The bench press is by far the most popular exercise in the world. Almost everyone wants a stronger chest but few people understand how to structure their workouts to reach this goal.
If you are stuck in a chest training plateau then I have just the solution for you: the 13 greatest chest workouts for strength!
- Part 1: Isometronics
- Part 2: Cluster sets
- Part 3: 4+2 method
- Part 4: Josh Bryant Overcoming Isometrics
- Part 5: Maximal Effort Drop Sets
- Part 6: Modified Hepburn Method
- Part 7: 10 x 3
- Part 8: 3/2/1 Wave Loading
- Part 9: Supra-Maximal Eccentric Training
- Part 10 Rest-Pause
- Part 11: 5 to 8 Method
- Part 12: 1/6 Contrast Method
- Part 13: 3 Then 1 Contrast Method
In this comprehensive guide I am going to teach you 13 of the most effective chest workouts of all time for building pure strength.
The chest is a very exciting muscle group to train. Some of the best chest workouts include cluster sets, functional isometrics and supra-maximal eccentric training. Of course these three training methods are just the tip of the iceberg. There are a huge number of ways to train the chest for all-out strength gains and I can’t wait to introduce you to them!
Before I show you the actual workouts we have to discuss some chest training principles. Every chest routine in this article is based off of these 3 core principles. If you want to build a stronger chest in record time then you must do three things:
- Train both heads of the pecs
- Target the fast-twitch muscle fibers
- Overload the stretched position of the strength curve
Let’s take a closer look at each of these chest training principles.
Chest Training Principle #1: Train Both Heads Of The Pecs!
The chest actually has two different heads:
- The sternal head (aka “the lower chest”)
- The clavicular head (aka “the upper chest”)
It is impossible to completely isolate either of these muscle heads. However, it is possible to shift emphasis onto one head or the other depending on which exercises you use.
The sternal head tends to receive more stimulation on exercises performed on a “flat” or “decline” angle such as bench presses and dips. The clavicular head is the opposite: it receives more stimulation when you perform exercises on an incline such as incline barbell presses and incline dumbbell presses.
Most people do not know this but the upper chest receives a lot of stimulation from high-incline exercises. It even works to some degree during the standing military press! Of course I am not the only one to make this observation.
IFBB professional bodybuilder Ben Pakulski understands the importance of training the chest with a wide variety of angels:
Of course you do not need to perform several different chest exercises in a single workout. However, for optimal results you should vary your chest exercise selection on a regular basis to overload both heads of the pectoralis major.
Chest Training Principle #2: Target The Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers!
The chest is one of the muscles that contains a large percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers. The chest is literally designed for explosive muscular contractions! Most people will build chest strength faster by focusing on lower rep ranges.
This does not mean you have to perform singles all the time. However, if your goal is a stronger chest then a large percentage of your sets should be performed in the 1-5 rep range.
Of course there are many ways to design a lower-rep chest workout. Some of my favourite methods include wave loading, maximal effort drop sets and the 5 to 8 method. All of these (and many more!) will be covered below!
Chest Training Principle #3: Overload The Stretched Position Of The Strength Curve!
The chest works very hard in the bottom position of most compound pressing exercises. Just think about the bench press: the pecs work very hard to get the barbell moving off the chest in the bottom position.
On the other hand the triceps tend to work harder at the top or “lockout” position of most chest exercises.
Ronnie completely skips the top half of the movement to keep all the tension on his chest! You don’t have to do something this extreme to build a stronger chest. However, there are at least three strategies that you should be aware of:
- Using 1-3 second pauses in the bottom position of many exercises
- Using overcoming isometrics to overload the stretched position
- Using “straight weight” instead of bands and chains
All of these techniques will be featured in the routines that follow.
OK, I’ve made you wait long enough. Let’s dive right in to the 13 greatest chest workouts for strength!
Note: if you have any difficulty reading these workouts then please consult this article.
Part 1: Isometronics
There are three different types of muscular contractions:
Concentric contractions occur any time you are lifting a weight. A great example of this would be when you are bench pressing a barbell off of your chest.
Eccentric muscular contractions are the exact opposite: they occur when you are lowering a weight down. A good example of this is the lowering phase of a bench press.
Finally there are isometric contractions. Isometric muscular contractions are radically different from concentric and eccentric contractions: they describe a muscle that is contracting without moving!
The scientific literature has repeatedly shown that isometric contractions are one of the best ways to train for strength gains. They have the advantage of recruiting a greater percentage of motor units than either concentric or eccentric contractions.
In fact the research has shown that you can recruit up to 15% more motor units with all-out isometric contractions!
There are three main steps to performing an isometronics set:
- Perform 4-6 partial range of motion reps in between 2 sets of safety pins
- After the last partial rep you will press into the top pins as hard as you can for 6-8 seconds. You are trying to break the top pins in half here!
- After the isometric contraction you lower the weight to the bottom pins and attempt 1 final partial range of motion rep.
Here is a perfect demonstration of a set of bench press isometronics:
As you can see the athlete performs several partial range of motion reps before pressing against the pins as hard as he can for several seconds.
The partial range of motion reps pre-fatigue his pressing muscles while the isometric contraction teaches his nervous system to achieve maximal motor unit recruitment and further exhaust all available muscle fibers.
Talk about a potent training stimulus!
The procedure for performing a complete isometronics workout is as follows:
First you break up a barbell exercise such as the bench press into three distinct segments. You are going to use a power rack and two pairs of safety pins to accomplish this. There is the bottom third of the movement, the middle third of the movement, and the top third of the movement.
Next you are going to perform 3 total sets in each of these ranges of motion. In other words you are going to perform 3 sets of isometronics in the bottom position, 3 in the middle position, and 3 in the top position. After your 3 sets in the top position you are going to perform 1 final full range of motion set.
This last set is important for your body to “learn” how to use the newly recruited muscle fibers in a traditional set.
All in all you are going to perform 9 sets of isometronics followed by 1 full range of motion set. Talk about a high-volume workout!
Here is a full bench press isometronics workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Chest Isometronics Routine
- A1: Bench press (bottom position isometronics), 3 x 5, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Bench press (middle position isometronics), 3 x 5, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Bench press (top position isometronics), 3 x 5, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- D1: Bench press, 1 x 6, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- E1: DB floor fly, 3 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- E2: Decline DB extension, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
A bench press isometronics workout is by far one of the fastest ways to build a stronger chest. I have personally trained many trainees who have improved their bench press 1-rep max by 30-40 pounds in as little as 4 weeks using this workout!
Your chest is going to be most strongly activated during the bottom-range and mid-range bench pres isometronics.
On the other hand your triceps are going to be working much harder than your chest for the top-range bench presses. Don’t worry, your chest will get plenty of work from this routine.
There are of course some disadvantages to using isometronics.
The first major disadvantage is that you will need two pairs of safety pins to make this work. Not every gym has an extra pair of safety pins lying around. If this describes your gym then you may need to purchase a pair online and bring them to the gym with you.
If you are serious about building a stronger chest and you train in a hardcore bodybuilding or powerlifting gym then this will not be an issue.
The other major disadvantage of this type of workout is that it is extremely difficult to recover from. As a general rule of thumb I recommend you use isometronics every other workout rather than in consecutive workouts. I have had a lot of success with my clients alternating between an isometronics workout and a 5 x 5 workout.
- Workout #1: Isometronics
- Workout #2: 5 x 5
- Workout #3: Isometronics
- Workout #4: 5 x 5
- Workout #5: Isometronics
- Workout #6: 5 x 5
The bench press would still be trained during the 5 x 5 workouts but the overall training stress will be significantly reduced. After the 6th workout you would move onto a different type of workout for your chest.
After all, a routine is only as good as the time it takes you to adapt to it. Once your body becomes “bored” with a particular routine you need to move on. Of course you can always run another isometronics training cycle at some point in the future!
Part 2: Cluster sets
Cluster sets are by far one of the best training methods that you can use to boost strength. Many of the world’s best strength coaches such as Wolfgang Unsoeld and Christian Thibadeau swear by cluster sets for boosting maximal strength. And for good reason: they work!
There are many different ways that you can structure a cluster sets workout. However, they all have one thing in common: you are going to utilize short intra-set rest intervals. This means that you are going to use short rest intervals in between each of the reps of your sets!
One of the most popular cluster sets protocols is known as the “Poliquin cluster sets” protocol. It involves performing 5 sets of 5 reps with 90% of your 1-rep max.
The key to making this protocol work is that you rest for 15 seconds in between each rep of your sets.
- Perform your 1st rep, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 2nd rep, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 3rd rep, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 4th rep, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 5th rep, done!
This Poliquin-style clusters protocol is definitely one of the best ways to train for strength. However, if you are *really* interested in building a stronger chest then there are some other cluster sets protocols you may want to try.
Here is a cluster set protocol I learned from Christian Thibadeau. It involves performing 3 reps with your 2-rep max. The key to making this work is you are going to rest for 45 seconds in between each of your 3 reps.
- Perform your 1st rep, rest 45 seconds
- Perform your 2nd rep, rest 45 seconds
- Perform your 3rd rep, done!
Here is a sample chest / back workout utilizing this advanced cluster sets protocol that you may want to try. Check it out:
Chest Cluster Sets Routine
- A1: 45 degree incline barbell press (medium grip), 5 x 3**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Narrow supinated grip chin ups, 5 x 3**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Flat DB press, 3 x 6-8, 3/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Seated cable row (v-handle), 3 x 8-10, 2/0/X/1, 60 seconds rest
**Rest 45 seconds in between each rep as described above.
This type of workout is particularly effective for overloading the upper chest or the clavicular head of the pectoralis major. Many bodybuilders never train their chest with anything more than a 30 degree incline.
As Ben Pakulski pointed out numerous times this is a huge mistake! If you never challenge yourself with higher incline pressing movements then you will never maximally train the muscle fibers of the upper chest.
If you are paying close attention then you may have noticed that this workout calls for you to perform antagonistic supersets for the chest and back muscles. In other words you are supposed to perform 1 cluster set for the chest, rest 2 minutes, perform 1 cluster set for the back, rest 2 minutes, and repeat.
Training antagonistic body parts in this manner has many advantages. Chief among them is the fact that antagonistic supersets decrease the rate at which you fatigue during a workout. In other words your strength will not decrease as fast as it usually does from one set to the next.
Cluster sets and antagonistic supersets are like peanut butter and jelly: they are made for one another!
Part 3: 4+2 method
Eccentric training is probably one of the most effective yet underrated ways to train. This especially true if you are interested in all-out strength gains.
Eccentric muscular contractions occur when you are lowering a weight down. For example the lowering phase of a bench press is a perfect example of an eccentric muscular contraction for the chest. Eccentric muscular contractions are very unique.
The scientific literature has shown since the mid-1900s that overloading the eccentric phase of your exercises is an unbelievably effective way to train for strength. If you don’t believe me I highly recommend you check out the following article:
In my experience one of the most effective eccentric training protocols is “the 4+2 method.” I first learned about the 4+2 method from Charles Poliquin in an interview with Marc Bell. The idea is simple: you are going to perform a set of 4 repetitions followed by 2 eccentric-only reps with extra weight.
- Step 1: Perform 4 regular repetitions
- Step 2: Increase the weight by 1-20%
- Step 3: Perform 2 eccentric-only repetitions with the increased weight
Steps 1, 2 and 3 are all performed back-to-back without any rest! In other words the 4+2 method is a post-fatigue method designed to overload your muscles eccentrically after first approaching concentric muscular failure.
This is a very severe training system that produces rapid strength and size gains.
Normally you would need a couple of well-trained spotters to help you perform the 4+2 method. This is especially true when you are training the chest. After all, you don’t want to be stuck in the bottom position of a bench press with a weight that is more than your 1-rep max!
Fortunately there are ways to safely use the 4+2 method without the use of a spotter. One such way is to use dips as your primary chest exercise. After completing your first 4 reps you simply increase the weight on your dipping belt and perform 2 eccentric-only reps.
This is obviously very safe to do because your feet would touch the ground in the bottom position.
Here is how you might structure a 4+2 workout emphasizing the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Check it out:
Chest 4+2 Workout
- A1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 3-5 x 4**, 4/0/X/0, 240 seconds rest
- B1: 30 degree incline DB press, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Lying ez-bar extensions (to forehead), 3 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- D1: Seated DB external rotations, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
**Perform 4 regular repetitions immediately followed by 2 eccentric-only repetitions with 1-20% more weight. On the eccentric-only reps you want to use an 8-second lowering phase. This is very important!
You can click right here to see a video of what your dips should look like.
It is very important that you stick to the 8-second lowering phase during the two eccentric-only contractions. If you lower the weights any faster than this you run the risk of injuring yourself.
But don’t just take my word for it: here is Charles Poliquin talking about the importance of performing accentuated eccentric reps with very slow, controlled tempos:
“So he doesn’t find his pec at taco bell 5 streets down he would do a ten second lowering phase.”
Even if you do not injure yourself your results will be compromised. Remember, your muscles work harder during eccentric-only reps when you lower the weight more slowly. This is especially true in the bottom position or the stretched position of the exercise.
I tell all of my clients to imagine that their muscles are giant hydraulic brakes that are resisting the weight from coming down. Your goal is to decelerate the weight as it goes down.
If you are looking for a novel workout to stimulate strength gains in your chest then I highly recommend you give this 4+2 workout a shot. Just don’t come crying to me in the morning when your pecs feel like ground beef!
Part 4: Josh Bryant Overcoming Isometrics
Josh Bryant is easily one of the most knowledgeable people in the world when it comes to building a stronger bench press. He has trained many of the strongest bench pressers in the world including Julius Maddox.
In 2020 Julius bench pressed an unfathomable 770 pounds:
Talk about impressive! Josh has many tricks up his sleeve for building a bigger bench press. However, one of his favourite tools to use is actually bench press isometrics. He has his athletes press an empty barbell into a set of safety pins as hard as they can for 6 seconds. He tells his athletes to try and break the safety pins in half!
For example here is Al Davis giving a perfect demonstration of a Josh Bryant style bench press isometric contraction:
These isometric reps are the single best way to blast through a bench press “sticking point.” Research has shown that these isometric reps jack up your strength at the exact part of the lift that you are training.
In other words if you perform an isometric contraction 2 inches above your chest then you will get stronger at that exact part of the movement.
Over the years Josh has found that alternating sets of bench press isometrics with sets of speed reps is an awesome way to train for strength. The isometric reps potentiate your nervous system and allow you to produce more force than normal during your speed reps.
In other words the isometric reps and the speed reps have a synergistic effect on each other! Here is a Josh Bryant style bench press workout that you may want to use to build a stronger chest.
Check it out:
Chest Overcoming Isometrics Routine
- A1: Competition bench press, 1 x 3**, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Bench press overcoming isometric (competition grip)***, 4 x 1, 120 seconds rest
- B2: Speed bench press (competition grip)****, 4 x 4, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 2 x 6, 2/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- D1: DB floor fly, 3 x 8-10, 2/1/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- E1: Cable pulldown (wide / overhand grip), 3 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- F1: Rope cable pushdowns, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/X/1, 60 seconds rest
**Performed with 85% of your 1-rep max.
***Set the safety pins 2-4 inches above your chest. Use an empty barbell and press into the safety pins as hard as possible for 6 seconds. You are trying to break the pins in half!
****Performed with 70% of your 1-rep max.
You can click right here to see James Strickland perform this exact isometric bench press workout.
This is the exact type of workout that Josh uses with many of his powerlifting clients such as James Strickland to break bench press world records. The workout itself is broken down into 4 main parts:
- Part 1: The top set
- Part 2: Isometric sets and speed sets
- Part 3: Supplementary exercises
- Part 4: Accessory exercises
Josh has his athletes start out the workout by working up to a top set of 1-3 reps in the bench press. His athletes are performing the bench press itself in competition so it only makes sense to prioritize the competition lift first in the workout.
Immediately after the top set Josh has his athletes alternate between sets of bench press isometrics and speed reps. These two training methods have a synergistic effect on each other in terms of boosting your pressing strength.
Finally Josh has his athletes finish up the workout with some supplementary and accessory exercises. If you are looking for a training program to boost your bench press and your chest strength then I highly recommend you give this type of programming a shot.
For more information on Josh Bryant’s approach to training the bench press you can check out the following article:
Part 5: Maximal Effort Drop Sets
Maximal effort drop sets are a heavily underestimated training method for building maximal strength. Most people believe that drop sets should only be used by bodybuilders or individuals seeking muscular hypertrophy. Nothing could be further from the truth!
In reality maximal effort drop sets are one of the best ways to train for strength. The procedure for performing a maximal effort drop set is simple:
- Step #1: Perform a top set of 1-3 reps on an exercise
- Step #2: Drop the weight by 2-5% and rest 10 seconds
- Step #3: Perform 1 more rep with the reduced load
- Step #4: Drop the weight by 2-5% and rest 10 seconds
- Step #5: Perform 1 more rep with the reduced load, done!
Maximal effort drop sets are so effective because they maximally recruit and fatigue the fast-twitch muscle fibers!
Just think about it: the first attempt for 1-3 reps gets your nervous system firing on all cylinders and helps you to recruit all available motor units. Then you slightly drop the weight and continue to bust out single repetitions.
These post-fatigue singles further fatigue the fast-twitch muscle fibers and help you to tap into an even greater motor unit pool than otherwise possible. In other words maximal effort drop sets are almost perfect for building a stronger chest!
Here is a maximal effort drop set chest and elbow flexors workout that you may want to try.
Check it out:
Chest Maximal Effort Drop Set Routine
- A1: Decline bench press (medium grip), 3-5 x 3/1/1**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (narrow / supinated grip), 3-5 x 3/1/1**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: 60 degree incline DB press, 3 x 7-9, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Seated zottman curl, 3 x 7-9, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
It is rare to see someone place a lot of emphasis on the decline bench press nowadays. In my opinion this is a big mistake.
The decline bench press is a fantastic exercise for overloading the lower chest, aka the sternal head of the pectoralis major. One of the benefits of the decline bench press over the flat bench press is it places far less stress on the chest tendons.
It is relatively common for a strength athlete or a bodybuilder to suffer a pec tear while bench pressing. On the other hand it is almost unheard of for someone to injure their chest on the decline bench press. This is largely due to the reduced stress on the pec tendon with this exercise.
Of course I am not the only person to make this observation. Dorian Yates was a big fan of the decline bench press for many years for this exact reason.
Part 6: Modified Hepburn Method
The Modified Hepburn Method is an unbelievably effective training program for building raw strength. The program was originally developed by Doug Hepburn in the mid-1900s and later refined by the world-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin.
Doug Hepburn was widely regarded as the strongest man in the world in the early 1950s. He was a multi-time Olympic Weightlifting world champion and the first man to officially bench press 500 pounds. In other words, Doug Hepburn was as strong as an ox!
The modified Hepburn method is broken up into two parts:
- Part 1: Relative strength
- Part 2: Functional hypertrophy
For the first part of the workout you are going to perform 8 sets of 1-2 reps. These low-rep sets are a great way to produce neurological adaptations within the central nervous system. In other words they teach your body to activate the high-threshold motor units for maximum force output.
For the second half of the workout you are going to perform 5 sets of 3-5 reps. Your nervous system is already firing on all cylinders by the time you perform these sets which makes the functional hypertrophy work even more effective than normal.
Here is a chest and back workout featuring The Modified Hepburn Method that you may want to try.
Check it out:
Chest Modified Hepburn Workout
- A1: 30 degree incline barbell press (shoulder-width grip), 8 x 2, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: Wide overhand grip pull ups, 8 x 2, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: 30 degree incline barbell press (medium grip), 5 x 3-5, 2/0/X/0, 75 seconds rest
- B2: Shoulder-width overhand grip pull ups, 5 x 3-5, 2/0/X/0, 75 seconds rest
You may have noticed that the exercises from the first and second halves of the workout are similar but slightly different from each other. This is done on purpose!
By slightly varying the exercise selection you are able to tap into a similar but slightly different motor unit pool for the functional hypertrophy work. This all results in you building strength and size at a faster rate!
One of the things you need to be aware of when using the Modified Hepburn Method is how heavy to go on each of your sets. During the first half of the workout I recommend that you slowly ramp up in weight over the course of your 8 sets of doubles.
Let’s say that Joe Average is an intermediate level trainee performing this routine. His best 1-rep max on the 30 degree incline bench press is 300 pounds.
Here is what his sets might look like:
- Set #1: 250 x 2, very easy
- Set #2: 250 x 2, very easy
- Set #3: 255 x 2, harder
- Set #4: 260 x 2, very hard
- Set #5: 260 x 2, that one wasn’t too bad
- Set #6: 260 x 2, again that one was OK
- Set #7: 265 x 2, very hard
- Set #8: 270 x 2, an absolute grinder!
As you can see Joe Average starts out with a reasonably heavy weight. He then slowly ramps up the weight over the course of the 8 sets. By his 8th set he is truly at his max for the day! The next time he repeats this workout he will start with a weight in the 255-260 weight range and work his way up again.
Make no mistake: The Modified Hepburn Method is one of the most effective ways to train strength. This is especially true when it comes to training a fast-twitch muscle such as the chest!
Part 7: 10 x 3
Many athletes quickly burn out when they perform too many singles or doubles in their workouts. In other words their central nervous system accumulates too much fatigue and they just can’t recover. I
n my experience individuals with a more balanced neurotransmitter profile are especially prone to burning out with low reps. For these individuals one of the best workouts for building a stronger chest is the 10 sets of 3 method.
As the name suggests you are going to perform 10 sets of 3 reps. This is a great way to rapidly build strength whilst giving your central nervous system a break from near-maximal weights. Here is a 10 sets of 3 workout for the chest and elbow flexors that you may want to try.
Check it out:
Chest Workout #7
- A1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 10 x 3**, 3/2/X/1, 100 seconds rest
- A2: 30 degree incline DB curl (hammer grip), 10 x 3**, 3/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: Standing behind the neck press, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Unilateral preacher DB curl (supinated grip), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
Here are the workout videos for the first 2 exercises:
A1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso)
A2: 30 degree incline DB curl (hammer grip)
In my experience v-bar dips are an extremely underrated exercise for building a bigger chest. Most people believe that dips are more of a triceps builder. This is definitely the case if you perform the exercise with a more upright torso.
However, if you lean forward throughout the movement it becomes a killer chest exercise! For this routine you are going to use a unique tempo on the v-bar dips:
This means you are going to lower yourself down over 3 seconds and pause in the bottom position for 2 seconds before exploding back up to lockout.
This 2-second pause in the bottom position is a great way to further overload the chest on dips. After all, the chest is most strongly recruited in the bottom position of dips. This is in contrast to the triceps which tend to work the hardest closer to lockout.
Part 8: 3/2/1 Wave Loading
I have a confession to make: I am a huge fan of all wave loading protocols! In my experience very few training methods are as effective or as versatile as wave loading when it comes to driving up strength in the big compound exercises.
When it comes to strength training a wave is a series of three sets performed with decreasing rep ranges. For example here is what a single 3/2/1 wave looks like:
- Set #1: 3 reps
- Set #2: 2 reps
- Set #3: 1 rep
Varying your reps in this manner from one set to the next is a great way to train for strength. The changing rep ranges help to excite your nervous system and make it easier for your body to recruit the high threshold motor units.
A true wave loading workout normally features 2-4 of these waves performed back-to-back. For example here is what a typical 3/2/1 wave loading protocol might look like:
- Set #1: 3 reps
- Set #2: 2 reps
- Set #3: 1 rep
- Set #4: 3 reps
- Set #5: 2 reps
- Set #6: 1 rep
- Set #7: 3 reps
- Set #8: 2 reps
- Set #9: 1 rep
Your goal during a 3/2/1 wave loading workout is to increase your training loads from one wave to the next. For example if you use 300 pounds x 3 reps for your 1st set then you may want to try 305 pounds x 3 reps for your 4th set and 310 pounds x 3 reps for your 7th set.
Don’t worry, you shouldn’t have any trouble making these small weight jumps. Wave loading operates on the principle of post-tetanic potentiation. In other words each set “excites” your nervous system so that you become stronger and stronger as the workout progresses. By your 9th set you should be ready to break a personal record!
Here is a 3/2/1 wave loading chest / shoulders / triceps workout that you may want to try.
Check it out:
Chest Routine #8
- A1: 15 degree incline barbell press, 9 x 3/2/1**, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- B1: 75 degree incline DB press, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Supine cable fly, 3 x 7-9, 2/0/1/1, 60 seconds rest
- C2: Standing overhead cable rope extension, 3 x 7-9, 2/1/1/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as a 3/2/1 wave loading workout as described above. Your goal is to perform 9 total sets or 3 total 3/2/1 waves.
As a general rule of thumb I like to use the 3/2/1 wave loading method to help my athletes peak their strength on a particular lift. For example if someone was preparing for a powerlifting competition then the 3/2/1 wave loading method would be an excellent choice to peak their strength in the bench press.
Of course there are many other wave loading protocols that you could use to build strength. Here are three of my favourite wave loading protocols that you may want to check out:
This is one of the reasons many of the world’s best strength coaches use wave loading with their athletes: it is an incredibly versatile training method!
Part 9: Supra-Maximal Eccentric Training
Accentuated eccentric training is by far one of the most effective training methods for building raw strength. In fact many strength coaches including Christian Thibadeau consider eccentric training to be the fastest way to help an intermediate or advanced lifter bust through a strength plateau.
If you want to use eccentric training to build a stronger chest then one of the best ways to do it is with weight releasers.
Weight releasers are giant metal hooks that attach to either end of a barbell. They make the barbell heavier during the lowering phase of the lift but they fall off the barbell before you lift the weight back up.
Here is Josh Bryant giving a perfect demonstration of weight releasers:
As you can see the weight releasers are only on the barbell during the eccentric range of motion. This means that the athlete can safely lower weights that are greater than his 1-rep max!
One of the downsides of weight releasers is it can be difficult to perform multiple reps in a row. Unless you have a couple of very well trained spotters you are going to have to rack the weight and re-attach the weight releasers before attempting another rep.
You definitely don’t want to train with single repetitions too often because it can be very easy to overtrain this way.
A simple solution to this problem that I learned from Christian Thibadeau is to perform cluster sets with weight releasers. A very simple way to do this is to perform sets of 5 reps with 30 seconds rest in between each rep. While you are resting you pick up the weight releasers and place them back on the barbell.
In my experience performing cluster sets with weight releasers is one of the fastest ways to break through a bench press plateau. Here is a sample training routine you may want to try.
Check it out:
Chest Supra-Maximal Eccentric Training Routine
- A1: Flat bench press (medium grip)**, 5 x 5****, 10/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Narrow neutral grip pull ups, 5 x 5****, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: 45 degree incline DB press, 3 x 6-8, 2/2/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Seated cable rope face pull, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/2, 60 seconds rest
**Performed with weight releasers. The barbell should be loaded with 80% of your 1-rep max while the weight releasers together should represent 10-40% of your 1-rep max. If you cannot stick to the 10-second lowering phase then the weight is too heavy and should be reduced.
****Performed as a Poliquin-style cluster set. In other words you are to rest for 30 seconds in between each rep.
Here is one of Christian Thibadeau’s athletes giving a perfect demonstration of eccentric cluster sets:
There are two things that you MUST do for this chest workout:
- Pick the correct weights
- Stick to the correct tempo
For your sets of bench presses I recommend you use about 80% of your 1-rep max on the barbell. The amount of weight you add to the weight releasers is a function of your eccentric strength levels.
If you have been training with accentuated eccentric protocols for a long time then you may be able to handle as much as 20-40% in total weight on the weight releasers.
On the other hand if you are new to weight releasers then it is probably better to stick with 10-20% in total weight on the weight releasers.
The most important thing when picking your weights is to make sure that you can stick with the prescribed exercise tempo. Every one of your reps on the bench press should be performed with a 10-second lowering phase. No, this was not a typo: you are going to lower the weight over 10 seconds!
If you lower the weight any faster than this then you run the risk of injuring yourself. At the very least your workouts will be less effective if you lower the weight at a speed faster than 10 seconds.
Part 10: Rest-Pause
- Step #1: Train to technical failure in the 7-10 rep range
- Step #2: Put the weight down and rest. While you are resting take in 10-15 deep breaths.
- Step #3: Train to failure a second time with the same load.
- Step #4: Put the weight down and rest. While you are resting take in 10-15 deep breaths.
- Step #5: Train to technical failure a third time. Done!
For example here is IFBB professional bodybuilder Dusty Hanshaw giving a fantastic overview of what a rest-pause set should look like:
Rest-pause sets were originally developed by Dante Trudel as a means for building muscle mass as quickly as possible. However, rest-pause sets are also unbelievably effective for building raw strength!
Dusty Hanshaw is a perfect example of this. He regularly incline presses 405 pounds for reps and he trains with rest-pause sets on a year-round basis.
Here is an advanced rest-pause style chest workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Chest Rest-Pause Routine
- A1: Hammer strength machine incline press, 1 x 7-10**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
- B1: Flat DB press, 1 x 10-13**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
- C1: Pec-dec machine, 1 x 20-30****, 2/1/1/0, rest as needed
**Performed as a rest-pause set as described above. Train to failure in the listed rep range (either 7-10 or 10-13), rest while taking 10-15 deep breaths, train to failure a second time with the same weight, rest while taking 10-15 deep breaths, train to failure a third time, done!
****Performed to failure
For inspiration here is a former DC trainee pressing 7 plates per side on the incline hammer strength chest machine:
Wow – talk about incredible!!
This chest workout can be performed either by itself or as part of a larger upper body rest-pause workout. The choice is up to you!
If you are going to use this workout then I highly recommend you write down your training weights in a training logbook. Each time you repeat this workout you will look back at your training logbook and try to beat your previous workout performance.
For example this is what your training logbook might look like the second time you perform this workout:
- A1: Hammer strength machine incline press, 1 x 7-10**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
- LT: 135 / side x 9/4/2 = 15 RP
- B1: Flat DB press, 1 x 10-13**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
- LT: 100 / side x 13/5/3 = 21 RP
- C1: Pec-dec machine, 1 x 20-30****, 2/1/1/0, rest as needed
- LT: 120 x 27
The abbreviation “LT” stands for “Last Time” while the abbreviation “TT” stands for “This Time.” In other words the top line represents your performance from the previous workout while the bottom line represents your performance today.
Before performing your set you should look back at your previous workout performance. If you lifted the 100 pound dumbbells for 13 reps last time then you know it’s time to bump it up to the 105 pound dumbbells and FIGHT LIKE HELL to get as close as possible to 13 reps!
Of course you are probably going to lose 1-2 reps when you go up in weight like this – that is OK. As long as you are progressing up in weight over time while staying in your target rep range then you are on the right track.
Of course it is important to use a logbook regardless of what program you are using. After all, if you aren’t using a logbook then you have NO IDEA if you are making progress or not! If you don’t want to waste your time in the gym then start using a logbook today!
Part 11: 5 to 8 Method
The 5 to 8 method was invented by the strength coach Charles Poliquin. It is actually very similar to the rest-pause method as developed by Dante Trudel. The procedure for performing the 5 to 8 method is as follows:
- Perform 5 reps with your 5 rep max. Then put the weight down and rest 15 seconds.
- Perform 1 more rep with the same weight. Then put the weight down and rest 15 seconds.
- Perform 1 more rep with the same weight. Then put the weight down and rest 15 seconds.
- Perform 1 more rep with the same weight. Done!
It should be obvious why Charles calls this the 5 to 8 method. Charles just wasn’t very creative when it came to naming his training programs! Sorry Charles!
Dante recommends most people perform 7-10 reps on the first part of the set while Charles recommends only 5. The second major difference is that with Charles’ method you are NOT training to failure. Instead your 5th rep and each of the subsequent singles should “only” be extremely difficult.
Charles says you will know you picked the right weight if your spleen comes out through your left eye on the 5th rep!
Finally with Charles’ system you are going to perform 4 total attempts with the same weight. This is in contrast to Dante’s system where you perform 3 total attempts with the same weight.
If your primary goal is to build a stronger chest then Charles’ 5 to 8 method would be a great choice. Here is a sample chest and elbow flexors workout that you may want to try.
Check it out:
Chest 5 To 8 Method Workout
- A1: 75 degree incline barbell press (shoulder-width grip), 3 x 5/1/1/1**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Unilateral preacher zottman curl, 3 x 5, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: 60 degree incline cable curl, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/1, 60 seconds rest
For this workout I recommend you perform 3 total sets with the 5 to 8 method. This training method is very demanding on both the muscular system as well as the nervous system. You can expect some serious delayed onset muscle soreness all over your chest after this workout!
Seriously, I strongly recommend you nail your post-workout nutrition, get to bed on time, and do anything else you can to optimize your recovery before attempting this workout. The 5 to 8 method is that demanding of a training method!
Part 12: 1/6 Contrast Method
Contrast sets are another fantastic training method for boosting maximal strength. Contrast sets are actually very similar to the various wave loading protocols as described earlier.
The idea is simple: you are going to alternate back and forth between low-rep sets and high-rep sets for a particular exercise. With the 1/6 contrast method you are going to alternate back and forth between sets of singles and sets of 6 reps. For example:
- Set #1: 1 rep
- Set #2: 6 reps
- Set #3: 1 rep
- Set #4: 6 reps
- Set #5: 1 rep
- Set #6: 6 reps
Contrast sets operate on the principle of post-tetanic potentiation. We have seen numerous examples of workouts taking advantage of this principle in this article alone.
To review post-tetanic potentiation simply means that your nervous system is able to produce more force on subsequent sets if you first “excite” it by recruiting a large number of motor units.
With the 1/6 method the single repetitions get the nervous system firing on all cylinders. When you go and perform your 6 rep sets the weight is going to feel so light that it practically flies out of your hands!
OK, maybe that was an exaggeration. Still, the 6-rep sets are going to feel lighter than usual. Do not be surprised if you can lift more than your normal 6-rep max on these sets. To make things even better your strength should increase slightly as you progress through your sets.
I recommend increasing the weight by 1-2% as you progress from your 1st single to your 2nd and 3rd singles. The same is true for your sets of 6. Here is a sample 1/6 contrast set chest and back workout that you may want to try.
Check it out:
Chest 1 To 6 Method Workout
- A1: 30 degree incline barbell press, 6 x 1/6**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Narrow supinated grip chin ups, 6 x 1/6**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Flat Db press, 3 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: T-bar row, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
**Perform 6 total sets with the following rep scheme: 1, 6, 1, 6, 1, 6.
The 1/6 contrast set method is clearly a very effective way to train. However, it can be very demanding on the central nervous system. Some strength coaches believe that this is not such a big deal and that you should train all-out on all of your 1/6 contrast sets.
For example Charles Poliquin used to recommend his athletes perform the singles at or near 100% of their estimated 1-rep max. In other words each of these singles were true 1-rep maxes.
On the other hand there are strength coaches such as Christian Thibadeau who believe that performing your singles as true 1-rep maxes is simply too demanding to recover from.
Christian believes that you should perform your singles at approximately 90% of your estimated 1-rep max but still perform your sets of 6 with your estimated 6-rep max. Training in this manner reduces the odds of you overtraining. It also still lets you benefit from the principle of post-tetanic potentiation by making your 6-rep sets “feel” lighter.
If you are someone who struggles to recover from a lot of near-maximal training then you may want to stick with 90% of your 1-rep max for the singles. On the other hand if you thrive on singles then follow Charles Poliquin’s lead and perform them as true 1-rep maxes for this routine.
Part 13: 3 Then 1 Contrast Method
The 3 the 1 method is another routine invented by the ever-creative Charles Poliquin. It is actually a combination of contrast sets and accentuated eccentric training. You are going to alternate sets of regular triples with sets of supra-maximal eccentric singles.
- Set #1: Perform 3 regular reps, rest 3-5 minutes
- Set #2: Perform 1 supra-maximal eccentric rep, rest 3-5 minutes
- Set #3: Perform 3 regular reps, rest 3-5 minutes
- Set #4: Perform 1 supra-maximal eccentric rep, rest 3-5 minutes
- Set #5: Perform 3 regular reps, rest 3-5 minutes
- Set #6: Perform 1 supra-maximal eccentric rep, rest 3-5 minutes
For the singles you are going to use weight releasers to overload the eccentric portion of the rep. Performing single repetitions with weight releasers is a very demanding training method.
Essentially you are going to be recruiting your “survival fibers” in your chest. They are called survival fibers because they represent your body’s last-ditch effort to prevent the barbell from landing on your chest and absolutely crushing you!
Don’t worry, if you set the weight releasers up correctly they will drop off the barbell before you get crushed 🙂 Here is a sample 3 then 1 chest workout that you may want to try.
Check it out:
Chest 3 Then 1 Contrast Method Routine
- A1: Bench press (medium grip), 3 x 3, 3/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- A2: Bench press w/ weight releasers (medium grip)**, 3 x 1, 10/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest
- B1: 45 degree incline DB press, 3 x 6-8, 2/2/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: 30 degree incline DB fly, 3 x 6-8, 2/1/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- C2: Dead stop skull crusher, 3 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
One of the really cool things about the 3 then 1 method is the fact that your training weights should increase over the course of the workout. Okay, this is true for other training methods such as wave loading or the 1/6 contrast method. However, it is ESPECIALLY true for the 3 then 1 method.
During your supra-maximal eccentric rep your body is going to call upon all of your dormant uber-fast-twitch muscle fibers to decelerate the weight.
When you attempt your next set of 3 reps all of these fibers are still going to be activated. In other words your force output on the set of 3 reps is going to be absolutely through the roof!
Likewise this maximal triple will further potentiate your strength when you perform your next supra-maximal eccentric single. The two types of sets have a synergistic effect on each other which propel each other to new heights.
If you love pushing yourself to your absolute limit then you are going to LOVE the 3 then 1 method! Just be sure to use the correct tempo on the eccentric singles. You MUST lower the weight under control over 10 seconds or run the risk of finding your pec at taco bell 5 streets down!
You now know exactly how to perform 13 of the greatest chest workouts for strength of all time! These training methods have been used by many of the world’s greatest strength coaches for many decades.
If you are stuck at a bench press plateau or want to build a stronger chest I strongly recommend you give one of these routines a shot.
Of course there is no perfect routine that will work for everyone. After all, we all differ in our goals, our training histories, and of course our neurotransmitter profiles. That being said I am confident that MANY of these routines will give you some of the best gains of your entire life.
“It is better to risk starving to death than surrender. If you give up on your dreams, what’s left?”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
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