Pecs, Lies and Surgical Tape
Sense and nonsense about strength training research
When a five-year-old asks “Why is the sky blue?” the age-appropriate answer is “Because it reflects the ocean.” If this is your son or daughter, in a few years you can explain to this child in detail the phenomenon of Rayleigh scattering (along with the truth about Santa Claus, weapons of mass destruction and the fact that the Weider Research Clinic was actually a broom closet!) So...why all this ranting in response to one simple question? I’ll tell you why.
When I am asked questions about training, I’ve found that the person asking often expects a simple answer. In one training booklet written by a former Mr. Olympia, this champion bodybuilder was asked, “When is the best time to train?” His answer: “Two-thirty.” That’s all! No further explanation necessary – just get to the gym at two-thirty and you will achieve muscle mass beyond your wildest dreams. This attitude is also reflected in the approach many strength coaches and personal trainers take towards their education. Their number-one problem: the Internet.
The Internet should not be anyone’s primary source of training information! When I discovered the Internet, I thought it was the greatest thing in strength training since the creation of the Joe Weider Arm Blaster, but I was wrong. Now there is so much nonsense circulating in cyberspace that it’s impossible for the average individual to determine what works and what does not. If people stopped relying so much on the Internet for their education, the quality of the information published would improve and there would be no more “overnight experts.” Individuals would seek out experts based upon their reputation, not their Internet marketing skills.
Building Mental Muscle
I highly recommend taking college courses on the basic sciences, such as anatomy, biomechanics and exercise physiology. But learning shouldn’t stop there. I still devote about 16 to 18 hours a week reading, year round, and I’ve found that my respected colleagues in strength coaching and functional medicine do the same.
There are many excellent books that will increase your knowledge base – Human Kinetics offers many quality publications by great sport scientists. To get you started, you can’t go wrong with books by Roger Enoka, Steve Fleck, William Kraemer and Mike Stone. Master the basics, and then keep a regular learning schedule. One effective approach is to devote four days a week to training and one full day devoted to furthering your education – call it “Library Day.”
When it comes to periodicals, you need to expand your research beyond reading the latest issue of Muscle & Fiction or Bodybuilding Buddies. You need to study peer-reviewed, scientific publications – and you have to go beyond just reading the abstracts or conclusions. In fact, I learned German for the simple reason that although I had access to abstracts from German sports journals written in English, I wanted to learn how these studies were conducted. Why learn German? Two good reasons. One: At the time I was in college, German sport scientists were leading the field in their research in the field of strength and conditioning; and two: In North America the researchers tended to focus on aerobic exercise. Now, however, the US has caught up and there are many excellent sport scientists in the US and many excellent journals. But you don’t just read journal articles like a novel.
If you don’t have time now to take an entry-level college research course, I’ll recommend a great book on the subject. It’s called Research Methods in Physical Activity by Thomas, Nelson and Silverman. The book’s title may be extremely dry, but the content is interesting and extremely readable (it even has some jokes in it!) and will take you through all the steps involved in designing research papers.
To take your study plan to the next level, you need Evidence-Based Medicine by Straus, Richardson, Glasziou and Haynes. This valuable textbook will show you how to do focused, computer-aided searches to determine the “best” answers for questions related to fields such as strength and conditioning and functional medicine. And note my emphasis on the word “best.” There is a staggering amount of research available on just about any subject, but much of it is garbage. For example, Dr. Jeffrey Bland, who was Linus Pauling’s assistant, said that of the 50,000 papers about vitamin C that had been published at that time, only 352 could be considered valid science. Using the skills taught in Evidence-Based Medicine will enable you to bypass all the garbage and to extract the most relevant resources available.
As for journals, one US journal I subscribe to is the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Although many of the literature reviews in the articles tend to ignore European research, it is a peer-reviewed publication and an excellent source for original, scientific research on resistance training.
Building a Better Pec
I often get questions about the best way to develop pectoral muscles that are “thick, wide and high.” One common question is “What are the best exercises to target either the upper or lower pecs?”
The first step in being able to answer this question is to look at the anatomy of the chest. Although those who attend my seminars are usually extremely well educated and very successful in their market niche, it’s obvious from the questions asked that many lack a working knowledge of anatomy – or simply have forgotten much of what they learned. That is why this year I decided to include a seminar devoted to functional anatomy for the strength coach and personal trainer: “Anatomy for Strength Coaches,” which is part of the Poliquin Strength Institute’s series of seminars called the Special Consideration Training Series. The instructors are Eoin Lacey, a PICP Level 4 International Coach, and John Conner, a PICP Level 3 candidate. They do a great job in showing how to apply anatomy to exercise performance and program design – in fact, much of the class is taught in the weightroom with hands-on instruction.
Getting back to our question, the pectoralis major is one muscle with two heads, clavicular and sternocostal, that cover the chest and insert on the upper arm bone (humerus). The clavicular head originates at the center portion of the collar bone (clavical), and in lay language this area is referred to as the upper pecs. One of its primary functions is to raise the arm. The sternocostal head originates at the costal cartilage of the first six ribs and the adjoining section of the breast bone (sternum), and is called the lower pecs. One of its primary functions is to lower the arm.
One method of determining how muscles are activated during an exercise is called electromyography (EMG), a diagnostic tool with a history that spans several centuries and includes a working prototype first presented in 1890, at which time the term electromyography was introduced. In its present form, an EMG involves placing small electrodes in the skin with a needle, or on the skin with surgical tape. These electrodes collect information about the electrical activity of the muscle and send this information to a machine that translates this into data representing the degree of muscular contraction.
In researching the answer for this question, I found one paper using EMGs that compared muscle activation between the incline bench press and the decline bench press. The authors concluded that the lower portion of the pectorals was more active during decline presses than during incline presses, but that neither exercise completely isolated these muscles. From this data you can conclude that exercises which position the hands farther from the center of gravity will more strongly work the upper pecs (e.g., incline bench presses), and exercises that position the hands closer to the center of gravity (e.g., bench presses) work the lower pecs. However, this study did not look at the flat bench press, a consideration that turns out to have significant ramifications in exercise selection.
I say this because I then found another study that did EMG measurements of the incline, flat, and decline presses. It found that the maximum recruitment of the upper pecs was with an incline press, and the maximum recruitment of the lower pecs was with a flat, not decline, press. The study also looked at hand spacing, and what’s interesting is that it found that a wider grip did not significantly increase the involvement of the lower pecs in flat bench presses. With this information, I could now confidently answer this pec training question by saying that incline presses would be best for the upper pecs, and flat bench presses would be best for the lower pecs. But there’s more.
I found another EMG study that examined the differences between muscle activation during the barbell bench press, the dumbbell bench press and the dumbbell fly. What the researchers found was that the dumbbell fly had less muscle activation time than either the barbell bench presses or the dumbbell bench presses. With this information, I could expand my answer by saying that the dumbbell fly is an inferior exercise for developing the lower pecs.
The next step was to search for research that looks at various hand positions, and I found a study that looked at the differences in hand position using a special bar called a Football Bar. What this two-month study found was that of three grips tested, the thumbs-out grip produced the greatest increases in strength (a 12.3 percent average improvement compared to a 6.2 percent improvement in the conventional bench press). Again, this gave me more practical information to use in program design, and also in terms of exercise equipment purchases (which is why both my gym and the PICP Chicago are equipped with Football Bars).
Hopefully this discussion has given you an appreciation of the amount of education that is required to become an elite personal trainer or strength coach. The idea is to give the best answers on how to train properly, not the simplest ones.