Can you build a big chest without the traditional bench press? It would seem unlikely. After all, bench press is the number one lift in gyms the world over for a very good reason: big, juicy pecs.
Ever since Arnold first appeared in the 1970s, the gold standard of the aesthetic bodybuilding movement has been a huge chest. Pecs like slabs of ham filling out the t-shirts of the legendary lifters were a status symbol of a life lived in the gym.
And the lift that personified this lifestyle more than any other was the barbell flat bench. What started out as a niche lift at the turn of the 1900s, was by the 1940s widely accepted as a gym standard and by the Arnold-era in the 1970s became ubiquitous. Every gym, no matter how badly equipped had a flat bench, and every lifter aiming for a craggy, convex chest used it.
But what if I told you that received wisdom might be wrong? What if, purely for chest development, barbell flat bench is not the optimal lift, and we could make some tweaks to optimise our muscular development? Read on to find out how to enhance your pec-game and achieve chest supremacy!
Big chest: Narrow grip push-ups
Sometimes we find ourselves out of the gym – for good and bad reasons. We may be travelling on business, we may be unable to afford a gym membership, or we may be unable to leave the house.
Regardless of the reason for their use, push ups are one of the oldest and best chest-developing exercises that our species has known. Documented since ancient times, the humble push up has served countless generations looking to get stronger and more developed.
The controversy around the effectiveness of the push up lies not with the movement, but with the hand placement. Some heated discussion has taken place over the years about whether wide, narrow or about shoulder width is the optimal placement for chest growth. With that in mind, researchers at the Mayo Clinic set out to find answers.
40 participants were hooked up to electrodes on their chest and triceps and asked to perform push ups in the three positions shown below. The scientists then measured the electrical activity in each muscle group – more electrical activity, more muscular engagement.
The results were intriguing: as expected, the narrow grip push ups engaged the triceps brachii more than the other two variations, but what was surprising was the narrow grip push up also engaged the pectoralis major more, too.
So, what does this mean? If you need some chest-engagement on a budget, on your travels or in confinement, then hit 3 sets of 10-15 narrow grip push ups during your chest workout. Not only is this scientifically proven to work your pecs, but you’ll get a pleasing triceps pump as a bonus.
Big chest: decline bench
Another way that conventional chest-building wisdom can be challenged is the preference for gymbros to switch to incline bench to target their ‘upper pecs’. To speak scientifically, the chest is split into two muscles – pectoralis major, and pectoralis minor. Gym lore dictates that lifters wishing to focus on the upper portion of their chest (nearest the collarbone) will use the incline bench, and lifters wishing to focus on the lower (or perhaps inner) section of their chest – nearest the breastbone – will employ the power of the decline bench.
However! Researchers again hooked a group of well-trained gymrats up to electrodes and made a shocking discovery.
When looking at the upper pecs some may be shocked to discover that incline and decline had no tangible difference in terms of stimulation.
But you may not be surprised to find that decline bench does exactly what it is supposed to do, for the lower pecs. Takeaways from this? Incline bench is fun, but you will get more holistic chest development by focusing on decline bench instead – 3 sets of 8-12 ought to do it.
Big chest: narrow grip bench
Another piece of wisdom that I was handed almost on my first day in the gym, was that narrow grip bench press was a triceps exercise. This movement, so I was told, is good for beefing up your back-arms but was so different to regular bench that you should even do it on arms day instead.
Many people find narrow grip bench press much more comfortable than the traditional, wider grip bench press. This can be a flexibility issue, or something hanging over from an old injury. The great news for those people is that narrow grip bench has been shown to induce pectoral activation just as much as the regular bench press.
Interestingly, when researchers in Norway explored six different placings of hand width and the effect this had on muscular stimulation, they again found almost no tangible effect on pectoral activation.
For those who find the traditional barbell bench press intimidating due to injury or poor form, these findings are a cause to rejoice. Now you can continue to train your pecs using a bench press variation and not have to worry about flare-ups or flexibility.
Dumbbell chest press – a real surprise!
This one is a curve ball. Often, we think that barbell is for strength but dumbbells are for hypertrophy. I know that I certainly did. However Norwegian researchers in 2011 showed that this simply wasn’t the case.
Asking subjects to bench press with a barbell, the smith machine and then dumbbells, they measured the muscular activation on the triceps, biceps, deltoids and pectoralis. Interestingly, dumbbell bench press increased biceps activation more than the other two variations, but as you can see there is very little difference between dumbbell and barbell bench press when it comes to pectoral activation.
The sad fact seems to be that dumbbells don’t isolate the pecs any more than barbells. Broscience crushed again.
So, there we have it. The barbell bench press deserves its reputation as the king of lifts, but it is by no means the only way to develop or grow your pectorals. Unless necessitated then don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – use the findings here to develop your own programme so that you can combine all the fun of barbell flat bench, with the scientific knowledge of how to tweak and manipulate other variations for optimal development.
Now get out there and build that damn chest!
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