You might think that all that stands between you and the body of your dreams is drive, guts, focus, or determination. That's what the influencers might tell you. But something else might be blocking you: All those training mistakes that leave you disappointed and injured rather than pumped and inspired.
Bodybuilder and coach Dylan Thomas is here to set you straight and fix your favorite training day of the week: chest day! If you've already benefited from his article, "Fixing Your 5 Biggest Biceps Blunders," consider this the other half of your beach muscle triage.
Mistake 1: Going Too Heavy and Hard While Warming Up
I get it! You're excited to be in the gym on International Chest Day. The pre-workout is flowing. You don't want to waste time pushing an empty bar or one with some nickels and dimes on it! You want to start heavy… and take it to failure.
"Pushing too hard as you pyramid up in weight will result in diminished performance, meaning you'll likely fall short of your rep target," says Thomas. "Going too close to muscle failure with your warm-ups can also increase accumulated lactate, which can adversely affect exercise performance for everything that follows."
A Better Way: Limber up with light weights and focus on speed and form. Then pyramid up in weight over 2-4 warm-up sets. "Take only your heaviest sets of each exercise to failure so you don't compromise your strength," says Thomas.
Going heavy on bench or incline? Press heavier, more safely, by wrapping your wrists.
Mistake 2: Pressing Your Flyes
The most common—and in my experience, best—way to build a chest workout starts with multijoint movements like presses. Then it progresses to single-joint movements like cable cross-overs or flyes.
However, that comes with a big "but." To be truly single-joint, your elbows have to stay locked in a slightly bent position. "Too much bend—usually from using heavy weights—will turn this into more of a press."
Why is this a problem? You've already done presses. The benefits of flyes are different: a different stretch, squeeze, and a great finishing pump.
A Better Way: Go as light as needed on flyes and cable crosses and focus on form. "During the eccentric (lowering) phase, take your hands out wide from your body, stretching your pecs," says Thomas. "If you're having trouble getting the form down, use the pec-deck machine, which locks your arms in the right position."
Mistake 3: Using an Incline That's Too Steep
Old-school gym wisdom says the steeper the bench, the more the front delts take over for the chest. A recent study backs this idea up, then takes it to the next level: Anything above 45 degrees is basically a shoulder exercise, and 30 degrees is the optimal angle for the upper chest.
If you've only been pressing at 45 for your inclines—maybe because your gym only has a bench set at that angle—it's time to mix things up.
A Better Way: Either press at 30 degrees or use multiple descending angles. "I'm a big fan of working my way down the adjustable bench when training the upper pecs," says Thomas. "Typically, I'll start out at about a 45-degree bench angle, then adjust it to about 30 degrees, and may finish off with a very slight incline—about 15 degrees."
All the angles. All the implements. All the gains.
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Mistake 4: Taking Too Many Sets to Failure
You want a big chest so badly that you're just going to push as hard as you can to make it happen. More sets. More weight. More sets to failure. More intensity techniques that push you past failure.
"While training to failure signals muscle anabolism, too many sets to failure work in the opposite fashion and eventually suppresses important growth factors," says Thomas. "Volume and intensity are both critical factors for growth, but it's a delicate seesaw to get the balance right."
A Better Way: Thomas advises advanced lifters to take just 1-2 of their heaviest sets of an exercise to failure or beyond. Beginners may find the best results from taking only the compound exercises like presses to failure. As a rule, the more sets you take to failure, the more you should back off on the training volume by performing fewer sets or exercises.
Mistake 5: Always Starting with the Bench Press
The bench press has an aura unlike almost any other exercise. It makes perfect sense that it would be your "main course" movement on chest day. Hit it hard every chest day—right?
The only problem: Even a picture-perfect bench press—or any other movement—begins to deliver diminished returns eventually. "As you become more experienced, your chest workouts will eventually become less productive if you don't make changes," says Thomas. "That's not just you; it's a natural development."
A Better Way: Switch your "big move" up periodically. Press dumbbells rather than barbells. Or start with incline or decline instead of flat bench. "By doing them first, you're likely to be able to push more weight or do more reps, allowing a greater stimulus on the upper and lower pec regions than they're accustomed to," Thomas says.
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