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Pump Up the Pecs: Chest Workout

by StephenKelly

Welcome to the first of our workout articles, in which we focus on the most showy of muscle groups — the pectorals. As a trainer, I find that the reasons for men's obsession with building their chests are mainly aesthetic. Nothing suggests power and athleticism more than a well-crafted chest. Few other body parts make you look better in clothes. Take the shirt off and it's even hotter. But looking beyond the benefits it brings to the outer man, a strong chest is the key to a strong upper body and total conditioning.

When it comes to size and strength, the pecs are master of their domain, macho enough to push heavy weights with explosive power, yet humble enough to let surrounding muscle groups like the shoulders, back and triceps help out. Since they are involved in all flexion, adduction, extension and rotation at the shoulder joint, strong pecs are essential in sports like swimming and tennis — and any time you throw a ball.

So we know how good they can look and what they do, but how do we get strong pecs? Follow the four basic chest exercises we've selected and you'll be on your way. This is a basic chest routine that beginners can really sink their teeth into, and while experienced gym bunnies may find them boringly routine, these four exercises were chosen for their ability to work the full range of the pectorals. Because of the pecs' amazing multitasking abilities, a well-designed chest routine can be as versatile as it is functional.

Start with lower weights at higher reps until your body reaches a point of conditioning. Select a weight challenging enough to allow you to do four sets of 10 to 12 reps. Give yourself no more than two minutes of rest between sets. As with all exercises, form is of utmost importance. Learn to do these exercises correctly at the beginning and you can avoid making the type of mistakes that can get you hurt later.

After your initial workouts, beginners may feel the onset of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), a term that is pretty much self-explanatory. What you need to know about DOMS is that muscle soreness will be at its most intense two days after the workout and should begin to subside within three to seven days. While you can't prevent it from occurring, you can lessen its impact by warming up before your workout and cooling down afterward. Gentle stretching and low-impact aerobic activity will help stimulate blood flow to the affected area and reduce soreness. Most importantly, avoid vigorously working that area until all soreness has passed.

Now, let's bust out the mansseires, size queens. We've got pecs to build.

The Bench Press
No single exercise will give your upper body more overall development than the bench press. Because these also incorporate the triceps and shoulders, start your routine with the bench press while you are at your strongest.

Lie on a bench with your back flat and your feet on the floor. Grab the barbell with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-length apart. Remove the bar from the uprights and lower it with a slow, controlled movement to just above your nipples, concentrating on keeping the bar straight. Hold for a second and then push it up with force, exhaling as you press, until you come to just short of locking your elbows. Do four sets of these and you'll start to see those pecs pop.

The bench press may look simple, but a lot of potential form infractions lurk here, mostly involving the back. A slight arch in the back is OK, but if you are straining so hard on the pushup that your back bows noticeably, then you're using too much weight and run the risk of seriously hurting your back.

Another serious error is not keeping the bar straight as you raise and lower the weights. This indicates a muscle imbalance, a common trait among beginners that we will attempt to correct with our next exercise.

Incline Bench Press
A great strength and mass builder, the incline press focus on the upper pecs. For these you will be working with dumbbells, although you can also perform inclines with a barbell. As you begin to work out, you will no doubt notice that one side of your body is stronger than the other. Working with dumbbells can help correct this muscle imbalance because they make both arms work independently but in tandem, forcing you to focus on proper form.

The form you use here is the same as that used for the bench press, except you'll be lying on an incline bench set to an angle from 45 and 60 degrees. With your elbows bent and palms facing forward, exhale as you press the weights toward the ceiling, stopping just before elbow lockout. Hold for a second and slowly lower the weights back to your upper chest, inhaling as you go. Again, perform these with a slow, controlled action.

As with the bench press, improper form not only can keep you from properly developing but can also get you injured. Keep your back as flat on the bench as possible, and keep your arms at sharp angles as you begin. I see too many people flailing their arms as they do these. Keep your form tight and controlled.

Dumbbell Flys
These are an excellent exercise for building the middle pecs and outer pecs, while improving flexibility. This movement pulls the arms across the body, which is the basic function of the chest muscles. You will be using a pair of dumbbells lighter than those you used for the incline press.

Lie on a flat bench and hold the dumbbells in an overhand grip above the mid-chest region, arms straight and palms facing each other. Maintaining a slight bend in your elbows, inhale and lower the weights until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Hold for a second then exhale as you pull the weights up to the starting position, concentrating on using the chest muscles to perform the action.

When visualizing the action for dumbbell flys, think of hugging a tree. It's important to maintain a slight bend in the elbow, and the up-and-down movements should be natural arcs to the side. Too often, people will turn these into a pressing action, which defeats the purpose. Again, the back needs to remain flat on the bench and the feet should remain firmly on the floor.

Push-ups
This is another tried-and-true chest exercise that everyone knows and hates — and not because they bring back painful memories of those embarrassing gym-class moments. Push-ups can be painful because they pit you against your body weight. We've selected them because you don't need weights or benches to perform them -- just you and your bad self, which makes them ideal for guys who travel and may not have the time to hit the gym or have access to one.

The action here is as simple as it gets: Lie horizontally with your arms straight, your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your feet together. Inhale and bend your elbows as you lower yourself until you are about an inch off the floor. Push yourself back up to the starting position by straightening your arms. Pause and start over. You can probably see a pattern developing here, but avoid hyperextending the spine and use slow, controlled movements, lowering your body evenly to the floor and staying aware of those pesky muscle imbalances.

I find beginners are sometimes embarrassed by their lack of pec strength and may become intimidated by this challenging exercise. Don't let that discourage you, as you'll find the numbers of reps you can do will increase as you build strength in your upper body. Until then, perform as many reps as you can for at least three sets until you reach exhaustion.