DEVELOPING YOUR CHEST- WHILE IT MAY BE LAGGING?
13 August 2018
You’ve been training for a little while now and seem to be covering all your bases when it comes to chest training, though you aren’t where you want to be…Well, there is a lot more to training than trying really hard and pushing heavy weight every session! Here I’ve put together eight spotlight points to have a look at. Let’s start with some basic anatomy to get a better understanding of how this all works!
The pectoralis major aka “pec major”, “chest”, “pecs” is split into three parts as seen in the picture below: clavicular head, sternal head and costal fibres. Understanding anatomy can help us best isolate and understand why and what actions either oppose or create a certain movement for performance or rehabilitation. The attachments for the pec major are as follows:
Origin: Medial half of the clavicle, sternum and cartilage of the ribs one to six.
Insertion: Greater tubercule of the humerus.
In order to create movement a muscle must either shorten or lengthen away from its origin point. The actions of the pec major differ depending on the fibre orientation, though do share some common actions. Here they are:
All fibres: Adduct the shoulder, medially rotate the shoulder and assist in elevation of the thorax during forced inhalation.
The upper fibres: Horizontally adduct and flex the shoulder.
The lower fibres: Extend the shoulder.
The upper pec (sternal head) at times can be hard to develop in some people.
While this reason may be different for the person next to you in the gym generally they fall into some of the I am about to list.
1. Internally rotated shoulders due to a tight/ shortened sternal head of the pec and protracted shoulder blades.
Due to this the upper and lower pecs are biased and over time with no changes the lower pec becomes the primary adduction mover.
How do we fix this?
Let’s start with pec stretch and release.
Here is a great sequence to do so.
TIP: Notice how in the second picture I am internally rotating my arm. You can see this clearly by the change in my hand positioning. When moving the trigger ball around the pec, especially the top triangular corner, try internally and externally rotating your arm.
TIP: Changing the height of your arm on the wall will change the angle of the stretch. Start at 90deg and work your way a little higher by pushing against the wall LIGHTLY and turning your body away.
Secondly, we can look to both stretch and strengthen the pecs with eccentric repetitions. This means slow tempo lowers of the downward phase of a chest exercise. The loaded lengthening on the way down will provide a nice stretch and will also create time under tension needed for muscle breakdown needed for growth. More often than not this part of the movement is neglected and uncontrolled. This is a huge mistake to be made when looking to build muscle. Let’s aim for a tempo of 3-4 seconds on the way down and a 1 second press back up to the top. This can be done with a dumbbell bench press but probably better with a dumbbell flye due to the complete stretch this exercise offers over the others. Note: if done properly, you will likely not be able to press the same amount of weight than you do for a normal tempo. Ego lifting won’t get you far here, drop the weight to reap the rewards for this one.
Example of dumbbell chest flye.
2. Failing to stabilise your shoulder blades during the lift.
I rarely see good shoulder stabilisation with this exercise. Before you attempt this exercise, you should aim to stabilise your shoulders on the bench by pinching them together. This will create a nice platform for you to press off getting maximal utilization of the pec muscle. This will also likely save you from injuring your shoulder. Loading the shoulder when it is in an unstable position is a recipe for disaster at some point. Avid bench presser with shoulder pain? This could be a reason why.
3. Failing to apply constant tension.
There are three main ways in which this can be done. To keep constant tension on the pecs during the lift look to avoid bringing the bar or dumbbells down to touch chest. Not only does this usually create a bounce where you use momentum to get out of the “sticking point” (hardest part of the lift), you also transfer the tension to the front of the shoulders (deltoids) to get you out of this bottom position. The most common way this is done is through the use of dumbbells. If you think about it, when using a bar, the bar will stop you dropping into range past your chest. This is because your body will stop if from moving further down. With the use of dumbbells, range is often increased as the load accompanied with gravity will pull your arms back into deep, deep extension- not great for shoulder health. Aim to keep the bar/ dumbbells about 5cm from your chest/ sternum bone.
The second part to focus on is the “lock out”. While we are generally busting our guts to push the weight back up as hard as we can, another regular mistake made is the forceful lock out at the top. Not only does this take the tension off the pecs again completely recruiting the triceps at this point, it changes the orientation of the shoulder blades that we worked so hard to set before the lift. When pressing upwards, make sure to have the feet, shoulders and neck firmly placed on the bench and on the ground.
Use these little changes to your lift, mixed in with some slow downward tempo and I guarantee that you will experience the difference.
The third and last technique tweak involves the positioning of the elbows during the press. Elbows placed directly out to the side of the chest favours the front of the shoulders during the lift. Aim to have your elbows about 5cm below or under the shoulders.
4. Antagonist release just before pressing exercises.
An antagonist muscle is any muscle that opposes the working muscles. In this case for the pecs in this pressing motion releasing or stretching the 2 external rotators of the rotator cuff- infraspinatus and teres minor, the posterior shoulder (deltoid), rhomboids and the biceps. Stretching these muscles before pressing allows for increased production of the agonist muscles (muscles being used).
5. Grip width.
While everybody is built differently and there is no one standard cookie cutter grip for everybody there are a few science basics that apply to every person’s training. The narrower the grip on the bar, the more triceps activity is registered. Wider grips stimulate greater recruitment of the sternal head of the pecs. The best way to find your best grip is either to set up what is a natural width in a push up position or hand positioning on a bar.
6. Strengthen your triceps.
The triceps group are mainly responsible for elbow extension (seen during the pushing up phase in the bench press). Assuming that this plays a role in the pressing of weight, the stronger the assistance from the triceps, the more weight you can potentially move?
7. REST! You could be over training.
Adaptation takes clock time, good sleep, good programming and proper nutrition. When you don’t allow yourself adequate recovery you are putting in all the hard work but setting yourself up to fail long term. Sometimesit’s about training smarter not harder.
8. Fix your weak links.
This last point falls back in with point 1. You can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe, meaning you can’t expect to produce force from an unstable base. Instability is usually accompanied with tight areas. Below is the Upper Crossed Syndrome visually explained.
Poor posture due to long hours hunched over in front of a computer leads to weakened middle back muscles (rhomboids) and deep neck flexors (longus colli and capitus). Let’s look to stabilise the shoulder and middle back muscles.
Will a massage help? It might do, but let’s think of pain in the following context. If your friend was hanging off the side of a cliff and you were holding onto them with your hand. Your shoulder would start to get pretty sore from the weight you are trying to hold over time, no? A friend rushes to your aid and identifies you have a sore shoulder from trying to hold your friend from falling down the cliff. Would it make more sense for your friend to stand there and massage your shoulder because it is sore? Or help you carry the other friend over the cliff to safety? Massage and release is a great tool, though it doesn’t always address or help your body overcome the initial issue causing the pain.
So my suggestion here, work on releasing the pecs, upper traps and levator scapula. Then focus on stabilising the shoulder blades by strengthening the lower traps, rhomboids and serratus anterior muscles and also the deep neck flexors. Your body will always find a way to move weight. It just might not be the most efficient and might lead to longer term issues.