If you have a hard time feeling your chest working when you do chest exercises, THIS is the information you need. I’ll give you my best techniques for ensuring maximum activation of your pecs with every set and rep you do. One of the most comment training questions I get with regards to chest training is simply not being able to feel the pecs working at all when doing chest exercises!
And when you can’t feel the pecs working, you know darn well that actual muscle development is simply NOT going to happen.
So enough about the problem…how do you FIX it?
I’ve got a number of techniques for you to try out, some of which may work better than others for you.
But they should get you well on your way towards the chest development you’re looking for.
1. Pre-Exhaust Training
When performing a movement like the bench press, the pecs are definitely involved but can be easily pushed into a secondary role by the front delts and the triceps.
So instead of doing a regular bench press movement, you will instead do 6 to 8 reps of dumbell flyes (an isolation movement for the chest) THEN immediately go right to the bench press.
The idea here is to “pre-exhaust” your pecs so that when you do the bench press, your pecs are the weakest link and the shoulders and triceps then push the chest harder than it would normally be pushed.
When you have to stop, it’s going to be pec fatigue that ends the set while the shoulders and triceps are still relatively fresh.
2. Feeling The Flye
Now, the pre-exhaust training is all well and good…but what if you can’t feel your pecs even doing FLYES? Pre-exhaust won’t be much help.
The first thing you need to do is get off the flat bench and onto a Swiss Ball. Get into position on the ball and wrap your entire back AROUND the ball. Don’t just put your shoulders on the ball and keep your body straight, like many people are taught with the ball.
To get the most out of flyes, you need to open up your rib cage and get your shoulders back (which helps focus the tension on the pecs instead of the shoulders). The ball is PERFECT for this position. So lay back on the ball, wrap your back around it and consciously force your shoulders back and down. THEN do a dumbell flye.
Imagine on the way down like you’re trying to push your chest up to the ceiling. And imagine on the way up that you’re wrapping your arms around a big tree.
When doing flyes, don’t hold the dumbells perfectly parallel to each other…hold them at about a 45 degree angle to your body (thumb end in closer to the head – pinky side outwards). This takes stress off the shoulders and helps keep tension on the pecs.
3. Tilt the Dumbells
When doing dumbell presses (either on the ball or the bench), tilt the dumbells down and in…if the dumbells were pitchers or water, it would look like you’re pouring them on yourself.
This tilt (and make sure and keep that tilt through the whole exercise) keeps tension on the pecs. If you keep them horizontal or tilting outwards, the tension goes to the shoulders.
4. Concentration Flyes
These are done standing, in a bent-over position, with light weight. They’re a great exercise for developing that “feel” in the chest. They won’t build a chest – just assist in getting that connection.
Grab the dumbell and bend over a bit. Now, keeping your arm slightly bent but stiff (no movement other than at the shoulder), bring the dumbell up and across your body as though trying to touch it to your opposite shoulder.
Because your arm is hanging down and the dumbell is coming across your body, it takes the front delt pretty much completely out of it, forcing the pec to do all the work. Hold at the top and SQUEEZE the pec hard.
Remember to go light on this one – it’s not about building but developing that mind-muscle connection. And be absolutely sure you’re NOT bending your elbow – the movement must occur only at the shoulder.
5. The Rolled-Up Towel Trick
This is a technique I came up with to force the shoulders down and back (as I mentioned with the flyes above) and get the pecs involved in the bench press. This is done on the flat bench.
Roll up a towel and lay it lengthwise down the centerline of the bench. Set it on the bench right between where your shoulder blades will be. Your head should be on a flat section and your butt should be on a flat section.
Lay down on the bench, feeling the towel run right down your spine. This elevation immediately forces your shoulders back and down (the proper position for benching and feeling it in your chest). It’s not particularly comfortable but it’s a great teaching tool to force your body into the proper position.
6. Stop Trying To Go So Heavy
Half the time, you’re probably just trying to go too heavy on the chest exercise and you just lose the feel for the exercise. Back off on the weight and feel the pecs working rather than focusing on blasting up the weight.
When you load the exercise heavy, your body immediately turns to its strongest movers. If your chest isn’t part of that A team, it won’t be called upon.
7. Don’t Grip So Hard
One of the things I’ve noticed with chest exercises is that the harder you grip the bar/handles, the more the tension gets moved to the shoulders and triceps.
Try easing up on your grip a little – not to the extent that you make the exercise dangerous, but back off on the death grip and see if you feel a difference.
8. “Shocking” High-Rep Training
This is best done on the very first set of your workout with NO warm-up. You’re going to just be using a moderate weight, so don’t worry about not doing a huge warm-up. If you have a decent amount of training experience, you’ll be just fine.
We’re going to literally “shock” your chest muscles into responding here. Load the bar with (or select dumbells) a weight you’d normally be able to get about 12 to 15 “strict” reps in your regular workout.
Now lay down and CRANK OUT as many reps as you can with that weight as fast as you possibly can. Don’t worry if your form isn’t perfect…just hammer the reps out.
And when I say crank, I mean CRANK…don’t bounce the bar off your chest or anything but you must quite simply EXPLODE out of the bottom of every single rep…and don’t even think about slowing down to get the negative.
The idea here is very rapidly call upon every available muscle fiber worked by that exercise to contribute an emergency situation, especially the power-oriented type 2 muscle fibers.
And this emergency idea is why you’re not going to do a warm-up…we want it to be a TRUE emergency situation where you go from zero to kablammo!
ONE set of this is all you need. Because once you do that first set, not only will the entire area be fatigued, you won’t be able to get nearly as many reps and it won’t have the same emergency effect on your body.
9. Static Contraction Holds and Pushes
This can be done on almost ANY chest exercise…though it doesn’t work too well on dumbell flyes or presses. It works best on cable cross-overs or pec deck, where the tension is greatest at the top, when the arms are close together. It’s also pretty good on barbell bench.
A straight static hold means just hold that contracted position for as long as you possibly can. Then fight the negative all the way to the bottom.
This systematically exhausts all the muscle fibers of the chest AND gives you time to really get your mind into the muscle, shifting your arm and body position during the hold until you really feel it targeting the pecs. By taking this time, you get to feel what you don’t normally get during a standard exercise.
And those pushes I mentioned?
As you’re holding that static contraction, have a partner push down on the weight stack (if you’re on a pec deck). Just a quick push is all you need. This sets off a stretch reflex in the pecs, activating even more muscle fibers. It’s basically another emergency situation.
When using cable cross-overs, have your partner put their hands in between yours and push outwards really quick. If you’re doing a static hold in the top position of the barbell bench, have them push down on the bar really quick while you maintain the hold.
A couple of these pushes is all you need.
10. Cable or Band Push-Ups
This technique combines two type of resistance – a bodyweight push-up and direct outwards-pulling resistance of cables or bands. When you put them together, it’s CRAZY how much tension you’ll get on your pecs.
It’s like combining a static hold with a dynamic exercise – two of tension, both targeted on the pecs.
For the cable version, set two handles on the low pulleys and use a light weight. Kneel down holding both handles. Now set your fists on the floor in the push-up position. Straighten out your body and start doing push-ups.
The cables will be trying to pull your hands directly out to the sides. Your pecs have to fight this outwards-pulling tension. When you add in the push-ups, you’ll feel these even more in the chest than you usually would, simply because your pecs are ALREADY working by holding the cables in place.
It’s a two-for-one exercise that will light your pecs FAST.
You can easily accomplish the same thing with bands by hitching a couple of bands to solid objects out to the sides of you. The just hold the bands in your fists or loop around your wrists, make sure you get tension in them, then do the push-ups.
YOUR CHEST WILL BE TOAST…
I have to say, if you’ve not really felt your pecs before, these techniques should get you seriously moving in the right direction. I would recommend taking a few “chest” days and just trying all these techniques to see which ones work best for you.