Strength Training Q&A

Strength Training Q&A
by Michael Mejia MS, CSCS and Ben Velazquez BS, MFS

August, 10 2000

Q: No matter what I do I can't seem to develop my upper pecs. Are there any specific exercises that I should be including in my routine?

A: Besides just exercise selection, there are a number of variables to consider when training the upper pectoral region.

1.Angle of the bench: The best way to stimulate the upper pecs is to use a bench set at a 15 to 30 degree angle. This is a far cry from the typical 45 degree angle most lifters tend to use. Using a bench that is inclined more than 30 degrees places far too much emphasis on the front delts; a muscle group that usually gets too much work as it is. By lowering the angle of the bench and taking the emphasis off your deltoids you'll be able to handle heavier loads, leading to greater muscle fiber stimulation. To further enhance pec development and keep your workouts fresh and interesting,you can also vary the level of the incline (provided you have a bench that allows you to do so) form workout to workout, or even sets to set. For example, do your first set of incline presses at a 15 degree incline, then do set # 2 at 30 degrees. Even these subtle changes in the angle of pull can lead to big gains.

2. Grip width (for barbell presses): If you want greater upper pec stimulation when doing incline barbell presses you have to use a narrow grip. When we say narrow we mean no more than a shoulder's width apart. A recent study out of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research which measured EMG activity of the pectoral muscles during various types of presses (an EMG measures the electrical activity of a muscle group) showed that using a more narrow grip on incline presses leads to greater upper pec involvement than does a standard or wide grip.

3. Hand position (for dumbbell presses): The manner in which you hold and press the dumbbells can also have a significant impact on your results. Most trainees perform their incline presses in the traditional pronated, or "palms facing away" style. While there's certainly nothing wrong with this, like the saying goes "there's more than one way to skin a cat". One option is to hold the dumbbells with a semi-supinated or "palms facing each other" grip. What this does is allow you greater range of motion and a more intense contraction at the top of eachrepetition. It also decreases unnecessary strain on your shoulders, and is therefore a viable alternative for those of you who have shoulder problems but still want to include incline presses in your routine. Another option is to start the press with your hands in a semi-supinated position, then as you press, internally rotate your arms so that the thumb sides of the dumbbells come together at the top. Because you are combining the two major functions of the pecs, adduction (bringing your arms across your body) and internal rotation, you will generate a more forceful contraction. One finaltip, avoid starting with your hands pronated and rotating the dumbbells outward as you press up. Remember, your pecs serve to internally rotate your arms. By externally rotating as you press you're essentially attempting to stretch the muscle as you contract it.

4. Prioritization: Often times people tend to have deficient upper pec development because they don't give this area priority when they train. What sense does it make to fry your chest on flat presses, flys and dips before finally progressing to your weakest area. If you notice that your upper chest development is lacking than do your incline work first. This might seem fairly obvious but you'd be surprised how many people violate this fundamental rule of training.

5. Improve the strength of your stabilizing musculature: Like it or not, there's no getting around the fact that your shoulders are heavily involved in virtually every chest exercise; this holds especially true for incline work. If you're lacking strength, and more importantly stability, in this crucial joint, you'll never be able to handle the kind of loads that can really help you pack on the size. Improving overall shoulder strength and stability however, goes way beyond military presses and lateral raises. You'll also need to include specific exercises for the externalrotator muscles of your rotator cuff. Assuming you're not already doing so, here's a good one to start with. Lie on your side on an exercise bench and place a rolled up towel between your top hip and the inside of your top elbow. Grasp a light dumbbell and with your top arm bent at a 90 degree angle, use your elbow as a hinge and lift the weight from across your abdomen to the highest point you can reach. Make sure that your elbow is pressed firmly against the towel and you use your external rotators to move the weight through the range of motion. Try 3 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions with eacharm.

Q: I've been involved in sports all my life and have been training seriously for about two years now. As a matter of fact, I enjoy it so much that lately I've been contemplating a career in the fitness field. Do you guys have any advice for an aspiring trainer?

A: So, you want to become a trainer, huh? Can't say that we blame you. After all, talk about your easy jobs. You get to hang out in the gym all day, usher people around form machine to machine, count a few reps here and there and get paid big bucks!

Not so fast. Sure, on the surface it might seem like this is all being a trainer entails, but there's a lot more to it than that. Before you run out and buy yourself a spandex tee-shirt and a clip board, take a look at our little list of the 10 things you need to do to become a great trainer.

1. Obtain the proper credentials:
There are a number of organizations nationwide that certify personal trainers to work with the general public. Among the one's that we recommend are the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the American College of Sports Medicine. While there are literally dozens more, these provide what we consider to be the most comprehensive and challenging battery of tests. They are also very well respected in the industry and widely recognized by potential employers.

2. The learning never stops!!!!
While obtaining a certification from one or more of the more reputable fitness organizations is a good start, your responsibility doesn't end there. In order to keep these certifications active and stay abreast of the latest findings in the field, you must regularly attend continuing education seminars. Doing so will not only increase your knowledge base, but, help improve your earning potential as well. Remember, knowledge is power, the more you know, the greater your edge over the competition.

3. Never underestimate the value of practical experience.
Having book smarts is all well and good, however the best trainers complement their knowledge with the ability to design effective training programs for their clients. We know plenty of trainers who can quote chapter and verse form an exercise physiology textbook; and yet, put them in a weight room and they're absolutely clueless. Reading about constructing a workout and actually doing it are two different things entirely.

4. Keep a training diary for each and every client.
How will you know if your clients are making any progress if you don't keep records of their workouts? Keeping track of their incremental gains from one session to the next is the only way to ensure continued progress. It also shows that you are committed to your clients long term health and well being.

5. Be a teacher and create knowledgeable self reliant clients.
Treat each training session as an opportunity to educate your clients on the importance of staying healthy and fit. Have them monitor their own heart rate, or quiz them about which muscles a specific exercise is targeting. How much your client knows, or doesn't know, about exercise reflects largely on you as a trainer. They should be able to workout on their own when traveling; or any other time you're not available to train them.

6. Look the part.
We're not saying that you have to be built like Mr. Or Ms. Olympia, but looking like the counter person at Dunkin Donuts isn't the way to go either. Put yourself in the client's place, working with a fat, out of shape trainer is like walking into Giorgi Armani and being greeted by a salesman wearing a Beavis and Butt head tee-shirt and jeans.

7. Stay within the scope of your knowledge.
A lot of trainers try to be a sort of "one stop shop" for all their clients health and fitness needs. Frankly, this is a huge mistake. By attempting to offer information or services that are beyond your area of expertise, you not only discredit yourself; but you put your clients at risk. It's pretty simple, if you've never boxed, don't teach boxing. If you don't have a degree in nutrition, avoid giving anything but the most basic nutritional advice.

8. Seek out other qualified professionals to complement your own services.
This one goes hand in hand with # 7. Try to align yourself with a good sports nutritionist, massage therapist, physical therapist etc. Creating a network of professionals whose services can help complement your own will make you look far more reputable in the eyes of your clients. It can also be an excellent way to expand your client base through referrals.

9. Use proper exercise technique at all times.
Tony Little may have been annoying as all hell, but he was right about one thing; technique is everything! You must carefully monitor each and every repetition of your clients workout. All it takes is one bad rep to knock them out of commission for a while. In addition to ruining your reputation, injured clients that miss workouts can put a serious strain on your bank account.

10. Be professional at all times.
Even though you might have the body to pull off that string tank top, or the hot pink lycra thong; these things do not exactly constitute proper training attire. Other things you may want to avoid include: accepting personal calls during your clients workout, checking yourself out in the mirror instead of watching them, or discussing the results of last night's game with fellow trainers and gym members. Always maintain a focused professional attitude that makes each and every client you train feel that you are completely devoted to getting them results.

About the Authors:
Michael Mejia MS, CSCS and Ben Velazquez BS, MFS are co-founders of T.A.S.C. Force Inc., a New York based consulting firm specializing in the design and implementation of training programs for professional athletes.

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