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How Do I Build My Chest?

Let’s answer the basic question first, “How do you build muscle?”

Building muscle requires solid foundation of nutrition, hydration, sleep and stress management and following proven exercise science principles.

There is no fast way to build a great chest, physique, or any muscle. It takes time, effort, energy and persistent effort to achieve any physique, muscle and/or bodybuilding goal.

First: Nutrition: you will need to consume the best quality proteins, carbohydrates and fats in sufficient quantity to allow your body to build muscle. Sufficient quantity is approximately 500 calories above your caloric need. Caloric need is your Basic Metabolic Rate + the calories you burn for physical activates. Quality is referred to as “Clean.” Quality proteins are eggs, milk, lean beef, turkey, chicken and fish; preferably Grass fed, Free-Range, Hormone and Drug Free.

Quality Carbohydrates are fresh or frozen vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes. Mix between RAW and Blanched for optimal nutrition. Some Nutrients are released and bioavailable when lightly cooked or blanched, other nutrients are denatured under lengthy cooking processes. Boiling typically washes-out nutrients, while frying can typically add hundreds of un-wanted and un-healthy fats to your meal. Stir-fried is an exception if you cook in a high temperature Wok that can “Seal Nutrients in” while simultaneously “Sealing Fats-Out.”

Quality fats and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and foods that contain essential fatty acids such as salmon and other cold-water fish. Stick with smaller fish varieties as the largest fish: shark, grouper, sword fish, etc., have been shown to contain high levels of mercury and other toxic substances.

Choose a variety of food types to consume the widest possible variety of nutrients. And avoid sugar and simple carbs!

Hydration: You can reference many different numbers:

  1. 64 ounces
  2. 8-8 ounces glasses/day
  3. One ounce/pound of body weight

But I find the only reliable way to ensure you are hydrated is to make sure your urine stays clear-to nearly clear. Even low levels of dehydration can lead to poor performance poor cognitive ability and slow your muscle building progress. IFPA Personal Trainers should make sure their Personal Training clients consume pure water before, during, and after their workouts.

It can be very deceptive how much water loss you can experience during a hard workout.


Sleep Management: Here is a surprise for those of you can brag about how little you need sleep. In order to build your chest muscles or any muscles you will NEED 7-8 hours of sleep/night; MORE if you are training at maximal frequency, intensity, time and type.

Your muscles grow with you rest and primarily: When you sleep! Your muscles are stimulated when you exercise, but they recover, then adapt to become bigger and stronger during rest and primarily during sleep.

Not only do your muscles adapt, every other physiological system In your body will also adapt. Your bones, ligaments, tendons, fascia and every other connective tissue adapts. Your endocrine system begins to adapt increasing anabolic hormone production and decreasing catabolic hormone production.

This adaptation in your hormone production is one of the primary reasons for muscles growth, but even more importantly this is the reason why experts refer to strength training as the fountain of youth. Increasing anabolic hormone production and decreasing catabolic hormone or halts the aging process.

And PLEASE… do not confuse the safe, healthy and natural bodybuilding with the bodybuilders who use massive amounts of performance enhancing drugs (PED) to get big at all costs (even their life) PED can cause massive damage to your body and age you prematurely (but hey… you will be BIG when you die!). Natural bodybuilding is arguably the single best thing you can do for your health and longevity (when you do it the right way, the healthy way!).

Every physiological system in your body adapts making you better, stronger, and healthier than you were the minute before you pick up a weight. Your cardio improves, improving your endurance.

Your neurophysiology improves, improving your agility, balance and coordination, your digestive system improves, EVERY system gets stronger and better than you were before, and the good news is the improvement in your health begin immediately.

It may take some time before you actually see your chest muscles, or any muscle get bigger, but you will see increases in strength on your next workout. The initial increases in strength are primarily due to adaptations causing increased efficiently in your neurophysiological system.

Most beginner weight lifters will see their strength double within 8 weeks! YES! You read that right. Most studies show that a high percentage of beginner’s weight lighters see 87-100% increases in strength in their first 8 weeks of training!

I can hear the wheels spinning from here! “If I can double my strength every 8 weeks, by my 30th Birthday, I will be Bench Pressing the Earth and making Superman look like one of those Snowflakes that cries because someone said something mean!”

Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way. After 8 weeks your neurophysiology has made significant improvements, and after 8 weeks, improvements will continue, but at a much slower rate. After 8 weeks, more of your strength gains will come from adaptations from muscle adaptations.

There are two primary adaptations most people look for when they begin strength training: (1) Increasing Strength; (2) Increasing Size.

Fortunately, you can do both, there are exercises that can cause you to adapt to giving you a bigger chest and other exercises that can give you a stronger chest. For the most part however, you will find that it is not the exercises that determines whether you get bigger or stronger, but how you do it.

For example: In most electromyograms (EMG) studies, the EMG is used to determine which exercises create the greatest muscle activation. The EMG research typically shows the Barbell Bench Press and Barbell Decline Bench Press showing the highest muscle activation.

If you are familiar with Powerlifting, you know that Power Lifters spend a lot of their workout time on these two exercises and they are the strongest Bench Pressers in the World.

Bodybuilders on the other hand also Bench press, but they also do a lot of other chest exercises to “Shape” their chest muscles.

They are far too many factors to look at when comparing a Power Lifter to a Body Builder for this short article, but there are a few easy comparisons to make based on the Principles every IFPA Certified Personal Trainer learned in their Certification Course.

The Powerlifter has much stronger muscles than the Bodybuilder (with some exceptions).

The bodybuilder has much larger muscles than the Powerlifters (again with some exceptions)

It is not the exercises they do that create this typical difference; It is the exercise prescription they execute that makes this difference.

Powerlifters typically use a relatively low volume and high intensity program with relatively long rest intervals between sets.

Bodybuilders typically use a relatively high volume and low intensity program with relatively short rest intervals between sets.

This difference may not seem significant to a casual observer, but inside your individual muscle cell, the difference is huge!

Low volume, high intensity means you are lifting heavy… 1-5RM (repetition maximum) sets. Note 5RM means you have put as much weight (resistance) on the bar so you will only be able to do 5 repetitions, not 4… not 6… precisely 5 reps than the powerlifter can take 5-7 mins (sometimes more, when performing 1RM sets) Rest Interval before the next set.

High Volume, Low Intensity means you are lifting relatively light… 15 Rm Sets for example and taking very short rest intervals (or none at all) between sets.

Typical Bodybuilding programs are:

  • Super Sets: Perform one set for the agonist muscle (muscle creating flexion around the targeted joint) and immediately perform one set for the Antagonist muscle (muscle creating extension around the targeted muscle. No rest between sets. Example Bench press with Seated Row 15RM)

Note: The medical definition of agonist is the muscle directly engaged in contraction as distinguished from muscle that have to relax at the same time; thus, in bending the elbow, the biceps brachii is agonist and the triceps brachii is the antagonist. The reference in strength training is “weight-lifter Shorthand.”

  • Tri Sets: 3 different exercises for the same muscle with no rest between sets. For a chest building Tri-Set: (1) Incline Chest Press (2) Flat chest press (3) Decline Chest Press… again, there is no rest between the three sets. 15Rm Sets.
  • Giant Sets: 4 different exercises for the same muscle with no rest between sets. For a chest Building Giant Set: (1) Incline Dumbbell Bench Press (2) Push-Ups Between the Benches (3) Decline Dumbbell Bench Press (4) Flat Dumbbell Flyes. No rest between the 4 sets. 15 RM.

Depending on how advanced the body building and if it is “Chest Day,” some highly advanced bodybuilders might perform 18-20 sets of just Chest Exercises.

If the bodybuilder is using the correct timing for each repetition of 2 seconds concentric-pause-4 seconds- pause it will take 8 secs/rep and 15 reps X 8 secs= 120 seconds (2 minutes) X Giants Sets = 8 mins. If they use a 3-minute rest interval between work interval, the volume and timing is HIGH.

If you do the math in just 41 minutes the bodybuilder completes 240 repetitions

It can take a Powerlifter over 45 minutes to complete 6 repetitions if it is a “Peaking Day” of 1 Rm Sets before a competition.

Now let us take a look into what happens inside the muscle cells of each athlete.

The bodybuilders’ high volume is using the Lactic Acid energy System the Powerlifters high intensity is using the Adenosine Tri-Phosphate-Creatine Phosphate (ATP-CP) Energy System.

The Lactic Acid Energy System is being used anytime you or your personal training client is performing sustain muscular contractions for 1-3 minutes.

The ATP-CP Energy System is being used anytime you or your personal training client is performing maximal or near maximal muscular contractions for 0-30 secs.

When a bodybuilder is working hard for 240 Repetitions in as little as 41 minutes, that creates a lot of lactic acid. The only way to the body can adapt to neutralize the lactic acid build-up is to increase the volume of water contained in the muscle cell. The muscles cell increases water content by increasing the volume of cytoplasm inside the cell.

Not only do you need to stay hydrated for this to happen, but you need carbohydrates, fats, proteins, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus. These nutrients represent 99% of the volume of cytoplasm but the 1%, though much smaller in total volume, is equally critical to the recovery, repair and building of cytoplasm.

The critical 1% is potassium, sulfur, chlorine, sodium, magnesium and iron; along with trace elements of copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc and other trace elements. Without all the ingredients listed above, your ability to maximize muscle increases in zinc will be inhibited.

When a Powerlifter is working hard to perform a maximal-all-out-100% effort 1RM Bench press, the stress is being put directly of the muscle fibrils inside each muscle and the entire muscle filament complex.

The individual actin and myosin and troponin and tropomyosin are stressed and the adaptation will begin to increase the size and strength of these proteins.

Since the myofilaments make-up such a relatively small volume inside the cell, you can begin to get very strong and see relatively small increases in size.

If you want to get strong, lift heavy.

If you want to get big lift light, but with very high volume to take you deeply into the Lactic Acid Energy System.

In both cases you need to use the basic exercise science principles you learned in your IFPA Personal Fitness Training Certification Course.

If you try to do too much frequency, intensity, time, and type to early you will only cause unnecessary pain, injury, depressed motivation and slow to no gains. Use gradual progressive overload to train smart. Training HARD comes later when your body is conditioned for more stressful workouts.

Now, what if you want both muscular size and muscular strength gains?

Great! It can be done!

You can enjoy both muscular size and strength training gains by utilizing a periodization program.

Dr. Tudor Bompa is credited with the development of Periodization and his developments from the work of Dr. Selye’s General Adaptation Theory.

Dr. Selye’s work demonstrated that the body goes through 3 stages during training:

Stage One: SHOCK- whenever the body receives a manageable level of new stress, the body is shocked.

Stage Two: Adaptation- occurs as a result of the shock of a new, manageable stress.

Stage Three: Staleness- occurs when the body adapts and is now “use” to the stimulus.

Building on Dr. Selye’s work, Dr. Bompa developed Periodization. Since Dr. Selye demonstrated that the body typically achieves staleness in about 2.5-3 weeks, Dr. Bompa’s Periodization Program will change one of Frequency, Intensity, Time and/or Type every 3 -4 weeks.

The Classic Periodization Program looks like this (adapted from the IFPA “Book on Personal Training, by Dr. James T. Bell, 2017, p279, table 15.2)

For both the safety and effectiveness never increase more than ONE of frequency, intensity, time, and type at one time. And never increase any by more than 10%/week.

Work Smart!

You can build a bigger, stronger chest muscle or any muscle by working far safer and faster than by working far safer than by working excessively hard. The body responds well and adapts to the right amount of stress, but too much stress, any stress can be devastating. Whether your stress comes from overtraining or personal, professional, financial or any other stress, you need to ease-off or risk serious injury.

If you are looking for the perfect exercise to build a bigger, stronger chest muscle, stop looking. Barbell and dumbbell chest presses are the primary exercises for both powerlifters and bodybuilders, but many athletes have gather greater gains while using a wide variety of Push-Ups, so experiment and see how your body responds to different movements.

Best of luck in your training and Health

Dr. Jim Bell



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