Having strong chest muscles can simply help you move through your daily life with more ease. But what if you want the chest of a Greek god or a superhero? Here are some tips for getting a defined chest.
A while ago, a listener named Jock wrote in and asked:
You know those pecs that go all the way up to the neck and look like two giant squares with nipples? How do I get those?
This is an interesting way of describing defined chest muscles, but it's also not all that inaccurate, when I think about it. The muscles in the pectoral region do form a square (or rectangle) on either side of your sternum if you combine all four of them equally.
The four muscles that we call our “pecs” include:
The pectoralis major is a large fan-shaped muscle composed of a sternal head and a clavicular head. It's also the muscle that is closest to the skin. It's used to adduct and medially rotate the upper arm.
The pectoralis minor is just under the pectoralis major and forms part of the anterior wall of the axilla region. It mostly stabilizes your scapula by drawing it against your thoracic wall.
It should be noted that even though the pec is divided into these two parts, there are actually six separate sets of muscle fibres in the pectoralis muscle. This is important because these sets of fibres allow separate portions of the muscle to be moved independently by our nervous system. This is one of the reasons why our arms are so useful and powerful at many different angles and in many different positions.
The serratus anterior originates at the first to eighth ribs (at the side of the chest) and inserts along the entire anterior length of the medial border of the scapula. It is used to rotate the scapula, which basically allows us to raise our arms over 90 degrees.
The subclavius is a small muscle located directly underneath the clavicle, running horizontally. It is mostly used to anchor and depress the clavicle.
Why a strong chest is important
Every day you also use the pectoral muscles to do things like pushing a heavy door open, washing your hair, or simply getting out of bed.
As you can guess, your chest muscles are important for many everyday things including flexing your upper arm when you swim, moving your arm inward when you ride a bike, rotating your arm bone toward your body while you walk or run, and also simply helping you take a deep breath.
Every day you also use the pectoral muscles to do things like pushing a heavy door open, heaving a heavy load of laundry over your head, washing your hair, or simply getting out of bed. Even though they're not exerting the primary force, your pecs are even active when you pick a bag up off the floor, throw a ball, or push a grocery cart.
Because of those everyday actions (and more), getting a stronger chest is advantageous whether you are a powerlifter, weightlifter, endurance athlete, mom, nurse, bus driver or fitness podcaster.
Increasing the tone of your muscles and lowering the percentage of body fat over the top of them, even just a bit, can make a noticeable difference.
Also, no matter whether you're a guy or girl, a strong, defined upper body is something that can help you look good in everything from a business suit to your birthday suit. And you don’t have to be the size of someone like Terry Crews, either. Increasing the tone of your muscles and lowering the percentage of body fat over the top of them, even just a bit, can make a noticeable difference.
In a previous Get-fit Guy episode about how to reduce gynecomastia (a medical term referring to increased breast tissue in men), you learned that there are a few things you can do to help:
Speak to your doctor. Hormone imbalances or pharmaceutical drug side effects are common causes of this condition.
Wear compression garments. Compression sports-wear, such as supportive t-shirts, can help with comfort and reduce pain and rubbing while exercising.
Modify your diet. Especially when it comes to alcohol, added sugars, and processed fats.
There is also a gene called GDF-8, and that gene is our body’s regulator of a substance called myostatin. Myostatin controls the amount of muscle we have on our body and also how big our muscles develop naturally (without any supplementary help). The base levels of myostatin in the majority of us make it possible to build some muscles but make it quite difficult to naturally build the “bulky muscles” some women and men fear, no matter how heavy a weight we lift.
The importance of angles
Let’s start here: Your muscles’ main job is to move your skeleton.
The human body has over 600 muscles and those muscles make up ~40 percent of our body weight. Each muscle is made up of thousands, or tens of thousands, of small musculus fibers. And each muscle fiber is made up of tiny strands of fibrils. Each one of those muscle fibers and fibrils is commanded by a nerve, which makes it contract and relax.
The human body has over 600 muscles and those muscles make up ~40 percent of our body weight.
When you exercise a muscle or muscle group, it's important to come at each one—and its corresponding fibers and fibrils—from all the angles at which your bones move. If you do this, you can alter the muscles, or parts of the muscle (in the case of the pectoralis), and how it's used to move your skeleton. Changing the angle of an exercise means that you're changing how your body moves the weight through space. This can alter tension and the range of motion of your muscles.
For this reason, if you really want to get a super-defined chest, like our question asker, you're going to want to go at your chest from all angles possible. In practical terms, this means you want to press from all angles. So, on a weekly basis, do incline, decline, and flat chest pressing so you attack your chest muscles from all angles. Also do exercises like decline pushups, incline bench press, and dumbbell chest press.
An exercise called the fly really helps develop the inner pec muscles.
You'll also want to do an exercise called a fly. This chest exercise really helps to develop the inner pec muscles. These inner muscles aren’t targeted by presses, and there are many fun and challenging variations of the fly that you can try. Machine chest flys, decline dumbbell flys, flat dumbbell flys, seated cable flys, and standing cable flys are all great options.
When you do flys, make sure to stay within your comfortable range of motion. As the weights you're using increase, it can become quite easy to injure your shoulders should you lose control of the weight.
The importance of posture
Slouched shoulders can make the chest look droopy, so when you are working hard on getting a defined chest, you'll also want to include shoulder exercises like seated rows, single-arm rows, pull-downs, and pull-ups. Weak and rounded shoulders can make your chest look concave, defeating all your hard work.
You, my little marionette, are standing straight and tall, stacked nicely above your heels.
In my article called 4 Ways to Improve Your Posture, I listed a few more helpful ways to lose that slouch.
Stretch and loosen your pushing muscles. A tight chest (pushing) muscles can come from sitting at a desk for several hours with your hands on a keyboard, or from riding your (well-aligned) bike in the aero or drop position, doing strength training, or even from swimming. The problem is that once your chest is tight, these muscles can pull you forward into that rounded-back slouch. If you have tight pushing muscles, stretching them out on a regular basis is a good place to start.
Work the core. When you are walking down the street, riding your bike, swimming, or just sitting at your desk, the one thing that happens right before you start to slouch is that your core tires out. If your core is strong, it takes a load off your shoulders, which allows you to display much better posture for much longer.
Hang loose. Imagine that you have a string coming out of the top of your head. One end of the string is running down your spine and attaching to your coccyx (tailbone). The other end is attached to a large helium balloon that is floating above your head. You, my little marionette, are standing straight and tall, stacked nicely above your heels.
Increasing muscle definition
Increasing muscle definition is the simple process of increasing muscle mass and decreasing body fat, especially the fat between the skin and muscle called subcutaneous fat. Doing these two things in concert is what creates defined chest muscles that you can see, no matter how big or small they are. (But obviously, bigger muscles will show sooner and be more noticeable.)
While muscle definition isn't an actual measure of better fitness or health, I totally understand the desire to show off the hard work you've done.
Before we go on, I want to add that while muscle definition isn't an actual measure of better fitness or health, I totally understand the desire to show off the hard work you've done. Just promise me that you won’t let this desire carry you too far. Being too lean can lead to issues like amenorrhea, low sex drive, disordered eating, lowered bone density, and a host of other problems.
The Get-Fit Guy Chiselled Chest Workout
As always, I won’t leave you wondering where to start on this pec-building journey. Here is a basic workout that you can modify to fit your needs.
This is the order that I do this workout in, but you should re-order it based on your weakest to strongest exercise. If you do it strongest to weakest, you may not see the gains where you need them the most.
Incline dumbbell bench press
The main benefit of performing incline presses is to develop the upper portion of the pectoral muscles.
Flat dumbbell bench press
Flat bench press activates both heads of the pectorals evenly, which makes this exercise great for overall chest strengthening.
Straight bar dips
Done properly, dips (any dips) will increase the strength and mobility in your chest, shoulders, arms, and core.
Incline dumbbell flys
This exercise targets the sternal heads of your pectoralis major muscles and also strengthens your deltoids, biceps, triceps, wrist flexors, and brachialis muscles.
Any type of postural or pulling exercises
You can mix this one up each time, choose between seated rows, single-arm rows, pull-downs, and pull-ups
High-to-low cable crossovers
This is a great finishing exercise (to failure) that can help you burn out and break down your pectoralis major and minor. Pro tip: Cross your hands in front of your body to get a more full range of motion.
If you’re doing a chest-only workout, you only need to do it once per week. If you’re simply working chest exercises into a full-body workout, you can hit the chest three times per week, but allow for about 48 hours of recovery between those workouts.
Fitness is all about being able to move through this world with as few limitations as possible.
I know I've said this before, but I'll say it again—this column and podcast is called Get-Fit Guy, not Get-Ripped or Get-Jacked Guy for a reason. Fitness is all about being able to move through this world with as few limitations as possible. While looking good in or out of a t-shirt can be a nice side effect of fitness, please don’t confuse good health with a magazine cover physique—they are not one and the same.