college bodybuilder tips: why isn’t my chest getting bigger?

Dear K***,

You’ve been pushing yourself on your chest workouts, you’ve been resting and eating and sleeping and doing everything else right. Still, you feel like you’ve hit a “ceiling” you can’t get past. It’s time for me to let you in on a secret: even though you are focusing on your chest, it could be your triceps that are holding you back..

A lot of people who work out talk about the importance of “proportions” and making sure that you work out all of your muscle groups. Most of the time people say it’s a matter of aesthetics: it looks more natural when all of the muscles in your body are about equally developed. On the other hand, it looks ridiculous when you see a guy with a huge chest but scrawny legs, or huge biceps and no chest.  But there is a much more important reason to make sure that you train all of your muscles equally, and that is your muscles work together.

Your muscles work together in groups. Specifically, the bigger muscle groups depend on having development in some of the smaller muscle groups as well. So although you can isolate your triceps and work them out by themselves, working out your chest completely depends on you also having strong triceps.  Similarly, you can work out your biceps by themselves, but having a strong back completely depends on you also having strong biceps. If you are the type of guy who works out to look good, take note! The way you should be reading these examples is like this: to increase your strength in the muscles that you really want to LOOK impressive, you have to also work out their smaller companion muscles as well.

Muscles Work TogetherI see this limitation at work in people at the gym every day. A guy will work out his chest hard. He will be doing everything right. He will be varying his exercises, taking enough time between sets, and not over-training. He will tell me that he’s eating enough and sleeping enough, but he’s frustrated because he hasn’t been able to increase his weight on the bench press.  His chest isn’t getting any bigger, and he can’t figure out why. “Why isn’t my chest getting any bigger?” he asks me. “Why can’t I bench press more?” “Why don’t I see any improvement?”

So I look at his triceps… and a lot of the time, that gives me the answer.  His triceps are holding him back.  He will have no idea, because he won’t be able to feel it. When he is doing the bench press, it will simply feel like he is too weak to lift the weight. He can’t tell that what is giving out is his triceps instead of his chest.  But, because his triceps are giving out, he is never pushing his chest muscles to their full capacity. Because he’s never pushing his chest muscles to his full capacity, it never gets any bigger or stronger.

When you see a guy with a really impressive chest, take a moment to look at his arms. Chances are, he has impressive triceps as well.  It’s because it’s almost impossible to work your chest to its full capacity without having strong triceps. Other pairs of muscles are like this as well.  When someone has a strong, broad, V-tapered back, chances are he’s going to have big biceps and forearms as well. The reasons is the same, when you think about the exercises involved: pull-ups, rows, pull-downs. You can’t fully work out your back if your arms are so weak that they give out before your back does.  So even though you can focus on doing exercises on only your biceps and forearms, it doesn’t work in the other direction: you can’t really work your back out without having strong biceps and forearms as well.

To a slightly lesser extent, this is also true of the two groups of shoulder muscles: deltoids (the “side” part of the shoulders) and traps (the “top” part of the shoulders). When you think about the mechanics of an exercise like lateral raises, you are contracting both your delts and your traps. If your traps are weak, then you will reach a natural limit to how much you can do with lateral raises, and that will put a limit on how much development you can get in your delts.

So if you feel like you’re hit that “invisible wall” with any of your exercises in those big, showy, “I want to look hot in a tank top” muscle groups (e.g. chest, back, shoulders), and you feel like you’re doing everything else right, that is the next place that I would look for inspiration and development: get your triceps stronger, get your forearms stronger, get your traps stronger. Make sure you are working on the other muscles in your body. When those smaller muscles get stronger, you will be amazed at how quickly the weight that you can do on your bench press will shoot through the roof.

Talk to you soon!



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