When running clients through a chest and back workout, are you simply going through the motions or are you focused on both efficiency and power? A great trainer is always focused on movements that maximize the muscle’s efficiency with better form and anatomical knowledge, while also increasing their client’s overall muscle power.
Use these strategies to bring these two elements into every chest and back workout. Clients will leave feeling stronger and you’ll know you did all you could to run a powerful workout that drives results.
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Focus on Efficiency
A more efficient workout is all about getting the form right and understanding the anatomy of the area. In his book, The Physics of Resistance Exercise, Doug Brignole explains that mechanical advantage should drive exercise choices. Mechanical advantage can admittedly be a confusing concept, but understanding how muscles operate help make sense of the topic. For example, muscles do not push, they pull, and when muscles pull on a lever at an angle of 90 degrees or perpendicular, a mechanical advantage occurs.
Apply this principle to your client’s chest and back workout to ensure they’re both safe and effective with each exercise performed.
Efficiency For the Chest Muscles
With this in mind, how can we program efficient exercises that use the proper form to create a mechanical advantage when working the chest? Here are a few examples to consider for common chest exercises that your clients may enjoy or often request.
Because the chest muscles originate on the sternum and run laterally to attach to the humerus, any exercise where the muscles pull the humerus (lever) inward is a safe, efficient exercise. This is why choosing a wider grip in the bench press exercise activates the pectoral muscles best—the wider the grip, the longer the lever of resistance and force demand.
However, a wider grip puts tremendous strain on the shoulder joint and may cause injury. Also, bringing the bar too low (touching the chest) can move the humerus to a position closer to parallel from the origin. Therefore, it’s key to keep the bar as close to perpendicular to the muscle origin as possible.
One way to ensure efficiency in this exercise is to pause 1 to 3 inches short of the chest. As seen in the picture below, pins stop the lift short of the chest. Having a spotter place a board (also known as a board press) on the chest is another way to execute this technique.
Efficiency For the Back Muscles
The same reasoning applies when working the back musculature. Here are some examples to consider for this portion of your client’s workout.
The latissimus dorsi muscle, arguably the most popular of the back muscles strengthened during a chest and back workout, originates on the spine and attaches to the humerus. As many of you have probably experienced, the lat pulldown exercise can cause posterior shoulder discomfort.
In this exercise, the lats pull on the humerus bringing it closer to parallel, a mechanical disadvantage. This may be why well-known physical therapist and performance coach, Jon Rusin, recommends a 2 to 1 ratio in horizontal pulling to vertical pulling. For more efficient training, choose more horizontal rows with a wider grip, focusing on pulling the elbows inward.
If you don’t have access to cables, consider using bands. The following exercise could be the most mechanically advantaged back exercise you could execute, and it only takes one set to feel the difference.
Focus on Power
The most critical physiological need, particularly in older adult populations and athletes, is power. Power is the goal of resistance training in the context of improving athletic performance. It’s also the most negatively impacted physiological variable with age. Power prevents falls in older populations while allowing athletes to make better plays.
So what is power? Force is any stimulus that causes an object to change acceleration while work is force exerted on an object and the distance that object moves in the direction in which the force was exerted.
Power is work completed in a given amount of time. Thus, to improve power is to improve someone’s ability to do more work in less time.
To accomplish this task, an emphasis must be placed on moving moderately heavy loads very quickly. This will improve the central nervous system’s ability to discharge action potentials (also called, rate code) and displace weight quicker. In other words, moving moderately heavy loads very quickly will improve power.
Power For the Chest Muscles
Two movements that improve power in the upper body, but mainly the chest, are the bench throw and the lying med ball power press. The bench throw is best for athletes, while the former is better for older populations. Consider how you can bring more power to both.
The Bench Throw
The bench throw can be intimidating and with good reason. At the end of the concentric phase of the repetition, the bar decelerates and transitions back into an eccentric contraction in the traditional bench press. In the bench throw, the bar leaves the hands of the client and is tossed into the air to be caught by them or you, the spotter. As seen in the video below, this exercise can be executed with free weight but also using a Smith machine, recommended for immature athletes.
Medicine Ball Power Chest
The second movement to improve chest power is the beloved lying medicine ball power chest. In this exercise, the client lies supine with the trainer positioned near the head. The trainer will drop the ball into the client's hands and instruct the client to catch and push the ball as high as possible and as quickly as possible. For an older client, lower the drop height keeping in mind that most clients may need the ball handed to them.
Power For the Back Muscles
One key movement to improve power in the back musculature is the explosive sled pull. Not only does this exercise improve posterior power, but clients of all ages also typically love it.
Explosive Sled Pull
To execute, put a moderately heavy load on the sled and attach carabiners to long straps on each side of the sled. Cue the client to take all the slack out of the sled and row, driving the elbows backward and moving as explosively as possible.
After each rep, have the client walk backward and continue to remove the slack. This is an exercise I’ve often used to improve power in tennis players. Not only is it practical, but it will also likely become a favorite exercise for your clients.
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Make Your Client’s Chest and Back Workout More Efficient and Powerful
Don’t just operate on autopilot during your client’s chest and back workout—or use the same blueprint for each one. Instead, choose exercises that create a mechanical advantage to keep the workout efficient and safe. Don’t forget to focus on improving power to help them get faster and stronger, not just build muscle. Use these techniques to keep clients coming back again and again.