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how to construct a complete chest workout

best chest workout

The classic theory of “Upper, Middle, and Lower” chest exercises is a good start when putting together a chest workout.

But it’s not enough to get a bigger chest!!

Take a look at the four main exercises that people do in their chest workout routine: incline bench press, barbell bench press, dips and pushups, you’ll see that they have one issue in common.

Each of these exercises is lacking a full adduction of the shoulder.

This is a problem when it comes to developing a bigger and stronger chest!

Just because you are going through a full range of motion on the exercises that you are doing it does not mean that you are taking a muscle through its full range of motion. Let me explain what I mean.

With the hands being fixed on a barbell, dip station or the floor through most common chest exercises and workouts, you are not able to take your shoulder through the full horizontal adduction over the midline of the chest that it is capable of.

Just because you are going through a full range of motion on the exercises that you are doing it does not mean that you are taking a muscle through its full range of motion.

The solution to this problem is to not throw the popular mass building chest exercises out of your training plans, but to pair them as drop sets with exercises that do emphasize adduction across midline of the chest. Before I show you how to do this, I’d like to begin with some anatomy of this major muscle group as we always do in our Perfect Workouts.

chest pec muscles anatomy including clavicular head, sternal and abdominal head

THE 3 PARTS OF THE PECTORAL MUSCLE

You can see when we activate the chest that different parts of the pectoralis major fibers run in different directions.

This is because they originate from different places on the clavicle and sternum.

the chest muscle fibers originate from the clavicle
Not all of the chest fibers have the same attachments or run in the same direction.

UPPER CHEST FIBERS

upper chest muscle fibers
The Upper Chest fibers originate from the clavicle and run down toward the humerus. They go upward in a diagonal toward the center of the chest.

MID CHEST FIBERS

middle chest muscle fibers
The Mid Chest fibers that come off of the sternum are oriented in a horizontal direction almost straight across the chest.

LOWER CHEST FIBERS

lower chest muscle fibers
The Lower Chest fibers originate from the bottom of the sternum and travel diagonally down toward the center of the chest.

how to train the chest

In order to fully hit the chest, we’ll need to choose exercises that follow the different orientations of the fibers.

This means we’ll need to take the arm through different ranges of motion to better hit and align it with the fibers of the mid, upper and lower pectoralis major as well as the pectoralis minor. Let’s take a look more in depth at the specific ways in which your chest training needs to challenge your pecs in order to be considered ‘perfect’.

OVERLOAD FOR MID PECS

Our workout needs to include exercises for building muscle that allow us to overload the pecs.

The classic Bench Press is the best option for hitting the mid chest with heavy weight.

classic bench press chest exercise
The Bench Press is a classic exercise that allows us to overload the mid chest.

As I move my arm out in the bench press, the alignment of the arm is moving almost parallel to the mid chest fibers coming off of the middle portion of the sternum.

bench press alignment with middle chest fibers
In the Bench Press movement you can see the mid fibers of the chest being activated.

OVERLOAD FOR UPPER PECS

Just as the flat Bench Press is great for hitting the mid chest, the Incline Bench Press is ideal for targeting the upper chest fibers.

The Incline Dumbbell Bench Press hits the upper portion of the chest originating at the clavicle and running down toward the humerus.

incline bench press chest exercise
The Incline Dumbbell Bench Press preferentially hits the upper chest.

You can see the upper fibers of the chest being activated from low to high in the Incline Bench Press.

incline bench press alignment with upper chest fibers
The upper chest fibers are activated during the Incline Bench Press movement.

OVERLOAD FOR LOWER PECS

Now we need to hit the lower portion of the chest, and it is best hit with a classic Weighted Dip.

It’s not by accident, it’s by anatomy!  When you take arm through this position of being extended behind your body, as it travels down you go from a high to low position which allows you to preferentially hit the lower fibers of the chest.

weighted dip chest exercise
The Weighted Dip is the best exercise for overloading the lower part of the chest.

You can see that the lower fibers of the chest are being activated from high to low in the dip movement.

In the Weighted Dip, the fibers of the low chest are activated from high to low.

WORKING ACROSS MIDLINE

As you can see, we’ve tried to take the muscle through its entire range of motion from upper to mid to lower chest, but a key function of the chest is missing. 

An important part of the chest’s range of motion is also toward and across the midline. The Bench Press, Incline Bench Press and Dip are all limited in their ability to cross the midline of the chest.

The action of the pec at the shoulder can take the arm not just through adduction but across midline.

the action of the pec takes the arm across midline
An important part of the chest’s range of motion is adduction to and across the midline of the chest.

For this reason we’ll be pairing each of our classic chest overload exercises with a drop set of an exercise that takes chest activation to and through midline.

THE best CHEST WORKOUT: step by step

The Perfect Chest Workout should be a definitive guide of exercises for your upper chest, middle chest and lower chest. Since the classic exercises for overload don’t even take us to midline, let alone across midline, we’ll be adding dropsets to each that will fill this function. We’ll also be looking to progressively overload the chest to increase both size and strength.

1A.) AND 1B.) MID CHEST

We’ll kick off the Perfect Chest Workout with a flat Barbell Bench Press.

This is the ideal exercise to hit the middle chest and it allow us to truly overload it.

Start position is lying on the bench holding the barbell with hands wider than shoulder width apart and shoulder blade tucked under you flat against the bench. Lower the bar down to your chest and then push back up to return to the start. As I lower the weight, my upper arm goes slightly below the bench to put the pecs on stretch.

Performing a flat dumbbell bench press is an option is you are working out at home and don’t have a bar.  However the Barbell Bench Press will allow you to overload more effectively than the dumbbell press.

BARBELL BENCH PRESS

barbell bench press
The Barbell Bench Press allows us to overload the mid chest.

We’ll proceed immediately from our flat Barbell Bench Press to a Horizontal Cable Crossover which will give us the opportunity to work the middle chest fibers across midline.

HORIZONTAL CABLE CROSSOVER

horizontal cable crossover
The Horizontal Cable Crossover will be paired as a drop set with the Bench Press to help us work the mid chest across midline.

There are some fans of the cable crossover that say it’s an even better chest activator based on EMG studies than a flat bench press.  But it’s important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater!

Even though the cable crossover may have a better percentage of activation it’s still not capable of being loaded to the extent that a barbell bench press is.

If the cable crossover (or cable fly) was the only exercise you do, you’ll be limited in your chest development.  However if you do it in addition to the bench press, you get the unique benefits of both exercises.

Even though the cable crossover may have a better percentage of activation it’s still not capable of being loaded to the extent that a barbell bench press is.

When you do the Horizontal Cable Crossover you can see that unlike a chest fly or a cable crossover, we’re taking our arm all the way to and across midline and getting complete activation of the chest in that plane of motion.

complete contraction of the chest muscles in the horizontal cable crossover
You can see the activation of the middle fibers of the chest across midline in the Horizontal Cable Crossover.

This exercise can be done with bands as well, if you are doing a home workout or don’t have access to the cable machine. Regardless of what equipment you’re using, be sure to slightly bend your elbows in this exercise.

banded horizontal crossover
The Horizontal Cable Crossover can also be done with resistance bands.

EXERCISE NOTES: Perform the Barbell Bench Press for 4 sets at 6, 8, 10 and 12RM, alternating it as a drop set with the Horizontal Cable Crossover for 15 reps.  Take no rest between sets of Bench Press and Cable Crossover, but rest after each drop set.

2A.) AND 2B.) UPPER CHEST

We’re not stopping there.  The shoulder is a three-dimensional joint and we can hit any angle we like, moving in different planes of motion.

So now we’re going to focus on the Upper Chest with an incline dumbbell press.

Start with the bench at an incline, and one dumbbell in each hand, feet flat on the floor. Begin by extending your arms upward as you push with the upper chest. Then lower the dumbbells down to the chest and repeat.

INCLINE BENCH PRESS

incline bench press chest exercise
We will overload the upper chest with these incline presses.

When we’re done with that we’ll immediately move to the cable crossover changing orientation into the Low to High Cable Crossover.

LOW TO HIGH CABLE CROSSOVER

low to high cable crossover
The Low to High Cable Crossover will be paired as a drop set with the Incline Bench Press to work the upper chest across midline.

Our arms will go through a low to high arc, and we’re not going to stop where we would on an Incline Bench Press.  Instead we’ll take the arm to midline and through midline.  You can see the degree of complete contraction we’re getting in the upper chest.

complete contraction in upper chest in low to high cable crossover
We can get complete contraction in the upper chest by going through midline with the Low to High Cable Crossover.

EXERCISE NOTES: Perform the Incline Bench Press for 4 sets at 6, 8, 10 and 12RM, alternating it as a drop set with the Low to High Cable Crossover for 15 reps.  Take no rest between sets of Bench Press and Cable Crossover, but rest after each drop set.

3A.) AND 3B.) LOWER CHEST

The Weighted Dip will be our overload exercise for the lower chest.

Our hands are actually fixed on a Weighted Dip, so it’s impossible to get them to come toward midline because the dip station only allows them to stay in one position.  However, the Weighted Dip does allow us to go heavy and overload the low chest.

The weighted dip is one of the best compound exercises because in addition to working your chest you will also get muscle activity in several other areas. This move is a chest workout, shoulder workout and arm workout all in one.

WEIGHTED DIP

weighted dip chest exercise
The Weighted Dip is the best exercise for creating overload in the lower chest.

As soon as we’re done, we’ll change the orientation of the cables once again from high to low for the High To Low Cable Crossover.

We’ll do this with an overhand grip on the handles, palms facing diagonally toward the ground.

HIGH TO LOW CABLE CROSSOVER

high to low cable crossover chest exercise
The High to Low Cable Crossover will be paired as a drop set with the Weighted Dip to work the lower chest across midline.

This exercise can also be done with resistance bands if you don’t have access to the cables.

high to low crossovers with bands
The High To Low Cable Crossover can also be done with a resistance band.

EXERCISE NOTES: Perform the Weighted Dip for 4 sets at 6, 8, 10 and 12RM, alternating it as a drop set with the High to Low Cable Crossover for 15 reps.  Take no rest between sets of the Weighted Dip and Cable Crossover, but rest after each drop set.

4A.) AND 4B.) BODY COMMAND

I’m going to add one more common chest exercise into this Perfect Chest Routine.

It’s the Weighted Pushup and it’s going to help us work our upper body command and allow us to overload as well.

WEIGHTED PUSHUP

weighted pushup chest exercise
The Weighted Pushup will allow us to work body command.

However, we’re limited once again by the fact that our hands are in contact with the ground and can’t get across our body into adduction.  So we’re going to drop set the pushup into a Banded Pushup where we come up and drive one hand across midline to create adduction. You’ll want to switch sides so that you work both sides of the chest.

BANDED PUSHUP

banded pushup chest exercise
The Banded Pushup will be paired as a drop set with the Weighted Pushup to work the chest across midline.

EXERCISE NOTES: Perform the Weighted Pushup for 3 sets to failure, alternating it as a drop set with the Banded Pushup, 15 reps toward the right side and then 15 reps toward the left.  Take no rest between sets of the Weighted Pushup and Banded Pushup, but rest after each drop set.

THE WORKOUT

So, here is the entire Perfect Chest Workout, step by step, all sets, all reps for you to follow.

PERFECT CHEST WORKOUT

  1. MID-CHEST
    1A. BARBELL BENCH PRESS – 4 SETS x 6, 8, 10, 12 (PERFORM AS DROP SET WITH 1B.)
    1B. HORIZONTAL CABLE OR BAND CROSSOVERS – 4 SETS x 15 REPS
  2. UPPER CHEST
    2A. INCLINE BENCH PRESS – 4 SETS x 6, 8, 10, 12 (PERFORM AS DROP SET WITH 2B.)
    2B. LOW TO HIGH CABLE OR BAND CROSSOVERS – 4 SETS x 15 REPS
  3. LOWER CHEST
    3A. WEIGHTED DIP – 4 SETS x 6, 8, 10, 12 (PERFORM AS DROP SET WITH 3B.)
    3B. HIGH TO LOW CABLE OR BAND CROSSOVERS – 4 SETS x 15 REPS
  4. BODY COMMAND
    4A. WEIGHTED PUSHUPS – 3 SETS TO FAILURE (PERFORM AS DROP SET WITH 4B.)
    4B. BAND CROSSOVER PUSHUPS (R&L) – 3 SETS x 15 REPS

This is how you complete the development of your chest: by including chest exercises for building upper, mid and lower pecs that can be loaded, by including exercises that take the muscle through its full range of motion, and by ensuring that you include drop sets of movements that take the upper, mid and lower chest through midline.

athleanx
THE HIGHLIGHT REEL:
THE PERFECT CHEST WORKOUT

  1. The four main exercises that most people do in their chest workouts: bench press, incline bench press, dips and pushups all have something in common. Each is great for hitting the chest in a specific part of its range of motion, but none of them carries that range of motion to or through midline.
  2. The Perfect Chest Workout will include all of these classic chest exercises because they are great for overloading upper, mid and lower chest.
  3. It will also pair these up as drop sets with exercises that allow us to cross midline and challenge this important part of the chest’s range of motion as well.

This is just one example of how to train your chest according to science using exercises and workouts that apply the most advanced techniques. If you want to build a bigger and stronger chest, and increase muscle and strength throughout your body, you can do that with the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and get started right away on building a ripped, muscular, athletic body.

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