Here's the inside track on how your pectoral muscles work and some exercises and tips to fill you in on how to get a bigger chest
Muscles are the stringy mass of fibres that contract and expand to make your joints move and stop you crumpling in a saggy heap on the floor. You’ve got between 600 and 700 muscles in your body altogether.
Not all muscle fibres are created equal. Some are made up of ‘slow-twitch’ fibres that are laced with lots of capillaries to supply them with oxygen, and are mainly used in aerobic, endurance activities such as running.
Other muscles are made up of ‘fast-twitch’ fibres which have fewer capillaries and convert stored glycogen into glucose to fuel explosive, anaerobic movements such as jumping or lifting heavy weights. It’s these fast-twitch fibres that have the greatest potential for growth, which is why power sportsmen such as sprinters and weightlifters tend to be bulkier than endurance athletes such as marathon runners.
The number of fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibres you have is determined at birth by your genes. This explains why some people pack on muscle easily while others struggle to add weight. But even classic ectomorph (skinny) guys can bulk up with the right training and nutrition – it will just take a bit more work.
The muscle grows when you put sufficient stress on it to create microscopic tears in the muscle fibres which, if you give them sufficient rest and amino acids from protein-rich foods, will heal bigger and stronger than they were before. This process is known as hypertrophy. Once the muscle has healed, it is more resistant to stress, so you need to attack it with bigger weights in order to repeat the damage/repair process that will make it grow again. That’s why you need to subject your muscles to ‘progressive overload’ or, in other words, keep lifting bigger and bigger weights.
Pecs broken down
The main job of the chest muscles – the pectorals or ‘pecs’ – is to push your arms in front of you. They are also used when bringing your arms down from above you. The pectoralis major is a large muscle that attaches to your collarbone, breastbone and ribs. Although it is a single muscle, most experienced weight trainers divide the chest into three portions: upper, middle and lower.
Any chest exercise will work the entire pec muscle, but by varying the angle of attack, by doing incline or decline bench presses, for example, it is possible to target the upper or lower portions of the muscle and build a bigger chest.
Three classic big chest moves
This is the classic chest-building move and a standard test of upper-body strength. It is also a great all-over mass-builder because it requires a large number of muscle fibres to perform, which triggers the body’s natural growth hormone response.
Add a dynamic rotational element to the plain old press-up to turn it into move that will help you get a bigger chest and torch fat, too. The trick is to make the exercise fast and fluid, using your core muscles to control the movement.
Cable crossover flye
By using a cable machine, you keep the tension on your muscles constant throughout the move. Your midriff will also get a workout keeping your torso stable against the cables’ resistance.
Ten tips to help you build bigger pecs
1. Give yourself a round of applause – Research in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance has revealed that you can make yourself stronger in just 10 seconds. How you ask? By performing two clap press-ups, 30 seconds before any given chest exercise. This will help you to push more weight by engaging the chest muscles prior to your big push.
2. Engage your core – When performing any chest press exercises try tensing your abs for added power. Also, try performing 10-second sets of the plank in between your chest press exercises. This will keep your chest and your core engaged throughout the workout, building a stronger chest.
3. Switch your grip - Hitting your upper pecs isn’t easy, so to make sure they’re being worked hard switch to an underhand grip when you’re bench pressing. It’s likely you’ll have to lower the amount of weight used but it’ll activate 30% more of your upper chest muscles than a normal overhand grip bench-press.
4. Finish with loaded stretching – AKA fascial stretching. Using light weights and slowly lowering yourself into the end point of a chest move will send strong signals to the paper like structure known as fascia that surrounds your chest. As you begin to open up your chest fascia you’ll begin to increase your chests growth potential.
5. Get eccentric – We don’t mean shouting random facts out at the gym or dressing in 60s tie-dye for your next workout, we’re referring to eccentric movements. Try adding a couple of really slow sets of barbell press at the end of your workout, slowly lowering the weight for 10 reps of 5 seconds each.
6. Start throwing your weight around – An instant strength builder, and a great way to feel like Superman. Next time you’re using a Smith machine, explode (a lighter weight), preferably around half your one-rep maximum, upwards. Studies have shown that this will increase the explosive power in your chest muscles quicker.
7. Start strong – For quicker gains, ensure that you’re always working the part of your chest that you’re concentrating on improving at the start of your session.
8. Destroy the bar – Not literally. You can engage more chest fibres by squeezing the barbell as though you’re trying to pull it apart. The isometric that this creates activates your pecs before you’ve even started to perform any reps.
9. Incorporate the kettlebell - The biggest advantage that you get from the kettlebell press is that the bell falls past your shoulder during the eccentric portion of the lift as opposed to a dumbbell that stops parallel with the joint of your shoulder. This puts your chest at a mechanical disadvantage and requires more force production to drive the weight back up.
10. Incline it up – Set the incline bench at a 44-degree angle to engage the most amount of muscle in your chest, according to a study found in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. How you measure exactly 44 degrees we’re not sure. You’d better bring your protractor.