Upper Body Balance: Rethinking Your Chest Workouts

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We don’t want to be rude, but could we talk about your breasts? If you’re a bench press addict like many gay guys, pursuing massive pectoral bulk, then we’re going to suggest thinking about your chest a little differently: less bulk, more sculpt, and an integrated approach to working your upper body as a whole. What, no man boobs, you say? Trust us, we’ve got persuasive health reasons for you to do so, plus some exercises to give you a whole new start on a stronger, better proportioned chest and upper body.

In pursuit of such lofty, body-balanced goals, we talked to Ami Student, an ACSM- and NASM-certified personal trainer with the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym in San Francisco, and asked him how you should think about working your upper body and your pecs in particular.

Step One: Throw Away Your Bra
Student promptly told us that chests can easily get out of hand. “Look around any gym,” he said, “and you’ll see guys with these massive pectoral muscles and big shoulders, but where the rest of their upper body is just kind of loose. That comes from over-targeting single muscle groups.”

And that’s just the front view. Student also pointed out a perspective that should be obvious to all of us but apparently isn't: Although people only ever see themselves from the front, and thus tend to focus heavily on the front of their own bodies, at least half the time we are being seen from behind. It’s probably a good idea to have those two views be consistent.

This is not just an aesthetic problem; it’s a functional one as well. Your muscles are designed to function in interaction, in a push-pull rhythm. If all you do is push, in a bench press, for example, and you don’t develop the pull side of that motion, then you end up with back muscles that are underdeveloped relative to your chest. This makes it difficult to stand up straight, and puts you at risk for injury. Your natural inclinations may also be encouraging you to over-target single muscles.

"[When working out], people really prefer to push rather than pull," Student says. "So they naturally gravitate toward exercises, like the bench press, that emphasize a pushing motion. But that over-emphasizes the pecs and front of the shoulder, at the expense of the back and obliques. And, the fact is, your chest needs your back for support; so if you work on your back as well, you’ll actually be able to develop your chest more than if you just focus on your pecs.”

Step Two: Think Holistically
Student suggests developing a more holistic approach to upper body work, one that emphasizes developing multiple muscles together, and that develops your back and obliques along with your chest, shoulders, and rectus abdominus. Even within a single muscle group, he says, it’s important to work different directionalities, so that you emphasize the entire muscle group and avoid developing a single, isolated bulge.

Doing this, it turns out, is not particularly complicated. For example, if you are working on your chest, you are probably sometimes doing chest flys using a cable machine. Student suggests playing with where you place the arms of the machine. Simply alternating between the different height settings for the arms, and using all of them, can make a huge difference, as it asks your pectoral muscles to work in different directional planes. You can also try adding a slight rotation through your torso as you come through your flys or chest presses, asking your obliques to work as part of the exercise, and challenging your pecs with a different motion.

Step Three: Add Some Angles
Similar results can be achieved on a flat bench. For example, if you’re a dumbbell chest fly or press man, try doing these exercises with the bench inclined, then flat, and then declined (for an example of how to do this, see Dumbbell Chest Press Incline Reduction). Such simple changes can help you to get a more fully developed, less lumpy, upper body.

Step Four: Focus on Form
Proper form can make all the difference when trying to build a functionally strong (and aesthetically appealing) upper body. For any exercise involving your chest, keep in mind that your upper back is a major contributor. “Your back muscles need to decelerate any movement generated by your chest,” says Student, but people often interfere with that balance through incorrect form. “When people do chest presses,” Student says, “they often push their shoulders forward. But that doesn’t let your back do its job relative to your chest. Instead, think about ‘showing your cleavage'—bring your shoulder blades together first, and keep the center of your chest lifted and forward as you do a chest press. That will engage your back.”

One other tip on form: try doing your chest flys with your palms down, rather than facing each other. This creates a consistent rotation between your arm and shoulder, and may be more effective for working your pectorals.

Step Five: Lighten Your Load
Finally, while it's tempting to max out your weights, avoid excessive amounts of weight in an effort to bulk up or you'll risk injuring and sidelining yourself for a couple of months. “If you have to heave your arms up to do a lateral raise or a fly, then your weights are too heavy,” Student says, “and that will seriously damage your shoulder. On a related note, it’s a good idea to start all your flys and chest presses at the top of your motion, then going only as low as you can control.” Starting at the bottom of the motion encourages flinging the weights into the air, which is dangerous.

Upper Body Balance Exercises
To get you started on a new, more balanced upper body using the tips outlined above, we have developed a set of exercises designed to target several muscle groups at once, in interaction with each other, to help get you started toward building a more balanced upper body. So check them out and work them into your regular workout routine.

Upper Body Balance Exercises:
Heavy Medicine Ball Chops
Cable Chops—Diagonal Down, Side, Up
Single-Leg Cable Swim Strokes
Dumbbell Reverse Flys Face Down on Incline Bench
Side Planks
Upper Body Balance Overview