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Getting a Chest Workout

You can change the feel and focus of many chest exercises by adjusting the angle of the bench you use. Performing chest exercises on a flat bench emphasizes those fibers in the center of your chest. When you adjust the bench a few degrees to an incline position, you shift the focus of the exercise to the fibers in your upper chest and shoulder muscles. Doing the opposite — adjusting the bench to a decline position — concentrates the work on the lower fibers of the chest. By the way, decline exercises are probably the least important category of chest exercises because they work a relatively small portion of the pecs.

Stay away from one popular chest machine: the Pec Deck. You sit with your arms spread apart, each arm bent and placed on a pad. You push the pads toward each other, as if you're clapping in slow motion. The Pec Deck should be renamed the Pec Wreck, or more accurately, the Shoulder Wreck. These machines place an enormous amount of pressure on the shoulder joint and rotator cuff and frequently lead to injury. What's more, they don't actually do much for your pec muscles. A safer and more effective alternative to the Pec Deck is the dumbbell chest fly.

Because your chest muscles are among the largest in your upper body, perform more sets of exercises with these muscles than with the smaller muscle groups of your arms. In general, you should:

  • Perform 3 to 12 sets of chest exercises per workout. True beginners should start with one set.
    This doesn't mean a dozen sets of the same exercise; you may want to do 3 or 4 (or more) different exercises. And, if you're like most people who sit during the day, you need to do more sets of back exercises than chest exercises to address any muscle imbalances and prevent slouching and a collapsed chest.
  • Beginning each exercise with an easy warm-up set. Even powerlifters who bench-press 500 pounds often warm up with a 45-pound bar.

Which chest exercises should you do first? Experts argue this point, but let personal preference be your guide. Try these recommendations:

  • Perform free-weight exercises when you're fresh. These exercises require more concentration, strength, and control.
  • Execute flat-bench exercises before incline or decline exercises. Experiment with the order of exercises for a couple of weeks until you come up with a sequence that works for you.
  • Change the sequence from time to time. Changing it up challenges your muscles differently. If you always do the chest fly before the dumbbell chest press, for example, you may never realize your true dumbbell press potential because your chest muscles are always tired by the time you get to that exercise.
  • Perform 8 to 15 reps.

Determining your one-rep max — that is, the maximum amount of weight you can lift once — is somewhat of an ancient gym tradition with the bench press. Don't try this until you've been lifting weights for a month or two, and don't attempt to max out more often than once a week. In fact, some experts believe that maxing out once a month brings better results. When you do attempt a maximum weight, make sure that you have a spotter. If you're going for your one-rep max, do a few warm-up sets, gradually increasing the weight.

You don't want to get trapped underneath a bar that's too heavy for your chest muscles to handle. Safety is more important than lifting heavy weights. In addition to lifting the proper amount of weight, take the following precautions when working your chest:

  • Don't lock your elbows. In other words, don't straighten your arms to the point that your elbows snap. This arm extension puts too much pressure on the elbow joints and leads to tendonitis or inflammation of the elbow joint itself. When you straighten your arms, keep your elbows slightly relaxed.
  • Don't arch your back. In an effort to hoist more poundage, some people arch their backs so severely that there's enough room between their back and the bench for a Range Rover to drive through. Sooner or later, this position causes a back injury. Plus, you're doing nothing to strengthen your chest muscles. Instead, you're overstraining your lower back.
  • Don't flatten your back. In a sincere effort not to cheat, many people do the exact opposite of overarching their backs — they force their lower backs into the bench. This posture is equally bad for your back. When you lie down, make sure that a slight gap exists between your lower back and the bench, reflecting the natural arch of your lower back.
  • Don't lift your shoulder blades off the bench or backrest. If you do this, your shoulders bear too much weight — without any support from the bench. This error is subtle but one that may be costly for your shoulder joint.
  • Don't stretch too far. When you lie on your back and perform the bench press, you may be tempted to lower the bar all the way to your chest. Similarly, when you perform a push-up, you may want to lower your body all the way to the floor. Don't.
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