Here’s the brutal truth about chest day…
Everyone does it.
You never hear of someone ignoring the chest and never skipping it.
Unlike legs, the chest is a popular muscle.
So much so, Mondays have become known for being international chest day.
But yet many don't know how to get a bigger chest.
If you’re a skinny guy, you’ll naturally have small shoulders and a slim upper body.
I know, I’ve gone through the struggle.
Now after years of error and trial, I think I'm in a good position to pass on what I would call my guide on how to build a bigger chest.
I implemented some of these actionable tips that I could see results almost right away.
Check out the before picture while I was still learning the way of the chest on January 1, 2008:
And by the end of the same year (2008):
Here's how to build a bigger chest:
3 Reasons Why Your Chest Is Lacking Progress
Here's why you're not seeing progress:
You can’t build a big chest using machines.
They are useful for learning form and isolating muscles but when it comes to making the most out of your gains, they will mostly come from free weight exercises like barbell and dumbbell bench press.
Ah yes we’ve all seen the video where Arnold Schwarzenegger does his flies and nearly touches the ground with it. But you won’t make gains without compound exercises.
If you don’t let your chest recover and you keep working out then you risk overtraining and getting smaller.
One of the biggest game changer for me when I was skinny was increasing the time I took between compound lifts. I used to take less than 45 seconds, or even no rest at all between compound lifts.
Increasing it to 1.5-3 minutes helped tremendously.
The problem with the bench press is that men forget to drop their ego at the gym door and go in thinking they need to lift as much as possible or use poor form.
Building the Foundation: Perfect The Form
Imagine holding the bar with your arms extended out, and then slowly lowering it to your chest.
This is way you can adjust your hand position before you hold the bar.
Before you lay down on the bench, do a few ghost reps so the form comes like second nature to you, like I am here:
You need to think of the chest engaging.
Imagine bench pressing and contract your pecs while you do this.
Watching videos on how people perform the bench press on a regular basis helps really nail down the form naturally.
I’ve bench pressed for over 10 years and I still watch guides and techniques on how to execute the form..
There’s always a new tip or something to remind me to ensure I don’t forget anything.
For example, forgetting to drive the legs into the ground or letting the wrists bend too much can make a big difference.
It’s the little things and they are easy to forget.
Push With Your Chest
Most of us have poor posture from sitting for so long, thanks to technology we tend to develop rounded backs and poor mobility in the shoulders.
You can fix this by pushing out your chest, and squeezing your shoulder blades.
Do this before you lay down on the bench and press and while you are performing the movement.
That's why it's beneficial to perform a row movement to engage your back before pressing.
Exercises pendlay rows, pulldowns and any row will help, but remember to squeeze your shoulder blades together as if you were holding a pencil between them.
If you find you suffer from poor shoulder mobility, or you have a rounded back, try the assessment in the video below and the stretch comes next:
Do Bench Press First In The Workout
In order to maximize the development of a weak muscle you need to focus on it first, early in the workout.
This means doing flat barbell or dumbbell press first, before any exercise.
And if you want to improve your upper chest, then you will instead do the incline form instead of the flat.
Muscle can be built without weights.
In fact, push ups can work the chest just as well as the bench press but the challenge here is progressively overloading.
You will eventually get stronger and your own bodyweight will be a walk in the park eventually.
Perfecting the push up will help you understand the bench press form better, this is especially good if you're either a beginner or consider yourself a hardgainer.
So you can use push ups as a finisher after your chest exercises, or as a warm up, or both.
There's 5 push up variations that you can use to build a bigger chest without weights:
- Regular push ups
- Diamond push ups (tricep focused)
- Decline push ups (feet up on a incline position)
- Isometric push ups (holding the bottom position as long as possible)
- Wide push ups (more chest focused)
With the regular push ups being the easiest, you can start with that and pyramid up from the easiest form to the hardest for a good bodyweight workout.
Contact the chest before pressing
Contact the chest before pressing
If you have difficulty feeling your chest contract during chest exercises, try squeezing your chest muscles for 30-60 seconds before you press.
Or you can perform a set of dumbbell flyes in a controlled manner.
Emphasize The Stretch Part Of The Press
The stretch of an exercise is important to maximize the size of the muscle.
Without the stretch, you won’t maximize it’s size.
At the bottom of the bench press, let the barbell or dumbbell sit for a second before you press back up.
If you want to be hardcore you can let it sit for 2 seconds.
In fact, in a meta analysis of 26 studies (study) taking advantage of the stretched position of the muscle helps further develop it twice as fast.
This isn’t anything new.
Stimulating the muscles under a full stretch and range of motion will help it grow to the maximum.
What does this mean for your training?
Choose exercises that can stretch your chest so you can build strength at the bottom of the exercise.
Use a full range of motion while emphasizing the stretch.
Partial range of motion has it's part when you are working on certain portions of the movement, like the bottom, middle, or top.
The bottom is where people are the weakest.
Machine exercises like pec deck flyes can help emphasize the contraction and the stretch.
It's a great way to warm up your chest before moving into a bench press.
Great chest exercises are not great because of it, it comes down to your form and control over it.
Performing them with a range of motion that is as deep as you can go, really stretching your chest at the bottom of it, will help increase it.
However you may be told training with machine exercises or resistance bands because of the higher EMG (electromyography) activation.
When muscles are stretched at the bottom of an exercise, like dumbbell flyes or bench press, the EMG activity is much lower.
This is misleading because using an MRI (study) , it shows when muscles are trained by using the stretched position, it actually has higher muscle activation.
And for muscle growth, using a full range of motion while emphasizing the deep stretch will help muscle gains come twice as fast (study).
So if you don't have weights, you can apply this by doing deficit push ups.
Depending on your equipment, you should now have exercises that you can emphasize the stretch of the chest.
And aim to get progress on those exercises.
Whether it's deficit push ups or bench press, aim for either more reps or weights.
If you bench press 135 for 8 reps last time, aim for 9 reps this time. And if you struggle for the last rep, ask your spotter to help with the pushing portion (positive) of the exercise while you lift the lowering portion (negative).
So that next workout, you should be able to perform 9 full reps without someone assisting with that last rep.
And for push ups, if you did 15 for one workout, aim for 16.
When you reach 10 reps for the bench press, increase the weight to 140 and make it a goal to reach the same number of reps before you increase the weight.
You don't always need to press for 10 reps. You can aim anywhere from 4-10 reps.
Performing a lower number of reps will help you increase strength, while a higher number will maximize your chest development.
If you feel like you didn't emphasize the stretch portion enough during your working sets, take a lighter weight into the stretched portion of the exercise (flies or bench press or push ups) and sit in that range for as long as you can.
You can also do this in the contracted position.
Take dumbbells or the bench press and push the weight about half way up and hold that position for 45-60 seconds.
How To Maximize Chest Growth
The key to growing any muscle is letting it recover.
It doesn’t matter how hard you train, without recovery, there is no growth.
Emphasizing the stretch, controlling the negative and exploding on the positive portion of the exercise will help make the most out of your workouts.
While you can’t bench as much as you can on the dumbbells compared to barbell, it’s still a valuable exercise because it puts more emphasis on the chest than shoulders and triceps.
Grab light dumbbells, or ones you can perform 15 reps of flies with. Do about 10 reps of flies and immediately, within 10 seconds, do your bench press.
You should feel the bench press a lot more than if you didn’t pre exhaust. You can also try doing this after your bench press instead of before.
The stretch portion is important, but if you have trouble getting deep, whether it’s pain or discomfort, there’s a few things you can try.
Try using more of an back arch while pinching your shoulder blades together.
If you still feel pain, drop as low as you comfortably can and overtime, you can build up the form by using the same weight until you can basically touch the barbell on your chest.
Wider Grip Bench Press
We don’t recommend this type of grip because of the strain it can put on the shoulders.
But if you can handle this without pain, or with a lighter weight than usual, it’s a great way to engage the chest.
Row Before You Press
Rowing just before you press will help with keeping your shoulders retracted and chest out.
Force your chest out and emphasize the shoulder blade contraction when you’re rowing, and do this for 10 reps with a moderate weight.
You don’t need to go heavy but you just need to contract your back.
Lower Rep Range
While higher reps are great for hypertrophy and size, lower reps are as good since they help increase strength.
Aim for 3-8 reps while keeping the same form as you would have for higher reps.
3 Chest Workouts
The bulk of your chest development will come from heavy compound movements like the bench press, whether barbell or dumbbell.
- Heavy compound lifts
The bulk of your chest development will come from heavy compound movements like the bench press, whether barbell or dumbbell.
- Upper Chest
You can have one month where you start with incline bench press, or only perform incline pressing to make your upper chest a stronger point.
- Isolation exercises
Isolation exercises are going to help with all phases of the movement, from the stretch to the contraction to the top. They play a role in your chest development but they need to be paired with compound exercises to get the most out of them.
- Flat bench press 4 x 10
- Dips (or push ups) as many as possible
Flat bench press here is the main focus.
6-8 reps will work but 10 is recommended if you have less than 3 months of lifting experience..
The dips will help with the stretch, as many as possible, preferably until you can't do anymore.
You can add weight with a weight belt if you can do 12-15 perfect reps.
- Dumbbell bench press (4 sets of 8-10)
- Dumbbell flyes (2 sets of as many as possible)
This is a dumbbell focused workout where you first press for 4 sets of 8-10 reps and then perform a set of dumbbell flyes.
- Incline barbell press (4 sets of 6-8)
- Incline dumbbell press (4 sets of 8-10)
To emphasize on your upper chest, use this incline only workout.
You can also add in dumbbell flyes at the end of the workout for maximum stretch.
- Bench press (DB or barbell) (4 sets of 6-8)
- Superset with Flies (4 sets of 8-12)
This is an intense workout where you superset with flies right after a set of bench press.
Still Can't Feel The Chest During Bench Press?
Try the following if you're having trouble feeling the chest during bench press…
Reverse Grip Bench Press
Superset with Flyes
Do dumbbell flyes before or after the bench press.
Doing it after your press will help the stretch and doing it before will help engage and pre-exhaust your chest.
Grab dumbbells that are 10lbs under your working weight for flyes.
Perform a set until you feel a pump, typically around 10 reps, then jump right into bench press within 10 seconds.
Retract Your Shoulder Blades
Before you lay on the bench, practice engaging your shoulder blades and pushing your chest out.
Perform a few “ghost” reps like this, and check your form in the mirror if you have to.
This way it’ll come natural when you get to benching.
Try performing this exact movement before you press:
Barbell Can't Touch Chest Without Pain
You might be feeling pain when going full range of motion with the bench press.
Are you missing out on gains when you don't use the full range of motion?
You won't ever really know, but the full range of motion is absolutely better than not performing it at full range.
The problem with this is that you won't really be consistent with the bench press if you don't have a consistent range of motion.
Try placing a board on your chest with the height that you can press to.
This board will be your partner for chest for a few weeks, if you can get thinner boards, then try using a thinner board every week until you can basically bench press with full ROM without pain.
Benching with an arch helps put the shoulders in a better position.
This turns it more into a decline press while being easier on the shoulders.
If your arms are exceptionally long, then you don't need to force yourself to drop the barbell all the way down but again use a board so you can have a consistent range of motion.
Retracting your shoulder blades and driving them back into the bench will help.
You’re going to be much stronger in the negative phase of any exercise, about 20-60% stronger according to this study.
So if you’re able to perform at least 5 perfect reps, then have someone assist with the positive and you’ll do the negative without any assistance.
What To Combine With Chest
Back is generally a great muscle to combine with the chest.
And if you’re a total beginner then a whole body workout would better suit you.
If you want to do 3 workouts a week, then either push pull legs, or whole body workout, or upper, lower then upper.
Chest, shoulders and triceps are often paired together for a push workout.
Extreme stretching is a way to emphasize the stretch with the help of additional weight.
This weight forces the muscle to get into a deeper stretch.
It originates from old school training, made popular by Dante Trudel and his Doggcrapp training.
But it can be risky for injury because it puts a strain on the body so they need to be used with caution and build up by starting with super light weights to assess tolerance basically.
Phil Heath said it himself in 2016 before he won his sixth Mr. Olympia: “I realized I had to stretch more in order to make space for new muscle”.
In fact I would say extreme stretching helped me get a much fuller chest.
Check out the difference with the older picture on the left, and before is on the right:
For the chest, try this after your chest exercises:
- Grab two dumbbells that are a little lighter than your working weight for flyes.
- Go lie on a flat bench, lower the dumbbells as if you were going to do flyes. Keep the dumbbells in this position, at the bottom of the movement while feeling the stretch in your chest.
- Hold it for 10 seconds, then come back, and then drop back down but this time hold it longer than 10 seconds.
- You can hold this stretch for 30-60 seconds.
You should feel like your chest wants to blow up.
Summing up The Chest Gains
Start with light weight and concentrate on the squeezing and stretching part of the exercises.
Pushing your chest out and emphasizing the stretch, while keeping the shoulders retracted.
The 4 exercises that work the best for the bench press is:
- Incline bench press (DB or barbell)
- Wide grip for the warm up (avoid using heavy weights for wide grip)
- Dips (a great finisher for the chest after bench press)
- Cable flyes or dumbbell flyes (the stretch part of this exercise should be emphasized)
For any muscle to grow, it needs to flex and it needs to the stretch.
As for supplements and diet, we always recommend using creatine and getting at least 0.75-1g of protein per pound (if your not obese).
With the right mindset, a consistent program and diet, you'll be able to achieve a sculpted physique.
This is an screenshot from my video, excuse the low quality but it's what I've been able to achieve using the chest building guide above: