You’ve been in the gym for a few months now. And so far you’ve:
- Lost 12 pounds
- Increased your total body strength (which makes climbing stairs or carrying groceries easier than ever)
- Your shirts fit better over your now less frumpy man-boobs
- And you had to buy new pants
All and all, the gym has been great. Except for one thing. And it’s this one thing that no matter how many times you flex in the mirror, no matter how many times your friends or family compliment how good you look, no matter how many times you get eye-fucked by strangers on the street, it’s the one part of your body that you feel is lagging behind: Your chest.
Sure, your chest doesn’t look like a sack of swollen sadness anymore, but it still hasn’t popped out like other areas of your physique. Why?
How does this happen? Are you not benching enough weight? Does God hate you?
Most likely, it’s none of those; unless God actually does hate you and then there’s nothing I can do about that. But I can wager a guess, with near 100% accuracy, that you’re not activating your pecs to their full potential. And that’s why you have tiny, non-swole chesticles.
How Your Pecs Function
There’s one problem with the bench press: too many people turn it into more of a shoulder exercise than a chest exercise. And instead of building massive pecs, you either build larger front delts or you end up injuring your shoulder.
Part of this could be because of where you lower the bar to your chest. The bar should be in line with your nipples, or right where your xiphoid process sits.
So now that you know where the bar should be placed in order to better isolate your chest while bench pressing, let’s cover how your pecs are supposed to work. Your pecs have four functions:
- Making you look really great shirtless
- Acting as a mating symbol
- Warding off those who’d threaten you
- Show people that, in fact, you do lift
Okay, that’s what people think your chest is all about. But actually, here’s the psychological function of your pecs:
- Flexion of your humerus (upper arm bone): think side-arming a pitch in baseball
- Adduction of your arm: flapping your arms like a bird
- Medial Rotation of the arm: arm wrestling
- Holding your arm on the trunk of your body
Beyond the awesomeness of sticking out of a deep V-cut t-shirt or acting as a sign that you actually work out, your chesticles are important to the movement of your arms.
They’re actively involved in motions like dribbling/shooting/passing a basketball, throwing a baseball, hugging your significant other, or slapping the shit out of people who claim that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a stupid television show. Those people are beyond dumb and probably don’t even lift, therefore, they have tiny chesticles.
You, however, are here to discover how you can isolate your chest while bench pressing. And the first thing you need to do is the same thing you did the first time you felt a tingle in your pants when you entered puberty: touch yo’ self to see how your body works.
How to Isolate Your Chest
Here’s a super simple drill you can practice in front of a mirror so you can see your pecs engage.
First: extend one arm straight out to your side and place your opposite hand on your chest muscle just before it rolls over and turns into your armpit. Imagine you’re doing a dumbbell fly and bring your arm back towards the middle of your body. If you’re looking in the mirror, you should see your pec engage as you adduct your arm; you’ll feel it as well. Perform 5 reps on each side.
Note: I’m a super pale ginger. So you might think it’s hard to see my pec moving, but it’s engaged. Gingers just don’t tan.
Second: now that you’ve felt the pec engage during a fly motion, it’s time to practice the bench press movement. Nothing changes here: place one arm at your side while the other arm continues to feel your opposite pec.
Imagine you have a weight in your palm, and pull your elbow back into the bottom position of the bench press. Then, as if you were lifting the weight off of you, extend your elbow forward. Around the halfway point of the movement, you should see the pec firing. If that’s not the case, and you don’t feel it in your chest but more in your shoulders, press as hard as you can into your chest with your opposing hand to increase the proprioceptive response. Repeat this drill until you can stimulate the pec to fire back and push the hand on your chest away.
Let’s keeping touching ourselves, shall we? Because 1) it’s fun, and 2) we learn by exploring, especially through physical touch. Touch provides our brains with a proprioceptive response that’s crucial to learning any new skill. And when it comes to activating muscles you’ve never “felt” before the best thing to do is touch the muscle as you work it.
As you did with the drill above, touch one side of your chest while you perform a one arm dumbbell bench press to increase the feeling of your pecs firing. You’ll need to go a bit lighter, and that’s okay (tell your ego to fuck off). Because the more muscle you can recruit for movement in the bench press, the bigger your gains.
But what if you’re good with dumbbell bench press and it’s barbell bench where you feel less of your chest working? If you have a training partner, have them apply a small amount of pressure on your chest. And then you need to press into their fingers with your chest muscles the entire time you lift the weight.
Okay, cool Robbie, but what if I train solo? How in the hell am I supposed to touch myself when both of my hands are on the bar? I’m not Goro for fuck’s sake.
Not everyone has a “bro” to train with. And though there are numerous benefits to training with others, especially with people who are stronger than you, sometimes, you gotta train by your poor lonesome self. That doesn’t mean you’re shit out of luck, though. There are still things you can do to activate your pecs when you train by yourself.
Stretch Yo’ Titties
Static stretching before you lift isn’t always the best option as it can lessen the amount of weight you can lift. At the end of your workout, however, it can aid in improving recovery and ease soreness the next day. So it’s not completely useless.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to do a little stretching before you lift. If you sit hunched over at a desk all day, you’ll likely have shortened pec muscles. If that’s the case, then a little stretching before you lift can help open up your chest and allow you to isolate your chest more. Also, super tight pecs can prevent you from achieving full range of motion with any overhead movements. So now you’ve got tiny chesticles and tiny pebbled shoulders; this is not acceptable.
Pec Major Stretch:
Stand perpendicular to a wall, and extend your arm out until it’s flat against the wall. Rotate your body away from the wall until you feel a stretch in your chest. You can play with the angle of your hand as well to hit different parts of the pecs.
Pec Minor Stretch:
The pec minor sits below your pec major and attaches to your shoulder blade and ribs. It functions to pull your shoulder blade anteriorly towards your thoracic wall, as well as aids in breathing. But it’s also a muscle that can get tight and can benefit from stretching.
Find a door and stand in its opening. One arm should be at shoulder height against one edge of the doorway. Assume a split stance with your feet, avoiding the natural inclination to bend forward, rotate downward until you feel a small stretch.
Go, Go, Gadget Pecticles
One of the best ways to get your pecs to fire is to start your workout with a few pec activation exercises. Now, this isn’t like pre-exhaustion training where you’ll do four or five sets of an isolation exercise like dumbbell flyes for 15-20 reps. Your goal isn’t to exhaust the muscle, it’s to get blood flowing into the muscle so you can feel it from the onset.
Use light weights—like 5-15 pounds, nothing larger—and using the mind-muscle connection start each rep with a conscious effort to engage your target muscle. These exercises below focus (primarily) on engaging the squeeze of the pecs; aka, the adduction of your arm. They’re like foreplay for your chesticles. And foreplay is important.
One Arm Isolation Isometric
Incline Dumbbell Fly
Drop the Weight; Slow it Down
I know: your ego is so precious that it can’t bear the thought of not lifting heavy. But if you’re not able to feel your pecs with 200 pounds on the bar, what the hell is adding more weight going to do? Nothing, that’s what. So drop the weight. Focus on feeling the tension in your chest. And the best way to feel more tension in your chest is to slow down.
Look, you’ve done it, I’ve done it, everyone has done it: when you bench press, you jackhammer the weight off your chest like a horny Chihuahua in a dog park. And because you’re moving the weight(s) as fast as you can, you lose the connection mentally to your muscles. Your pecs are never engaged to their full potential, so your chest never grows like it should.
Slow it down. Reduce the weight on the bar, and focus on creating the maximum amount of tension you can in your pecs during every rep. Your muscles grow because of the tension placed on them and that they overcome. And if you’re not able to feel your pecs in the bench press, that means you’re not creating maximum tension. Unused tension means you’re leaving gains on the table. And the smaller your gains, the smaller your chesticles.
It’s amazing what small tweaks can do to completely rock your world. And when it comes to the smallest changes, often times changing your grip will completely change everything you feel. There are two things you need to know with grip if your goal is to isolate your chest muscles more.
- Loosen it up: don’t hold the bar so tight in your hands; let the bar rest in your palm
- The wider your grip, the more involved your pecs become. (Remember: the pecs work to adduct your arms. So the wider your arms go out, the larger the stretch on your pecs)
Build a Chest That Impresses
Men hate feelings. At least when it involves the emotional kind of feelings. But when it comes to building a bigger, better, more badass chest if you’re not feeling it in your pecs, you’re leaving gains on the table. So before your next chest day, make sure you spend time doing this drills to help isolate your chest before you press.
Some of these exercises or stretches can be done on rest days or non-chest days. The more you practice feeling your pecs engage, the better you’ll be at, and the more you’ll isolate your chest when you bench press.