Sunday, March 6, 2011

Chest Anatomy and Exercises


The chest is traditionally the "manly muscle."  You tell someone you workout, and they want to know how much you bench press.  It's a measure of your strength, and with good reason.  The chest is one of the strongest "push" muscles (although technically no muscles "push." The muscle fibers on EVERY muscle in your body contract.  They don't push out.  Certain contractions use leverage to cause you to push things away from your body.).

Importance of the Chest
Alot of your functional body strength is controlled by the chest.  Pushups, dips, muscle ups, even picking yourself up off the ground uses your chest muscles.  Chest muscles, as with any upper body muscles help you maintain your balance and posture.  Better balance and posture makes for better overall health.

Basic Chest Anatomy

The chest is composed of two muscles, the Pectoralis Major and the Pectoralis Minor.  The Pec major is a fan shaped muscle that covers the largest portion of your chest and the Pec minor is a small muscle underlying the Pec Major.

Pectoralis Major:

The Pec Major is seperated in an upper and lower portion, which is why there are exercises to work both of these parts of the muscle.  The upper part is connected to the clavicle, or collar bone, and the lower portion is connected to the Sternum.  When both parts of the Pec Major work together, it brings the arm across the chest, as though you were hugging someone.  It also brings the shoulder towards the inside of your body.

Pectoralis Minor:
This smaller muscle generally affects the same motions as the major.  Usually, an exercise that works the Pec Major will also work the Minor.  Therefore, it isn't necessary to try to isolate the the Pec Minor.

Chest Exercises

Having a well built chest is not only necessary for good posture and functional strength, and it also looks damn good.  Now women, who aren't concerned with having good looking pec muscles, should be concerned with the effects the Pecs have on posture and functional strength.  We're going to now look at different exercises to work the chest.

There are two main ways to work the chest -- Presses and Flyes.  Presses are compound exercises that use several muscles other than the pecs, including the shoulders and triceps.  Flyes isolate the chest muscles, using other muscles only for support of the dumbell.  Below, I'll describe the correct form and variations of the Presses and Flyes. But, before we get into the weights, I want to describe the most basic and commonly used exercise to work the chest -- The Pushup.


There are many variations of the pushups.  Your grip can change, you can do explosive or plyometric pushups where you throw yourself off the ground, or you can vary your body position to make the pushups easier or more difficult.  In another post, I'll go further into the different types and difficulty levels of pushups.  Now, I'll just describe the standard pushup grip and form.

The pushup is performed on the ground.  Generally, the hands are around shoulder width apart.  Varying the hand width can help you work different parts of your body.  However, standard grip works the chest more than the other grip variations.  Your back should be straight, and your core should be active throughout the entire performance of the pushup.  Begin with your hands on the ground in the standard position with your toes touching the ground directly behind you.  Keeping your back straight, press slowly from the ground until your arms are completely extended.  Keep your chin up and your eyes forward throughout the entire motion as this allows you to touch your chest to the floor and utilize the most range of motion.


There are several different types of presses.  Presses are compound motions.  Compound motions utilize several different muscle groups, causing your body to release testosterone.  Boosting muscle growth all over the body (however, in women there isn't enough testosterone to actually bulk up.  Women can do heavy weights, just as men do, and they wont bulk up simply because there isn't enough testosterone.  The belief that women should do lighter weights is a myth).  Because of this, compound motions are the best way to build muscle all over the body.  Later, I'll have a post describing how this works, and the various compound exercises that, together, can help boost muscle growth.  As with the pushup, a varied press grip range can isolate different parts of your body.  However, the chest is activated the most with a standard, shoulder width grip.  I'm going to begin with the standard Bench Press, since it is one of the most common exercises to work the chest.

Bench Press:

The bench press is performed on a standard bench.  Lay on the bench with your feet on the ground.  Carefully unrack the bar, then slowly lower the bar down to your chest, then push the bar outward.  Correct bench press form should lower the bar completely to the chest. Most people completely extend their arms at the top of the motion, locking the triceps out.  This completes the compound motion, however; if you are wanting to isolate the chest you should stop the motion right before your arms are completely extended.

The bench press can also be performed on an Incline bench, isolating the upper chest.  The same form is used on the incline as with the bench.

Dumbell Presses:

Dumbell presses are performed similar to bench presses, but they are done with dumbells rather than barbells.  Essentially, dumbells allow more range of motion; however, you can't use as much weight as you can with a barbell.  With the dumbell press, you can also rotate the shoulders as you would if you were punching someone.  This reduces shoulder tension, and creates a more natural movement.

Again, this can also be performed at an incline to isolate the upper chest.


Flyes Isolate the chest.  Chest flyes can only be performed with dumbells, a pec deck machine, or cables.  Essentially, the arms are slightly bent.  You start the flyes with your dumbells together straight out from your chest.  Then, you bend your arm slightly (if you keep your arms straight you can hurt your shoulders.)  and lower your arms until the dumbells are about the same height as your chest.  Then, bring your hands together while keeping your arms static. You'll use only your chest, making the same motion you would if you were hugging a tree.

Personally, I don't completely straighten my arms at the center of the lift.  I think this brings more isolation of the chest, and that's how I was taught to perform the flye.  Either way though, you're still isolating the chest muscles.

Chest Dips:

While dips performed on a bench use mostly your triceps and shoulder muscles, a full body weight dip will also utilize the lower chest.  Chest dips are performed on dip handles as shown above.  Your ankles should be crossed behind you, keeping you from using momentum to upper and lower your body.  Start out with your arms at full extension, then lower yourself till your arms are at a 90 degree angle.  Push back upwards until your arms are completely straight.

There you go, Basic chest exercises.  A good Chest workout goes as follows:

Flat Bench Press 3 Sets of 10

Incline Bench Press 3 sets of 10
Flat Dumbell Flyes 3 sets of 10
Incline Dumbell Flyes 3 Sets of 10

If you still have it in you, continue the workout to do:
Chest Dips  AMRAP (As Many Reps as Possible)

Pushups AMRAP 

(3 sets of 10 is a good basic workout program.  Later on, I'll go more into different set/rep combos, as well as my experiences with these)

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