Achieving Chest Hypertrophy: Moving Beyond the Barbell Bench

The traditional barbell bench press is not the panacea for chest training that many believe it to be.
The efficacy of the traditional barbell bench when it comes to developing an impressive chest, and equally matched physique, is a subject that’s been beaten to death more times than I care to consider. But, none those verbal beatings ever seem to yield anything tangible or useful that you can actually apply to your training to continue making progress.


So –  with this article, I’m not going to simply tear the barbell bench press a new one, leaving it cowering in a pool of its own tears.

Instead, I’m going to explain why I don’t believe it’s optimal for chest development, and what you can do to take your chest game up a notch.

Let’s start with why I don’t believe you should use the flat bench as your primary chest movement, in the context that your goal is to build an impressive chest, and not to simply push as much weight as possible.

I can hear you asking, “Why the hell not, Sir?”

In short, the traditional barbell bench press offers a severely limited range of motion and has negative implications on shoulder health. Even more so if you’re a habitual flat bencher – as in, your current training split consists of alternating chest and arms every other day, with the occasional bit of shoulder work. #BeacuseDeltsOfDoom

Furthermore, a key part to stimulating hypertrophy lies in working a muscle through its full range of motion, and feeling every inch of the stretch (bottom range of motion), and squeezing as hard as possible in the contracted position (top range of motion). For a true hypertrophic stimulus to be attained, there needs to be intramuscular tension generated, in combination with the aforementioned powerful contraction, and a full, deep, wonderfully painful stretch of the muscle fibers in your chest.

chest hypertrophy

There’re multiple ways to build your chest, without accumulating a ton of wear and tear on your joints, tendons, and ligaments. Image courtesy of:

Simply put, the traditional barbell bench doesn’t allow for either of these to occur. Think about it for a moment, and I’ll explain.

Let’s pretend you have healthy shoulders and a respectable range of motion that allows you to lower the bar all the way to your chest. Once you’ve lowered the bar all the way down to your chest, you’ll notice two things:

  1. Your chest will not be in a fully stretched position. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have access to a cambered bar, you cannot lower the weight far enough to achieve a full stretch through your pecs. The bar will hit your chest long before your pecs are placed into the fully lengthened position.
  1. With your chest now in a relatively compromised and ineffective position, your shoulders and triceps are forced to bear the brunt of the work.

That’s not the end of the world by any means, but it does have a number of undesirable effects.

  1. Shifting much of the load onto your shoulders and triceps obviously takes away from the goal of targeting, stimulating, and growing your chest.
  1. You’ve taken what was a manageable load for a large muscle group such as your chest, and placed nearly all of it upon your shoulders, which are a much smaller, far weaker set of muscles. With no way of getting that weight back up aside from using a significant amount of shoulder involvement, it’s no wonder so many die-hard benchers complain of inflamed tendons, creaky elbows, and angry shoulders.

Are you starting to see where the issues with the flat barbell bench press lie?

Leave Your Ego in Your Gym Bag, Bro

There’s absolutely no room for an ego in training when physique development is the goal. I and everyone lifting around you could care less about how much you can bench.

If you aren’t creating tension through your pecs, flexing your chest with the weight as you move it from A to B, deploying thought out tempo prescriptions or paying attention to your range of motion, you aren’t going to see the results you want.

And there’s little worse than not getting the results you crave.

Leaving you with two options:

  1. You can continue to try and pile more weight on the bar every time you walk in the gym, only caring about how much load you can move for what amounts to being a matter of inches.
  1. Or, you can check your ego in the parking lot, take a step back, and begin to lay the foundation for achieving quality chest development.

I think you know where my suggestion is going to lie.

To quote a book title from Ryan Holiday and prove my point, “The Ego Is The Enemy.”

Meaning, that if long-term growth, optimal chest development, and an impressive physique are even a small part of your vision, there’s no place for your ego in getting there.

Not to mention that no matter how impressed you are with yourself about being able to move 315 for four, shitty, half-reps, nobody else in the gym cares in the slightest. If that’s where you’re placing your energy and focus, then you’re training for all the wrong reasons.

chest hypertrophy

Your ego is not your amigo. Leave it in the parking lot.

4 Tips to Generate an Effective Chest Hypertrophy Session

Here’re are 4 tips and tweaks to take your chest training from heavy, painful and unproductive, to efficient, stimulating, and effective.

  1. Utilize the incline barbell press

Generally speaking, the incline barbell press is safer, more shoulder friendly and a more chest-stimulating pressing movement than it’s flat benched counterpart. The limitations placed on load due to the “tougher” nature of the movement will help you to keep the weight down, and focusing on creating maximal tension through each rep. As well, the biomechanics in place here will allow you to facilitate a much stronger stretch through your chest.

  1. Use slight angles for dumbbell work (presses and flies)

More often than not, you’ll see lifters using only extreme angles for dumbbell chest work. By extreme, I mean only using flat, 45 degree, and 70-80 degree angles. In reality, you don’t need to move to extreme angles to shift the focus to different sections of your chest. Try making angle adjustments in small increments of 10-15 degrees. In my own experience, I’ve had the best results from putting a 25-pound plate underneath a flat bench, using a 30-degree angle for “incline work”, and a 60-70 degree angle for “high incline” work.

  1. Pinch your shoulder blades together as if your life depends on it, and puff up your chest.

This allows for and creates a moderate arch in your back. Doing so will help facilitate an incredible stretch all through your chest. Achieving that stretch will make a profound difference in the progress you make towards achieving your desired chest growth.

  1. Play with using a neutral grip in the stretch position, and pronating into the contraction.

Using a neutral grip in the stretch position is much more shoulder-friendly, and will help you sink into an even deeper stretch (which feels incredible). As you press the weight back up, your shoulders will move into a stronger position. At which point you can rotate the dumbbells so you finish the rep with a pronated grip. This will allow you to stimulate the entirety of your chest from top to bottom of the rep, and finish each rep with an incredible contraction.

The Final 5 Reps

Here’re 5 substitutions or adjustments you can make to traditional chest movements that will bring a whole new level of stimulation to your chest session.

5 examples of smart, effective exercises and execution tweaks you can make to your chest sessions:

  1. Swap out your flat barbell bench, for incline barbell bench.
  1. Instead of set after set of flat dumbbell press, use a small (10-15 degree) incline, and bring the dumbbells together at the top to hammer the contraction.
  1. Use Hex Presses to squeeze and contract the living daylights out of your pecs.
  1. The Pec Deck (machine fly). While I actually really enjoy machine flies, and believe the bring great value to a chest session, I don’t agree with how most lifters use it. Instead of trying to squeeze as much weight as you can together for 6-8 reps, take a step back. Aim for 15-25 reps with a 1 second pause in the contracted position. Avoid lowering the weight to a point where it begins to stretch your delts. Maintain tension within your pecs, and focus on moving the weight solely by flexing your chest.
  1. Instead of pushing to achieve lockout on every rep of every set of every exercise, push to just short of lockout. Doing so will spare your joints by not shifting much of the load from your chest to your shoulder and elbow joints. As well, reps in this fashion serve to keep intramuscular tension on your chest, and accumulate wonderful, painful, growth-inducing metabolites.

A Parting Challenge

Now, I challenge you. For your next session (so, shortly after reading this), implement each of these 5 tips, and the 4 adjustments from above. I’ll bet you a week’s worth of carbs that you have the most incredible chest session of your training life.

About the Author

Alex_Mullan_HeadshotAlex Mullan is a self-proclaimed anti-meathead and part-time nerd. When he's not working towards Greek God status or learning how to better serve his clients, he can be found exploring how to further crush life, perfect his flair in the kitchen, or pull the perfect shot of espresso. You can learn what he's all about at