Today, I want to walk you through one of my favorite chest and back workouts. Normally I do it as part of a modified upper/lower split, although it also works as part of an Arnold Split, where you train the chest and back separately from the shoulders and arms.
Chest and Back Workout: The Warm Up
The first thing I do is a few light warm-up sets on the lat pulldown machine.
And by light, I’m talking about a weight that’s around 40-50% of the weight I’d typically use in a work set.
These warm-up sets activate the muscles I’m about to train, meaning they’re able to perform better in the work sets to come, as well as being more resilient to injury.
After that first warm-up set, I’ll rest for around a minute. During that rest period, I’ll stretch out my lats. Ten seconds or so on one side, then 10 seconds on the other.
There is research to show that static stretching prior to lifting weights has the potential to reduce muscle strength and slow your gains, a subject I talk more about here.
However, the stretching protocols used in many of these studies typically involve very long periods of stretching. In fact, short (20 seconds or so) periods of stretching between sets has been shown, in one study at least, to help rather than hurt muscle growth .
Most times I’ll do three warm-up sets, stretching out my lats between each one.
Once the warm-up sets are out of the way, I’ll move on to my first exercise for back, the neutral grip pull-up.
Neutral Grip Pull-Up
Sets 5 Reps 6-10
Exercise number one is the pull-up, which I like to do with a neutral grip, meaning that my palms face each other.
Doing them this way, rather than using an overhand (palms facing forward) or underhand (palms facing me) grip feels a lot easier on my shoulders and elbows.
I’ll do five sets of pull-ups, aiming for somewhere between 6 and 10 reps in each set. In terms of effort, the first set is relatively easy.
And by relatively easy, if I was to rank it on a scale of 1-10, with 10 representing an all-out maximum effort, it’s probably a 6 or 7 out of 10.
As the level of fatigue builds up, each set becomes progressively more difficult. By the fifth set, my effort level is around an 8 or 9 out of 10.
In other words, I’m not pushing that final set to complete failure, but I am getting close. There’s at least one more rep, possibly two, left in the tank.
After that first work set, I’ll rest for around 60 seconds before I move to the next exercise, which is the press-up.
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Sets 5 Reps 20-30
In days gone by, the first exercise for my chest was always the bench press, usually with a heavy weight for somewhere between 5 and 8 reps.
Problem is, heavy benching causes an old shoulder injury to play up. I tried a few different things to work around the problem, but none of them worked. So now I do press ups, which I find a lot easier on my shoulders.
I’ll usually crank out somewhere between 20 and 30 reps in each set before I get close to failure. In terms of progression, my focus is on adding reps.
I do have a weighted vest that I could use to add load and train in a lower rep range, but my shoulders feel better when I train in a higher rep range. Plus, lighter weights and higher reps stimulate just as much muscle growth as heavy weights and low reps, so I’m not missing out on any gains.
Done properly, press ups are a highly effective way to stimulate muscle growth in the chest, shoulders and triceps.
In one study, four weeks of push-ups delivered gains in muscle size that were no different to those seen with the bench press . In another, eight weeks of training with the bench press or push-up delivered similar gains in muscle thickness in both the chest and triceps .
Press ups are also a very joint-friendly way to fatigue my chest, shoulders and triceps. As a result, I don’t need to use as much weight on some of the chest exercises that come later in the workout.
Training this way isn’t ideal for strength development. But it works well for building muscle, especially if your joints give you grief when you go heavy. Lighter weights means less stress on the joints, which means less potential for injury.
As with the lats, I’ll also stretch out my chest for 10 seconds or so between sets.
I’ll superset press ups with pull-ups until I’ve done five sets of each. That is, I’ll do a set of pull-ups… rest for 60 seconds or so… do a set of press ups… rest for 60 seconds or so… do some more pull-ups… and so on.
Here’s what it looks like:
- Lat Stretch
- Rest 60(ish) seconds
- Press Ups
- Chest Stretch
- Rest 60(ish) seconds
As with the pull ups, my effort level is maybe a 6 or 7 out of 10 in the first few sets. It’s only in the final set or two that I hit an 8 or a 9, where I’m getting close to failure.
Seated Cable Row
Sets 3 Reps 8-15
As an exercise for working the muscles in my upper back, I much prefer seated rows to barbell rows.
With barbell rows, your spinal erectors — those cable-like muscles that run up both sides of your spine — have to work very hard to keep your spine in a neutral zone and prevent it rounding.
As a result, they can end up getting fatigued before your lats and upper back, causing you to terminate the set. Either that, or you end up rounding your spine, potentially exposing yourself to an increased risk of injury.
Because you don’t have to support the weight of your head and upper body, the seated row is a lot easier on your lower back than the barbell row.
This lets you focus on training your lats and upper back without lower back fatigue getting in the way.
There are lots of different ways to do seated rows.
You can use a narrow or a wide grip. You can flare your elbows out to the side or keep them close to your body. You can also row your hands into the lower part of your stomach or higher up towards the chest.
Each variation is going to work certain areas of the back harder than others.
To maximize the amount of work done by the lats, I like to do seated rows using a V handle.
My elbows are kept relatively close to the body, rather than being flared out to the side. I also focus on pulling the handle into the lower part of my stomach, rather than higher up on the torso.
I’ll do a total of 3 sets of rows. The first set is done with a relatively heavy weight, for 8-12 reps. Then I’ll rest for a couple of minutes.
For sets two and three I’ll reduce the weight by around 10%, aiming for 10-15 reps in each set.
Sets 3 Reps 15-20
One of the functions of the pecs is to draw the arms across the body in a hugging-type movement, which is exactly what you get with exercises like cable crossovers and flyes.
These types of exercises are also useful because they challenge your muscles at longer lengths. That is, there’s a high level of tension on your muscles when they’re in a stretched position.
Why is that important?
Various studies have been done to establish the importance of training at long muscle lengths when it comes to hypertrophy .
After 12 weeks of training, the seated leg curl stimulated significantly more muscle growth in the hamstring muscles that cross the hip, which were the ones trained at long muscle lengths.
Partial reps performed in the bottom third of the movement, which challenge the muscles at long lengths, stimulated more growth than partial reps done in the top third of the movement.
Incline High Row
Sets 3 Reps 15-20
The final back exercise is the incline high row, which looks like this:
Because I’ve already done some lat-focused rows earlier in the workout, this time I want to focus more on the muscles in my upper back.
To do an upper-back focused row, allow the elbows to flare out to the side (as opposed to keeping them close to your body).
Doing the exercise on an incline bench also means that my body weight is supported. This lets me focus on working my upper back muscles without fatigue in the spinal erectors getting in the way.
Decline Bench Press
Sets 3 Reps 10-15
Finally, it’s the decline bench press.
Because I’ve already fatigued my chest, shoulders and triceps with press ups and crossovers, I don’t need to go as heavy on the bench press.
As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t such a good idea if I wanted to bench the maximum amount of weight possible. But from the point of view of stimulating muscle growth with minimal joint stress, it’s ideal.
Rather than use a flat bench, I set the bench up with a slight 8-degree decline. This has the effect of reducing the range of motion slightly, which makes the exercise a lot easier on my shoulders.
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