The Square Chest Solution

The Square Chest Solution

A big square chest packed with muscle from top to bottom is the aspiration of many of our male muscling building clients at RNT.

In our ‘Two Tips To Double Your Chest Gains’ article, we discussed two quick and dirty tricks to improve your chest training that were linked to fixing your technique and utilising the correct warm up.

After much team discussion about the commonalities in trainees who sport square chests, and some great input from RNT coach Ben Mulamehic, we’ve decided to add two more tricks to the mix.

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.

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 both move the bar through a different distance if they followed the old ‘bar to the chest’ rule. Both would also place tension on the chest in varying amounts, as well as on different surrounding muscles. The difference here could be mean one lifter feeling the exercise entirely on their chest, and the other getting some chest work but also a lot of pain in the shoulders.

Let’s think of the chest muscle as a fan shape, as per the image below. The more we lift our rib cage up, the more we favour the powerful middle and lower portion of those fibres. This means we can most effectively recruit them, and is also why a natural arch in the lower back is a good thing, provided you don’t have any back injuries.

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.

This difference in anatomy is why our principles surrounding muscle growth is three-fold. It’s progressive overload with perfect form using exercises that work for your body type.

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.

If we look at the video of the trainee bench pressing in the RNT Exercise Library, you’ll notice he has a larger rib cage and relatively short arm path, and so you’d expect most tension to be created in the chest. For the smaller lifter with proportionally longer arms (like Akash), this will look different.

Assessing your AROM

So how do you go about figuring out how far to lower the bar to actually work your chest, based on your mechanics?

A quick and easy solution here is to simply assess your AROM by lying down on the bench with an unloaded bar and pulling your shoulders and elbows back as you would in a bench press. What you’ll notice is that your body will resist at a certain point. That’s your range. If you go lower than that under load, you’ll start using other muscle groups and expose yourself to risk of injury.

Here’s a video on how you can do this:


Some people will naturally be able to press a bar all the way to their chest because of the above and others will have to cut their ‘full ROM to facilitate their “AROM”. This is exactly why the floor press by nature is a great chest builder for many lifters (especially those who are long limbed). It automatically reduces the full range of motion and keeps the challenge on the pecs.

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!

2) Stop Using A Hammer For Every Job

You wouldn’t use a hammer for every job around the house, and the human body is no different.

As we’ve already seen, your ribcage alone plays a significant role mechanically as to how you’ll recruit chest musculature. Now that we know this it would make sense that different people will require different exercises to get the most out 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 target and 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.

The Icing On The Cake

The exercises listed above are all great, but if you only rely on these heavy compounds, you may be leaving a little on the table. When doing these, you’ll feel most of the challenge on your chest in the lengthened third and the mid range of the muscle. You’ll know this feeling to be deep in the stretch you feel under load when you’re pressing a dumbbell or barbell. As you press up and extend your arms more fully though, it gets easier and the challenge on the chest is much less.

This means that you won’t necessarily get the burning feeling of a ‘peak contraction’ in the middle of your chest as you would on a cable chest fly, for example.

Which brings us nicely onto the icing on the cake for your chest training.

Because we have the cable pulling across the body and providing resistance, it allows us to challenge the chest when it is contracted in a relatively ‘short’ position (meaning, the muscle fibres are bunched up closely together as you ‘flex’). Adding this variation in to your training routine will pay dividends for complete chest development, and is much better suited to higher rep ranges (8-15 reps) and short rest periods; this is when going for a ‘chest pump’ works very well.

To finish, let’s also consider again that the chest is a fan shaped muscle, so the fibres are running in different lines. This means that when varying the angle of a cable fly from low, medium or high, we can influence the region of our chest we want to train.

If we want to favour upper chest development, we will need to move our arms into a path that directs towards the top of our collarbone (i.e. low to high), and if we want to favour our lower chest, the path would be towards bottom of the rib cage.

Building The Square

For best possible progress with your chest, we’d advise a minimum of 10 sets of chest work per week. You’ll note that goes against the typical 30 set chest workouts often pushed in the magazines, but the key is here is quality.

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, a heavy / light approach whereby 50% of your sets are attacked in the 4 to 8 rep range, and 50% are progressed in the 8 to 15 rep range, can give you the best of both worlds for the square chest you’re after.

To finish, here’s two routines you can play around with (small tweaks made to accommodate different lifter styles):

Normal Length Limbs, Large Rib Caged Lifter

A – Low Incline DB Press, 2×4-6, 1×6-8

B – Incline Bench Press, 2×7-9, 1×8-12

C – High to Low Cable Fly, 2×12-15

Long Limbed, Small Rib Caged Lifter

A – DB Floor Press, 2×4-6, 1×6-8

B – Incline Bench Press (2 inches off chest), 2×7-9, 1×8-12

C – Low to High Cable Fly, 2×12-15

Related Articles

Our Three Key Training Principles

Chest Training for Natural Guys

Two Tips to Double Your Chest Gains

Ten Tips for Healthier & Pain-Free Shoulders

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akashdvaghela@gmail.com

Akash Vaghela is the Director of RNT Fitness. He specialises in transforming the bodies of City executives, CEOs, actors, physique athletes and regular people who want to be in the best shape of their lives. Akash has written for T-Nation, Elite FTS, Flex UK, Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health, MensXP, the Square Mile, Muscle Monsters, the PTDC, Advanced Coaching Academy, and Ultimate Performance.