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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  1. Vishal says:

    Sir, my chest is a little big I do it right if you can help, please email me the answer Cut it

  2. Jason says:

    I weight 185lbs, 6ft 1″. I go to the gym alone so I don’t really know my max bench, since I do not have a spotter but I can bench 255 about 5 times on a good day. I have a very average chest and very average arms. I can say I am pretty strong, but I have difficulty building muscle and getting that vascular big look. My triceps are able to keep up with my chest exercises, so that isn’t the problem. I go hard every time I am at the gym. To be honest I do not know what to do. I look around and there are kids younger than me with the same size arms and chest benching not even half of what I can do. Any pointers or advice? I am tired of being average. Thanks.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Hi Jason! Thanks for the question.

      The first two questions that come to mind for me are: How old are you? And what is your diet like?

      The first question only matters because of the second question, really: the way people’s bodies respond to different diets depends a little bit on age.

      One of the things that can be happening when you see that you’re getting stronger but not bigger is that you might not be getting enough calories. So one thing to look at is how much food you’re eating, if you are getting enough protein to support muscle growth, and even if you are getting enough fat: some guys who are very fitness conscious go overboard with taking fat out of the diet, and if you have too little fat in your diet that can prevent growth too.

      The second possible explanation could be that, by not having a spotter, you are simply not pushing yourself out of a “comfort zone” that will trigger your muscles to respond by growing. I know you say you push yourself very hard — and I don’t doubt you at all! 🙂 — but there is a kind of psychological barrier that people always have when they aren’t getting a spot.

      Even if you go to the gym by yourself, it’s usually possible to look around and find someone to spot you, even if it’s just for 1 set. You don’t want to BUG anyone, of course. But if you scan around the room, see someone who has just finished a set so he’s resting, and you just politely ask if you can get a spot for 1 set…. most people will be more than happy to help.

      So see if you can do that once in a while. It wouldn’t even need to be every time you do chest. Let’s say one Chest Day you do heavy weight and you ask a couple of people to spot you a couple of times. Then, next Chest Day just do lighter weight and go high rep: do a lighter weight but do 3 sets of 30 reps. You won’t need a spot, but you’ll be mixing it up and confusing your muscles a little. Then, the time after that when you do chest again, go HIGH weight again, and ask for a spot.

      Without knowing any more info about your diet or other things, those are the two suggestions that come to mind.

      • Jason says:

        Thanks for the response Greg. I am 22. For now I am “cutting,” (trying to lose fat.) I know that without calorie surplus muscle growth won’t happen. I do have a very high protein intake to make sure I am losing fat and not muscle that I earned. My diet is pretty clean for the most part, with the occasional weekend beers and burgers. I was 215lbs, and now I am 185. I know what I am doing now has nothing to do with the question I initially asked. But I do not want to start my muscle building process and put in hours and hours at the gym and actually build no muscle or see no results. I wanted some insight beforehand. I also read that if you want to build muscle mass in your chest to do very little bench pressing and stick to DB chest workouts. What is your insight on this? Anything else needs to be done besides what is stated to gain muscle. And what month would you say is a good time to start the muscle building process?

        • Greg Stevens says:

          “I also read that if you want to build muscle mass in your chest to do very little bench pressing and stick to DB chest workouts.”

          Dumbbells are really good because they force you to control the motion a lot. You can still do flat bench press with dumbbells, and in some ways it’s more effective because you can do SLIGHT variations (e.g. bringing the dumbbells together vs. straight up when you press, or giving the dumbbells a very slight rotation at the end so that the contraction targets a slightly different area of chest).

          So I’m definitely biased to say I prefer dumbbells and sometimes cables just to get different angles or slightly different variations of an exercise. That’s not to say standard bench with a bar is BAD… but the guys who ONLY do that definitely don’t see as much progress.

          “And what month would you say is a good time to start the muscle building process?”

          Well, this is very much a personal taste thing. I’ll tell you, having been a fairly vain guy most of my life (LOL), my logic went like this: “I’ll start bulking a month or two before the last pool party, so I can start getting muscle gains while I get to be out by the pool, but I don’t start losing serious definition until around the winter holidays.”

          LOL! So… feel free to use whatever reasoning suits your needs.

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