The Big Chest and The Strong Chest.

Let’ face it, lads like to train their chests. For most people having a big chest is synonyms with having a strong chest and visa-verse. And what’s more most lads who hit the gym believe that developing a strong chest will give them a big chest and and Visa-verse. But it this truly the case? Or are you just wasting your time using the wrong measuring stick to mark your progress towards one goal when you are training towards another.

What everyone should know about chest training

Lets get some of the basics out of the way right from the start. If you are new to the gym or lifting or have been away from the iron for a while then your chest is going to grow no matter what sort of program you are on. But if you have been training a while (and i’m pretty sure you don’t need me to tell you this), then growth is a little harder to come by. For a minuet let’s forget about diet and whether or not you should even be trying to build your chest at all if your body fat is still to high for you see your abs, and lets just look a the bones of the way you are training.

There has been a big surge in strength training in the last few years and it has been sold as yet another training panacea for everything from loosing weight to curing and preventing injuries to getting Arnold Big and even occasionally getting you Herculean Strong. Now, i love Strength training and anything that gets people inspired enough to enter a gym, swim a lake, swing a kettle-bell, climb a mountain, run a marathon or motivated enough in any way what-so-ever to get up off their bottoms is okay in my book. But strength training will never  get you big like you want, if getting big is your thing. And hypertrophy training will never get you as strong as you want, if getting strong is your thing.

Yes, the two disciplines compliment each other very nicely. But they are also quite mutually exclusive when it comes to hitting your goals in a reasonable time frame. I have met countless guys who have adopted the “Stronger is Bigger,” attitude after reading an article by one of the truly wonderful strength coaches that are now posting articles all over the place. The problem is that theses guys have no real interest in getting truly strong, what they want is to get big. But they have been sold on the idea that strength training will get them there and so they have rolled in 2 or 3 strength cycles into their training. Cool, you might say. What’s 2 or 3 cycles over a whole year? Well look at it this way. A strength cycle might last  up to 12 weeks long. So 3 of them would be 36 weeks out of your 52 week year. So if you are trying to get big then spending 3/5  of your training on strength just is not going to deliver.

The same goes for the other direction also. Larger muscles make for stronger muscles, yes, but spending most of your year building big muscles when your target is to build strong muscles is a serious misappropriation of your gym time and wont get you very far come meet day.

You see their is a physiological difference between big and strong. The ability to grow a muscle comes down to the bodies defensive adaptation to continued muscle stress in a very particular rep range, which forces the body to use dietary protein to thicken the individual fibers of your muscle and so hypertrophy or grow the muscle  mass. But the stress response of the body to the muscle fibers from continued strength training is different.

When the nervous system wants a muscle to do something  it sends electrical signals to the fibers in that muscle to force them to contract. But the body is a bit of a radical energy conservationist and likes to only use as little energy as it can to get a job done; so it only fires up as few muscle fibers as it can get away with in order to meet or move a resistance. And if the body is not used to lifting heavy then the body even has a back up protection device in the form of  inhibitors whose job it is to shut down all signals to the muscles if it suspects that you are about to hurt yourself.

This is the reason for example that you might be able to Dead lift 150 kg with a little difficulty but then add another 5 kg to the bar and you can’t even budge it from the ground. Not only can you not budge it but if you do budge it a small amount you suddenly give up and drop the bar. This is the inhibitors kicking in to save you from your idiot self (that’s your body taking by the way… not me).

It takes time to recondition these inhibitors to allow you to lift heavier weight and it takes time training in the strength rep ranges to encourage the body to start firing up more muscle fibers when you go to make a heavy lift. This sort of adaption is not hypertrophy and it does not trigger it much either. It is the strength adaption of muscle and it also explains why even small framed Power-lifters can pull over 200 kg from the floor. Size and Strength are just not the same thing, so don’t fool yourself into believing otherwise.

The miss-direction

A big part of the problem is as i said earlier, strength training has been sold as a panacea for everything. Every mag, Blog and web page, including my own :) has articles about it. Just remember that while all sorts of training can be useful in helping you achieve your goals, if you drift to far from your central goal in your search for a quick success then the chances are that you will never get any.  The trick is to know deep down in side of you what it is you are aiming for and making that your number one priority. If you want to be HULK strong and make rooms tremble when you walk into them they you need to be focused on your strength training first  and leave off your hypertrophy training for most of the year. And if size is your true goal then leave off the strength and stick with the higher reps and volume you need to get those guns a growing.

A simple rule you can use to stay on target, even when the change bug comes a biting is this. If you are interested in size then allocate only 1 fifth of you training to strength and if strength is you target allocate 1 fifth of your training to size. Now it really doesn’t matter to much whether you divide your year up into fifths and allocate one of those fifths to your assistance goal or whether you spread the fifth over the year allowing 1 fifth of your weekly training to be in the assistance area, just keep it to 1 fifth and only 1 fifth.

Here is my advice… If you have a love of power lift and you plan to compete then you need to be training for a strong chest. If you just want to look good on the beach or your chest is under developed relative to other areas or your torso, or bodybuilding is your thing then train for size. So just pick one, set some goals, (realistic ones) and stick at it till you get there. And only then reassess your future targets.

Happy Lifting

The Best Exercises for a Strong Chest

EXERCISERep Ranges
Bench Press barbell3-6
Standing Shoulder press3-6
Floor Press3-6
Dead press from low pins3-6

The Best Exercises for a Big Chest

EXERCISERep Ranges
Barbell Bench press8-15
Incline bench press with Dumbbells8-15
Cable crossovers High8-15
Cable crossovers low8-15