Routines like Starting Strength, StrongLifts, and other derivatives often have unpleasant non-aesthetic side effects.
One of them would be non-existent chest development despite pushing relatively heavy weights during the later stages of the programs.
Why does it happen?
All those strength routines throw the lifter into survival mode. In other words, your job is to move a bunch of weight from A to B in order to survive. If you don’t, you “die”. Hence why the body activates its strongest muscles at the expense of the weaker ones.
Another problem is that those routines throw too much weight on the bar relative to one’s strength too quickly.
As a result, lifters often start to experience shoulder pain (the joint doesn’t have time to adapt) and resort to powerlifting benching (elbows maximally tucked in).
This technique shifts even more stress on the anterior delts and triceps while robbing the chest of work.
It’s not uncommon for people who finish those routines to be benching their bodyweight or thereabout for reps with no chest to show for it.
Meanwhile, there are people who only do push-ups and dips at the local park and have pecs that they can voluntarily flex.
This is not a fantasy. Go to your local playground, and you will see many young men with decent chest development (for a natty, of course).
Maybe things have changed, but the versions of Starting Strength and SL5x5 that I remember had 3 chest workouts in 2 weeks consisting of respectively 3×5 and 5×5 bench presses.
Let’s do some math:
(3×5) x 3 = 45 reps in 14 days or about 22-23 reps per week (Starting Strength)
(5×5) x 3 = 75 reps in 14 days or about 32-33 reps per week (SL5x5)
Meanwhile, you are squatting 3 times a week on both programs:
(3×5) x 6 = 90 reps per 14 days or 45 per week (SL5x5)
(5×5) x 6 = 150 reps per 14 days or 75 reps per week (SL5x5)
On top of those lifts, you are also doing deadlifts and power cleans (more glute worship).
It’s not surprising that your glutes become your most developed muscle group on similar programs. After all, those routines are fundamentally glute specialization programs when the cards are on the table.
And by the way, I don’t count the overhead press as a chest exercise because it isn’t. Yes, some upper chest is involved but not enough for anyone to care. Also, as far as I remember, Rippetoe is no longer teaching the strict press, but some low IQ cheat press that robs your delts of work too.
The low volume is detrimental for 2 reasons:
- Not enough muscular stimulation.
3×5 bench presses with a heavy weight are hard on the CNS and the joints but not so hard on the muscles.
2. Not enough time under tension to build a mind-muscle connection
Sets of 5 are too short. It’s much easier to activate a muscle when the weight is lighter and you do higher reps.
How To Fix Garbage Chest Development Caused By 5×5 Viruses
Forget About Strength
Some professors may say that benching 80kg or so is not enough to build a chest and that you need to reach 3-4 plates to be a “real man” or whatever.
That’s a lie.
A bodyweight bench press is enough to build your chest muscles provided that you aren’t malnourished (extremely underweight due to not eating).
Plenty of people have built their chests with push-ups and dips. Neither the push-up nor the dip forces you to lift your entire bodyweight.
When you do push-ups you’re lifting about 60-80% of your bodyweight depending on the version.
When you do dips, you’re lifting your entire bodyweight without the forearms. So, the lifted weight is still less than your bodyweight.
Then why should you bench 150kg to get a chest?
If you want to destroy your joints and tear something, keep pressing heavy and eating one cake a day as recommended by the permabulkers.
I can guarantee you that more weight on the bar will EXACERBATE the issue rather than fix it.
Yes, I have never seen a man with a small chest bench press 4 plates, but then again I have never seen a natural bench that much weight without weighing about as much himself.
If you want to live in the real world, keep reading. If you want fantasies and strength fetishes, this is not the place.
The weight MUST be lowered for the following reasons:
- To reduce the stress on the shoulder joint so that it can assume a position that engages the chest more.
- To put you out of survival mode so that you can integrate a weaker muscle group into the pushing chain.
The chest can be trained 2 times a week even when you’re natural with average recovery. The key is to lift lighter weights and stop 1-2 reps before failure.
The extra volume stimulates extra growth and improves your mind-muscle connection and form.
Perform Chest Activation Drills
People who do those routines often don’t know how it feels to have your chest muscles truly firing under load. I was one of those people.
Below are a few tips for activating your chest muscles.
Mode 1: Easy
- Put your arms up as if you are going to do a bench press with a wide grip.
- Relax your wrists, turn each palm towards the other. Keep your fingers slightly open. (The purpose is to keep the forearm muscles fairly relaxed.)
- The elbows should be slightly bent.
- Imagine that there’s a spring going from one inner elbow (the bicep insert) to the other.
- Now squeeze that spring without flexing or extending your elbows.
- Do it until your palms touch.
If you still have a hard time feeling your chest, do the exercise with one arm while placing your free palm on the working pec.
Imagine how the pectoral is shortening to bring your arm closer and closer to your body.
Mode 2: Easy
Do the same drill but in the form of a wall push. Obviously, in this version, your fingers do not touch.
Another option would be to use gymnastic rings elevated to the point where the drill is very easy. In that case, the palms can still touch.
Mode 3: Slightly Harder.
In this mode, do the same exercise but while performing a push-up your knees. Do not fully lock out your elbows. The goal is to feel the pecs firing.
Mode 4: DB Bench
Grab a pair of very light dumbbells and lay on a bench (flat or with a slight incline).
Use a neutral grip. (Palms facing each other.)
Push your chest out as if you’re trying to touch the ceiling with it.
Lower the weight while flaring the elbows (some elbow tucking is allowed but keep it to a minimum).
The entire time, the neutral grip is preserved.
Lower the weight until you feel a pleasant stretch in the chest.
This is not a fly! It’s a DB press. At the bottom, the elbows should form a 90-degree or a smaller angle.
Now, bring the bells close to one another while only thinking of your elbows (squeezing the imaginary spring once again). Keep the elbows slightly flexed at the top.
Note: The same can be done with a pair of rings lowered to the needed level. The exercise should feel very easy on the joints.
Perform 5 sets of 12-20 reps three times a week. 60-90 seconds of rest. Never to failure (1-2 reps away from it).
If you want to do more exercises, reduce the frequency to 2 times a week and perform them after this movement. Do high reps for the other exercises too.
As you get stronger and have learned how to use the chest, you can lower the reps to 8-12.
Can I still bench?
Yes, the bench press is a good chest exercise when performed for that purpose rather than to just move the weight.
However, as already mentioned, it will be necessary to lower the weight substantially and increase the reps.
Personally, I prefer dumbbells and ring push-ups.
Push-ups Can Give You Poor Chest Development Too
Ego push-ups can also result in poor chest development. People often do ego reps (short range and too much shoulder and triceps) to claim “I can do 100 push-ups.”
Don’t do this.
A quality set of 20 push-ups is worth more than 100 banana push-ups. Truth be told, most people (even advanced bodyweight guys) cannot do 100 push-ups with good form. (It’s either banana mode and/or short-range floor humping.)