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Chest Training

Chest Training For Bodybuilders

How much can you bench must be the most frequently asked question anyone who has been training for a while gets asked. The minute somebody finds out you are a regular player of the iron game it’s always the same – the bench. Never how much can you squat, how much can you deadlift, but how much can you bench. Perhaps this is due to the large number of recreational trainers that simply don’t train legs; therefore, do not really have much else to talk about. Or perhaps it’s because a fully striated, deep, slab like pectoral is the quintessential body part. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime could hit a side chest pose and stand a full glass of water on his upper chest. Although this is unachievable for most of us, with careful exercise selection, the right application of volume and intensity, good genetics and good old fashioned hard work, there’s no reason you can’t develop heavily striated slabs of your own.

Basic Anatomy & Physiology of the Chest

The chest consists of two separate parts: an upper and a inner part. The upper part originates on the collar bone and the inner part originates on the breast bone. Both parts insert onto the humerus of the upper arm. The muscle actions of the upper chest are raising the arm forward of the body and toward the sky, and raising the arm above 90 degrees when it is held out to the side at horizontal. The muscle actions of the inner part are bringing the arm back down toward the body when it is held forward and toward the sky, and bringing the arm back to the side of the body when it has been held out to the side at 90 degrees. In addition, the two parts do work together in bringing the arms toward the midline of the body when they have been held out to the sides at 90 degrees, bringing the arms diagonally toward the midline of the body from an upper and lower position, and internally rotating the upper arm toward the midline of the body. Additionally, there is the pectoralis minor, which lies underneath the pec major. This muscle however is more in relation to movement of the shoulder girdle (scapula) and consequently, will be only be briefly discussed in this article. It can be seen that the pec major is capable of performing numerous actions. It is imperative to have a basic understanding of these muscle actions in order to sort through fact from fiction in determining the best exercises to use.

Advanced Anatomy & Physiology of the Chest

The pectoralis major (pectus = chest & major = larger) is a multi pennate muscle that is fan shaped in appearance. It consists of two parts, which are as follows: Clavicular - the clavicular portion originates on the medial half of the clavicle and inserts onto the intertubercular groove of the humerus. It is responsible for the following muscle actions: Shoulder joint flexion, and Shoulder joint abduction (above the horizontal). Sternal – the sternal portion originates on the sternum and first six costal cartilages. It inserts onto the same point on the humerus as the clavicular portion and is responsible for the following muscle actions:

  • Shoulder joint extension, and
  • Shoulder joint adduction.

In addition, both portions work together to produce the following muscle actions:

  • Shoulder joint horizontal adduction,
  • Shoulder joint diagonal adduction, and
  • Shoulder joint medial rotation (against resistance).

Training The Abdominals

The following table identifies exercises for the pectoralis major and the percent (out of 100) EMG activity:



Decline dumbbell bench press


Decline bench press (Olympic bar)


Push up between benches


Flat dumbbell bench press


Flat bench press (Olympic bar)


Flat dumbbell fly



It can be seen that decline dumbbell and barbell presses illicit the greatest amount of stimulation in the pectoralis major. The major muscle action synonymous with the aforementioned exercises is shoulder joint horizontal adduction (bringing the arms, held at horizontal, from the side of the body toward the midline of the body). In addition to EMG data for the pec major, data is available for the pec minor, which is as follows:



Incline dumbbell bench press


Incline bench press (Olympic bar)


Incline Dumbbell Fly


Incline Bench Press (Smith Machine)



The relevance of the data for the pec minor is that although this muscle lies deep under the pec major, its development still contributes to the overall mass of the chest. In addition to the exercises listed above, the pec major is recruited in the following:

  • Seated row (neutral grip) in shoulder joint extension. When the seated row is performed with a pronated (over hand) grip however, the muscle action changes to horizontal abduction, therefore eliminating the involvement of the pec major.
  • Overhead shoulder press – the clavicular portion is active in the last half of shoulder joint abduction (above the horizontal).
  • Alternate front arm raises – when the arm is flexed forward of the body, the clavicular portion is active until just above the horizontal.
  • Wide grip lat pulldown – the sternal part contracts significantly from 90 degrees adduction/abduction of the shoulder joint. In a narrow grip lat pulldown, the sternal part will contract until the arm is at the side of the body, in which case it then ceases.
  • Decline bench press – the optimal angle is 20-25 degrees and a greater emphasis is placed on the sternal part of the pec major.
  • Incline bench press – the optimal angle is 15-30 degrees and the clavicular part makes a greater contribution.
  • Flat bench press – it appears that maximum isolation of both parts is achieved in this exercise, performed with a wide grip and elbows out to the sides.

So, there you have it: your chest is still being worked whilst performing exercises for different muscle groups. This identifies an important issue, which is as follows: Due to the sometimes overzealous nature of young thrusters in the weight room, spending a considerable portion of their time training the chest and shoulders, it is possible to over develop the chest. This has the consequence of causing a condition known as rounded shoulders. Therefore, it is important, other than for aesthetic purposes, to develop the back muscles at the same rate as the chest. This will ensure any postural abnormalities are avoided.

The Final Word on Chest Training

When looking at the well developed chest of a bodybuilder, it is obvious that the pec major has a separation between its sternal and clavicular fibres. Although this can create the appearance that they are in fact two separate muscles, they are not. However, both parts can be exercised separately (not isolated) and should be for maximum development. There is a misguided belief that the inner and outer portions of the pec major can be developed separately. This at present appears to be false as the same nerve supplies both parts.

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