Written by Celebrity Fitness Advisor Jason Ferruggia.
Question: Jay, my question is about how to build a bigger chest. I heard that the bench press is a crappy chest exercise. Is this true? If it sucks, what is better?
Answer: The bench press is a good exercise, if somewhat risky and dangerous for a lot of individuals.
I am not a huge fan of it because it can beat up your shoulders pretty good if you use crappy form (as most people do) or are not built for the exercise.
When you bench press correctly you use more triceps and front delts so the pecs do not bear the brunt of the load.
Some people try to combat this problem and isolate the pecs more by bringing their elbows out wide and lowering the bar up higher on the chest (the way that bodybuilding magaziens typically show you how to do it).
That is a shoulder injury waiting to happen so that is not an option to even consider. I did these many years ago for a few months before I knew any better and my shoulder has never been the same since. Do not make the same mistakes that I did.
How to Make the Bench Press Safer
If you are going to bench press be sure to keep your elbows tucked at forty five degrees to your side, shoulder blades pulled tightly back and use a grip no wider than shoulder width. The bar should be brought down to your nipple line, not your neck. That is a safer way to do them.
Another way to make the bench press safer is to use bands and do reverse band presses, as popularized by Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell Club. The bands deload the bottoms of the exercise, where the most stress occurs, and allow you to press heavy weights more safely.
You can also put chains on the bar for a similar effect. As you press the weight up the chains come off the floor, adding more weight to the top portion of the exercise. So it gets heavier as you press it to lockout. But the weight is lightest in the bottom range where your shoulder is most vulnerable.
The Best Type of Barbell Press
My personal preference and a much better option for building the chest is the low incline bench press with the bench set at no higher than 30 degress.
This reduces the injury risk and hits the pecs far more effectively; especially the upper pecs, which most people are lacking. I would recommend using a 15-30 degree angle over flat bench presses in most cases. Former six time Mr. Olympia, dorian Yates used this as his staple chest building exercise and it would be hard to argue with his results.
Again, use a somewhat narrower grip (around shoulder width or a hair wider). If you have access to a neutral grip or angled grip bar I would recommend using it as that can make the exercise even less stressful on the shoulders.
To keep the tension on the pecs and off of the joints and connective tissue you can stop the bar 2-3 inches off your chest.
Obviously this advice would not apply to someone who was looking to measure their strength in some sort of contest. Full range only in that case.
Any type of barbell pressing should be done for 5-8 reps when the main goal is to build muscle.
Non-Barbell Chest Exercises
Equally as effective is the low incline dumbbell press. The dumbbells allow a more natural range of motion and are less stressful on the shoulders. You can also do dumbbell presses on a flat bench and a slight decline as well. Both are good options.
Dips are another chest exercise that should be part of your chest building arsenal.
If these give your shoulder problems avoid them or try doing them on rings instead. The freedom to move about into more natural ranges of motion can make a huge difference.
Any discussion about how to build a bigger chest would not be complete without mentioning pushups. Pushups of all varieties will always remain among my top chest builders. For other incredible effects learn other great body weight exercises.
My favorites are weight floor pushups with your hands on pushup handles or hexagon dumbbells (either having a partner hold a plate on your back, wearing a weighted vest or wrapping a band around your back) and suspended pushups using gymnastic rings.
When performing suspended pushups remember that the function of the pecs is to draw the arms across the midline of the body. Because of that it is best to set the straps about five feet apart from each other to make the exercise harder. By setting the straps far apart from each other, you make the pecs function in this way as you press/pull yourself back up from the bottom position.
You have to do it and feel it to appreciate what I am talking about, but I do not think you will find a better chest exercise than this. If, like Frank Rizzo of the Jerky Boys, you have a chest like a wet blanket, then I highly recommend you give this exercise a try.
Now you know how to build a bigger chest. I expect some before and after pics. Females only.
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