Ignoring the Pseudo-Science to Optimize Chest Development & Upper Body Strength!

I've seen a lot of talk on the Internet recently, suggesting that neither the Bench Press nor the Push-Up are good pectoralis major exercises, some even making the statement that they aren’t true chest exercises at all.

What absolute nonsense!
Paul McIlroy Chest Development
Probably somewhere between 95 and 99% of all the sets which have been responsible for building my own strength and physique have come from compound, free weight & bodyweight basics.
Listen, I'm a Sport Scientist and Strength & Conditioning Specialist with a proclivity towards the STEM fields, particularly applied mathematics. So, I love a good "research suggests" statement more than most. But for that very same reason I also understand the limits of research better than most and trust me...it's limited (especially in exercise science as it applies to bodybuilding and strength sports).

The fact of the matter is, both bodybuilding and strength sports (Powerlifting, Weightlifting, Strongman etc.) are results driven pursuits, and those results, both historically and today, are almost 100% driven by handed down pragmatic wisdom based on a combination of observation, experience and natural flair/innate programming & coaching ability.

The results of muscle building and/or strength sports at every level from lowest to highest are almost 0% driven by the results of sport science studies (read that line again and let the gravity of it fully sink in).

I've trained multiple world champions from scratch in both strength and endurance sports, I've also been in the company of dozens more and I've studied the training style of hundreds more than that.

Never, not ONCE have I met a single performer who bases their programming or exercise techniques off of the finding from a particular study. Nor have I witnessed or heard of any of these individuals who stopped doing something that's proven in the trenches to be productive for them, just because a study, or series of studies, present 'evidence' to the contrary.

As for the two exercises in question, I could point to the OVERWHELMING plethora of anecdotal examples of bodybuilders and powerlifters who've become swole beyond belief from doing Bench Press.

But I'm actually quite a decent case study of one in this regard myself.

A lifetime natural lifter who's been training for +30 years, started off doing ONLY Push-ups (about 5yrs worth), and has predominantly only used Barbell Bench Press, Board Press (i.e., a reduced ROM bench press) or Low Incline Dumbbell Press the rest of the time (with brief periods here and there doing Weighted Dips) for chest development/horizontal pressing performance.

I can report that Push-Ups blew my teenage chest up quite a bit and the Bench Press has always been THEE exercise which builds my chest the most (especially when practiced with a competition legal pause on all reps).

Unfortunately, this isn't common, most people, especially long-limbed people like me, tend to feel the Dumbbell Bench Press in their chest more than the barbell. And this WILL be the case if you barbell Bench Press with the same technique that you Dumbbell Bench Press with.

If simply lying flat and not optimally configuring your body set up around the bar/exercise, then the activation of the chest will be less than it could be.

But if you make the following technique adjustments, you'll achieve the optimal balance of chest emphasis and loading potential/shoulder safety, all of which are required

Arch your ribcage up, retract & depress your scapula.
(Taken from my FREE video series of Bench Press optimization tips)
When you arch your spine while lying with your back on a bench, it lifts your ribcage up towards the ceiling. This then puts the chest muscles into a state of pre-stretch. If on top of this you retract your scapula (i.e., pinch both of your shoulder blades together and squeeze as if trying to squash a grape between them), you will further pre-stretch your pecs.  The greater the degree of pre-stretch you can place your chest muscles in before lowering the load, the greater the chest muscles will be stretched after the barbell has been lowered.

This will significantly increase the impact of the eccentric phase of the Bench Press on the chest musculature, increasing myofibril micro tears, DOMS, and thus growth stimulus in the target area.  Also, the ability to fully stretch and contract the target muscle during any given set is directly proportional to your ability to achieve a pump in said muscle group from that set.  This increased pump leads to another growth stimulus coming independently from that of the eccentric stretch driven, myofibril damage-based stimulus, described above.

Paradoxically, the act of retracting the scapula simultaneously increases the range of motion that the chest musculature works over AND decreases the range of motion that the barbell travels (i.e., the stroke distance of the barbell).  This allows for a greater degree of stimulus to take place via two different mechanisms.

1: A greater degree of eccentric stretch on the target muscles

2: A greater degree of mechanical load stimulus experienced by the target muscle.

This is because a shorter bar path allows for a heavier load to be lifted. Additionally, the retraction and depression of the scapula helps in immobilizing the shoulder joint and creating greater stability in the upper back.  Both of these things increase the shoulder safety and loading potential of the lift.

Take a big breath into the ribcage to further pre-stretch the pecs.

The breathing pattern which you choose to use for the Bench Press can have a truly profound effect on the loading potential and overall optimality of the lift.  Nail it and your strength, plus the muscular stimulus of the exercise, goes through the roof. Get it badly wrong and your performance/the overall value of the lift tanks fast.

There are several ways to breathe on the Bench Press:

1: Suck air in passively through the mouth as you lower the bar, then exhale passively through the mouth as you lift the bar back to lockout. This is the breathing pattern most prolifically recommended by ‘Fitness Instructors’ and Personal Trainers to beginners in commercial gyms everywhere.  The upside to this breathing pattern is it’s the least likely to cause you to black out under load (which is never more important than on the bench press as blacking out could lead to asphyxiation and death). The downside is that it is by far the weakest way to breathe on this, or any exercise. Breathing in and out passively during resistance training reduces pressure, thus reducing the chance of passing out, but also reducing stability, tension and therefore force production.

2: Suck air in actively through a small hole (pursed lips, the nose or both), then exhaling actively under high pressure (i.e., also through a small hole, think putting your thumb over the hole of a punctured tire, narrowing the escape route and increasing the speed of the air flow).  This also carries a very low risk of passing out whilst managing to retain more pressure, thus more stability, tension and force production.

3: Suck air in actively through a small hole as you lower the weight, then hold your breath during the lifting phase and exhale actively through a small hole at lockout (repeat).  Although carrying a slightly higher risk of passing out due to holding your breath and bracing under load, the risk of this happening, in most cases at least, is still very low so long as you exercise good judgment.  However, the intrathoracic pressure, and thus stability, tension and force production, is significantly increased by holding your breath and bracing during the lifting phase of every rep.

4: Suck air in actively through a small hole at the top of all reps, then hold your breath during the both the eccentric and concentric phase of all reps (i.e., take air in at lockout and hold it during both the lowering and lifting phase, exhaling again at lockout before taking in a new breath for the next rep).  This increases pressure once again, and thus carries a slightly higher risk, but there again, usually leads to slightly heavier loads being handled as well.

5: At this point let's skip straight to potentially the ultimate breathing pattern for resistance training in general and bench press related exercises specifically.  Suck air in actively through a small hole BEFORE you lift the bar out of the rack (ideally whilst being helped out of the rack by a competent spotter), or at the top of the first rep of the set with the arms locked out.  Then hold that breath for several reps or the duration of the entire set if scheduled to complete between 1 to 5 reps.  This is without question the highest risk breathing pattern for bench pressing (or any other resistance-based exercise), but at the same time, the strongest way to breathe when lifting weights is to not breathe.  It should also be noted that nothing I’ve written in this article should be considered medical advice, and breath holding of any kind during resistance training is contraindicated if you have hypertension, high blood pressure or have had open heart surgery. It could lead to passing out or even death if you have those comorbidities (and even if you don’t), so no matter who you are, you’d do best to clear ANY and ALL of these potential breathing patterns with your doctor to decide which one (if any) are best suited to you.

However, I’ll also say that I’ve personally been using some combination of breathing patterns 3, 4 and 5 in my own strength training (including strength competition) for 30 years without any issue ever.  I’ve also had my competitive strength athletes using some combination of patterns 3, 4 and 5 for a couple of decades, again with zero negative outcomes.  Those breathing patterns (i.e 3, 4 and 5) are also exclusively used by all national and international level strength athletes in various disciplines (Weightlifting, Powerlifting, Strongman, Arm Wrestling, Throwers, Bodybuilding etc.) and while incidents of fainting under load DO happen, it’s still a fairly rare occurrence relative to the total number of sets completed by all lifters globally.

Which pattern is best for the bench press?  That depends on who you are and why you’re doing it.  But at least you now have more information to help you make your own decision.

As important as the breathing pattern itself is, WHERE you’re putting your breath when benching is just as important.  For almost all strength related exercises the safest and strongest place to ‘put’ your breath is into your midsection.  Making a 360 degree ‘bubble’ in your belly with your breath, then contracting the musculature of the midsection around that breath, will vastly increase intra-abdominal pressure, increasing stability of the spine (and the whole body), also increasing tension and thus force production. Doing this may also reduce your risk of a disc herniation as it helps to fortify the spine with structural rigidity, reducing the likelihood of it moving into flexion under load as you’re lifting the weight. This is especially true for structural exercises (i.e., all exercises which see the spine under direct load). However, on the bench press the spine isn't under direct compressive load in the same manner as say a back squat or deadlift, so doesn’t need as much fortification, as the bench itself acts as a brace in many ways.

Also, as discussed above with arching, scapula adduction and depression, the physical height of your ribcage when benching dictates how completely you can stretch your chest musculature during the eccentric portion of the bench press. Sucking your breath UP into your ribcage and attempting to ‘lift your chest towards the bar’ as you simultaneously lower the bar to your chest, will stretch the pecs even FURTHER during eccentric loading on the bench press. And thus provide a greater eccentric stretch related growth stimulus than would be the case without doing this.

There also exists a very advanced style of breath placement when benching.  What I’m referring to is the complete or ‘full’ breath.  To achieve this, you again suck your air in through a small hole, first inflating the stomach, then continue sucking air in until the thorax is also fully inflated.  This is an exceptionally strong breath placement for bench pressing, but is very advanced, tricky to optimally master, and probably not required for almost everyone doing the exercise.

Take a wide-ish grip on the bar (relative to your frame width).

The width of the grip you take on a bench press is directly proportional to how much the exercise will emphasize the chest musculature, and how far the bar travels during each rep.  The wider the grip on the bar, the more the bench press will bias the lion’s share of the stimulus of the chest.  The wider the grip, the shorter the distance the bar has to travel during each rep. The shorter the distance the bar has to travel the heavier the load you can use for any given total volume.  The heavier the load you can use for any given total volume (especially the volume range most closely associated with muscular hypertrophy) the bigger the force related growth and strength stimulus of the exercise.

So, given this information, it stands to reason that when performing the bench press, you’d do best to grip the bar as wide as is humanly possible for your arms to go, right?

Well, as with most things in strength training (and in life you crazy kids), it’s a multi-factorial situation and as such…not quite that simple.

Although there’s a direct correlation between grip width on the bench press and chest emphasis, there’s also direct correlation (at least anecdotally) between grip width on the bench press and incidence of pec and shoulder joint injuries.

So, the question then becomes, where does the grip width ‘sweet spot’ lie? Where is the point of diminishing returns? What width of grip strikes the optimal balance between high chest stimulation and Pec/shoulder safety?  Well, the answer is going to vary depending on your bone structure (i.e., the width of your clavicles and the length of your humerus bones).  But a good rule of thumb is to take the widest grip which still sees you retain a vertical forearm position when the bar is on your chest at the bottom of a rep. Or the widest grip which causes no joint pain or unusual discomfort anywhere.  Sometimes those are the same width of grip, sometimes they aren’t. Either way, if it comes down to a choice, choose the latter.

Use a low to mid bar touch point around the lower chest.

A ‘Low bar touch point’ refers to touching the barbell low on the chest itself, level with the lower part of the Pecs.  Paradoxically, this same touch point coincides with the HIGHEST vertical touching point when the lifter is lying horizontally on the bench with an optimally arched spine and optimally positioned scapula/ribcage.  I recommend touching the bar here for three reasons.

1: It allows for the shortest stroke distance for the bar to travel every rep, thus maximizing loading potential, strength and force related growth stimulus.

2: It allows the shoulders to be in an anatomically safer position.

3: It sets up the involved musculature and joint angle in a manner associated with maximum leverage and force production for bench pressing.

Tuck your elbows only to a 45-degree angle between the hips and shoulders.

Tucking your elbows to a 45-degree angle (or slightly less) between your shoulders and hips is a technical action which helps you find the optimal touching point for the barbell at the highest point of the ribcage (discussed in the point above this one), and also further engages the lats during the eccentric portion of the lift, further fortifying the shoulders with extra safety and strength. This ‘tucking’ motion also sets the lifter up better to ‘flair’ the elbows as they explode through any potential sticking points on the way up.

You can also emphasize the pecs more by taking a super wide grip (as discussed above) and touching the bar to the neck at the bottom of the reps. This will necessitate a 90-degree elbow position which is more parallel to the shoulders.

This is a very load limiting way to Bench Press and load oriented growth stimulus is arguably the most powerful one available. Plus, this style is significantly more injurious, and I don't know many strong lifters who've been training for 10yrs or more, who can tolerate wide-grip benches to the neck for very long before their shoulders get jacked up (in fact that might be one of its best uses, as an injury proofing exercise to increase shoulder joint resilience. But using it for this purpose requires a very different programmatic approach).

Pause on the chest between reps.
Paul McIlroy Bench Press
(Me winning nationals in 2009)
By staying as tight in the pecs as possible and not sinking or relaxing at the bottom as you bring the bar to a noticeable stop/pause you accomplish three very important things simultaneously.

1: You gain extra growth stimulus by learning to overemphasize the eccentric phase of all repetitions.

2: You gain further growth/strengthening emphasis for the chest musculature specifically by allowing the amortization phase (i.e., the stretch reflex dominated transition between eccentric and concentric contractions) to dissipate and forcing pure chest contraction to become the almost sole contributor to getting the barbell moving upward off the chest on all reps.

3: Increased safety for the Pecs and shoulder joints by doing away with potentially more injurious ‘semi-plyometric’ touch and go style reps and eliminating the opportunity to bounce the bar off your ribcage as the load increases.

Attempt to shorten the distance between your two index fingers.

By trying to squash the bar like an accordion as you press the bar up (the anatomical function of the pecs is to pull your upper limbs towards your body's midline like a bear hug or fly motion) you can vastly increase the recruitment of the Pec’s in manner with can be instantly felt (thus also increasing the coveted ‘mind muscle connection’ as an additional byproduct).

Dumbbell flyes perform this natural function a little better than presses do. The problem with choosing flyes over presses is that flyes are very load limiting relative to presses. This technique (i.e., attempting to shorten the distance between your index fingers as you press) helps you get the best of both worlds.

For Push-Ups, try the exact same tips upside-down.

Optimizing Push-Ups for maximal strength and growth stimulus of the chest musculature involves applying a lot of the same techniques used with the barbell bench press for the same purpose (albeit in a more simplified manner as the Push-Up is a less technically complicated exercise than the Barbell Bench Press and thus there is no good reason to overcomplicate it).

Try these simplifications of the bench press adjustments discussed above and watch the effectiveness of the humble Push-Up instantly skyrocket!

1: Retract and depress shoulder blades taking a big breath into the chest which helps pre-stretch the pecs.

2: Push your chest further towards the floor as you lower yourself towards it.

3: Grip the floor with your outstretched fingers and powerfully push your index fingers together to over emphasize the contraction of the pecs as you push yourself up.

Do either of these time-tested exercises with enough intensity and volume, utilizing the above techniques, and the DOMS in your pecs will give you the answer you're looking for in a fraction of the time it takes to wait on a study to confirm anything.

Ps, isn't it funny how the vast majority of the "research indicates" types who spout nonsense like "Push-Ups and the Bench Press are poor chest exercises" still have pecs that are flatter than Holland despite all the Half Kneeling Single Arm Rotating Cable Presses they do? Also, they usually haven’t bested a significant strength PR, or helped any other non-beginner do so, since Mark Walberg was Marky Mark...hummm.

Success might leave clues, but FAILURE leaves detailed descriptions.

Stay Strong.
Paul McIlroy At The Gym