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It’s a common problem: You hammer your pecs every which way but, like playing tennis with a drape, there’s no response. You’ve probably already tried doing more sets, heavier benches, more reps, new exercises, even more sets, more push-ups and plain old trying harder, all with little success.
So rather than suggest you’re missing some magical combination of moves and elbow grease, we’re going to shake up your workout for the next six weeks by prioritizing it - giving it more work and attention than other bodyparts. You’ll train chest twice a week while hitting the remainder of your bodyparts just once, and you’ll employ two completely different full-throttle chest workouts designed to boost not just strength but also size. This isn’t a beginner’s schedule; instead, it’s geared toward bodybuilders of at least an intermediate level who can follow the kind of priority program presented here.
Attacking a lagging muscle group with a more-is-better approach will work as long as you take into account certain other factors. “How you set up the program is critical so you don’t overuse a particular muscle group,” says former powerlifter David Sandler, MS, CSCS, director of the fitness consulting firm StrengthPro. “You could easily overtrain your pushing muscles (primarily chest, shoulders and triceps) if you work them on consecutive days.”
Ernesto Osorio, CSCS, an amateur bodybuilder and personal trainer at One 2 One Training Center in Houston, says: “If you’re going to train chest twice a week, you’ll need 2-3 days of rest between workouts to allow for sufficient recuperation time, which will enable the muscle to grow bigger and stronger.” Training your chest more frequently, especially with the intensity and volume prescribed here, could backfire and result in overtraining – meaning a lot of extra effort put forth and nothing to show for it. To avoid that pitfall, our sample training split includes a rest day before each chest-training day to ensure you’re fully recovered, as well as 2-3 days of rest between consecutive chest workouts.
Osorio, who says he has followed a similar split to bring up his own chest, suggests using this approach for no more than six weeks - enough time to make gains before your body either slips into an overtrained state or becomes accustomed to the routine. “This should be a short-term remedy to bring up your chest, but you’ll want to ease up on trying to simultaneously maximize gains with other bodyparts – this is a time for chest-building,” he explains. “Afterward, go back to your regular style of training; you can return to this chest-focused routine down the road if you choose.”
Sandler confirms: “There’s plenty of research to suggest that introducing change into a routine creates opportunity for improvement, but that doesn’t continue indefinitely. In fact, it’s well accepted by most strength coaches and scientists that 4-6 weeks is the max length of time for any one cycle. Neurological development and optimal muscle recruitment occurs within 2-4 weeks of adding new stimuli. After six weeks of an intensity program like this one, you need a period in which you change the stimulus again for at least four weeks. This allows the whole body - its muscular and nervous systems - to recover from the six-week shock placed on it. The rule of thumb is to wait at least four weeks before trying a program like this one again.”
One inherent drawback to doubling up on your chest training is the resultant amount of work imposed on the front delts and triceps. Both assist in all chest pressing movements, so by upping your volume of pec training, the workload on the front delts and triceps is increased. If you were to train front delts and triceps on different days than your pecs, two things would happen.
1) These bodyparts would not be fully recovered from their chest exertions when it came time for their specific workouts, and 2) after being trained in their own specific workouts, they wouldn’t recover in time for the next pec workout. And that means you wouldn’t be able to recruit 100% power for your chest work. That’s why the Peak Pecs Program instructs you to work delts and triceps on chest training days, delts on your first pec workout of the week and tri’s on your second.
“I’d recommend that you not only work delts and triceps on the same day as chest but cut back on the volume for those bodyparts as well, so you can maximize on your pec work,” Osorio adds. “Skip the front-delt work, since this area is already significantly overloaded with heavy presses, but keep the middle- and rear-delt moves to ensure that you’re maintaining a balanced physique. I’d also eliminate compound triceps moves, like close-grip benches and dips, opting instead for pressdowns, lying triceps extensions and kickbacks. Your triceps are getting worked before you even do a single exercise dedicated to them, so limit volume to six sets at most for this small muscle group.”
Sandler notes: “Shoulders and triceps are critical to chest training - they need to be fresh. Delts will often fail first in training, and you need them big time on chest day.”
Because of the extra physiological demands of a priority-training program such as this, Sandler recommends paying extra attention to your diet and taking in plenty of calories and protein. For every pound you weigh, be sure to get 18-20 calories, 1 gram of protein and 2 grams of carbs daily. The added nutrients will facilitate growth by supplying essential amino acids and optimal replenishment of muscle glycogen to fuel hard training. He also advises supplementing with creatine, whey protein and glutamine, as well as drinking plenty of water.
Rather than hitting your chest with the same routine on both days, each workout concentrates on a different area of emphasis.
The first workout starts off with the bench press, which Osorio calls the meat and potatoes of chest exercises because it hits the most muscle fibers. Do it first in your workout when you’re fresh to focus on strength and mass. Compound moves like this performed with heavier weights not possible with isolation moves force the muscles to grow stronger and larger.
Besides the flat bench, the routine calls for incline and decline moves. “We’re hitting all the major angles to build thickness and power in both the chest and shoulders,” says Osorio.
In addition to choosing power moves, you’ll train heavier with fewer reps. As the workout progresses, you’ll perform slightly higher reps to increase the volume and add variety to further stimulate your chest to grow.
You’ll finish off with lighter-weight isolation moves that focus solely on the chest muscles, eliminating triceps involvement and allowing you to work the pecs to failure. “Heavy weight definitely stimulates greater strength gains (which will obviously improve overall muscle size), but true hypertrophy training is gained by increasing total volume. Doing a few heavy sets in the beginning with added volume at the end probably works the best,” advises Sandler.
While it’s difficult to achieve 100% intensity in a given workout, Osorio recommends selective use of advanced training techniques to push the muscle past the point of failure. “I prefer forced reps and drop sets for chest, but the former requires a capable training partner. I also like to use them on those first heavy sets when my muscles are fresh and I want to put up as much weight as possible for the target rep range. While forced repetitions are useful for increasing strength and size, drop sets work well with single-joint moves to pump as much blood into the area as possible.”
Sandler cautions that while adding these techniques causes the muscles to work harder, when combined with greater volume as in this workout, you’re more likely to push delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), so timing is key. “If a muscle is still sore, it may not be recovered,” he says. “It’s important to remember that we’re looking not just for muscles to recover but to adapt by getting stronger and bigger. Bottom line: These are useful techniques to build size and strength, but they require more recovery time than training without them.”
NOTE: Perform Chest Workout 1 (below) then perform your normal shoulder routine.
The second chest workout isn’t simply a repeat of the first. For one, it starts with heavy inclines, so your chest gets worked from a different angle at the beginning of the workout when you’re strongest to concentrate on bringing up the upper-chest region. “I’m a big fan of angles, and utilizing them with chest training means you optimize development of the whole pec area,” says Sandler.
After your first pressing exercise, the workout emphasizes single-joint moves (vs. the press-heavy first workout), which stimulate the muscle fibers in different ways and lead to overall pec development. Isolation exercises (like the dumbbell flye and cable flye) also effectively eliminate assistance from the triceps, making the chest do the brunt of the work. Osorio favors fewer presses in the second workout because of what he calls the hindering factor of triceps recovery. “The tri’s fatigue faster because they’re smaller, and the high-volume pressing workout done earlier in the week in Workout 1 really taxes them. To reduce the chance of overtraining the tri’s, workout 2 focuses on single-joint chest exercises, which recruit less triceps assistance.”
Single-joint exercises are best done training in slightly higher rep ranges, meaning you’ll work the pecs with both lower-rep heavy presses as well as higher-rep isolation exercises using a moderate weight to further optimize muscle growth.
Again, choose two exercises with which to use an advanced training technique. Just make sure you don’t apply this to every set of every exercise you do. When performing forced reps or drop sets, do them on no more than two exercises per workout. Perform them on your heaviest sets to take full advantage of the muscle-building effects of these advanced training techniques. If you don’t have a training partner, opt for drop sets or consider another advanced technique.
Obviously, there’s more to a higher-frequency chest split that aims to optimize muscle size and strength than simply hitting the bench press twice as often. With this program you’ll no longer be playing with an unresponsive drape, you’ll see muscle gains coming right back at you!
NOTE: Perform Chest Workout 2 (below) then perform your normal triceps routine.
Because chest is a major muscle group, you don’t want to hit it and the other pushing muscles (shoulders, triceps) too frequently, so work these bodyparts on the same training day and leave ample time for recuperation. Our sample split for the major bodyparts leaves 72 hours between sessions for pushing muscles, following a two-days-on, one-day-off/two-days-on, two-days-off split.