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THEN: A BARBELL SET AT THE YMCA, MAYBE NOW: UBIQUITOUS GYM FRANCHISES.
A lot has changed in the past four decades, and that includes bodybuilding standards, as 2011’s best legs and backs far outpace those of 1971. But during that same period, chests have remained the great constant. Their standards have fluctuated through the years but never eclipsed the ’70s. To find out why that is, what has changed and what has stayed the same, we look back at the best pecs of the last four decades, ranking a top five for each era, and we examine how they were built, then and now.
If you weren’t wearing a tank top, your shirt was buttoned low, if at all. And thus, from the hirsute Burt Reynolds to the mountainous Dolly Parton, if one bodypart defined the ’70s, it was the chest. In conjunction with Pumping Iron and its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the disco decade was also the golden era of bodybuilding, shepherding weights from dusky dungeons to mainstream spas. And, again, chests dominated. How great were pecs then? You could argue that our top four pec men from the ’70s are the top four of all-time. Here’s how they did it:
■ FREE WEIGHTS There were few machines for chest, so barbells, dumbbells and dipping bars were the principal tools.
■ BARBELL PRESSES Flat and incline barbell presses were generally emphasized first in routines and pyramided.
■ VOLUME, VOLUME, VOLUME Most trainers did between 16 and 24 sets for chest.
■ HIGH FREQUENCY Chest, like other major bodyparts, was typically trained two or three times weekly.
5. SERGIO OLIVA When he won three Mr. Olympias (1967–69), chest was not one of The Myth’s strong points, and yet, at his biggest — at the ’72 Mr. Olympia, when dueling Schwarzenegger — the Cuban legend crunched out a pec-tacular display of mass.
4. SERGE NUBRET He sometimes did whole workouts of nothing but moderate- rep bench presses. If that sounds like the meathead route to ruined aesthetics, know that Nubret, when he was the runner-up in the ’73 Olympia, had arguably the most artfully carved pecs of all-time.
3. LOU FERRIGNO You think of The Hulk and you think of his colossal chest erupting outward in a most- muscular. The thickness of his squarish pecs helped him secure two Mr. Universe titles (1973–74) while in his early 20s. Ferrigno stressed his pecs from a variety of angles and pyramided barbell presses.
2. Arnold Schwarzenegger When we ranked the 10 best chests of all-time five years ago, The Austrian Oak topped the list. The status of his pecs during the first half of the ’70s hasn’t changed, but we’re giving someone else their moment alone at center stage this time, someone almost always overshadowed by Schwarzenegger. If you want Arnold’s chest routine, check out the routine of our number one. They were training partners.
COLUMBU’S CHEST WORKOUT STATS
Total sets 15–19
Total reps (range average) 194 Rep range 6–20
Frequency three times weekly Workout partner yes
Unique feature frequently superset chest and back, alternating an exercise for chest with an exercise for back
Techniques pyramids, forced reps, supersets
The most remarkable thing about Columbu’s pecs was the cleft between the upper and lower sections, which made it seem as if his outrageously developed upper pecs were completely different muscles (they’re not). The second most remarkable thing was their dimensions from side to side and top to bottom. The Sardinian stood only 5'5", but his pecs would’ve been at home on 6'5" Ferrigno. The breadth of Columbu’s pecs was a genetic gift aided by his wide clavicles, but their thickness came from thousands of sets on flat and incline benches. At under 200 pounds, the former powerlifter and two-time Mr. O (1976, 1981) bench pressed 525, and his frequent chest workouts emphasized the barbell basics. He credits barbell bench presses and barbell incline presses for building what may have been the best chest ever.
The 1980s comprised two bodybuilding eras. The beginning of this decade was a continuation of the lightweight era (1976–83), during which the only over-200-pound Mr. Olympia was a downsized version of Schwarzenegger. The rest of the decade was filled by six of Lee Haney’s eight years of mass- with-class dominance. Training, too, was in a transition from the high-volume, high-frequency Schwarzenegger era. Here’s how changes in training affected chest workouts:
■ MORE MECHANICAL The greater availability of pec decks, Smith machines and chest pressing machines led to greater vari- ety on chest days, although free weights still dominated the workouts of those with the best chests.
■ LOWERED FREQUENCY As opposed to the thrice-weekly workouts of the mid-’70s, bodybuilders worked their chests and other bodyparts less, such as twice every eight days on the popularthree-on,one-offsplit.
■ PUSH WORKOUTS One of the most common splits was called push-pull, grouping pushing muscles on one day, pulling muscles on another and legs on a third. Chest was thus trained before shoulders and triceps.
5. ROY CALLENDER This Barbados-born behemoth finished fourth in the 1981 Olympia, when many thought he should’ve won. Two of his strengths were his left and right pecs, dense from top to bottom and slashed with fanlike clefts. He utilized very high volume, sometimes doing more than 50 sets for chest.
4. GARY STRYDOM This winner of four pro shows in the late ’80s sported pecs that were both 3-D in their depth and high-def in their striations. His chest workouts were representative of the era: moderate volume and equal doses of compound and isolation lifts.
3. RON LOVE You have to love the chest density of Love. This winner of three pro shows is most noted for his hands- on-hips or hands- behind-the-back most-musculars, both of which splintered his superb pecs.
2. LEE HANEY His record eight Olympia victories (1984–91) came in large part because of his pec size and quality, which were winning factors in every front and side pose. For example, pec thickness was crucial to his signature front lat spread. Haney credits pyramided barbell presses as paramount to his “chestiness."
FOX’S CHEST WORKOUT STATS
Total sets 17-20
Total reps (range average) 181
Frequency twice weekly
Workout partner no
Unique feature did pullovers for rib cage expansion and pec stretching, though this is primarily a back exercise
Techniques pyramids, partial reps, cheating, supersets
Fox is currently serving a life sentence in a Caribbean prison for double murder. However, in the ’80s he was one of the most popular IFBB pros, despite not winning a pro show and topping out at fifth in the Olympia (1983). He had some lagging bodyparts (back, hamstrings), but what he had, he had in overwhelming abundance and this was especially true of his best feature: pecs. Their thickness was unparalleled then. Fox favored basic movements, high volume and a variety of reps, from as many as 15 to as few as 4.
The 1990s are correctly regarded as the second golden era of bodybuilding after the mid-’70s. It was the generation that came of age idolizing Schwarzenegger and memorizing Pumping Iron, and Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman, Flex Wheeler and a dozen other legends took physiques to new standards of size and striations. Curiously, though, backs, legs and arms swelled to new dimensions, but chests lagged behind. In fact, the quintet on our list would surely fare the worst in a contest against the other four decades. In fairness, we relegated Haney to the ’80s and Coleman to the 2000s, although both won Sandows in the ’90s. Still, the definitive ’90s bodybuilder, Dorian Yates, did not possess a particularly great chest, and there’s no disputing that pecs did not participate in the quantum leap forward of other bodyparts in these years of baggy pants and Otomix shoes. Perhaps it had more to do with genetic strengths, but we can also see these chest training changes taking form in the ’90s:
■ PLATE-LOADED MACHINES Hammer Strength and similar pressing machines that more closely resembled free weights grew in popularity.
■ MECHANICAL FLYES Seated flye machines and more adjustable pec decks began appearing in gyms.
■ LOWER VOLUME Following Yates’ lead, many bodybuilders increased intensity but reduced workout volume.
■ LOWER FREQUENCY Again following Yates’ lead, during the late ’90s, training bodyparts just once per week grew in popu- larity. Typically, this meant chest got its own workout.
5. FLEX WHEELER This winner of 16 pro shows and three-time Olympia runner-up (’93, ’98, ’99) was never noted for his chest, but his, like Nubret’s, seemed to be chiseled from marble, adding to his aura of invincibility (against everyone but Yates) in the front shots. His pec training favored a balance of machines and free weights for moderate reps.
4. JEAN-PIERRE FUX This Swiss behemoth, who placed seventh in the 1997 Mr. O, didn’t have the most symmetrical chest, as it sloped to the outer and lower regions, but it was nearly impossible to out- chest him, whether he was standing semirelaxed or crunching a crab shot.
3. Pavol Jablonicky The Czechoslovakian Jablonicky defied the norm in the ’90s by lacking hamstrings and back but possessing pecs in abundance. Although not the thickest in every lineup, his pecs were especially tall, wide and striated and helped propel him to his first pro victory in 1999.
2. KEVIN LEVRONE In contrast to the extra-wide Fux, this winner of 20 pro shows and four-time Olympia runner-up (’92, ’95, ’00, ’02) sported pecs that were narrow and not noted for their density, but they won posedowns nonetheless because they were symmetrical from top to bottom, sported the deepest side divots of his era and were perpetually splintered in his trademark hands- in-front most-muscular.
RUHL’S CHEST WORKOUT STATS
Total sets 15
Total reps (range average) 140
Rep range 4–12, most sets 6–8 reps
Frequency once weekly
Workout partner yes
Unique feature preferred machine presses to barbell and dumbbell presses
Techniques pyramids, partial reps, low reps
You may be surprised to find the German Rühl atop this decade. After all, he competed in only six pro shows in the ’90s, never placing higher than fourth, but he entered 26 and racked up two wins the next decade. In more recent years, a center tear that separated and deflated his pecs marred his chest, though. So let’s return to that fourth place at the 1999 Night Of Champions, which launched Rühl-mania when he was 27 and 270 pounds. Much of the furor was about his chest. It wasn’t thick enough to eclipse the pecs of Olympia contenders, but it was the highest seen since Columbu’s and so striated it resembled two mounds of perfectly aligned soda straws. Even with his reliance on machines for pressing, Rühl crafted a chest that set the density standard for the next decade.
In bodybuilding, the first decade of the new millennium has been sort of an amalgamation of the three that pre- ceded it. Gyms contain new and in many cases better machines, but bodybuilders also have come to discover the limits of mechanical devices for sparking growth. It’s inter- esting that the five men on our list for that decade all relied mostly on barbells, dumbbells and dipping bars on chest days. That’s not to say that equipment advances have not impacted pec training, however. Here are the biggest chest workout changes since the start of 2000:
■ MORE MECHANICAL Chest-training options continued to expand, especially the proliferation of unilateral and free- motion machines that better mimic dumbbells.
■ PRIMACY OF THE PUMP A greater emphasis on intensity techniques like drop sets, supersets and reduced rest periods, as well as the use of preworkout nitric oxide supplements, focused many workouts on pec pumping.
■ GREATER VARIETY With more machines and new train- ing styles to choose from, bodybuilders could still slip some- thing different into every chest workout, even if they stuck primarily to the tried-and-true basics.
5. Dennis James D.J.’s chest drew your eyes to it even when he was standing semirelaxed in an Olympia lineup, and when this winner of three pro shows in the 2000s was called out, you knew his best pose would be his last, because his most-muscular resembled worlds colliding.
4. Victor Martinez The second-place finisher in the 2007 Mr. Olympia has never had a high-def chest, but it’s full and proportionate from every angle, and, like Schwarzenegger, Haney and other forefathers, he demonstrates that pecs can be both scary huge and aesthetic.
3. Johnnie Jackson A world-class powerlifter and the winner of two pro bodybuilding shows, Jackson’s best bodyparts are his pecs and his traps, making for a devastating most-muscular. His pecs would be the thickest of the decade if not for the two men who’ve spent even more time than him in MetroFlex Gym in Arlington, Texas.
2. Branch Warren Noted for his hardcore training and grainy thickness, if the current Arnold Classic champ has a best bodypart other than legs, it’s chest. Built with barbell presses, dumbbell flyes and weighted (chain) dips, all as heavy as he can manage, Warren has the densest pecs in the pros today, although his training partner, Johnnie Jackson, might have something to say about that.
COLEMAN’S CHEST WORKOUT STATS
Exercises 8 (4 per workout)
Total sets 15–16 per workout
Total reps (range average) 50–157 per workout
Rep range 8–12, mostly 10–12
Frequency twice weekly
Workout partner no
Unique feature two different workouts repeated each week
What is it about MetroFlex Gym that our top three all built their pecs there? The answer is the atmosphere. It’s as hardcore as gravel and broken glass, and, 40 years after Schwarzenegger’s dominance, relentlessly toiling at the free-weight basics remains the key to pec growth. Coleman knew that and never deviated from that strategy, even as he tied Haney’s record of eight Sandows. In fact, he continued to hit his chest twice weekly with separate, press-centric routines, even as his competitors did half as many chest workouts each year. The result was two of history’s best pecs, as devastatingly dense in the side shots as they were in the front lat spread and most- muscular.