But I don't want to be flat!
March 31, 2010 7:00 AM   Subscribe

Help me develop my pectorals!

I've been lifting for six months now and though my arm and shoulder muscles have developed wonderfully, my pecs are still as flat as they have ever been.

I lift three times a week with a day of rest between sessions. Two sets of 10 on each plate machine mixed with free weights. I bench 160 and have gotten much stronger. My pecs though refuse to make any improvement though they are obviously stronger.

Is it possible some people are just not going to develop in that area? Help!
posted by DieHipsterDie to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Pushups, pullups, chinups, squats: all of those are good for pectorals.

A list of other exercises that work the pectorals.
posted by dfriedman at 7:05 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


My pecs though refuse to make any improvement though they are obviously stronger.

Also, don't confuse definition with strength.

Some very strong people have relatively small muscles. If you're looking to build definition, the amount of weight you can move isn't as much of a concern as is isolating that particular muscle and exercising it repeatedly.

Ludwig_van is going to comment at some point about the book Starting Strength; you should get that book.
posted by dfriedman at 7:07 AM on March 31, 2010


I've been weightlifting for about three months, five to six days a week, and the improvement in my chest is quite noticeable. Two sets of ten doesn't sound right. It should be three sets of ten. The weight you should do machines at is such that on the first set you can do 10. The second set 8 or so. And the third set you just fail or get close to failing. As in not capable of doing it.

Are you taking protein powder? Creatine? Both of these things will help a lot.
posted by lakerk at 7:17 AM on March 31, 2010


Simple answer: if you're looking to add mass, increase the weight and decrease the number of reps.
posted by jckll at 7:18 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sometimes the bench press doesn't work certain people's pectorals properly; they use other muscles to lift the bulk of the weight and the chest never really gets worked. Have you tried flyes? Pec deck? What about incline dumbbell press? Are you actually feeling it in your pectorals or in your arms? Worth looking into.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:21 AM on March 31, 2010


Lakerk: After much reading, the usefullness of doing anything more than one warmup set and one full set seems to be called into doubt by many "experts". Meaning three sets are not much better than one set. I've also been told that you should pick a weight where you are just barely able to complete the last lift.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 7:22 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Optimus: Lots of flys, not so much incline dumbell press. And you are right, I feel the bench press more in my arms than in my chest. Though my arms get sore lifting, my pecs never feel very sore.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 7:24 AM on March 31, 2010


Have you tried incline or decline press? What about good old fashioned push-ups? With your feet on a bench or something if necessary to increase difficulty.
posted by jckll at 7:29 AM on March 31, 2010


If that's the case, try chest dips (where you lean forward) and incline dumbbell presses. If you're not feeling the pectoral muscles working during the contraction, it's not working them.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:32 AM on March 31, 2010


You should be doing chest no more than twice a week, and no more than 4 exercises per workout. Work in the 3 sets of 8-12 rep range for now, and hit the muscle from a variety of angles. Try this:

Chest Workout 1:
Barbell Bench Press
Dumbbell Incline Press
Machine Flye
Barbell Decline Press

Chest Workout 2:
Dumbbell Bench Press
Barbell Incline Press
Dumbbell Flye
Standing Incline Cable Flye
posted by charlesv at 7:35 AM on March 31, 2010


Skip machines. Use free weights. Lift heavy. Eat a lot. Don't bother with anything involving a cable or a "flye". Use a wider grip on bench exercises to shift the emphasis from your triceps to your chest. Mix in a lot of pushups, including pushups with your feet elevated once normal pushups only tire you in very high rep ranges. Rest enough: you aren't going to get massive or strong doing 5 sets of 20 reps with the bar every day, you're only going to develop serious shoulder problems.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:41 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Don't bother with anything involving a cable or a "flye".

Flyes are a crucial part of any chest workout. I challenge you to find a chest workout for any IFBB pro that does not include flyes.
posted by charlesv at 7:46 AM on March 31, 2010


I challenge you to find a chest workout for any IFBB pro that does not include flyes.

I challenge you to find any IFBB pro that isn't pumped full of more steroids and other drugs than a herd of commercial cattle. The bottom line is that "pro" workouts, including body part splits, extremely high volume, etc. aren't appropriate or worthwhile for 99% of people.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:55 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


The thing with "experts" OP is that they change their stance every month. Literally every other month something new is healthy for you. Or something you thought was good wasn't. I guess I'm no expert either so there's that. But you've been working out for six months, and failed. I've worked out for three and succeeded. So take advice or leave it.
posted by lakerk at 8:12 AM on March 31, 2010


charlesv's suggestion looks solid. I'd amend it to 6-10 reps instead of 8-12 if you're trying to build mass. Also make sure you're using the heaviest weight that you can do with good form and a full range of motion.

Getting enough protein in your diet is also important. Aim for 1.6 g/kg of body mass. This is the ACSM's recommendation for 'power athletes'. (which you are, if you're trying to build muscle mass)
posted by rbellon at 8:24 AM on March 31, 2010


caveat: I'm not an expert, and usually I frown on non-experts offering advice on such matters, but your case sounds so much like mine, I feel compelled to post.

I feel your pain DieHipsterDie. That could have been me wriing this post (except I bench even less at 2 sets 10 reps). It always feels like my arms are holding me back in the bench press.

I've tried a few things that helped a little bit, but I'm no expert (to the experts here - please correct me I I'm wrong). One is that I think I needed a slightly wider grip. My understanding now is that when your hands are at chest level your elbows should be at 90 degrees. Also, when I feel my arms getting tired (because I'm using them too much) I try to mentally focus on using my chest and flexing my chest muscles.

Doing that, I've started to "feel it" more in my chest (although mainly the upper and outer part) and less in my arms.
posted by chndrcks at 8:27 AM on March 31, 2010


After much reading, the usefullness of doing anything more than one warmup set and one full set seems to be called into doubt by many "experts". Meaning three sets are not much better than one set. I've also been told that you should pick a weight where you are just barely able to complete the last lift.

This may be true for folks just starting out with a lifting program, but if you've advanced beyond that, then you need to add more sets to keep making gains. And 'not much better' doesn't mean it's not better at all. Yes, you're going to get diminishing returns the more sets you do, but you will still get some return.
posted by rbellon at 8:29 AM on March 31, 2010


I lift three times a week with a day of rest between sessions. Two sets of 10 on each plate machine mixed with free weights. I bench 160 and have gotten much stronger.

What is your height and weight? What does the rest of your program look like? Where are you getting this program from? Why are you using machines and doing sets of 10?

If you want your chest to get bigger, you need to increase your bench. Unless you are a woman or a child, 160# is not in the ballpark of a strong bench. Gain weight and get your bench up to 250 and your chest will be bigger. The most efficient way for you to make your bench go up is to do sets of 5 and steadily increase the weight.

Pushups, pullups, chinups, squats: all of those are good for pectorals.

I'm not sure where you're getting this. Pushups, yes, although doing lots of pushups isn't going to do much to make your chest bigger. The others are not chest exercises.

Sometimes the bench press doesn't work certain people's pectorals properly; they use other muscles to lift the bulk of the weight and the chest never really gets worked.

It's not anatomically possible to perform a proper bench press without working your pectorals. There is the possibility that the OP has no idea how to perform a proper bench press, in which case he should learn.

Anyway, I don't like to argue in these threads, but most of the advice here, including the comment you've marked as best answer, is totally off the mark. With a bench press of 160, you will be wasting your time and effort doing assistance exercises and high rep sets. You need to bench heavy and you need to eat.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:35 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you're feeling the bench more in your arms that your chest your doing it wrong. I made the same mistake when I started lifting 15 years ago. It is hard to explain, but you really want to remove your arms from the equation as much as possible. When you bench, imagine squeezing it up with your chest, not your arms. Really focus on your pecs when your bench press. Taking a wider grip will also help eliminate your triceps from the movement. A trainer can help you with this. Make sure your stretch before you bench. As Inspector Gadget mentioned, you can really jack your shoulder / rotator cuff.

Mix up your bench presses with barbells and dumbells, flat / incline / decline. Mix in some dumbell flys / cable flys / dips, and the ass-kicking dumbell pullover

And as repeated above, use free weights, lower rep / higher weight ( once you nail down your form ), and eat, eat, eat.
posted by jasondigitized at 8:42 AM on March 31, 2010


It's not anatomically possible to perform a proper bench press without working your pectorals. There is the possibility that the OP has no idea how to perform a proper bench press, in which case he should learn.

It is anatomically possible to perform a flat bench press and primarily use muscles other than your pectorals, especially when the weight is low. Even properly done, a flat barbell bench press is not the end-all be-all of chest exercises. I agree with the bulk of your advice, but mindlessly doing flat barbell bench presses to the exclusion of everything else is ridiculous.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:48 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seconding whoever said squats. I know it sounds stupid, but here's the logic: Your body goes into muscle growth mode when muscles are overstressed, but just doing chest exercises isn't enough to trigger that mode into starting. Exercising large muscles like the legs can actually help trigger growth mode overall, and your chest and any other muscles you've recently worked on will benefit.
Also, eat more than you think you need to.
posted by rocket88 at 8:51 AM on March 31, 2010


I'm 6' 212 lbs. I'm trying to drop weight as I still have too much fat in areas I don't want it. e.g. my face and stomach. I am losing weight and hate to stop that by eating more.

A trainer told me that 6-12 reps was good for bulking up. So I chose 10. There is so much conflicting advice out there. I will cut out most machines and stick to free weights.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 8:53 AM on March 31, 2010


You might not need to add many more calories, but it's essential for muscle growth that you get enough protein. Animal sources are best: lean cuts of meat, fish, eggs, dairy. Powders/bars are not necessary, but might help if your regular diet is lacking for protein.
posted by rbellon at 9:05 AM on March 31, 2010


Just to add that free weights also force you to balance the weights in ways that the machines don't. Anec-data here, but I've always gotten MUCH better results from free weights than from machines.
posted by Thistledown at 9:06 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to drop weight as I still have too much fat in areas I don't want it. e.g. my face and stomach. I am losing weight and hate to stop that by eating more.

You're not trying to drop weight, you're trying to drop fat. 6' 212 is a perfectly good weight to be. If you are able to steadily increase your lifts, you probably don't need to eat more. If your lifts are stalled, then you may need to eat more.

A trainer told me that 6-12 reps was good for bulking up. So I chose 10.

10 reps is considered the "hypertrophy range." That rep range is going to cause more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy than myofibrillar, which means more increase in size than strength. However, you aren't moving heavy enough loads to see a pronounced effect. If you could bench 300# for sets of 10, it might be worth your while. For now you need to focus on increasing your numbers, and lower reps with heavier weights is the fastest way to get there.

It is anatomically possible to perform a flat bench press and primarily use muscles other than your pectorals, especially when the weight is low.

The pectoral muscles extend the upper arm. If you're taking a standard grip on the bar, bringing the bar to your chest, and extending it to lockout, your pectorals have contributed their full share to the movement.

Even properly done, a flat barbell bench press is not the end-all be-all of chest exercises.

It is for a 212# man with a 160# bench press. Really. Look, nobody's going to stop you from doing all of the incline presses, and dumbbell presses, and cable crossovers, and flies and whatever you want. Do it upside down on an exercise ball in Vibram five-fingers if that's how you get your kicks. You'll probably fit right in with the other dudes at Bally's. But at this stage in your training, you're going to be wasting your time at best and hindering your progress at worst.

Re squats: rocket88 is right that squats are an integral part of any complete lifting program, and that complete lifting is probably the best way to go. You should definitely squat. Just don't think that squats are going to do anything for your chest specifically.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:10 AM on March 31, 2010


Man, I was so proud of myself for working my way up to a 160 bench. :(

I have horrible knees with two surgeries on one and one likely on the other. Squats may be out of the question.

Good stuff here. Thanks y'all.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 9:18 AM on March 31, 2010


Man, I was so proud of myself for working my way up to a 160 bench. :(

And you should be! Any increase in your lifts is an accomplishment to be proud of. The point is, at this point if you want a bigger chest you should continue to increase your bench, not start introducing a bunch of assistance exercises. Good luck.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:24 AM on March 31, 2010


Most serious lifters that approach things from a science angle will tell you to continue to use machines -- what you want to do is cut out the free weights. Flat bench press (non-machine) is b.s. and larlgely invalidated anyway. Do a bunch of standing cable cross-overs and increase resistance till muscle failure. It is a simple equation = more reps + more increase in size. Good luck!
posted by Damn That Television at 10:02 AM on March 31, 2010


What's the deal with 5x5 lifting? I had read so much around the internets about how if you do 5 sets of 5 attempted reps, and increase weight as soon as you manage to complete all 25 reps, you're on the fast track to hypertrophy. Is this bunk?
posted by sdis at 10:05 AM on March 31, 2010


What's the deal with 5x5 lifting?

It's a very good way to get strong. In this article, Lyle McDonald traces its current popularity back to strength coach Bill Starr. One of the commenters points out that Bill Starr may have gotten it from Reg Park. In any case, it's effective for strength and people have been doing it for a long time.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:17 AM on March 31, 2010


It's amazing how anecdotal approaches don't fly on metafilter....except for exercise. I've nearly stopped responding to advice on ask.mefi about weight training for the simple reason of getting shouted down with "It works for me!" Or this guy I know.

Some people aren't going to have a large chest. Some people aren't going to have big (or small) arms. It's really really really quite a bit of genetics. So, yes, I've seen guys who are stronger than when they started - but will never have a 'huge' anything.

More work != better work. Better work = better work.

You need to stimulate your body (and get rest) for it to respond. Brief, intense work (10 very difficult reps.) It's a question of time under load, not how much work you do ~ fatigue to occur around 90-180 seconds to involve the anaerobic pathways. If you can spend 45 min doing anything - it's aerobic. Sets are intervals...(with lots of rest in between)

Bench presses work your chest - and your triceps. the weakest link in the chain is the first to stop your progression. That's right, all that pressing? It mostly works your arms (yes, of course the chest gets work.)

Want to try something freaky? That will work your chest? Do a set of any sort of fly motion (machine, weights, it doesnt matter - what matters is that it's overload) and immediately do a bench press. Set up the bench press first. You'll find you're doing 2 total sets and your chest will be sore more than you'd ever think. And then, get some rest. Repeat.

Are you keeping records? It means nothing if you're not measuring what you do. If you can do more reps next week than this week; yes, you've progressed. And yes, there must be more muscle if you can do more work.
posted by filmgeek at 10:42 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ok, last reply, I promise.

You'll find you're doing 2 total sets and your chest will be sore more than you'd ever think.

I'm glad you said this, because I think this is the thinking behind some of the other answers here. Many factors affect soreness, not all of them directly related to exercise. You don't judge the effectiveness of an exercise by how sore it gets you. The point of the exercise is to get stronger and gain muscle, not to get sore. If the loads moved are increasing and muscle mass is increasing, the exercise is effective, whether or not you're sore.

Beginners require very little training complexity to get stronger and gain muscle. Advanced athletes require more complexity. People on steroids can do whatever the hell they want because they're on steroids. The OP is most certainly a beginner and not on steroids. If he had fully milked the gains available to him from the basic barbell bench press, it would be time to consider varying his routine with different rep ranges or limited rest periods or speed work or assistance lifts. Anyone who thinks that he has done so is clueless.

please nobody else post anything really stupid
posted by ludwig_van at 11:46 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


My only advice is to spend some time contracting your pecs at various points in their range of motion while you look in the mirror and/or feel with your free hand to confirm the contraction. Learn the feeling you get in your pecs as you do it, then, whatever chest exercise you do, try and maximize that feeling as you perform the exercise. The idea is to make sure that you are minimizing the use of complimentary muscles in order to focus the exercise on the area of interest, rather than just focusing on the goal of lifting X weight Y times.

For what it is worth my favorite chest exercise was heavy dumbell bench press, flat, inclined and declined. I was not though particularly focused on visible pec development (it did happen), I wanted overall strength and control.
posted by Good Brain at 12:30 PM on March 31, 2010


The point of the exercise is to get stronger and gain muscle, not to get sore.

You're confusing cause and effect, boyo, but that's neither here nor there. OP: consider filmgeek's advice. Clearly everyone has diff. opinions on what works and what doesn't, but in my experience (also showed this thread to my cousin) the advice of "better work = better work" is as close to consensus as I think you'll get from lifters. Go for broke and ood luck!
posted by Damn That Television at 12:33 PM on March 31, 2010


I'm 6' 212 lbs. I'm trying to drop weight as I still have too much fat in areas I don't want it. e.g. my face and stomach. I am losing weight and hate to stop that by eating more.
A trainer told me that 6-12 reps was good for bulking up. So I chose 10. There is so much conflicting advice out there. I will cut out most machines and stick to free weights.


My advice is to stick to your goals. No one else is you, they don't know what you like or what makes you happy, and anyone telling you to abandon your goals is trying to get you to drink their favorite Kool Aid.
Are trying to lose weight? Lose fat? Lean up? The more specific you make your goals the better off you are. Generally losing weight is not conducive to gaining muscle, but it can be and is done all the time. I don't know where you got your program but It's much easier to grab workouts that have been tried and tested. There are quite a few out there, but I would suggest something like the Velocity Diet. It has everything you need for free including a workout and a huge forum to support you with advice (although I'm not psyched about them hawking their supplements so you can skip that part but they would probably be helpful. YMMV). I've said it before but I don't think Metafilter is a good place to get this kind of advice. It's lacking...to say the least I would suggest seeking out fitness sites that has a large community or pool of talent to gather good advice and knowledge specifically about working out. Especially the a community that is about the type of workouts you are most interested in.

So moving past that and answering the specifics of your question. Yeah, jump on the Bench Press. You can find out how to do it properly by looking it up in a bajillion places on the internet or check out how someones doing it at the gym. The real question is how much weight, sets, reps, etc.. It's simple right? Use heavy weights! That's useless info because everybody has different physical ability and what's heavy to someone is a warm-up for someone else. The point is you should be using heavy enough weights to complete the set in the desired manner. Anyone can tell you to use heavy weights. I could tell you to grab some heavy weight for a set of 30 reps *shrug*. You've already made it clear your (secondary) interest lies in gaining muscle, and a rep range between 6-12 is exactly right. Doing sets for 5 reps or less is for building strength. Specifically setting goals for losing weight, losing fat, building muscle, increasing conditioning, or getting stronger are all different goals. Your goals will inform you which workouts you should be doing. You can have multiple goals and achieve them at the same time but people seem to keep getting things confused and saying there's only one way to accomplish these things. Don't buy into that idea, it's totally ridiculous. Here's a chart I pulled together that's science based and is in any decent workout book.

Rep schemes; listed with first, second, tertiary priorities & effects:

% of Max / Reps / Dur.(in Sec.) / =Effects
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
85-100 / 1-5 / 5-20 /
=1st Strength increase through enhanced neural eff.
=2nd Stimulation of functional muscle hypertrophy
=3rd Increase in muscle density
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
80-85 / 6-8 / 20-40 /
=1st Stimulation in functional muscle hypertrophy
=2nd Strength increase
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
70-80 / 9-12 / 40-60 /
=1st Stimulation of functional & non-functional muscle hypertrophy
=2nd Increase in muscle endurance and lactic acid tolerance
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
50-70 / 13-30 / 60-120 /
=1st Increase in non-functional hypertrophy
=2nd Increase in muscle endurance
=3rd improved capillarization
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
-50 / 30+ / 120+ /
=1st Increase in muscle endurance
=2nd Improved capillarization
=3rd Active recovery
=4th Speeds up recovery from tendon injuries
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

As far as how many sets you should be completing is probably in the area between 2 and 4. It sounds like you may be following a Jones/Mentzer HIT set scheme? You don't really need to go to failure on all your sets to induce the desired effect, and a solid argument could be made that you shouldn't. But that's up to you as far as what program you're following. Personally I would suggest trying out different programs every three months or so until you do find something you like and works for you. It's probably better that you do it that way as your body would much less likely hit plateaus or come up injured.

Anyway, stick with what you're doing if it's getting you to your goals and just try to tweak the specifics on your chest exercises a little, and by that I mean don't over do it with adding a ton of new exercises. Just switch it up a little by moving over to the free weights and jumping on the barbell bench press. Hope everything works out for you.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:35 PM on March 31, 2010


Look, nobody's going to stop you from doing all of the incline presses, and dumbbell presses, and cable crossovers, and flies and whatever you want. Do it upside down on an exercise ball in Vibram five-fingers if that's how you get your kicks. You'll probably fit right in with the other dudes at Bally's. But at this stage in your training, you're going to be wasting your time at best and hindering your progress at worst.

Just to follow up, I finally picked up Starting Strength and wanted to point out that Rippletoe himself says "yeah dumbbell bench presses are basically better than the barbell bench press for everything except training for a competition in which barbell bench is specifically a part but everyone does barbell anyway so that's what I'll teach you." I prefer dumbbells. Good luck; I hope your pecs come in soon.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:29 AM on April 30, 2010


To clarify -- there's nothing wrong with a dumbbell bench press in theory. The problem with dumbbells generally is they're more difficult to precisely load than barbells. You're at the mercy of the dumbbells at your gym, which will often increase in five pound increments, or 2.5 pounds if you're lucky. If you want to increase the load by a smaller increment than your dumbbells allow (e.g. 2.5 pounds) you have to use magnets or something. Getting into position on the bench also presents much more difficulty with dumbbells than with a barbell at heavy weights. Rippetoe chose the barbell bench press in his program because he thinks it's most effective for novices and easiest to learn, but dumbbells can be effectively substituted in the right circumstances.

My point was about novices spending training time on auxiliary lifts like flies and incline or decline presses (or, God forbid, anything involving an exercise ball) rather than the primary movement, which is the bench press. The bench press is a primary lift because it utilizes the most muscle mass for the longest range of motion, so it allows the most work to be done (where work = force x distance). Auxiliary movements all involve less muscle mass (and so necessitate using lighter weights and produce less of a response in the body) and/or a shorter range of motion.

Because of the compound nature of the main lifts, novices can make progress on them in a linear fashion, i.e. adding weight every workout, provided the right circumstances. Since linear progression is the most efficient possible way to get bigger and stronger, it is desirable as long as it's possible to produce it. The right circumstances for linear progression means doing sets of 5, increasing the load in small increments, and not tapping into your finite recovery ability with unnecessary auxiliary lifts. When a trainee reaches a point where progress on the main lifts can no longer be made every single workout (i.e. the intermediate stage), then it can be productive to use other rep ranges and to incorporate a larger selection of exercises.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:22 AM on April 30, 2010


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