Chest Training Tips for Hypertrophy
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist |
Jan 30, 2017
Here are some helpful tips for your chest training. Please note that these are averages based on my experience working with lots of clients and my own training. The recommendations here should be food for thought or places to start, not dogmatic scriptures to follow to the letter.
If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out the Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth article. It discusses the theoretical and practical bases on which the upcoming recommendations are made. And if you love this info but want a bit of help in building your own workouts from the expert scientists at RP, check out the super popular Male Physique or Female Physique Templates.
In most cases, experienced lifters will need at least 8 sets of chest work per week to maintain their gains.
Most intermediate-advanced lifters need at least 10 sets of direct chest work per week to make gains.
Most people respond best to between 12 and 20 weekly sets on average. Very big, strong lifters often need lower set numbers when they choose mostly barbell movements, since those are both so simulative and disruptive.
Most people seem to encounter serious recovery problems above 22 sets per week. But some people can train a bit in excess of that amount and still be ok. When your compound pressing strength for reps starts to decline, you’ll easily be able to tell that you’re over your MRV
There are three classes of exercise that constitute direct chest training. Horizontal pressing moves that train the whole chest, incline pressing moves that train mostly the clavicular (upper chest) fibers and isolation moves that train the chest without involving the triceps.
1.5-3 times per week.
Because of the forces the chest has to contend with and the way it’s designed, and because it is anatomically positioned to take a high degree of stretch under load, the chest takes quite a beating from overloading training and needs its recovery time. It’s rare to see a program that implements more than 3 successful overloads in a week’s time, and it’s actually quite common among very large and strong lifters only train chest very hard once a week and then train it just a bit later in the week, perhaps after a triceps or overhead pressing workout on the easier session.
Individuals report quite a range of successful loading schemes for the chest, with some getting great use out of super light and metabolite rep ranges and others going up to heavy sets of 5-8 reps per set. Though you should train your chest through a variety of rep ranges in general, what I’ve seen work best is training in the 8-12 rep range. Much heavier and the kinds of volumes needed to really stimulate growth are made unlikely by the joint stress and injury risk of such loads, and much lighter weights seem to give cool pumps for a session or two but in my experience don’t produce growth nearly as reliably as the middle of the road.
The chest takes lots of damage and accumulates fatigue quickly. It’s also composed of two basic areas (clavicular head and sternal head) that demand their own special attention. Lastly, isolation moves, while they don’t form the core of chest work, seem to be very helpful ingredients for maximum chest development.
So when you’re designing any week of chest training, make sure it has some horizontal, some incline and some isolation movements in it. Nearly every week of training should have at least a couple of sets of ALL of those movements.
Range of Motion:
The chest is designed to be stretched under load, and it gets most of its damage and much of its growth stimulus from such motions. So if you’re training your chest and not taking presses as low as they can go (to the chest for barbells and to deeper than the chest by going outside of your shoulders for dumbbells), you’re missing out on chest growth. In fact, by lifting heavier weights than needed when avoiding full ROM, you tax the shoulder and elbow joints MORE and get hurt more often.
Special Metabolite Techniques:
The chest does well with drop sets and giant sets, but isolation pre-exhaust is what really does the trick. Pick a chest isolation move and use your 20RM. Crank out a set several shy from failure and then immediately switch to a compound press. Supersetting cable flyes to wide grip pushups or dumbbell flyes to dumbbell presses are cool versions to try, but nothing will beat your creativity!
Just like with most bodyparts, your first mesocycle should be moderate weights and reps. The next mesocycle can be more of the same with perhaps slightly different rep ranges and exercises, OR it can be a higher volume block that incorporates lighter weights (closer to the 60%1RM mark), higher reps and metabolite training. After that meso, a shorter (3-4 weeks) mesocycle of strength training (70-85%1RM) with lower volumes is likely a good idea to resensitize your muscles for more growth, at which point you repeat the process.
When you’re designing your macrocycle, the best chest development seems to come from focusing alternately on horizontal vs. incline work. So for example, you might have a mesocycle where most of the heavy work is done with incline pressing (50% of the sets), and then the remainder is done via chest isolation (25%) and horizontal work (25%). A meso or two of this, and your upper chest is now both pretty resistant to more growth and likely has microtears that haven’t healed with deloading alone. At this point you can switch to 50% of your work being horizontal and the remainder split between isolation and incline work, pushing the sternal pecs to grow more while giving the clavicular pecs a break to heal and resensitize to future hard training. If your priority is with either the upper or lower chest specifically, then train the angle you need hard for two mesos in a row and take one meso of the angle you need less, then repeat.
A cool way to design your chest workouts is to use the “isolation sandwich.” We know that isolation moves work great, but they can’t overload with high forces safely quite like compounds. This fact alone would lead us to place isolations only after compound presses. But on the other hand, pre-exhausting the chest with isolations lets the other pushing muscles really make chest the limiting factor and fry it to the bone. So what’s the best way to go? Isolation before or after compounds? Both!
Start with a heavy compound movement for a couple of sets (usually barbells). Then move onto a chest isolation movement once you’ve done your heavy barbell work. After that, use machines or dumbbells to train the pre-exhausted chest and get those benefits as well! Here’s a sample split:
Barbell Bench Press 4 sets of 8 reps
Dumbbell Flyes 4 sets of 10 reps
Dumbbell Incline Press 3 sets of 12 reps