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The Ultimate Guide to Chest Workouts
By Tyler Woodward
In this guide, we will talk about everything you need to know about how to get a complete principle-based chest workout.
- How To Get a Complete, Principle-Based Chest Workout
- Learn the Basic Principles of Anatomy, Physiology and Physics Necessary to Gain Muscle
- The Best Exercises To Grow Your Chest
- Complete Chest Workout
Table Of Contents:
- Chest Anatomy & Physiology 101
- Muscle Physiology 101
- Physics 101
- The Ultimate Pec Workout
- Notes On Exercise Selection
Chest Anatomy 101:
To understand how to successfully create a complete chest workout, we must start with the anatomy of the chest muscles. The chest consists of two muscle groups: the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor which is located below the pec major. For this article we will mostly focus on the pec major.
To understand muscles easily I prefer to picture them like a piece of rope. The pec major has its insertion point (one end of the rope) slightly below the head of the humerus (upper-arm bone) and has three major origin points:
- The Coastal head attaches to the ribs right below your sternum and makes up your lower chest fibers.
- The Sternal head attaches across your sternum in the center of the chest and makes up the majority of you pec major muscle
- The Clavicular head attaches to the inner portion of your clavicle and makes up the upper chest fibers.
These three origin points make up the fan-shaped muscle that is your chest or pectoralis major.
As I stated previously, I think it is much simpler to view muscles like a piece of rope. The origin and insertion represent the end of the rope, each attaching to a different joint. You can contract or shorten a muscle by bringing the insertion point of the muscle towards its origin. A fully shortened muscle is like a loose rope with little to no tension on the rope. You can lengthen your muscle by bringing the insertion point as far away from the origin point as possible, like when playing tug of war.
You can see this in real-time with your pecs by bringing one or both of your arms across your body to shorten them and extending your arms out away from your body to maximally lengthen them.
Recommended Exercise - “The Body Clock” -
Note - I recommend performing this exercise in the mirror, but it will work regardless.
- Take your right arm with a slight bend in your elbow (slight, almost locked out!) and bring it all the way across your body, as if you’re shaking someone’s hand.
- Now, take your bicep (arm muscle in front of your arm) and lay it slightly below your nipple around the 4-5 o’clock position. This is the fully shortened position of your coastal pecs.
- Now move your arm up a few inches (probably on or above your nipple) towards your sternum (chest bone between your ribs) between 2-4 o’clock and you have found your fully shortened sternal pecs.
- Finally, move your arm up a few more inches to the point where your bicep is almost touching your chin to the 1-2o’clock position. This is your fully shortened clavicular pec position.
Congratulations, you’ve now found all three of your shortened pec positions.
To find your lengthened division of each chest position, start in the shortened position of each division that we just found. Naturally, the way your hand faces in the fully shortened position is the “line of pull” which will lead you to your lengthened position. With the coastal pecs your palm will typically be facing down towards the ground, the sternal pecs your palm will be facing in towards your other arm or rib cage, and the clavicular pecs your palm be facing up at around 45 degrees. Using the clock analogy and your hand position, bring your arm about 180 around the clock, out and around your body, while keeping your arm almost locked out. If done correctly you should find that the lengthened:
- Costal pec results in your arm up above your shoulder, pointing out at around 45 degrees or 10-11 o’clock.
- Sternal pec will result in your arm out to your side between 8-10 o’clock
- Clavicular pecs will be out and down from your body, again at about 45 degrees between 7-8 o’clock.
This exercise does a great job of illustrating how the arm path that you take within an exercise influences which muscles are placed under the highest degree of tension and therefore worked the most.
Pec Anatomy Myth
There is a wide-spread belief within the fitness industry that the closer your arms are to 90 degrees the more activated your pecs will be in an exercise. This is only partially true. When your arms are at a 90-degree angle relative to your rib cage, your shoulder joint is in an extremely unstable position and your pec is forced to contract to a relatively high degree to stabilize the shoulder. This position does not translate to a lot of tension being placed on your pec, rather it will shift a majority of the tension to your coracobrachialis muscle and somewhat your anterior deltoid (front shoulder muscle).
To maximize the tension placed on your pecs in an exercise you will want to follow the arm path and angles used in the “body clock” exercise.
Muscle Physiology 101:
How muscles work and function seems to be a particularly daunting subject that many people do not understand, but in reality it's pretty simple.
As we established before, muscles are very similar to a piece of rope that are attached at both ends, in the case of muscles they attach at either end to a tendon. Now, imagine this big rope is actually made up of thousands of pieces of individual strings of rope that attach from end to end, these are known as muscle fibers. These muscle fibers are each made up of thousands of sarcomeres (muscle cells) that attach in series one after the other, and again act like tiny ropes. Groups of muscle fibers are connected together into motor units, imagine putting a rubber band around a handful of markers. Each motor unit is innervated, meaning it is attached to a nerve which can relay a signal through our nervous system to contract, thereby moving the muscle.
If you’ve ever heard the superhero analogy that we only use about 10% of our brain, this is actually very relevant to how our muscles work, albeit not so much for our brain. When you scratch the itch on your head only a few motor units contract in order to bring your arm up and hand to your head. As you begin to lift something heavier more and more of these motor units will be recruited in order to lift the load. When we approach failure in a given set or exercise, we begin to recruit our high-threshold motor units which are the largest in size and therefore capable of producing the most force. This is known as Henneman’s size principle, which is basically the idea that the biggest or strongest motor units are recruited last, only as we need them.
In order to grow muscle, we need to recruit these high-threshold motor units by getting close to failure within a set or exercise.
If you're looking to learn more about muscles and how to grow them make sure to check out our blog post, "What is Muscle and How To Build It"
The last piece of the puzzle is to understand how the forces from exercise are transmitted through our muscles. Torque is often referred to as the rotational force and is how we calculate the amount of force or tension produced by our muscles in an exercise. Torque will always be greatest when our joints are at 90 degrees relative to the load or object that we are lifting. For example, at the top of a lateral raise, halfway up in a bicep curl or when we reach parallel in a squat. For the case of our pecs, the torque will be the greatest when our arms are at 90 degrees to our rib cage which will occur when our arms are out at our side. As our arms move past 90 degrees, there will be less torque or force placed on our muscle, as long as the weight remains constant.
By using cables or machines we can alter where the tension is greatest in an exercise compared to free weights which only utilize gravity and therefore will always be hardest at the 90 degree position. By utilizing cable and machine exercises we can alter where the resistance is, so that we can apply tension through the pecs entire range of motion. This is key to having a complete pec workout as we want to apply resistance through the pecs full range of motion from their fully lengthened to fully shortened position.
Lastly, I’d like to mention three key principles that we must apply in order to build the “ultimate chest workout”.
- Our muscles naturally are able to produce much more force and are thereby much stronger in the lengthened position compared to the shortened position. In the shortened position, we will feel a much stronger contraction because the muscle cells are physically much closer together.
- We can bias which portions of the pecs work the most or produce the most force with the arm path we take in an exercise. For example, going from low to high will use more clavicular pecs, while going high to low will be more costal pec dominant. We will never be able to completely isolate a division of the pecs or the pecs as a whole, but we can put them in a position to do the brunt of the work.
- Our nervous system is extremely efficient and will always use the muscle in the best position to do work
Mechanisms Of Hypertrophy:
There are primarily two adaptations that occur in our muscle cells which result in hypertrophy (muscle-growth).
- Myofibrillar Hypertrophy - Also known as functional hypertrophy, this is the means by which we can increase the amount of contractile proteins in our muscle cells so they can produce more force. This results in our muscles getting stronger.
- Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy - This is known as “cellular swelling” as a result of increased glucose, glycogen and water being shuttled into our muscle cells which is used as fuel during exercise.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy is like upgrading your car’s engine while sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is like upgrading your car's fuel source
As I briefly mentioned before, your muscle is much stronger in its lengthened position, so exercises with the most resistance will be the best suited for myofibrillar hypertrophy. Exercises with the most resistance in the shortened position moreso challenges the muscle’s ability to produce enough fuel. This lends exercises with resistance primarily in the shortened position to result in more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
The Ultimate Pec Workout:
In order to build the ultimate pec workout we need to abide by the following principles:
- Take the pecs through their full range of motion, while applying adequate resistance throughout this range of motion
- Program chest exercises that bias both mechanisms of hypertrophy into your workout over time to maximize muscle-growth.
As a rule of thumbs you’re probably better off spreading out your “chest workout” over a few days, as you’re going to get way less output on your second chest exercise than your first and so on… For this reason I am a huge fan of full-body and half-body workouts, so you can hit each muscle group multiple times per week.
The dumbbell bench press is always going to be a more efficient exercise for the pecs compared to the barbell for a few reasons:
- Dumbbells allow freedom of movement and rotation at your wrist. This allows you to choose the arm path you take within an exercise compared to the fixed motion of the barbell
- Dumbbells allow you to bring your arms across your body which mimics the motion (follows the arm path) of the pecs. This in turn puts more tension on the pec and reduces the tension placed on the tricep. compared to a barbell bench. You could argue that this is a bonus for the barbell bench press, but there are much better options to train both the triceps and the pecs.
- The barbell also limits the range of motion of the pecs at the bottom of the exercise when the bar comes in contact with your ribcage and you therefore cannot go any lower.
Secondly, in order to take the pecs through their full range of motion you need to perform some form of unilateral (one-arm) movements. Since the pecs are responsible for bringing the arms across the body, it is impossible to take both pecs through their full range of motion without your arms running into one another.
And last, but not least make sure to always have full control over the weight you are using, don’t let the weights control you. The more momentum you use in an exercise and “bounce” out of the bottom the less tension is place on the muscle. Keep your reps smooth and controlled. At time I even like to pause for a second at the bottom of each rep to ensure that I am not using any momentum.
It's important to remember that training is only half the equation and without nutrition and recovery we will never make any progress. So make sure to check out our Umzu Fit Website for more information like this, plus complete workout and nutrition guides! Also, when you're ready to showcase all those gains you made, check out our Summer Shred Guide to ensure that you're beach ready!
My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward__. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good~Tyler Woodward
B.S. Physiology and Neurobiology