When I got into lifting at the age of 14, I was pretty much like every young man. I loved training my upper body WAY more than my lower body. Of course, my favorite was chest and arm workouts too! That is even though my first experience at the gym was getting pinned by an empty barbell on the bench press as my older brother laughed pretty hard at me. So, I never think that people that want to develop muscles in their workouts are missing the point, it is fun and feels good to see your physique change in a positive way from the hard work you put into training. However, there is a STRONG misconception that functional training can’t accomplish this goal, this is ANYTHING but the truth. That is why I wanted to look at something like chest training and show how we can accomplish our goals of moving and performing better with looking better as well. The best way to achieve this goal is to go over some common myths and mistakes in chest training.
#1 Functional Training Doesn’t Equal To Better Development Of The Chest
Well, we have to start with the most obvious right? The issue with this thought process is that most just have a poor idea of what functional training means. It is our industries fault in not providing a better base to get people on the same page as functional training. Just as there are definitive methods and concepts that make up powerlifting, bodybuilding, and Olympic lifting, there are the same when it comes to functional training.
The difference is that functional training requires us to understand important ideas like
-The kinetic chains of the body.
-How the body creates movement.
-What an exercise does well and what it does not.
When it comes to chest training, we have to realize that the chest wasn’t meant to function in isolation. People talk about training JUST their pec minor (which is literally impossible to accomplish) along with ideas like decreasing the use of the shoulders and triceps (pretty much impossible as well).
When you look at the anatomy of the chest, you see it is literally impossible to isolate any one muscle, so why are we so focused upon doing so? It is very clear trying to isolate a muscle goes against the design of our body so should we really spend our time and effort in creating exercises that try to accomplish this goal?
If we look at athletes like male gymnasts we see very impressive upper body development and they don’t attempt to train the body in isolation. How much is our body designed to actually use the our whole body to be strong? As renown scientist, Dr. Stuart McGill explains…
“Consider the pectoralis major muscle – it attaches the rib cage at its proximal end, crosses the shoulder joint, and attaches at its distal end to the humerus of the upper arm. When muscles contract they try to shorten. Consider the specific action here – the arm flexes around the shoulder joint moving the arm from muscle shortening at the distal end. But the same shortening also bends the rib cage towards the arm at the proximal end of the muscle. Thus simply using the pec muscle would not result in a fast nor forceful punch. Now stiffen the proximal end of pec muscle attachment – meaning stiffen the core and ribcage so it can’t move. Now, 100% of pec muscle shortening is directed to action at its distal end producing fast and forceful motion in the arm.”
For those that like a bit of translation, if we don’t integrate the core to our chest training we don’t develop the full strength of the upper body. That doesn’t mean you take away from your upper body training, it means you make it STRONGER!
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What DVRT Master, Cory Cripe shows in the drills above are great examples of more integrated chest training. By bringing in the lower body and core we develop so much more real world strength to the chest while also training the muscles at a high level. Since most of us are not going to be high level gymnasts, we can take the lessons of the sport and see how we can apply them to more practical, progressive, and varied methods. As you can see in the image below, the upper body was NEVER designed to be separate from the core and lower body in the way it performs. This is why isolated training can build muscle, but it can also create plenty of dysfunction!
Now for those that struggle to hold their own bodyweight or want to see how we can take these ideas into a multitude of chest training solutions here are some much better options.
Drills with tools like our ARES sled really show if we have functional strength because we have to integrate the body from head to toe to press the weight. If we have a weakness in the core or lower body this will impact the strength we have in our upper body.
Physical therapist, Jessica Bento, shows how we can use cable (bands work as well but differently) to change the body position to increase the integration of the whole body. The funny thing about using these types of exercises is that you get strong, you train your chest hard, and guess what, you don’t destroy your shoulders in the process!
#2 Machines Are Fine To Train Your Chest
I will never claim that just because you use a machine in the gym once or twice that you will die. However, I can tell you when I have gone back to using a machine just to see how strong I was in the machine (since I never train on machines) my body always felt more achy in the joints afterwards. If that doesn’t happen to you that is fine, but the point is that machines don’t have to hurt you instantly to be a poor choice.
When I first started in the fitness industry and functional training was getting momentum there was quite a bit of push back that machines weren’t a good idea for training. Why? I think Paul Chek back in the late 90’s still said it so well….
“The terms repetitive stress injury (RSI) and cumulative trauma disorder are commonly used in a physical therapy or medical practice to describe tissue breakdown and injury due to repetitive exposure to a particular movement….Whenever someone performs, conditions and/or trains using predominantly one pattern of motion, or has poor motor skills in a given pattern of motion, the risk of injury to the respective working tissues is elevated. To avoid pattern overload in athletes performing repetitive motions, the conditioning coach and/or therapist must be careful not to prescribe exercises that serve to load weakened tissues unless there’s specific therapeutic intent and sound rationale for such training…
Unfortunately, these machines don’t allow the body’s nervous system the freedom it needs to protect the working joints and relevant soft tissues from injury. This is particularly important when considering that when lifting weights in an isolated manner, loads in working muscles, tendons, ligament and joint structures can become very high.
To illustrate my point look at the natural bar path during a free weight bench press with that of a Smith machine bench press. What’s important to realize with regard to free weight training is that if you were to film someone for as many repetitions as they could possibly perform in one set, at any intensity level, they would never produce the exact same bar path two times in a row! In fact, if you review research on elite Olympic lifters, you will find that not only does the bar path change slightly each time they lift, no two lifters produce the same bar path when executing the same lift. You can see an estimated natural bar path when performing a free weight bench press exercise. This bar path will change during every repetition in attempt to minimize fatigue and loading of the working tissues specific to the motor task. In the diagram on the bottom, the bar path on a Smith machine is demonstrated. It is clear that unless the athlete contorts his body below the bar while under load, the bar path is linear and unchanging. A consistent path of resistance on any machine may result in early synchronization of motor units, motor fatigue and loss of dynamic support. This is commonly associated with injury to the passive structures of working joints and often results in long-term injury!
The scientific concepts of neuromuscular isolation and intramuscular loading make logical sense with regard to building muscle and therefore fuel the bodybuilding industry’s reliance on machines. However, strength coaches and therapists have only recently begun to acknowledge a strong correlation between machine training and musculoskelatal injuries.”
I’ll translate a bit again, the fact you work with the path of the machine and not your body can predispose you to have issues, especially in the shoulders.
When we use free weights we control the path and when we press with dumbbells or kettlebells that becomes even more so! However, are we losing benefit to chest training since we can’t use as much load and we have to stabilize more? In fact, research shows that we get MORE muscle activity when we actually have slight instability like using dumbbells over barbells due to the need to stabilize (
#3 It Doesn’t Matter What Tools You Use As Long As You Overload The Chest
Well, hopefully after reading the above you do see that it does matter what tools you use and the intent you place behind using those tools. We don’t have to choose to either look good or have health and functional strength. Even if you could care less about how your body functions (I imagine you probably wouldn’t be reading our blogs if you didn’t) these principles are still important. What people take for granted in “how things have always been done” fail to realize that even bodybuilders cared about these ideas a long time ago.
In fact, in Earle Liederman’s book, “Muscle Building,” published in 1924 (in all of 217 pages), Liederman doesn’t show a single exercise being performed on a machine with a fixed axis of rotation (i.e., a machine that locks you into doing the movement in the same way, time after time). Granted they didn’t have machines back then, but you see the philosophy above and you see that it probably wouldn’t have interested them all that much even if they had!
Machines didn’t really gain a lot of steam till the 1980’s as gyms became more and more popular. The idea of simplicity of use and taking away the need of knowing technique was appealing, especially for a business that didn’t want to intimidate their clients. However, what we lost in that effort to simplify was HUGE. I can tell you that seeing clients for the past 25 years!
I never had a client come to me because things were going great in their training, but because they were struggling. Many times I would get seasoned lifters that were just beaten up by their training because they were doing the very things that I discussed in today’s post, I’m speaking from LOTS of experience with LOTS of people. That doesn’t mean we have to choose looking or performing well, we can have both if we follow these principles!
If you are wondering why today was light on Ultimate Sandbags it is because I don’t think they are great horizontal pressing tools. Yes, our plank drags and many crawling variations can help a lot, but that will be a subject for another day. The message of understanding of how to train hard and smart is more important and showing you how you can accomplish that is our ultimate goal. However, if you need a good challenge, DVRT Master, Sean Lettero gives you one below!
We break down a lot more of these ideas in our L.I.F.T. certification HERE. You can save 30% on L.I.F.T and any of our DVRT Online Certifications/Courses, Workouts, and Ultimate Sandbags with code “holiday2020” HERE
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