Here are some commonalities we have found in those who sport square chests.
1. Consider Using AROM vs. Full ROM
You’ll often hear that you should use a full range of motion in order to place the greatest load on a muscle, and thus stimulate the best possible muscle growth. Whilst true, there is a problem when the information is misunderstood.
It’s typically assumed that full range of motion is to be that of the exercise. Think ‘ass to grass’ squats or bench presses to the chest, for example. What this implies is that the range of motion is dictated by the external goal of the exercise being completed in a certain way. If you compete in a weightlifting sport like powerlifting, it’s absolutely necessary. But in the world of body composition, full range of motion should refer to the range a muscle is able to safely fully lengthen and shorten within during a given exercise. This is what’s known as your AROM, or your active range of motion.
Assessing your AROM
In order to find your AROM for a Chest Press, get set up and then (without any weight in your hands) pull your arms down into the bottom position of the movement. This will determine your AROM as the depth shouldn't change as weight is added.
This simple tip will save your shoulders and help your chest gains explode. Your next steps will be to progressively overload within your range and maintain perfect form!
Ultimately, the exercise should work around your individual mechanics; you shouldn’t be adjusting your body into an exercise.
The Rib Cage Impact
For example, if we have two lifters, one with a large rib cage and one with a small rib cage, they will move the bar through a different distance if they followed the old ‘bar to the chest’ rule. They would also be biasing different muscle fibres, as well as potentially different muscles.
The chest muscle or your pecs is shaped like a fan, as per the image below. The more we lift our rib cage up, the more we favour the powerful middle and lower fibres, which allows us to be at our strongest. This is why a natural arch in the lower back is a good thing, provided you don’t have any back injuries.
If you fail to pay attention to this, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time and effort applying progressive overload with very few results to show for it, and a growing injury list.
2) Stop Using A Hammer For Every Job
Your ribcage alone plays a significant role mechanically as to how you’ll recruit chest musculature.
Someone with the larger rib cage will naturally place most of the work through their chest muscles as they are in a more advantageous position to work right from the start, versus a person with the smaller rib cage. In the latter person’s case, they won’t get the same effect, even when they arch their lower back. They won’t be able get those fibres to work as well, and instead, you’ll often hear these people complaining of sore shoulders from bench pressing.
Now that we know this it would make sense that different people will require different exercises to get the most out of their chest development.
The bread and butter exercises should always be the compound movements, as these are the ones that will pack on a lot of muscle mass.
These include barbell press variations, dumbbell press variations, floor presses, dips and push ups. With these movements, you can most effectively progressively overload your chest over time.
The key to get the most out of them is to stay self aware in your training, learn what movements feel great, and settle on the ones you feel hit your chest the hardest. What you don’t want to do is be stuck in a box thinking the flat barbell bench press is the only option.
3. The Icing On The Cake
Because machines can vary so much, Cable Flys are the most reliable way to train your Pecs in their shortened range. These would generally be implemented later on in the session and using higher reps.
Building The Square
You’ll want to base the core of your chest workouts around compound lifts that work for your mechanics, and then sprinkle some isolation fly work for completeness. When programming, using a variety of rep ranges can ensure you're covering all bases for the square chest you’re after.