In this week's blog, I want to talk about a bodypart I was always known for along with my legs, my chest. It seems more and more bodybuilders these days are having difficulty in building. Hopefully by the time you are done reading this, you'll be ready to start making your pecs thicker and more striated than ever.
When chest was king
Sometimes bodyparts seem to be more popular than others. Arms have always been something guys wanted to build to the max, but having a huge, striated chest isn't as important to a lot of the young bodybuilders coming up today as it used to be. When I first picked up bodybuilding magazines at the age of 13, there was no shortage of tremendous chest development to be seen. In fact, I would even argue that the pro's in those days on average had better chests than the pro's today. If that sounds crazy, Google some images of men like Arnold, Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu, Serge Nubret, Mike Katz, Robby Robinson, Roger Callard, or Ken Waller. Every one of them had thick pecs, and I don't even recall ever seeing a single top bodybuilder of that era with a weak chest. It was a bodypart we all emphasized and held in high esteem. The goal was to have a chest so thick that you could rest a beer stein on your upper pecs like Arnold could! When you had pecs like that, your side chest pose was beyond impressive. And of course, the flat barbell bench press formed the base of our chest training. As kids, the question we asked to size up our rivals was, "how much ya bench?" Not only the development of our chest was important. Having a powerful bench press was also a badge of honor.
The evolution of my chest training
It wasn't too long before I started to notice that most of my chest development was down near the bottom. From there, I added in incline presses, dumbbell flyes, and weighted dips. That was pretty much my chest workout as a teenager. I never stopped working hard on the flat bench, and at age 19 I could bench press 500 pounds once, and do a decent set of 8-10 reps with 405. 315 was seen as a minimum working weight back then that everybody in the gym could do. I got that for 20 reps. The gym I was training at, Health and Strength, had a lot of really good powerlifters training there who sometimes encouraged me to try a bench meet, but I was only interested in bodybuilding. Over the next couple years, I added in decline dumbbell flyes, cable crossovers, and decline presses on occasion too. The goal was to have a comprehensive routine that covered every angle. It's also important to note that my form on presses was geared toward making my chest do the work rather than my front delts and triceps. I would set myself in the right position by throwing my chest forward, rolling my shoulders down and back, and pinching my shoulder blades together. That was something I did from day one that made a big difference in my chest development.
A little fine-tuning from Lee
When I was 20 years old, I moved out to California for a year and trained with my good friend Lee Haney. One major change he helped me make to my chest training was to start with incline presses. Lee had a phenomenal chest, and he believed in emphasizing the upper chest. So our workouts typically looked like this, with sets of 3-4 and reps being 6-10 in the off-season, and as high as 12-15 leading up to a contest:
Incline dumbbell or barbell press
Incline dumbbell flye
Barbell or dumbbell flat press
Pec deck or flat dumbbell flyes
Why do we see so many weak chests now?
One thing that has puzzled me over the last decade is, why are we starting to see weak chests, even on the Mr. Olympia and Arnold Classic stages? If you compare the development of backs and legs today to the stars of the 70's and 80's, today's pro bodybuilders on average are unquestionably bigger in those areas. So it makes no sense that chests wouldn't be at least as good today if not better too, since the men today are so much more massive overall. First I wondered if maybe they simply weren't emphasizing chest thickness anymore, but that didn't seem right. Men still want big chests today the same way they did 30-40 years ago. So what's so different now? Then it hit me. You don't see much heavy bench pressing anymore. The bench press has taken on this reputation as a surefire way to tear your pec, so many bodybuilders simply avoid it and instead turn to dumbbells and the wide variety of machines for training chest available in gyms today. If the bench press was really so dangerous, pec tears would have been epidemic in my day, because nearly all of us benched heavy on a regular basis. Any exercise can be dangerous if you don't use proper mechanics, warm up thoroughly, and increase your weights gradually instead of making huge jumps from set to set.
My pec tear
I know some of you were reading that and thinking, what the hell is Rich talking about? He tore his pec! I did, but it wasn't on the bench press; and it was at a point in my contest prep when I shouldn't have been going so heavy. At four weeks out from the first Arnold Classic in 1989, I was training chest and feeling great. At the same time, I was also extremely lean (pretty much in contest condition already) and dehydrated. Even though I was drinking plenty of water, my body tended to dehydrate fast when I was that lean. So I was doing incline presses on a Smith machine, and worked all the way up to five 45's on each side. That's when it happened. As you know, I still competed and became the first Arnold Classic champion, but those were a very rough four weeks. The lesson here for those of you who compete or even if you just diet down to get in good shape for the summer is, take it easy on the weights and don't necessarily lift as heavy as you can. You're not building muscle at that point anyway, just maintaining.
If you want to be the best bodybuilder you can be, you need to maximize your chest development. A strong chest will be an advantage in all your side poses and quarter turns as well as in the most muscular pose, while a weak chest will work against you in all those shots. Don't avoid flat barbell bench pressing, because it's still the best overall mass movement for your chest. Just make sure your body mechanics are such that your chest is doing most of the work, and that you warm up plenty and use strict form to stay injury-free. Use machines here and there, but make free weights the core of your chest training. And always be sure you put just as much time and effort into incline movements so that your upper chest matches your mid and lower pecs. There is no reason you can't have a thick and impressive chest as long as you want it badly enough and you're willing to work hard for it!