It is a common fault in most gyms. Young guys starting on a weights program with the sole ambition to build a well defined chiseled chest. They start each chest program with the bench press punching out 4 sets before they move onto flys, pec deck, dips and finish up with push ups. Sixteen + sets of chest exercises with little or no results except for pain and tenderness in the front of the shoulders.
So what has gone wrong and why is pain present?
Before we address these questions we need to understand the anatomy of the chest muscles. The chest muscles are made up of the pectoralis muscles which are divided into three bundles.
- Upper chest which attaches to the clavical and is known as the clavicular portion
- Central chest which attaches to the sternum
- Lower chest
The chest muscles have multiple functions which include moving the arms forward to hug your girlfriend or wife to moving your arms above your head with your fingers pointing to the sky. The chest muscles also allow you to rest your hands on your thighs from a standing position. With this much movement and activation of the chest it is imperative that all angles are exploited when you commence a chest program.
One of the biggest problems with young gym enthusiasts is they train their chest repetitively through the same plains of motion which causes stress and excessive pressure to particular chest bundles. For example, their chest program always starts with bench press followed by pec deck and then machine flys. The problem with repetitive sets of these exercises is the pressure it places on the pectoralis minor which is situated just below the pectoralis major. Delavier and Gundill (2010) note that the pectoralis minor muscle is a stabiliser for the shoulder and may cause pain in people who do repetitive plains of movement like repetitive sets on the bench press. They also state that tendinitis in the pectoralis minor can easily be confused with shoulder pain because of its location. This explains why so many gym enthusiasts who overtrain chest have shoulder related pain.
Is the Bench Press then the best exercise to build a chiseled chest?
Rocha Junior et al (2007) state that the bench press is a good starting point for some people wanting to build their chest however it is not for everyone. Scientific studies by Welsch et al (2005) showed that the deltoid muscles in the front of the shoulders had greater activation with the bench press then it did in the pectoralis major. Delavier and Gundill (2010) build on this premise by noting that poor recruitment of the pectoralis major could be why the deltoid muscles are activated more during the bench press. They state that some people including young gym enthusiasts are not natural bench pressers and thus need some time to work on motor recruitment by only focusing on recruiting the pectoralis major and not activating the shoulders or arms (Delavier and Gundill, 2010). The best exercises for these types of people to focus on pectoralis recruitment is straight arm bench flys with dumbells.
Other Obstacles that Stop your Chest from Growing
It is important to understand that a persons chest muscles are generally under utilised on a day by day basis. Unless you are in the habit of bench pressing your children or hugging and squeezing your girlfriend regulary throughout the day, you hardly use your pectoralis muscles at all especially if you are not regulary training in the gym. This may explain why young inexperienced gym goers have underdeveloped pec muscles or struggle to feel their pec muscles working when they start out on a chest program. Therefore jumping straight in with a heavy workload on the chest with little experience is a sure fire way to a long term injury and over developed and tender stabilising muscles.
Another problem is the excessive recruitment of the shoulders and arms during most chest exercises which reduce the effectiveness of the pec muscles working. Barnett et al (1995) agree noting that under utilised chest muscles become a bigger problem especially if you are trying to lift heavy. This is particularly evident during a heavy set on the bench press when form starts to deteriorate thus forcing the shoulders and arms to intervene at the detriment of the chest muscles.To overcome this problem, Delavier and Gundill (2010) state that you must feel your chest muscles working by undetaking a sensitization process that focuses on isolation exercises. These types of exercises include convergent machines that work unilaterally so you can improve your mind chest muscle connection.
A second solution they discuss identifies the perception of failure as a limiting factor. Over committing to a rep especially when you are exhausted does nothing to grow your chest. Haykowsky et al (2003) agrees noting that fatigue not only makes your form deteriorate during the bench press or the bench fly but your chest becomes less and less involved in the movement.
Another obstacle that may restrict chest growth especially in the clavicular chest bundles occurs when the pectoralis major tendon is located very high on the arm (Delavier and Gundill, 2010). Delavier and Gundill (2010) state that high pectoralis major tendon on the arm restricts the ability to stretch the clavicular bundles of the chest which inhibits activation of the upper chest and thus requires greater recruitment of the lower pecs or the shoulders. They argue that it is nearly impossible to recruit the clavicular bundles with a high pectoralis major tendon by doing compound exercises like bench press. The best exercise for high pectoralis tendon muscles is the opposing cable pulleys (Delavier and Gundill, 2010).
By understanding these limiting factors, I hope you have a better understanding as to why you may be struggling to grow your chest. Just lifting weights multiple times with your mates doesn’t assure you of a well defined chest. Mix up your routine and exercises and focus on activating the muscle bundles you want to train. Use good technique and only add extra load when you are comfortable and capable of lifting it and you are on your way to developing that chest you have always desired.
Barnett et al, (1995) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 9 (4) 222-227.
Delavier, F & Gundill, M. (2010) The Strength Training Anatomy Workout 2: Human Kinetics: Paris
Haykowsky et al. (2003). Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise 35(1):65-68.
Rocha Junior et al. (2007) Revista Brasileira de Medicina do Esporte 13 (1) 43e-46e.
Welsch et al, (2005) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 19 (2) 449-452.