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Treasure Chest: Creating Safe But Effective Movements For Your Chest Muscles

One of the most emphasized (sometimes overly so) muscle groups is the chest. In fact, Monday is often referred to as “National Bench Press Day,” since so many would-be bodybuilders and powerlifters robotically run to the gym the first day of the new work week to hit the benches.

They lie on a bench, grunt and groan to lift the barbell off of the rack, descend and hoist, descend and hoist, again and again and again. They’re dead serious about what they do, but their results don’t often show it. Instead, you might as well have this:

No clowning around with this exercise

No clowning around with this exercise

Despite such dedication by so many, few actually develop their chests to any satisfactory level, and some that do pay a heavy long-term price with shoulder issues and more as part of their badge for bench press bravery.

Neither of these discouraging outcomes needs to be realized. You just need to know how to make the most of your chest exercises, and do so in a safe manner in the process. You can do these as part of a home workout and avoid the crowded scenes at the public workout places.

Bench press-free home exercises that develop your chest musculature include push offs (using a counter top, for instance), push ups, dumbbell chest presses on an exercise ball or bench, and standing push presses with bands.

Lending "helping hands" of extra resistance to client's pushups

Lending “helping hands” of extra resistance to client’s pushups. Note his excellent form, keeping whole body rigid, not resting on the floor at the bottom of the movement

Regardless of your exercise of choice for the chest, a couple of basic instructions can both greatly increase chest activation and safety in your efforts.

Preliminary: The Focus

As we mentioned earlier, many folks attempt to work the chest but see very discouraging results. That’s often because the individual is overly focused on the end goal of moving the weight or resistance from point A to point B. With that tunnel vision, he/she is missing the key element, which is engaging the muscles in question, instead often throwing other bodyparts too much into the process.

The end goal of finishing the lift/rep should not be the main focus. That merely is the aftermath of what you’re doing through the movement.

a main purpose of chest (pec) muscles is to pull the arm across the body

a main purpose of chest (pec) muscles is to pull the arm across the body

You need to first focus on engaging the chest, and the best and easiest way to do this is to practice that sensation without any weight at all. While standing, raise your arms in a position as if you’re about to begin a pushup or bench press rep (elbows back, forearms facing forward, upper arms raised about 45 degrees from your torso, hands slightly ahead of your chest).

As you do so, pull back your shoulders and stick out your chest, as if you’re “bowing up to someone” like you’re going to intimidate them with your physical presence. If you experiment just a bit with it, you can feel when your chest muscles are activated. It may help also to think about pulling your arms back enough to stretch your outer chest area a little.

At this point, practice on slowly moving your arms forward while keeping those chest muscles activated. After a short while, you will likely be able to maintain that mind-muscle connection through a full range of movement while increasing your speed.

Lifting Details:

Accomplishing this and then applying it to the actual exercise provides two huge advantages: actually working the chest effectively and helping to protect the shoulders through keeping them somewhat back and down during your movement. When you allow them to round forward, that can, especially over time, cause shoulder issues. Shoulder injuries are among the most commonly cited among lifters, often due to abuse.

Regarding this emphasis on feeling the chest muscles engaged through the movement, a contrast may help provide why it’s important:

When many people do various chest pressing exercises or pushups, they think about pushing the weight or moving the arms out and away. This can be effective in finishing the repetition, but it often causes your shoulders and traps (upper back muscles near the neck) to become overly involved. The chest muscles only contract marginally in such a case.

exercise bands can offer a great way to ensure your chest is contracted thru the whole movement

exercise bands can offer a great way to ensure your chest is contracted thru the whole movement

By keeping the focus on the feel, a la the chest contraction, rather than the end result of completing the rep, you’re going to get a lot more muscular activity in the chest area, and you’ll avoid overworking the shoulders and traps.

One more detail to cite in this article regards the location of your hands to start the repetition (ie. where you begin before moving your arms forward). Regarding how close in or far out to hold the weights (or positioning hands when doing pushups or chest presses with bands); that’s somewhat personal preference, though it’s not recommended to be too far out away from your torso, as it can strain your shoulders too much. However, too far in becomes more of an inner chest and tricep exercise, less of a full chest one.

Generally, you want to have your hands positioned a little wider than shoulder width. *Tip: keeping your upper arm separated roughly 60 degrees from the side of your body will help determine hand placement (to an extent, this will be individualized based on your own structure).

Pic on right, note the angle of the upper arm from the body. Not entirely perpendicular to it. Helps increase chest involvement

Pic on right, note the angle of the upper arm from the body. Not entirely perpendicular to it. Helps increase chest involvement

You also don’t want to hunch your traps (muscles that blend to the neck) upward in order to be at a certain hand position (i.e. moving hands upward). That puts you back in a pattern of excessive use of your traps and shoulders, as cited earlier with many folks.

Speed Matters:

Finally, the speed of reps; the general rule is to go up controlled yet explosively and down controlled and deliberately. The deliberate, slower speed on the eccentric (down, withdrawal) portion will help you avoid bouncing out of the bottom or stretched position, which helps keep you injury-free. As a bonus, many studies have shown that a controlled descent creates greater muscle growth!

As always, inhale as you come down, exhale as you push up.

This may seem like a good bit to follow, but mainly just making that mind-muscle connection will provide you with a great home workout while giving you safety to boot.