How much do you bench? You’ve probably heard somebody ask the question before. It’s a classic gym-bro question that doesn’t really matter all that much, unless you’re trying to win a bench press contest.


In fact, if you take a look at world record holders for the bench press, you’re not going to find people with perfectly sculpted pecs.

 

Instead, heavy lifters who only focus on the bench press are more likely to carry excess weight but don’t have a chiseled physique or a step-on-stage kind of chest like a bodybuilder that most people want.

 

Is the Bench Press All You Really Need?

 

If you’ve ever watched the popular cartoon with Scooby Doo and the mystery-solving gang, you’ve probably heard Fred Jones ask somebody, “How much you bench?”

 

And he usually tells people he can handle 220 pounds (99 kg).

 

Not bad. Me? My PR for the bench press is 440 pounds (200 kg), set on a training day awhile back with my friend Chris Anastasii.

 

But it really doesn’t matter that much. The bench press is an effective exercise to build your chest, but it’s not the only exercise you should focus on.

 

To build a well-developed chest, you’re going to get a lot better results with high volume training than worrying about your one-rep max.



What the Science Says About Training Your Chest

Want to know what chest exercises produce the most muscle activation in the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor?



Researchers at the University of Wisconsin wanted to answer the question, so they developed a study to put an end to any gym-bro banter.[1]



They recruited a group of athletes who already had some experience with weight lifting. Using electromyography (electrodes placed on the pectoralis major), researchers measured levels of muscle activation in nine different exercises:

 

  • Barbell Bench Press
  • Cable Crossovers
  • Seated Chest Press
  • Incline Dumbbell Flyes
  • Pec Deck Machine
  • Chest Dips
  • Elevated Push-Ups
  • Stability Ball Push-Ups
  • Standard Push-Ups


The results: There’s a reason bodybuilders and athletes have been using the Barbell Bench Press to develop a bigger, stronger chest for decades. It recorded 100 percent muscle activation during a five-rep set, based on lifting 80 percent of the one-rep max for each participant.

 

But two other exercises also showed significant muscle activation in the chest. Can you guess what they are?

The Pec Deck Machine showed 98 percent muscle activation in the pectoralis major. And the Cable Crossover showed 93 percent muscle activation. While still effective for chest development, the other exercises showed 61 to 79 percent muscle activation.

 

Standard Push-Ups and Stability Ball Push-Ups ranked at the bottom of the list for muscle activation. But that’s because these bodyweight exercises were being tested with only a five-rep set.

 

Crank up the volume on these bodyweight chest exercises to 15-plus reps, and researchers said these exercises would rank just as high as the top three chest exercises.



Hypertrophy Training for Chest Development

 

If you want to build a well-developed chest, forget about your one-rep max. Research shows hypertrophy training is the best approach to stimulate muscle growth.[2]


What’s hypertrophy training?

 

It’s basically a prescription for how to train to maximize metabolic stress and muscle tension to get the best results in the least amount of time. Here’s what you need to know:

 

    • Sets and reps: 3 to 5 sets, 10 to 12 reps each.
    • Rest between sets: 60 to 90 seconds
    • Variation: Use a combination of exercises to target the chest from multiple angles
    • Training to failure: Complete as many reps as possible on 1-2 sets per exercise
    • Tempo: Use a controlled lifting tempo for the concentric phase (1-3 seconds) and eccentric phase (2-4 seconds), and squeeze the pecs at the top of the concentric phase. Example: For the bench press, slowly lower the bar towards your chest, keeping the bar in line with the nipple. At the bottom of the lift, drive the weight upward, and squeeze the pecs at the top of the lift. 
    • Periodization: Change training variables (exercises, intensity, rep/set range, supersets, dropsets, pyramid, etc.) every 4 to 6 weeks to maximize muscle growth.

 

 


5 Rules for Chest Training


Before you head to the gym and start throwing weights around, there’s a few things you should know about training your chest. You’ll want to follow this advice to avoid an injury and get the most out of chest day.

 

  1. Protect the shoulder. Keep the shoulders back on any chest exercise you’re performing. Allowing too much shoulder abduction engages the deltoids and could lead to a shoulder injury.

 

  1. Use good form. Do your best to perform every rep with precision. You’ll do a better job maximizing muscle fiber recruitment in the chest, and avoiding injuries.

 

  1. Drop the ego, drop the weight. If you can’t complete an exercise using good form, don’t use momentum or compromise technique in any way (like arching your back during the bench press). Drop your ego, and drop the weight.

 

  1. Squeeze and stretch. Use slow and controlled movements to get a good stretch at the bottom of each exercise, and squeeze your pecs at the top of each exercise.  

 

  1. Finishing exercise. Complete your chest-day workout with a high-rep finishing exercise with as many reps as possible to deplete as much muscle glycogen as possible to stimulate growth.

 

Give This Chest-Day Workout a Try


Start with a 5 to 10 minute warm-up. Use a light weight or resistance band to improve range of motion and increase blood flow, particularly in the shoulders. 1-3 sets, 1- to 20 reps. For the workout, rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets. By the time you’ll work through all six exercises, complete 20 sets, and more than 200 reps, you’ll be pumped.

 

 

Exercise Sets  Reps Notes
Barbell Bench Press

5

 10-12 Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets.
Pec Deck

3

 10-12 Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets.
Incline Dumbbell Press

5

 10-12 Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets.
Standing Cable Flyes

3

 10-12 Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets.
Chest Dips

3

 10-12 Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets.Add weight if you can perform more than 10-12 bodyweight reps
Push-Ups

1

AMRAP As many reps as possible.

 

 

Looking for a complete training and nutrition program? Check out my customized programs.

 


References
  1.  Schanke, W., et al. (2012). ACE-sponsored research. Top 3 most effective chest exercises. America Council on Exercise. From: https://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/2884/ace-sponsored-research-top-3-most-effective-chest-exercises. 
  2. Schoenfeld, B. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. From: www.ucam.edu/sites/default/files/Oct_13/mechanisms_of_muscle_hypertrophy.pdf.