water manipulation, fat loading, or carb loading is going to work in the end. I often hear competitors say that they were just holding water—no, you were just not lean enough, period! If you are shredded, then proper loading can help you to look fuller and dryer in order to present the best package possible on stage.

What you do with your water intake depends on how you will be peaking. If you carb load, water manipulation will have to be different than if you fat load. For carb loading, you need to know that carbs require roughly three grams of water for one gram of carbs in order to load into the muscle cell. For simplicity, let’s say you are loading 400 grams of carbs, which would require 1200 grams of water to load into the muscle. To help with drying out, instead of taking in 1200 g of water, you take in 700 g of water. The body will take the rest of the water needed from its subcutaneous stores. Unless a client needs to make weight, we would typically start loading on Wednesday (Saturday being the contest day) and taper on Thursday; that way, we have some wiggle room for adjustments come Friday and Saturday, depending on how the client is looking. Therefore, you should decrease water as you decrease carb intake, but you should never completely cut water if you are just carb loading. Also, when you carb load you should use carb sources such as potatoes, rice, oatmeal, and rice cakes and not simple sugars. All those will do is cause bloating and water retention.

Another method, and one I use more often, is fat loading. Carb loading can work and work well for an individual with a higher metabolism, but for those more sensitive to carbs, it may be much harder to peak and keep water under control. Instead, fat loading can be done by increasing calories on Wednesday and Thursday (using good fats such as natural peanut butter, whole eggs, olive oil, and red meat) with minimal carbs at a couple of meals as well as keeping water intake low on the day of the show.

Alternatively, this can also be accomplished by taking in simple sugars along with very high fat foods using the correct timing. I learned this method when working with Scott Abel. You must cut out water completely for this approach to work, usually around 12 hours or so before the contest, in order to get rid of the little interstitial water you may have and to make room for fat loading. But first, before you cut your water, you need to take in as much water as you can starting on Tuesday and leading up to Friday. This will send the message to your body to turn off ADH (anti-diuretic hormone), which will ensure that you will continue to lose water even after you stop taking in fluids. Tapering off your fluid intake with this method is a huge mistake because that is what turns on ADH; as less water comes into your body, it responds by trying to hold and store its own water. The result is unwanted water retention. A good rule is that if you are on point conditioning-wise, you shouldn’t need to dehydrate for more than about 20 hours max. You should use foods such as prime rib, fries, cheesecake, nuts, pancakes, and even candy bars along with regular diet foods. If you are plenty dehydrated, after prejudging is over, then a diet soda or two will help fill out the muscles. Just make sure you have them between meals and not WITH your meals, and only have them if you look like you are getting flat. Remember, timing is everything.

Now if you are a novice and you are ripped and ready to go but are unsure about the peaking methods, don’t change a thing…if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it!. Don’t take a chance (as so many bodybuilders do at the last minute) if you truly don’t know what you are doing. To take months to prepare for a contest and then risk it all by trying methods you have no experience with is just not worth it. Fat loading and carb loading both work and work well, but they are not foolproof. This is where expert advice comes into play.

So, to sum it all up, here are the take-home points:

• Determine your timeline (err on the side of longer).
• Select your diet approach.
• Listen to your body and be objective (which is harder than you may think).
• Add in cardio only when needed.
• Be ready at least 1- 2 weeks prior to the contest.
• Don’t use ANY peaking method if you don’t know what you are doing.
• Don’t go to extremes. No contest is worth screwing up your body.
• Work hard and be consistent!

The best advice I can give is to hire a coach to guide you on this journey. It takes all the stress out of the process, and you will also learn things along the way. No two contest preps are ever the same, and prep even shifts from contest to contest as your body changes. A good coach will assess how your body works and will know when to make changes based on your feedback. Good luck and get yourself up on that stage!

Bodybuilding Basics

“What is the best way to gain size?” Because I am a competitive bodybuilder and coach, I am asked this question more than any other, and in my experience, everyone seems to expect that there should be a black and white answer. The truth is that if a black and white answer were to exist, wouldn’t everyone who is seeking physique development already have the body they want?

A common idea in the industry is that in order to get bigger, you must lift heavier and heavier weights and constantly work to gain strength. This is only partially accurate. The problem is that many people misinterpret this approach by striving to increase limit strength (1-rep max) in order to induce hypertrophy. In doing so, they focus exclusively on lifting more weight, thereby training the movement and not the muscle, and this flawed strategy undermines proper muscle fiber recruitment. Lifting better, not necessarily heavier, is what is essential for development! How much you lift is only relative to correct lifting technique and execution.

Another industry plague is the ingrained dogma of bodybuilding. Put simply, bodybuilders are creatures of tradition. They tend to either do what they have always done or follow a trend because a champion bodybuilder did it, not because there is actual expertise behind it. Consider Dorian Yates, for example. Undoubtedly, he had one of the best physiques in bodybuilding. However, he also had countless injuries as a consequence of his training style. Many people followed his system not realizing that only a select few could actually achieve real progress from it. Dorian eventually reverted to more traditional hypertrophy training because he had to think more about the long-term as opposed to short-term, as most bodybuilders tend to do.


Lee Haney, a multi Mr. Olympia, was always known for both size and symmetry. He was one of the last of the mass monsters who had a tiny waist and incredible shape to compliment his sheer bulk.

Most individuals have no concept of how to monitor and vary their training in order to achieve the best possible results because they have simply never been taught properly. Unlike most other sports, bodybuilding (or physique development) has never had the benefit of guidance from real coaches. There are thousands of coaches out there who help elite and amateur athletes alike excel in their chosen sport, be it basketball, hockey, swimming, gymnastics, or many others. Physique development coaches, however–with actual expertise in helping individuals who are not genetically superior to obtain an impressive physique–are a truly rare species.

When it comes to training for size, there is a right way and wrong way to go about it. There is a right approach to use when performing a movement to extract the most benefit, and that includes training the muscle through its full range of motion. This does not mean that every person should do the same program–it simply means that after you take into account the individual, his or her current fitness level, current phase of development, and other factors, you still must apply the same basic principles.

Note: There are many ways to design a program to suit an individual’s current needs, and this should always be taken into account. Given this article’s limited scope, however, only basic body part training is discussed here.

GET YOUR HEAD RIGHT

Pick an objective, and stick to it. When training for physique development, you must recognize this as your main objective–everything must therefore be structured around this goal. Too often I see trainees who want to gain size, but focus only on how much they can bench, squat, or deadlift. Even though these are all great exercises and should be part of a well-designed program, they are merely tools in the toolbox–simply increasing the amount of weight lifted should not be the main focus. Doing so will detract from your goal. Remember, you are training to increase your size, not your 1-rep max. Although I’ll likely be criticized for such a statement, I have learned this through my coaching experiences with hundreds of clients over the years, as well as my own experiences as a former powerlifter. Just because you can bench 400 lbs or squat 500 lbs does not mean you will fully develop your physique. Now this is not to say that you shouldn’t lift heavy; you do still want to incorporate the overload principle. However, the quality of the exercise and obtaining maximum voluntary contraction are the most important objectives, which can only be achieved with proper technique and increased workload capacity with the addition of greater intensities. These principles are much more nuanced than simply lifting as much weight as possible from point A to point B. You want to reach muscle failure, not movement failure, which is when other muscles start assisting in the lift. Your goal is maximum hypertrophy and size, not maximum strength.


Flex Wheeler is another bodybuilder who was known for the sheer beauty of his physique. Few bodybuilders have ever approached the flowing lines and rounded muscles bellies Flex sported at his peak.

Be realistic. As a bodybuilder, you must realize that you have a unique genetic makeup that ultimately determines how fast you can grow and how much muscle you are able to build. Only a very small percentage of lifters can attain success as professional bodybuilders. No amount of steroids will help you achieve that type of size if you don’t have the right parents, so to speak. Be reasonable, work towards building the best physique you can build, and don’t compare yourself to the genetic elite. People often approach me under the misguided belief that they can add 20 lbs of muscle in a few months. This is unrealistic. It is difficult to achieve such gains in an entire year, let alone a few months. Moreover, unless you are a complete beginner, most of you will fight to put on 10 lbs of solid muscle in one year. The more advanced you become, the harder it gets…that is just being realistic.

Also keep in mind that this sport is a marathon, not a sprint. You must be patient, consistent, and tenacious to achieve results. There is no magic pill or single training program that will get you the results you desire. Be focused and be realistic when you set out to become a bodybuilder—in adhering to these simple principles, you will begin your journey leaps and bounds ahead of most of your competition.

GET YOUR TRAINING RIGHT: MISCONCEPTIONS AND MISAPPLICATIONS

Isolation Builds Character…And Muscle
Target training is a must for bodybuilders. You must learn to train only the targeted muscle in the set exercises for that session. Keep in mind that your body will always try to make an exercise easier by recruiting other muscles, so you must always focus on only making the desired muscle do the work. If you fail to do this, other muscle groups will inevitably assist in the lift. This is not what you want when trying to induce an adaptive response in the targeted muscle.

Admittedly, it is technically impossible to truly isolate a muscle. Nevertheless, your goal is to make the targeted muscle the weakest in a group of acting muscles in order for it to achieve maximum overload. This requires knowing the planes and ranges of motion in which a muscle functions in order to effectively overload that muscle. Always ensure that you train the muscle through its full range of motion– research has consistently shown that a muscle stretched with resistance (eccentric loading) will receive the most overload. By doing this, the intensity of the contraction will be much greater, and you will start tapping into your high-threshold motor units, which is essential for growth.

Pause…For What?
If you seek to exert maximum effort and produce development in the gym, you need to avoid the habit of pausing on exercises! For example, many individuals often take a slight pause at the top of every rep on leg presses or squats. Why? Because it makes the lift easier! The pause allows the nervous system to rest, thereby potentially limiting the maximum benefit achieved from the workload. Instead, always focus on the mentality of stretch & contract, and try to keep tension on the targeted muscle over every single inch of every rep. Remember, you are trying to fatigue the targeted muscle and place as much stress on it as possible. Yes, there are certain techniques like extended sets, strip sets, etc., that appropriately incorporate pauses, but in general, focus on just continuously pumping out most of the exercises most of the time.

Anatomical Leverages and the Individual Lifter
When it comes to bodybuilding, the same tired old aphorisms are circulated over and over again: you must squat to get big legs, you must do pull-ups to develop your back, and so on. Throngs of people swear by these statements, and they might actually work for a given individual and maybe lots of others. Take heed, however–this doesn’t mean it will work for you. Your body’s leverages and the lengths of your arms, legs, and torso will play a huge role in which exercises will be more suited for you in order to fully develop a muscle. For example, if you have long legs, doing back squats may produce more stress in your lower lumbar region and decrease your range of motion, thereby preventing your legs from receiving the most overload! Alternatively, if you have long arms, pull-ups are probably going to be extremely difficult due to the range of motion and distance you need to travel to complete one full rep, thereby limiting you to doing minimal reps. This will obviously reduce overall time-under-tension and take away from your back development. There are countless other exercises that are good and/or bad depending on the leverage system of a given individual. So be smart and choose exercises that enable you to fully stimulate the targeted muscle. Do not get caught up in the industry hype that if you cannot perform a certain lift well then you will not grow. I have proven that axiom wrong numerous times with multiple clients over the years. Understanding the range and plane of motion in which a muscle works is critical to achieve maximum overload in an exercise. What does that mean? Technique is more important than how much weight you use. Remember this when you leave your ego in your gym bag.

The Scourge of Ego
There is absolutely no room for ego when it comes to training for physique development. Every day I see guys using their own leverage advantages just to lift more weight, but this approach does not isolate a muscle and most definitely will not produce enough overload for an adaptive response. We have all seen guys doing quarter squats and half reps on DB presses with tons of weight just to try to impress someone. Wake up, egomaniacs! This does absolutely nothing for your development. In fact, all it does is increase the risk of injury and make your head swell because you put a ton of weight on a bar and moved it two inches. Is it then ironic that in spite of so many dazzling plates of glory, your legs are as big around as my wrists?! Ego. Gym bag. Leave it.


Unconventional training and diet were just the beginning. Few bodybuilders have ever looked so good in the “relaxed” pose as the late, great Serge Nubret.

People that ego-train are not making the targeted muscle the weakest in the movement. They simply use leverage and often momentum as well to complete the lift for them, thereby stressing the joints more than the actual muscle they are trying to work. Humble yourself and back off the amount of weight you are using, and instead, put the muscle through its intended range of motion. Invest your time in the gym and stop squandering it–strength will come over time. If you try to force it, you are begging your body to react negatively, if not disastrously.

The Lore of Exercise Sequences
Another misconception is the appropriate exercise order for a particular muscle group. Likewise, a common maxim in bodybuilding lore is, “Thou shalt do compound movements first and isolation movements last.” Why? The real answer is that you can lift more weight if you perform compound movements first. This is more ego-driven nonsense. Again, we must concentrate on training muscles and not egos. Varying the sequence of exercises will keep your body from adjusting too efficiently and help to further isolate muscles. For example, switching up and doing leg curls before squats will do wonders for hamstring development and actually help to engage quads more when doing squats. Just because you will then need to squat less weight than you typically do doesn’t mean you won’t grow (remember your goal??). Your muscle only knows how much stress it is under, not how much is on the bar. Quite simply, if the weight is challenging, then it is the right amount. Variation is one important key to an adaptive response. Therefore, when you write your program, occasionally start a session with flyes, leg curls, etc., and save the big movements for last.

Reps, Weights, and Other Ridiculous Bedtime Stories
Finally, let us address the beloved heavy-weights-for-low-reps tradition. In every gym in which I have ever trained (and in most forums for which I have written), the most common solution proffered for getting big is to use heavy weights for low reps, and the converse of that is to get cut, use lighter weights for high reps. Both solutions are wrong! If you are a bodybuilder, you are always looking to increase your workload capacity; you don’t achieve this objective by using low volume and heavy weights. Most of the time, you achieve it by using heavy weights and high volume. Keep in mind, when I say “heavy,” I mean heavy relative to what you are doing, not “how much is on the bar”. Also, when it comes to volume, you don’t just do a ton of exercises and get results; volume has to be properly and intelligently progressed. To many times trainees take this advice and basically do junk volume with no rhyme or reason other than to do more, but unless the program design is properly applied based on the individual, you will do more harm than good and hinder overall results.

Extensive research has shown that the duration of overload on the muscle produces the most growth, not the amount. Therefore, instead of focusing on how much is on the bar, your goal should be to achieve maximum voluntary contraction on every rep of every set of every exercise you do. This requires proper technique and incredible concentration, which leads to greater overall intensity. Choose a weight that allows you to concentrate on performance, and once you adapt to that, increase the amount of weight you use accordingly. Again, lifting better and harder is more important than simply lifting more.

CONCLUSION

If you have been scratching your head wondering how you should be training in order to be a bodybuilder and develop a great physique, look no further–this article should help to clear up the confusion and dispense with a lot of misinformation and myths out there in the industry. If you take the principles I have discussed and apply them to your training, your results will increase substantially.

An Intelligent Approach to Building a Big, Strong Chest

If you’re a lifter, I guarantee you’ve been asked The Question. It’s almost like a prerequisite to even joining a gym: “Here’s your towel, your member key, and, by the way, how much do you bench?

Although it’s often asked nonchalantly, the true intent of The Question is to find the answer to an even deeper question: How much of a man are you?

The truth is, unless you’re a powerlifter, how much you bench is irrelevant. In fact, if your goals are primarily hypertrophy and aesthetics, chasing some number on the bench may be detrimental to your progress.

Developing a full chest—one that looks like it could bench a ton—lies in proper science and proper application of training.

In this article, I will cover scientific principles, how to apply functional exercises for better neural and physical development, and also the proper methodology for building the strong, muscular chest you want!

Function and Anatomy (Don’t Worry, It’s Not Boring!)

The chest is comprised of two muscles: the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. These two muscles perform two functions: one is horizontal adduction (drawing the arms toward each other) and the other is flexion of the shoulder joint (pushing the arms away from the body). This tells us that there are only two movements that activate the pectoralis major and minor, and those would be presses and flies.

The chest also functions best in the plane of motion between 0 and 45 degrees from a prone position (that translates to ‘from a flat bench to a 45-degree incline bench’.) Now I know that you’re thinking “What about decline presses?” Decline versions of presses and flies involve more than the chest as a prime mover and though they can be included (depending on the structure and leverage system of an individual), they are not necessary.

Because we know that a) the chest is most efficiently stimulated in the 0 to 45 degree plane of motion, and b) its main functions are to push away from the body and draw the arms together, the main components of your chest workout should be presses and fly movements done in a flat or incline position of no more than 45 degrees.

How to Target the Chest

Exercise selection

The most efficient way to develop the chest is to use mainly dumbbells for presses because they require you to perform both functions of the chest (drawing the arms together and pushing away from the body) for greater stimulation and overload.

As you perform presses, make sure to push the weight upward at first, and then as you get to the top of the movement, bring the dumbbells together for full contraction of the pecs.

To ensure that you maintain tension on the chest, do not go below parallel to the shoulders; this way the chest is in its fully stretched position, but you are not putting the stretch into the shoulders. A phrase coined by my mentor Scott Abel is “a muscle that is stretched with resistance will receive the most overload,” so making sure you keep tension mainly in the targeted muscle is very important.

Now this is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t ever use barbells for presses, but the majority of your training protocol should be geared around dumbbells and cables. Cables, tubing, dumbbells, and even machines can and should be used for fly movements.

Technique

The barbell bench press performed the traditional way – feet on the floor – is a poor choice for chest development for a majority of individuals, especially for those with bad leverages (long arms). If your goal is to just press as much weight as possible, then the traditional approach is the preferred set-up. But if you’re looking for size and full development, we need to make a few adjustments.

Start by placing your feet up on the bench. By doing this, you lose stability in your hips and knees. The joint stress transfer goes to the shoulder joint, the pectoralis major becomes the prime mover, and your chest receives the greater amount of overload, which is what we want. Now you’re ready to rock.

A quick note about dumbbell flies: I see a lot of guys going extremely wide on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift. This is wrong. A fly performed with DBs should be more of a modified press in order to avoid stress on the rotator cuff and shoulder joint in general. As you descend, drop down at the elbows, making a semi-circle. As you perform the concentric portion of the lift, straighten your arms toward the top of the motion and squeeze your chest, without letting the DBs touch in order to maintain tension.

Overall, good form is essential with any exercise to ensure that you are targeting the intended working muscle and not just letting any muscle lift the weight from point A to point B. We seek quality contractions on each and every rep so that the muscle we are targeting receives the most overload.

When just focusing on weight, most people tend to lift the weight up instead of contracting it up for maximum stimulation.

The Quality of Each Rep

One of the main goals for a bodybuilder or any athlete should be to increase one’s Training Efficiency Percentage (TEP), which is defined as the percentage of reps in a given set that forces an adaptive response. When this is increased, the intensity of the set and reps increases, as well as the stress on the targeted muscle. This causes more of an adaptive response. Therefore, you want to make sure to train intensely on every rep of every set, focusing on training the muscle and not your ego.

Lastly, overall intensity is the key to any workout. I’m not talking about doing a one-rep max; I’m talking about exertion levels. When lifters come as close to their maximum workload capacity as possible, they will get much bigger payoffs in the end.

Allen Cress looks the part and also has a 400lb bench press to his name

Functional training

Functional training is a great tool that can be used within a training protocol to stimulate the muscle in a different way than with traditional exercises. I’m going to show you one of many ways to implement this concept for better chest development (and no, it doesn’t involve wobble boards or other weird stuff) .

The basis of functional training is to train movements and not specific muscles. If applied correctly, functional exercises can fit into a program to induce more hypertrophy, which is what all bodybuilders and most regular individuals want. It also enhances balance and proprioception, which lead to better overall development.

Traditional training can cause severe muscle imbalances, arthritic joints, and a narrower range of motion over time due to training in a single plane of motion. Build-up of scar tissue, adhesions, and inflammation can also occur, leading to diminishing or no returns. Functional training can be used as a hybrid approach to correcting these problems and/or preventing them from happening in the first place. Functional exercises target the muscle differently, without adding any external resistance or load, so the recovery time is much shorter.

For example, medicine ball (MB) crossover pushups are a great functional exercise for the chest. The range and plane of motion involved in this exercise stimulates the chest neurally as well as physically.  Activation potential, fiber recruitment, and rate of force production (explosiveness) within a working muscle or movement are extremely important to anyone looking for better development.

These movements should be placed on a separate day from your traditional chest day, such as an addition to leg exercises on leg day. One other benefit to placing them on leg day is the increase in metabolic demand due to the pairing of two exercises that target two different muscle groups. The functional exercises will not interfere with the leg recovery, but will induce greater oxygen debt, and thus helping to increase workload capacity.

Sample Hybrid Chest Workout

A single workout is not a program, and a collection of exercises is not exactly a workout or a program. What you do the day before and after a certain training day does matter and needs to be taken into account.

I design programs as part of a bigger picture and not one be-all/end-all program that will achieve all of your goals. It is a collection of programs over time with proper progression that teaches the body to handle greater intensity loads and to adapt to stress placed on the body.

That said, it’s always helpful to have a guide.

The following workouts are designed to be part of a body-part split that trains each muscle once per week and is intended for intermediate to advanced level trainees. There are three different workouts for chest. Rotate each workout from week to week, keeping them in the given sequence for a total of four repeats, which will give you three months worth of workouts.

The breakdown during the week is as follows:

Day Bodypart
Day 1 Chest
Day 2 Back
Day 3 Shoulders
Day 4 OFF
Day 5 Legs/Functional Chest
Day 6 Arms
Day 7 OFF

Workout 1

Day Sets Reps
Incline DB press 5 5
Flat DB fly (feet up) 3 8-10
Seated Hammer Strength press 3 12-15
Crossover 3 15
Flat DB press (feet up) 3 10-12

Workout 2

Day Sets Reps
Flat DB fly (feet up) 5 8-10 (2)
20-12 (2)
12-15 (1)
Incline DB press 3 8-10
Flat BB press

(no lockout, feet up)

3 12-15
Low incline fly 3 10-12
Crossovers 2-3 15-20

Workout 3

Day Sets Reps
Flat DB press (feet up) 5 6-8 (2)
8-10 (2)
10-12 (1)
Pec deck 3 10-12
One-arm DB press off stability ball 3 12 (each arm)
Incline DB press 3 10-12
Any machine press 2-3 15

Workout 3

Day Sets Reps
Flat DB press (feet up) 5 6-8 (2)
8-10 (2)
10-12 (1)
Pec deck 3 10-12
One-arm DB press off stability ball 3 12 (each arm)
Incline DB press 3 10-12
Any machine press 2-3 15

Day 4: Each exercise should be bi-plexed (supersetted) with leg exercises

Day Sets Reps
Crossover pushup off MB (see video) 1 just short of failure
Asymmetrical explosive pushup (see video) 1 just short of failure
Push up with feet on stability ball 1 just short of failure
Push up on two MBs with feet elevated 1 just short of failure
T stab pushups (see video) 1 just short of failure

Other optional functional movements include:

  • Whole body explosive pushups
  • Explosive pushup, clap hands between reps
  • Mountain man pushups
  • Pushups with hands on two stability balls

Note: Place explosive variations first in the routine

Step Outside the Box and Try Something New

You must work hard and work intelligently to get the best results. Your body adapts to the stimulation and stress you place on it, which is why it’s important to select proper exercises to suit your body’s needs and to ensure that you stimulate your body in such a way as to cause an adaptive response.

More often than not, a serious lifter’s gains can be attributed to changing something in his program, thus providing the body with a new stimulus. On the other hand, when a lifter gets stuck in a period of muscular stagnation, the first instinct is often to go back to a program that worked well in the past, rather than trying something new. This is a huge mistake! You need to step outside the box and take a chance if you ever want to take it to the next level.

So if your goal is to develop a full, round chest that just pops out of your shirt, stop being overly concerned about how much you bench and get on the right path to effective training. Give this program a try if you’ve been stuck in a canyon-sized rut for a while. Soreness and growth are guaranteed!

Written by Allen Cress

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – An Intelligent Approach to Building a Big, Strong Chest discussion thread.

About Allen Cress

Allen Cress is a multi strength sport athlete as well as a highly sought after trainer.

Allen owns Maximum Performance Training, LLC where he offers both online and one-on-one training. He has an eclectic variety of clients ranging from bodybuilders to high school, college, and professional athletes. He also works frequently with injured clients referred to him by both orthopedists and physical therapists.

Allen is sponsored by AtLarge Nutrition and you can find him on the Wannabebig Forums where he also maintains a training journal so you can see exactly how he trains, eats and supplements – Allen Cress – Contest prep 2010! Feel free to drop by and say hello!