When most people hit the gym on Monday, it’s usually national chest day. There are always waiting lines in front of the benches that extend out of the gym door. Outside of huge arms, large pecs are coveted by most who find themselves under a barbell. The question is, are you using the right routine to achieve those bigger pecs? And if you’ve been lifting for a long time without success, an advanced routine like this could be exactly what you need to take your chest development to the next level.
Your pectoralis major originates from the sternum and the clavicle; it is a ‘fan’ shaped muscle that inserts into the upper portion of your humerus (your upper arm). It is important to know its origin and insertion points to determine which exercises are most effective for its development. The origin around the clavilcle of the pectoralis major is responsible for flexing the humerus (the biceps is responsible for raising your forearms and your anterior deltoid/upper pecs are responsible for raising your upper arm depending on the angle). The sternal origin of your chest muscle adducts (brings together) and internally rotates your humerus along with the insertion point in your upper arm.
You’ll notice that there are no origins or insertion points that deal with the lower pectoralis major, so then the question is: “what are you working when you are on the decline bench press?” Well you’ll notice there aren’t a whole lot of pro bodybuilders (if any) who spend time with or even speak about the decline bench press in their routines. The reason for this is that it seems to activate the Pectoralis Minor and not as much of your lower pectorals as many may have thought. It inserts on your scapula and originates in your 3rd to 5th ribs. It is responsible for stabilizing your scapula and drawing it forward and back.
Now imagine yourself on the decline bench press and picture the movement of your scapula...will the decline bench press stimulates your lower pecs? Yes, to some extent it will, but pro bodybuilder opinion and the formation of your chest muscle tells us this movement is a thing of the past if you want your chest to grow. You cannot change the ‘shape’ of your chest, it is pre determined by genetics; your chest development will ultimately come from proper overall development.
In the ‘Ultimate Triceps Training’ article, you may remember that I offered a description of the distribution of muscle fiber types. This was important because Type I, slow-twitch muscle fibers are predominantly for endurance purposes and they fail to aid in higher intensity activities like Type II muscle fibers, which have a greater propensity to hypertrophy. Well unfortunately with the pectoralis major I cannot offer you such a distribution as it will relate heavily to your overall genetic makeup.
Samples of muscle fiber taken by the University of New Castle in Great Britain determined that grouping of muscle fiber types in certain distal muscles (like the triceps) was common while every most other proximal regions showed a random distribution that was most likely determined by genetics (1).
Before we get into exercise order and the best routines, let’s first go over some of the most effective movements and the proper form for each one.
Smith Machine Incline Bench Press - One of the difficulties with developing a great chest is that the sternum origin of your pecs is so dominant that it’s hard to target your upper chest once that portion is fatigued. It is similar to working your abdomen, the mid-abdomen is so dominant that if you don’t work your lower abs first they will become hard to target. The best way pro bodybuilders have found to circumvent this problem is to perform their upper chest exercises first. Great upper chest development can be seen around the sternum and will project more of the illusion that your chest is ‘popping’ up, rather than being flat.
The reason the Smith Machine Incline Press was selected has to do with the concept presented in my previous article ‘Recreational (Bro) Lifting Versus Bodybuilding.’ The ability to stabilize your shoulders plays a large role in both the incline press and bench press movements. So if the bench press is second in your routine and you can avoid fatiguing your rotator cuff, anterior deltoids etc. before the bench press, but still target the hard to reach upper chest area…well then why not use the Smith Machine. Just be sure to roll your shoulders back to remove your deltoids as much as possible from the equation.
Barbell Bench Press - If more and more research is pointing to time under tension being essential to growth, and the eccentric phase (lowering phase) of a lift. Then what is the purpose of getting under the barbell, loading up the weight, and having your friend help you on every lift? Use a weight you can lift, make the movements steady and controlled and focus on targeting your chest on every lift.
Dumbbell Flyes - For developing your outer pecs, remember that it is your humerus that is the insertion point, so keep your elbows bent and lower the weight using your chest.
Machine Chest Press - If you really want to squeeze everything out of your chest, try this on for size at the end of your routine, no stabilization, balancing or secondary muscles required (except for the triceps). You can safely get a good stretch and eccentric phase out of this lift.
Lower Pec Cable Flyes - Your probably wondering at this point, what is the best way to target my lower chest if there is a way? Usually for cable flyes, your upper body is at a 45 degree angle, for this you will be out in front of the cables and will almost be standing straight up at about half that angle. When you pull the cables down, you will aim to pull them below your lower chest and focus on the contraction their, it will also hit your outer chest and won’t be as much of a wasted movement as the decline bench press.
For your chest routine, the overall format will be free weight movements first, then cables, and then machines. As far as selecting the proper exercises, as discussed earlier, the upper chest is the hardest area to target, so these movements will generally go first; followed by movements for your overall pectoral development, then your outer pecs. Your lower pectorals will never be a focal point during exercise as they develop best when overall chest development has improved and they do not have an origin/insertion point so they can not be targeted very easily.
So basically: upper pec movements, overall/midlevel chest exercises, pec/flye movements, then finish with isolation exercises like machines. At no point should any exercise become a power lifting contest, the focus should be controlled movements that focus on the eccentric contractions which are necessary and research proven to induce growth.
Ultimate Chest Routine 1
- Smith Machine Incline Bench Press (12, 10, 8, 8)
- Barbell Bench Press (12, 10, 8, 6)
- Dumbbell Flyes (4 X 8)
- Machine Chest Press (3 X 12)
Ultimate Chest Routine 2
- Dumbbell Incline Bench Press (12, 10, 8, 8)
- Dumbbell Bench Press (12, 10, 8, 8)
- Lower Pec Cable Flyes (4 X 10)
- Machine Chest Press (3 X 12)
To maximize growth in your chest however, you will have to go through a period where the volume of training is increased followed by an active resting period where the volume is significantly decreased which will allow time for the muscles to recover and grow. Use 12 total sets for each routine and avoid using weight that will take you to failure. This is also an opportunity to try new exercises following the same model. Example:
During your training rotation, be sure to log the numbers on your lifts so that you can beat them the next time you repeat the routine; this is the best way to track your progress. During weeks 5 and 6, you will increase your training volume by removing 1 set from each exercise in your routine, but performing your chest routine twice in 1 rotation for overload…so instead of 15 sets of chest in one rotation it will be 22. Lowering the rep range on one of the chest training sessions will also work to increase the training load Example:
- Smith Machine Incline Bench Press (12, 10, 8)
- Barbell Bench Press (12, 10, 8)
- Dumbbell Flyes (3 X 8)
- Machine Chest Press (2 X 12)
- Dumbbell Incline Bench Press (10, 8, 6)
- Dumbbell Bench Press (10, 8, 6)
- Lower Pec Cable Flyes (3 X 8)
- Machine Chest Press (2 X 8)
Here’s what the rotation will look like:
- Ultimate Chest Routine #1: weeks 1 & 2
- Ultimate Chest Routine #2: weeks 3 & 4
- Routine #1 & 2: week 5 & 6
- Ultimate Chest Variation Routine: week 7 & 8
- Weeks 9-16 repeat
This routine is based on the principles of overload, time under tension, and active rest/muscle confusion which are the most reliable principles to follow to provide for growth. It can also be applied to other lagging muscle groups as well. When going through the two weeks of overload training, it will be to your benefit to increase your caloric intake to help sustain your increased volume of training.
Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.
- 1. M.A. Johnson, J. Polgar, D. Weightman and D. Appleton. Data on the distribution of fibre types in thirty-six human muscles: An autopsy study. Journal of Neurological Sciences, Volume 18, Issue 1, January 1973, Pages 111-129