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Chest workouts- or including chest training in a regular routine- are vital to anybody wanting to build a strong, well-defined upper body. Whether you are looking for functional strength and fitness, or you simply want to look good with your shirt off, developing your pectorals will be key, whether or not you’re into CrossFit.
This being said, there are some great benefits to be had for CrossFitters from having a broad, strong chest. There are also some great workouts you can do within the parameters of a CrossFit regime to build up your chest.
We’re going to look into some of these workouts in this article, showing you how to use CrossFit to hit your upper body goals.
CrossFit is a form of high intensity interval training (HIIT) that combines strength and conditioning. Workouts are formed of functional movement patterns, performed under load, at a high intensity level.
As movements are functional, they are generally based on those that you would use in your day-to-day life- squats, pushes, pulls, jumps, climbs and so forth. Generally, importance is given to the development of power and explosivity (though this isn’t always the case). Most workouts will feature some form of squat, push up and/or weightlifting/barbell movements, utilising sets that are usually performed for a predetermined time period (rather than the more traditional method of going by rep ranges).
Emphasis is placed on load, distance and speed, which adherents credit with making CrossFit workouts so effective. Workouts may make use of various types of kit, including kettle bells, rowers and bikes, medicine balls, speed ropes, rings and plyo boxes.
CrossFit is similar to Orange Theory in that there is a standard workout of the day (WOD– more on this below) that all members complete on the same day. CrossFit host the WOD on their website, including all details needed to perform it.
Many of the functional movements included in CrossFit can be used to aid in building a strong, powerful and well-defined chest, as we will see below.
CrossFitters generally face a few prejudices. Amongst the many misconceptions revolving around the movement is that they don’t train their chest- mostly because CrossFit workouts tend to stay away from the bench press. It isn’t what CrossFitters would call a ‘functional’ movement, so they see no reason to include it in their repertoire.
To many traditionalists, a lack of bench pressing means a lack of chest training. This is not the case, of course: the bench press is just one exercise amongst many, and it isn’t the best chest builder by any stretch of the imagination.
Aside from this, the bench press has begun to make an appearance in CrossFit, featuring in a couple of recent meets- but this is slightly beside the point. The point is that there are many, many exercises that show up more commonly in CrossFit workouts that work the chest perfectly for both strength and hypertrophy. Having a large chest does not depend on how much you can bench- just ask any gymnast! For this reason, our workouts below will contain a mixture of bench presses and less commonly seen exercises like suspension push ups with TRX cables and plyometric pushups for power.
What your chest workout actually looks like will largely depend on your ability and, more importantly, your own personal goals. This will dictate everything from your exercise selection, to your rep range, intensity, frequency and variety.
For example, if you want to improve strength- anything akin to your one rep max on something like the bench press- then you will want to focus on low-rep, highly loaded exercises that use a lot of weight. You will probably want to train once per week, sometimes twice, with plenty of rest both between sets and sessions.
If you’re looking for mass, on the other hand, you will want higher rep ranges (8-20) at lower weights. You will want to train two to three times per week (or more, sometimes) with very short rest periods between sets. This will enable you to hit hypertrophy.
Variety will be different in CrossFit compared to something more traditional like powerlifting or bodybuilding. The whole point of CrossFit is that there are plenty of options, with a great deal of variety, so hitting the same five or six exercises week after week probably won’t cut it. You will want a different WOD every session, each one contributing to chest strength or size in some way.
That’s enough theory, now. Let’s take a look at a few sample workouts, all based on CrossFit models, that you can include in your training to give yourself the well-defined, functional, powerful chest musculature that you want.
For all of these, we’re going to be going with a giant set format. This is commonly found in CrossFit and is a great way to cause a lot of trauma in the muscles in a very short amount of time. Each one will be focussed on a different part of the chest.
Including these workouts in your routine, or employing other, regular CrossFit methodology into your chest training, can bring great results. You should see your power output improve drastically, alongside your muscular stability and endurance. Hypertrophy and strength gains will both follow in short order.
There are some common factors that you will want to see cropping up time and time again, largely surrounding timings and implementation. Common terms and specific programming tricks inherent to CrossFit include:
Pick a time and an exercise. Do as many reps of that exercise as possible in that time. For instance, for your chest, pick dips or man-makers and see how many you can do in 10 minutes. Alternatively, pick a push up variation, give yourself one set, and see how many reps you can do without stopping.
Choose and exercise and a rep range (usually quite low.) Perform this exercise at the start of every minute for a set period, using the rest of the minute to rest. For instance, pick the bench press or plyometric push ups. Do five reps at the top of every minute for ten minutes.
This is a no-brainer in CrossFit. They are long, hard and intense: CrossFit’s hardest challenges have become famous. Pick one that includes push ups, muscle ups, or any other chest exercise and see how you do.
For a super-set, pick a heavy compound exercise like the dumbbell chest press or weighted dips. Hit 5 reps or so. Then go straight into an accessory or antagonistic exercise (like dumbbell flyes or bent over rows, respectively). For a giant-set, thread together three or more exercises in a similar fashion. You will be able to get a lot of work done very quickly, whilst enjoying the conditioning aspect so beloved in CrossFit.
Ladders are a series of exercises put together in a set during which you increase the number of reps by one each time they are performed. For the chest, try going for one jump push up, then two, then three, and see how high you can get.
A word of caution before we get too carried away with the many ways that CrossFit can aid your chest training.
As CrossFit is high intensity, there are some risks involved in taking part.
Even for high intensity training, CrossFit can be particularly bad for risk of injury, however. They are notorious for including sub-par coaches in their boxes who put their members at risk. There is a culture of seeking the greatest fatigue possible, which has a direct relationship with break down in form. In addition, the types of explosive, multi-plane compound movements typically performed, with minimal instruction, can quite easily lead to injury.
It’s thought that as many a fifth of all CrossFit participants hurt themselves badly at some point. This is incredibly high for a recreational activity. The fatigue that CrossFitter’s thrive on causes their form to break down, which, coupled with often substandard instruction and a penchant for tough, Olympic style movements, will lead to athletes getting hurt.
There are, however, some things you can do to mitigate these risks.
The movements used in CrossFit are dangerous. However, a supportive training space and a coach who knows what they’re doing, how to instruct good form, and how to keep an eye out for people’s safety will make all the difference. You will also want a coach who doesn’t push you too hard. Not that you want to take it easy- you’re going along to tire yourself out and achieve progression, after all. But a coach who tries to push you beyond your limit on hard exercises will likely get you hurt.
Ask around, find out a coach and/or box’s reputation beforehand, and dip your toe in with some beginners’ classes. If you like what you see and hear, great. If not, try somewhere else.
We’ve already seen that poor form- either through inexperience or through fatigue- is central to increasing risk of injury. The inverse is obviously true. Good form will reduce your risk of injury. Whilst a good coach and supportive, knowledgeable training partners are indispensable in keeping your form in check, responsibility ultimately rests on you.
Do everything you can to maintain good form. Don’t ego lift- keep weights and reps within an achievable range. Listen to your instructor and training partners, taking any constructive criticism on board. Train in front of a mirror from time to time to make sure you’re getting it right. Learn your cues, so that your body goes into proper technique naturally. Most of all, take your time: work up to heavy weights, take proper rests if you need them, take your time over set up when necessary.
If something hurts, take heed. This doesn’t mean the low, burning sensation we all get when our muscles are fatiguing- you need this for progression. It means the sharp pain or uncomfortable seizing that we all experience from time to time.
If you feel like you need to pull back from training to keep yourself safe, do so. If you are in the right environment, those around you will support you. Either forego training the trouble area for a while, go with lighter weights than usual, or find an easier and/or safer exercise variation.
If you do all of these things, eat well, sleep plenty and take enough time to recover between sessions, you should manage to go injury free as you train.
To get the most out of your chest training, you need to know a little about how the chest is made up.
The chest is composed of two fundamental areas- the sternal and clavicular heads. Each will benefit from a mixture of indirect, compound training and direct, specific training. Isolation exercises should accompany core, compound exercises in order to maximise gains in the form of both hypertrophy and strength. Though big compound movements will form the majority of the trauma that will lead to overload, smaller, isolation work will be what hits the two sternal and clavicular heads directly to finish them off.
This is where CrossFit can fall down a little. It is known for its large, compound, ‘functional’ movements, not its assistance work.
Therefore, you should use CrossFit primarily with large scale compound work, where a lot of trauma can be gained, whilst recognising that you will either need to supplement with isolation work or expect gains to come more slowly and much less completely than might be found on a more traditional bodybuilding program.
Due to the forces the chest has to contend with, the way it’s made up, and the fact that it is anatomically positioned to take a high degree of stretch under load, you can’t train it too often. It takes a great deal of trauma from overloading training and will need time to recover.
Always make sure that you leave yourself at least 24-48 hours between chest workouts to adequately recover. Couple this rest with proper nutrition and plenty of sleep. Don’t train the chest directly more than three times per week.
Experienced athletes will generally benefit from at least 8 sets of chest exercises per week to maintain gains. At least 10 sets of direct chest work will be needed to make further gains, with many people responding best to 12-20 sets. This can all be one session or can be split over a couple.
However, when going with heavy weights or complex compound movements, as typified in CrossFit, you may need to lower this slightly. These kinds of exercises and simulative and disruptive and will take far more recovery.