How to Create a Champion Chest by Lee Labrada
“Hi, Lee…come over here and meet my friends…” I thought I was dreaming. No, wait a minute. That’s putting it too mildly. It was one of those moments in my young eighteen-year-old life when I was so blown away by what I was experiencing that I couldn’t seem to stammer out a word…
The year was 1978 and the place was the Southern Cup bodybuilding championships in Tampa, Florida. A few minutes earlier, I had witnessed top Mr. Olympia contender and poser extraordinaire Ed Corney, along with a young, up-and-comer named Tom Platz, guest pose before the sell-out crowd of which I was a part. Back then, the top guest posers always came at the end of the show, after the winners of the contest had been announced. Corney and Platz, surrounded by a sea of well-wishers, were floating towards the front of the hall. The auditorium was beginning to clear out when I spotted the biggest bodybuilder I had ever seen. And it wasn’t Corney or Platz.
“Oh my God, can that be… Mike Katz?” I wondered to myself. Along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mike Katz was one of the legendary stars of the timeless classic video documentary, Pumping Iron. I looked closer. Yes! It was the same Mike Katz on whose mind-blowing 60-inch chest, when fully expanded in a side chest pose, you could balance a full wine glass.
“Wow!” I whispered to myself. Two weeks earlier I had watched Mike on the silver screen, and now he was before me in the flesh, much the same as a fabled super-hero who had descended from Mount Olympus to walk amongst us mortals.
I waited for the crowd to thin out before I approached him. That way, I reasoned, if he turned out to be mean, I wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of too many people. As I walked up to Mike, I stuck my hand out and said, “Mr. Katz, I just wanted to say hello.” He looked down at me, broke into a grin as big as his chest, and asked me my name. Mike then swung a massive arm around my shoulder. “Hi, Lee…come over here and meet my friends…”
Ahh, the things we remember from our pasts! There are two things I remember about meeting Mike Katz that day, and both would serve me well as I embarked on my own pro bodybuilding career eight years later. The first was the humanity he showed others and the accompanying humility with which he carried himself, both hallmarks of a great champion. I can’t tell you what an impression it made on me as a young man. What a great example to emulate! Mike Katz and I became friends, and I shared this story with him again years later.
The second was the breadth and depth of Mike’s chest development. Even though he wore a suit that evening, Mike’s chest development could not be hidden. I knew at that moment that to develop a championship physique, I too would have to develop my chest to heroic proportions.
Not having been blessed with the “chest genetics” that Mike Katz possessed, I had my work cut out for me. I had to train smart in order to create a thick chest, which is the foundation of the side poses needed to win bodybuilding competitions. Even if you aren’t into competing, you will want your chest development to be at its best so that you can look good on the beach or by the pool. If you want to develop a deep, thick chest too, then read on. If I can do it, you can too.
Most aspiring bodybuilders get their introduction to chest training with that true-blue, faithful king of upper body exercises, the bench press. The bench press and variations thereof, have been called “squats for the upper body”. That is because when used properly, bench presses incorporate most of the muscle groups of the torso and hence, are great developers of size and strength. The bench press is the “benchmark” by which all novices compare their upper body strength. As a funny note, from time to time I am asked, “How much do you bench?” I get a bemused expression on my face, as my initial thought is to play the smart aleck and say, “More than you!” Since I probably wouldn’t make too many friends that way, I usually answer, “Oh, about 375 pounds on a good day.” Invariably they’ll come back with something like, “I have a friend that can do 400 pounds.” If they then ask me to arm wrestle, I run. Fast.
The Bench Press
I always start with a bench press exercise when I train chest. Though the flat barbell bench press is the most common, incline, decline, machine, and the dumbbell versions of the bench press are all good variations. Being a compound exercise that involves movement around both the shoulder and elbow joints, the bench press incorporates not only the pectoral muscles (pecs), but also the anterior (frontal) deltoids (delts/shoulders), and triceps muscles of the upper arms. I like to use the bench press first in my chest routine because it brings lots of blood to the muscles of the torso, especially the pecs.
The order of exercises is important for two reasons. First, you want to hit the pecs with heavy weights early in the workout while they are still fresh. Doing so will maximize the number of muscle fibers recruited and tax these muscles as much as possible, in as short a time as possible. This creates intensity and the stimulus for muscle growth. Second, you want to be thoroughly warmed up before proceeding to isolation exercises such as flyes, which involve only one joint and “isolate” stress primarily on the pectoral muscles themselves (more on this later). Flyes really stretch the pec muscles, so they need to be warm and elastic to prevent injury.
To perform a bench press correctly, start by lying directly underneath the bar on the bench. Grip the bar with your hands placed just a little more than the width of your shoulders apart. A wider grip will limit your range of motion, cheating you out of maximum chest development. Firmly plant your shoulders into the bench. Slide your butt slightly back towards your shoulders, to create a slight arch in your back. Once your back is slightly arched, press your butt firmly into the bench and keep it there throughout the entire exercise.
Arching your back slightly will raise your sternum (breast bone). Keeping the chest high during the entire movement will ensure the best biomechanics for the execution of this exercise, and will produce the best contraction of the pectoral muscles. Begin the movement with the bar held straight above the shoulder joint, arms vertical and elbows just short of full extension. Lower the bar in a slight arc to its finishing point on the lower sternum (about nipple level on most people). As you complete each repetition, it is important that you keep your chest high and expanded. Allowing it to “collapse” at the top of the movement as many novices do, shifts stress onto the arms and shoulders, and away from the pectorals.
The Alternate Bench Press
After the bench press, most beginning trainees graduate to alternate versions of the bench press such as the incline bench press, flat, incline or decline dumbbell presses, and machine chest presses. All of these are great pectoral stimulators, but because of the mechanics of the exercise, the majority of the stress on the pecs is during the first part of the movement. Let me explain. At the start position of any of these pressing movements, the pecs are fully stretched and under maximum tension. As the weight is raised, the moment-arm (think of a lever) shortens. By the time the barbell or dumbbell is completely overhead in the contracted position, the tension on the pecs has fallen off dramatically. Consequently, bodybuilders who rely too heavily on these pressing exercises fail to maximally stimulate all muscle fibers of the chest muscles.
Supplement with Tension Exercises
What to do? The answer is not to discard useful chest pressing exercises, but to supplement them with exercises that maintain the tension on the pectorals in the finish position. Two examples of exercises that accomplish this are cable flyes and pec dec. For these exercises to be beneficial, you must contract the pec muscles hard as the arms are brought together. You might even try doing partial reps at the end of each set, limiting the range of motion to the last third of the exercise. For a unique stimulus, try doing one of these exercises before your normal pressing work. By pre-exhausting your pecs, they will experience even more stimulation than when you normally do your presses. To stimulate the upper pecs, try incline cable flyes, varying the bench angle from twenty to thirty degrees.
The Flye Movement Exercises
Conventional flyes using dumbbells are not as beneficial as cable flyes or pec dec for providing tension during the last part of the movement but, like pressing movements, are quite useful for building the bulk of the pectoral muscle. Flyes allow a fuller range of motion than bench presses, but must be performed with relatively lighter weight. Put emphasis on proper form because of the radical stretch that this exercise allows.
To perform a flat flye movement, position yourself face up on a bench with your back slightly arched and sternum up, just as mentioned above with the bench press. Start by holding the dumbbells straight above your chest with a slight bend in the elbows. Begin by slowly lowering the dumbbells out to the side, maintaining (or slightly increasing) the bend in the elbows. Lower the dumbbells until the upper arm bone (humerus) forms an angle of about 15 degrees below the horizontal plane of the shoulder joint. This will put your elbows a couple of inches below your shoulder joint. This is a good rule-of-thumb but will vary depending on your individual flexibility. You should feel a good, not painful, stretch in your pecs in the bottom position. Unless you want to know what it feels like to have a torn pec or dislocated shoulder, do not go down too far on the flye.
So far we have focused on chest exercises primarily targeting the pectoral muscles. But the foundation for those pectoral muscles is equally important if you are seeking championship level development. That foundation is the rib cage. Stretching and expanding the ribcage adds inches to your chest measurement, creating a thicker, deeper appearance to your torso as it is viewed from the side. Though some may disagree, I believe the ribcage can be improved at any age. From an anecdotal standpoint I believe it works because I have seen it. From a physiological standpoint, it stands to reason that it’s possible because bone is a very active tissue constantly being remade and can change depending on the stresses placed upon it.
Dr. Clay Hyght, DC says, “Pullovers have even been used by doctors to successfully treat mild cases of pectus excavatum (sunken chest). All would agree the most dramatic improvements are possible by those whose bones are still ossifying (changing from cartilage to bone). Young bodybuilders, typically those under about 21 years of age, can significantly increase their rib cage size with consistent training specifically for this area. The best rib cage expander I know is the pullover.”
Pullovers can be performed using either a bar or a dumbbell, which is my favorite of the two. While some bodybuilders like to perform pullovers in conjunction with their back training, I prefer to do pullovers immediately following my chest training. I use a slow and deliberate style that emphasizes the stretch at the bottom of the movement. To perform dumbbell pullovers, begin by lying with your upper back and shoulders resting on a bench that has been turned sideways. This allows you to drop your butt down slightly during the movement to maintain stability. Start by holding a dumbbell between your hands with your arms extended and the dumbbell over your chest. Begin the movement by slowly lowering the weight in an arc back over your head. As with the flye, you may find it necessary to slightly bend your elbows during the descent. Lower the dumbbell until you feel a good, but not painful stretch. Those with normal shoulder flexibility can usually stretch within a few degrees of, or to the point where the humerus (upper arm) is parallel to or in line with the torso. Again, err on the side of caution here to avoid a trip to the ER.
To put it all together, I combine at least one heavy bench pressing exercise (flat, incline, or sometimes both) with a flye movement (flat or incline dumbbell, cable flyes, or pec dec) and finish with pullovers. After a brief warm-up, I use the heaviest weights that I can on each set of each exercise for 6-10 reps per set. My goal from the beginning of the workout to the end is to fatigue the target muscles more and more with each subsequent set, until I reach the training threshold, which I define as the point at which the muscles are thoroughly tired out and a growth signal is sent to the brain. I limit the work I perform for chest to no more than 12 sets of chest exercises, or 30 minutes of chest training, whichever comes first. Typically, I only rest long enough between sets to allow time to catch my breath. Then it’s time to start the next set. By pacing myself this way, I neither exceed my cardiovascular capacity nor do I rest too long, allowing the muscles to fully regain their strength between sets.
The result is a brief, targeted chest workout that is guaranteed to yield explosive results. Try it for yourself and see. You too may be balancing a full wine glass on your upper pecs one day!
Here is the summary of my chest workout:
Flat bench press 3 x 10
Incline bench press 3 x 10
Flat or incline dumbbell flyes, pec dec, or cable crossover 3 x 10
Pullovers 3 x 10
About the Author One of the world’s best-known bodybuilding legends, Lee Labrada holds 22 professional bodybuilding titles, including the IFBB Mr. Universe. Lee is an inductee of the IFBB Pro Bodybuilding Hall of Fame.
He has appeared on the covers of more than 100 bodybuilding and fitness magazines and has been featured on CNBC, FOX, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and ESPN as a fitness and nutrition expert. Lee is the best-selling author of The Lean Body Promise and co-founder of Lean Body Coaching, a results-driven one-on-one nutritional counseling program. For more information, visit www.leanbodycoaching.com