By: Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS; Photography by: Michael Butler; Model: IFBB Pro Mark Dugdale
If you’re like many aspiring bodybuilders, you’ve wrapped a tape measure around your chest, flexed as hard as you could, and either exalted in your Herculean measurement — or more likely cursed your genetic deficiencies and vowed to fight on.
If you find yourself in the latter group, we have the solution. An intense chest-focused eight-week program that uses a relentless onslaught of exercises, training techniques and intensity boosters, all designed to burn your fast- and slow-twitch pectoral muscle fibers to a crisp, giving them no option but to grow in response to a need for sheer self-preservation.
Throughout this program, the exercises remain fairly constant, with the sets, reps and intensity techniques rotating each two-week cycle. You’ll hit chest only once per week, allowing for as much rest as possible between these vigorous and brutal training sessions.
In weeks 1–2, the main intensity technique of choice is rest-pause. One of the most underused strength- and mass-building techniques, it takes advantage of your body’s rapid-recovery energy systems. When you start a heavy set, you rely primarily on phosphocreatine (PC), the primary energy source stored in skeletal muscle that fuels short, powerful bursts of activity. PC depletes rapidly, but fortunately it also replenishes rapidly, usually in 10–20 seconds.
To capitalize on this, select a weight that causes muscle failure at 5–6 reps, but perform only 2–3 reps, then take a 15-second rest. Get right back in and do another 2–3 reps. Repeat this sequence, doing as many good-form heavy reps as you can by taking 3–4 brief rests. The main benefit of employing rest-pause training is that you’ll have lifted more total pounds in a given set simply by mixing in these calculated rest periods. Your PC levels never replenish completely after you start a set, so expect some fatigue as you near your target number of reps. After each exercise, allow 2–3 minutes of rest and repeat the same exercise three more times before moving on to the next exercise.
Decline Power Push-Up - 5 Sets x 5 Reps
Power Rack Bench Press - 4 Sets x 2-3 Reps
Machine Chest Press - 4 Sets x 2-3 Reps
Incline Cable Pullover - 4 Sets x 2-3 Reps
Seated Underhand Press Raise - 4 Sets x 2-3 Reps
Drop Sets Technique
The second two-week segment utilizes drop sets, which will tax your pectorals to their limits, setting growth processes in motion as you tear down the target muscles fiber by fiber.
To do a drop set, train to failure using a certain weight, then immediately reduce the amount of resistance so you can do a few more reps to muscle failure a second time within a given set. You then reduce the weight one last time and go to failure again. Drop sets allow you to take your muscles well past the point of failure, helping to release more growth hormone and recruit any fibers you may have missed in the initial sets.
The key to successful drops is to be extremely accurate in selecting your starting poundage; you need a weight that allows you to fail at the target rep listed. And typically you save a drop set for the last set, but after each set during weeks 3–4, strip off 20–30% of the weight after you hit initial muscle failure until you hit failure again. So each set includes two drops. Because of the intensity involved, slightly increase your rest time between sets, and you may have to adjust follow-up sets to account for your highly fatigued state so you can still reach the target rep range.
Drop Sets Workout
Incline Dumbbell Press - 3 Sets x 8-12 Reps
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Flye - 3 Sets x 8-12 Reps
Machine Chest Press - 4 Sets x 8-12 Reps
Incline Cable Pullover - 4 Sets x 8-12 Reps
Weighted Dip - 4 Sets x 8-12 Reps
Supersets are a popular training method because they pair exercises and eliminate rest periods, saving you time. They’re typically performed using opposing muscle groups, such as biceps and triceps, but in weeks 5–6 you’ll perform two exercises for the same bodypart back-to-back, putting a huge demand on the target muscles and priming you for greater growth.
The key to making supersets work effectively is to rest only as long as it takes to get to the next exercise. So plan ahead and have weights/attachments nearby so you can start the second exercise as soon as you finish the first without having to search for your weights. Do each set with a weight that allows for failure at the designated rep range.
Incline Dumbbell Press superset with Flat-Bench Dumbbell Flye - 3 Sets x 6 Reps
Machine Chest Press superset with Incline Cable Pullover - 3 Sets x 8 Reps
Decline Power Push-Up superset with Weighted Dip - 3 Sets to failure
Here you go, the last weeks. If you’ve reached this point, your pectorals have survived a lot — and in the last two-week segment, the intensity pedal is still pushed all the way to the floor with the pre-exhaust technique.
Most chest routines — in fact, all workouts for larger muscle groups — typically start with compound moves (also called multijoint exercises) because they recruit the greatest degree of muscle mass and allow you to use the heaviest weights. When training chest, you start with your pressing exercises, which engage not only the pecs and front delts, but the triceps as well. A typical chest routine consists of presses from several angles — flat bench, incline and decline — before you finish with single-joint moves like dumbbell flyes, cable crossovers or pec-deck flyes to further isolate and fatigue the muscle. With single-joint exercises, you’re not able to use much weight in part because the triceps (a secondary muscle group) are no longer contributing to the motion (your arms are locked in the slightly bent position throughout the set if you’re doing them correctly).
That strategy is reversed when following a pre-exhaust routine. Instead, you fatigue the muscle with an isolation move first, meaning you start your chest workout with a flye or cable crossover. When you finally start doing chest presses later in your workout, your chest fibers are already highly fatigued but not your triceps, so the chest is far more likely to be pushed to failure first rather than the tri’s. (If your tri’s are relatively weak compared to your chest and you do presses first in a standard workout, the tri’s will fatigue first and you’ll be forced to end your set when they fail, but that doesn’t mean the pecs have been pushed to their limit. In this case, the triceps have become a weak link. By isolating the pecs first with a pre-exhaust move, you ensure that when you rack the weight to end a set, it’s because your chest fibers can no longer contract, not because your triceps reached muscle failure.) Hence, you fatigue the chest fibers first with an isolation move so it becomes the weak link for the pressing moves that follow. Ultimately, you’re better able to ensure that the chest – not the triceps – gets fully worked to its limit. The end result is maximum target muscle stimulation.
This week, you’ll perform three isolation exercises from three different angles to ensure your chest is thoroughly exhausted prior to moving on to the bigger, compound moves. It will be challenging — but when you see the ultimate results, you’ll know it was well worth the pain.
Decline Power Push-Up - 5 Sets x 5 Reps
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Flye - 3 Sets x 10 Reps
Incline Cable Pullover - 3 Sets x 12 Reps
Seated Cable Crossover - 3 Sets x 10 Reps
Wide-Grip Reverse-Grip Bench Press - 4 Sets x 12 Reps
Incline Dumbbell Press - 4 Sets x 12 Reps