Today's blog topic came to me from a Facebook message I got from a young man in India. He was asking me how to improve his upper chest. I clicked over to his page to see what he looked like, and as is the case with many of the would-be bodybuilders who contact me from India, he appeared to be about 120-140 pounds at most. In other words, he had hardly any muscle mass in the first place, yet he was concerned with one specific area he perceived as lagging.
I don't mean to single him out, or people from the great nation of India, because this way of thinking is quite common across all countries and cultures - anywhere that people are trying to become bodybuilders. The expression 'you can't see the forest for the trees' comes to mind. When it comes to building a physique, one mantra that should be kept in mind at all times is:
"Take care of the big things, and the little things will take care of themselves."
Beginners need a solid foundation of overall mass. That's why appropriate routines for beginners are all compound movements. A perfect routine for someone in their first year of training would be a list of exercises like this:
Immediately, the first question most beginners would ask is, what about arms? Why aren't there any arm exercises? It makes no sense at this stage to do any direct arm work, even though most beginners only want to work chest and arms. If you can work your way up to using decent weights on the bench press, military press, and dips; your triceps are going to grow. Similarly, getting stronger on deadlifts, chins, and barbell rows is going to give your biceps plenty of work.
What about upper chest? Until you have some chest mass in the first place, don't worry about your upper chest in particular. No hamstring work? Between squats and deadlifts, they will be fine.
If you still need a lot of mass, your goal should be to add as much size as possible. You do this by putting your time and energy into the big basic compound movements that deliver the greatest 'bang for your buck.' This is the exact opposite of what many beginners do, which is to copy the routines of pro bodybuilders from the magazines. Horrible idea!
The way the pro's train now is NOT the way they trained in their early years when they were putting on their size in the first place. Back then, most of them spent most of their time on the basic free weight movements. Now, many years later, they have all the size they want or need; and their main concern is bringing up certain areas or simply 'refining' and 'maturing' what they have. To that end, they do plenty of isolation exercises like cable crossovers, leg extensions, concentration curls, etc. Many of them have long abandoned some or most of the basics, either due to injury, the fear of injury, or that they are simply too lazy to do the toughest exercises now that they really don't need to.
Beginners have no business wasting time and energy on a bunch of isolation movements, cables, and machines. Let me give you an example of why.
Beginner A starts off on a pro bodybuilder's routine. He does a ton of exercise for each bodypart, hitting every possible angle. He does little or none of the exercises I listed above. In a year, he goes from 150 to 157 pounds. Rather than consider that his workout might be holding him back, he looks into different supplements or maybe even thinks he needs to hop on a cycle of steroids. I mean, he's training so hard and has so little to show for it! He's particularly concerned that his arms have only grown a half inch even though he blasts them with 20-30 sets every week.
Beginner B trains every other day, warming up on each of those exercises and then hitting 2-3 good work sets of 8-10 reps. After a year, his numbers on deads, squats, bench press, rows, etc are all way up. He was 150 pounds at the start too, but now he's 182. His chest, back, shoulders and legs have all beefed up considerably and he hardly looks like the same person. And what do you know - he hasn't done a set of curls or skullcrushers yet, and his arms are up two full inches! He's drug-free and has no plans of using anything for the time being, as he is doing just fine without gear.
As you can see, focusing on the big picture, meaning the overall physique and the movements that will give you the greatest overall results, is the way to go. Please don't waste your precious time and energy on the little things, at least until the time comes when that makes sense. If you are in dire need of size, do yourself a huge favor and get back to basics. They have worked for millions of people over many years, and they will work for you too.