For the ultimate upper body pump, nothing beats the Chest and Back Superset. These two major muscle groups are ideal to use in a superset combination because they are opposing bodyparts so one exercise will not interfere with the succeeding exercise. Another plus is that the muscle groups are located so close to one another that the blood flow (pump) is very easy to achieve.
The chest exercises work the pushing muscles in the body (chest, front deltoids and triceps) while the back exercises involve the pushing muscles (back, biceps and rear deltoids). Supersetting a chest exercise with a back exercise will pump up all the muscle groups in the upper body. The result is a fast, intense workout that will give you an incredible upper body pump!
Surprisingly, your strength on each set will actually increase as the pump progresses. This is because when you pump up an opposing muscle group with blood, the opposite muscle will feel much stronger during a set. For example, if you pump up the lats with Lat Pulldowns or Chins before doing a Bench Press, you will be noticeably stronger on the Bench Press. The pump in the lats will act as a cushion for the pushing exercise that follows.
Superset 1 – Barbell Bench Press supersetted with Wide-Grip Chins.
Start off the chest-back superset with the exercise combination of Barbell Bench Presses with Wide-Grip Chins. These two premier exercises are perfect for starting off the chest and back workout.
Bench Press – This King of the Upper Body exercises is still the best movement for adding inches to the pectorals, triceps and anterior deltoids. The bench press exercise will develop the middle and outer part of the pecs. This is what is referred to as the “belly” of the muscle. It is the central area of that bodypart and the development of this part of the muscle will greatly enhance the overall mass of that muscle group.
The bench press is one of the premier exercises for developing the central part of the pectorals. However, the bench press can affect other areas of this muscle depending upon the execution of the movement. If the hands are positioned wider than shoulder width on the bar, the outer pectorals and front deltoids will be most affected. If the hands are positioned in a more narrow position on the bar, the central area of the pecs and the triceps will be more stimulated. If the bar is lowered to the collarbone instead of further down on the chest, the upper pecs will be affected more than the lower pecs.
After lying on the bench with the feet firmly planted on the floor, grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width. Many bodybuilders make the error of holding the bar too close (only shoulder width or less) in the mistaken assumption that they will be stronger with a closer grip. Although a narrow grip may feel stronger, the truth is that the triceps will be activated more then the targeted muscle thus making this less of a chest movement than originally intended. For maximum stimulation of the chest, use a grip slightly wider than shoulder width.
After taking the bar off the bench press rack, slightly arch the lower back and stick your chest out. This position puts the pecs at the forefront of the action and reduces the impact on the front deltoids. I’ve seen many people do just the opposite when performing the Bench Press. They will let their chest cave in and overextend their arms at the completion of the movement. This turns one of the best chest movements into a great anterior deltoid builder. To build the pecs, expand your ribcage and keep the pecs held high throughout this chest movement and all the others.
As you lower the bar, be aware of where your arms are during the movement. Pull the elbows back as the bar descends to stretch the pectorals and keep the triceps involvement to a minimum. Allowing the elbows to drift forward will turn the Bench Press into more of an upper arm exercise than the chest mass-builder it was designed to be.
Perform a full movement with the Bench Press and watch your pecs develop. Grab the bar with the correct grip and expand your chest as you execute this exercise. Many people who say that the Bench Press does nothing to build the pecs are probably using too much weight and have sacrificed form for ego. Slowly develop your strength on the Bench Press as you maintain perfect form and your pecs will respond. They won’t have a choice.
Advanced bodybuilders should do an average of 4 sets on the bench press exercise. I will usually begin with a warm-up set of 12-15 repetitions and then gradually add weight each set until I reach my heaviest poundage on the last set. My second set will be a weight that allows me 10 repetitions, the third set 8 repetitions and the fourth set will allow for only 5-6 repetitions. This method of pyramiding the weight each set allows the muscles and tendons to become accustomed to the increasing weight and forces the muscles to work harder each set which will result in more mass in the pectorals.
Wide-Grip Chins – Immediately after you finish a set of Bench Presses, jump off the bench and head on over to the chinning bar. Don’t substitute this premier lat building exercise for the lat pulldown machine or any other pseudo back builder. Wide-Grip Chins are the best exercise for building the upper lats and creating the wide, three-dimensional look that bodybuilders are known for.
To perform wide-grip chins properly, grab the chinning bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. The area just beyond where most chinning bars are bent is the perfect grip for most bodybuilders. Keep the tension on your lats by not locking out your elbows. Arch the lower back in the starting position and tilt your head back so you’re looking at the ceiling. Maintaining that position, pull yourself up to the chinning bar, aiming to touch your clavicle to the bar. With your lower back arched, your elbows will be pulled back which forces the upper lats to contract.
As you return to the starting position, don’t lose that arch in your lower back and don’t lock out your elbows at the bottom. Instead, keep looking at the ceiling, a position that will maintain the tension on those lats and set you up perfectly for the next rep. Dorian Yates always said that the key to building lats is to arch the lower back during each exercise. That leads to a greater contraction and builds more muscle.
When you become very good at wide-grip chins, you can start to add more resistance by strapping on more weight by way of a weight belt. When you have the strength to do 10-12 repetitions of wide-grip chins with your own bodyweight, you can begin to add more additional weight to the weight belt to make the exercise more difficult. This added resistance will only add more inches of muscle to those upper lats, increasing the width of your back and your whole upper body.
I do a total of four sets of Wide-Grip Chins. I pump out an average of 10-12 repetitions each set after performing a set of Bench Presses. The ever-expanding pump between the chest and back will actually increase your strength each set. The blood in the lats and biceps will help to make the Bench Presses feel lighter and the expansion in the pecs and triceps will likewise lighten the load on the Wide-Grip Chins. After completing four sets of Barbell Bench Presses supersetted with Wide-Grip Chins, your upper body will feel pumped like never before.
Superset 2 – Incline Dumbbell Press supersetted with Barbell Rows
The second superset continues with two great basic exercises for the chest and back. The Incline Dumbbell Press is a great movement for building the upper area of the chest and Barbell Rows are the number one movement for building mass and thickness into the lats.
Incline Dumbbell Press – The incline dumbbell press is one of my favorite chest exercises because it allows for the use of heavy weights along with the stretch and contraction of a typical isolation movement. The combination of these two factors shapes up to be a real mass-builder.
For this exercise, I use an incline bench that is positioned at the 30 degree angle. If you can find a specially designed bench that is shaped with a hump at the lower back level, you are in luck. This bench will automatically arch your back, thus sticking the chest out so you keep the shoulders out of the movement and really hit the pecs
Begin the exercise with the palms facing forward and the elbows pulled back at the shoulder level. Arch the lower back with the ribcage expanded and feel the stretch in the upper pecs before pressing the dumbbells back overhead. Don’t push the dumbbells up in a straight line, instead bring them together at the top of the movement in order to peak contract the upper pecs.
As you lower the dumbbells, attempt to touch the anterior deltoids with the inside plates of the dumbbell. The arc of the movement should resemble an upside down V. You can actually tilt the dumbbell at the bottom portion of the exercise in order to achieve an exaggerated stretch which resulted in an even greater contraction when pushing the
dumbbells to the top.
I do a total of 3 sets on the Incline Dumbbell Press. The first set is moderately heavy and allows me to get into the groove of the movement. This set will usually be performed for 10 reps. The next two sets are much heavier and will only allow me a maximum of 5-7 reps. These last two sets are the real mass-builders.
Bent-over Barbell Rows – This exercise is the bread and butter of big, thick lats. It is to lats what squats are to the thighs or barbell bench presses are to the chest. If you are not performing it regularly, it should not be a mystery as to why you don’t have thick lats. Done correctly, bent-over barbell rows stimulate growth – not only in the lats but also the biceps, forearms, lower back, hamstrings, rear delts, inner traps, teres major and infraspinatus. Talk about a basic exercise!
Many modern-day bodybuilders prefer using the Dorian Yates version of bent-over barbell rows. Dorian’s version of tilting the upper body at a 70 degree angle to the floor and using an underhand grip is probably the most poorly executed exercise currently being used in gyms around the country. Most bodybuilders I’ve seen attempting it usually tilt their upper body so high, they’re nearly standing up. At this angle, they have no choice but to pull the barbell into their hips instead of their ribcage. The result is an incorrectly executed movement and a lack of lat thickness.
To perform bent-over rows the old-fashioned way, take an overhand, slightly wider-than-shoulder-width grip on the barbell and position your hands in the same position that your hands would be if you were going to do barbell bench presses. In fact, I like to think of barbell rows as a bench press turned upside down.
With the correct grip on the bar, stand on a block of wood or a couple of 45 pound plates. The extra height will allow the barbell to come down a few inches further so the lats can get a good stretch before it makes contact with the floor. Keeping the knees bent and the lower back arched, forcefully pull the barbell into the solar plexus (the area right between the lower pecs and the upper abs). As the bar comes up, keep the elbows flared out to the sides.
Slowly lower the bar for a good stretch but don’t let it touch the floor. Keeping your back arched and the knees bent throughout the movement, forcefully pull the bar back to the solar plexus with the elbows flared out to the sides. This is a basic power movement so don’t be afraid to pile on the plates. Using heavy weights with good form will develop massive, thick lats to balance out all the width that you’ll be developing from the wide-grip chins.
The main mistakes people make on this exercise include taking too narrow of a grip on the barbell, letting the elbows come too close to the body instead of flaring them out, bringing the upper body above parallel to the floor at the finish of the exercise, not arching the lower back and keeping the knees straight. The bent-over barbell row is a true basic exercise that involves many bodyparts so it should be performed with great care in order to avoid lower-back injuries or putting the stress on the biceps instead of the lats.
I will usually perform 3-4 sets of the Barbell Row. I begin with a moderately heavy weight for a good 10 reps. I add weight each succeeding set aiming for 8 reps on the second set and 6 reps on the third set. I will do each set of Barbell Rows immediately following a set of Incline Dumbbell Presses. You won’t believe the expansion in your upper body at the end of this superset. Your chest and lats will be so pumped, you will trouble recognizing yourself in the gym mirror.
Superset 3 – Dumbbell Flyes supersetted with Seated Cable Rows
The first two supersets of this chest-back combo focused on the basic exercises which are the real mass builders. At this point, your arms should be pumped to the max due to all the heavy work you have subjected them to during your chest and back superset. The wise move now would be to superset a mass-building isolation exercise like dumbbell flyes with a mass-building back exercise that is slightly less intense than the heavy-duty barbell rows.
Flat Dumbbell Flyes – After performing the basic mass-builders for my chest, I will normally include dumbbell flyes in my chest routine. Dumbbell flyes allow for a full stretch and contraction of the pectorals while still using heavy poundages. However, because this exercise does not use the triceps during the execution of the movement, it isolates the chest without involving the arms.
To properly perform the flat dumbbell flye, lay down on a flat bench with the feet off the floor. I like to bend the knees and cross my legs at the ankles. By elevating the feet, all the tension is on the pecs and not the legs. Holding the dumbbells overhead with the palms facing each other, expand the ribcage and keep the chest held high throughout the exercise.
Keeping the elbows slightly bent, slowly lower the arms in a wide, circular arc so the dumbbells travel down and out. Maintaining the position of the arms, squeeze them back up to their starting point directly over the chest. I stop the movement about 10″ short of the dumbbells touching. This maintains constant tension on the outer pectoral muscles.
I like to think of the analogy that Arnold used in the book, “Pumping Iron” when performing the Flye exercise. Arnold equated this movement with “hugging a tree”. Keep the arms bent but make sure to arc the arms out as they descend to the bottom of the exercise in order to really stretch the pectorals.
The Flat Dumbbell Flye is an awesome exercise for the outer pecs. It keeps the triceps out of the movement but still allows for the use of heavy poundages in order to bulk up the pecs. Just be careful not to bend the arms too much during the course of the movement and press the weight back up with the triceps. Don’t make the mistake of turning this exercise into a Flat Dumbbell Press when it is a Flye movement.
I do a total of three sets on the Flat Dumbbell Flye. The first set allows me to do ten reps to get the feel of the movement. I increase the weight over the next two sets, aiming for 6-8 reps each set.
Seated Cable Rows – Although this exercise uses cables instead of barbells or dumbbells, it’s still a real basic exercise for building size and thickness since it involves the lats, lower back, biceps, forearms and even the hamstrings to a lesser extent. It’s the perfect exercise to follow a heavy barbell movement like bent-over rows.
With the knees bent and the lower back arched, grab the handle attached to the cable. Pull the attachment into the stomach as you bring the upper body back until it is perpendicular to the floor. It’s important to keep your lower back arched with the chest stuck out in the finished position as the handle is pulled into the ribcage. Keep the elbows close to the body throughout the movement. The elbows should brush against the ribs as they are brought back to the finished position.
To return to the beginning of the movement, keep the lower back arched and slowly lower the weight, stretching the lats. It’s acceptable to let the upper body lean forward as long as the lower back remains arched and flexed. The lower back is the weak link in the chain so it’s very important to keep this area tight. As with the wide-grip chins, you want to avoid locking the elbows in the starting position. Keep a slight bend in the elbows to maintain the tension on the latissimus muscles.
I do a total of 3 sets for each exercise in this superset. There is a tremendous feeling of satisfaction after completing this superset because I know in my mind that most of the hard work is over. At this point, my pecs and lats are so pumped, my skin is on the verge of ripping. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration but if you’ve never felt a full-blown chest and back pump simultaneously, it’s a feeling you will treasure.
The Finishing Touch
To finish off the workout, I like to end with an old school favorite, the Dumbbell Pullover. Pullovers are a great exercise to end the chest-back superset because it works both of these bodyparts at the same time. The stretch portion of the Dumbbell Pullover lengthens the lats while the contracted position works the upper-inner pecs. It’s a rarely used exercise that should never have been forgotten.
Dumbbell Pull-overs – Dumbbell Pull-overs are a great exercise that involves not only the upper pecs but also the lats and the serratus magnus muscles. Since the movement is essentially over the head, the upper pecs are receiving the majority of the tension and the close grip ensures that the inner pecs are also affected.
In addition to the upper-inner pecs, dumbbell pull-overs are great for expanding the ribcage and developing the important serratus muscles. Located at the top of the ribcage, the serratus are short, thick muscles that add so much to the finished look of the abdominal region. Combined with developed, well-defined abdominals and intercostal muscles, the serratus is an integral part of the finished physique. The Pull-overs is one of the best exercises for this hard to develop muscle.
In order to perform the dumbbell pull-over, lay on an exercise bench sideways with only the upper back making contact with the bench. Hold a single dumbbell with both hands by placing the palms of the hands on the underside of the plates.
Keeping the hips low throughout the movement, take a deep breath and expand the ribcage while simultaneously lowering the dumbbell until it is parallel with the head. Keep the elbows slightly bent while maintaining the arms in the same position during the performance of the exercise.
Another added benefit of the Dumbbell Pull-over is the effect it has on the ribcage. Pull-overs are often recommended for teenage bodybuilders as the primary exercise for expanding the ribcage. I can attest to the effectiveness of this statement as I began training at 14 years old and I used the Dumbbell Pull-over exercise with each chest workout. Today, my ribcage is very full and wide. This is an asset in bodybuilding competition with poses such as the side chest pose, the front double biceps and the front lat spread. Bodybuilders who lack a big ribcage often appear narrow when viewed from the front or side positions.
I do this exercise for 2-3 sets at the end of my chest routine. The first set is with a moderately heavy dumbbell for 12 deep reps followed by a heavier dumbbell for 8-10 reps for the second and third set. This exercise is much more effective when a full arc (from overhead to parallel with the bench) is used. Good form is very important with the Dumbbell Pull-over movement.
Well, that’s it, the full Chest-Back superset. Give it a try the next time you hit the gym and be prepared for the ultimate upper body pump.
About the Author
John Hansen is a competitive natural bodybuilder who has won the first Natural Mr. Olympia title and is a three time Natural Mr. Universe winner. John has appeared in various magazine covers and contributes material to various online and traditional magazines, including IRONMAN Magazine, where he has a monthly column.
It should be mentioned that at 49 years old, John Hansen also won the 2012 Natural Mr. Universe in the Professional Masters division; 20 years after winning his first Natural Mr. Universe title in 1992! You can follow John through his several websites including www.naturalolympia.com, www.johnhansenfitness.com, www.musclesatthemovies.com and his YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/naturalolympia. To contact John, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org