There’s things that float around in our community that simply are not true, and today I want to begin diving deeper into some of these topics, by starting off with chest training and covering the ground for those pre and post-top surgery (spoiler: there's absolutely no difference in training between these two groups of people).
Can we train our chests to be smaller pre-surgery? Will training it give you better top surgery results? What should you be doing once you've had top surgery? Let’s start burying some of the bullsh*t.
Before I begin, there will be words used in this blog post to describe the tissue in your chest, which will inevitably make it sound female. I have to do this, in order for you to understand the difference between chest muscle and chest tissue. If this will make you uncomfortable, don't read on. However, I believe if you can read on, you won't regret a thing. As this is the only chest guide you'll ever need to read again.
What Makes Up Your Chest?
If we're looking at this purely from a muscular point of view, there's one chest (aka pectoral) muscle we want to put all of our chest building focus on. The muscle I'm talking about here is the Pectoralis Major. Even though this is technically one muscle, we can divide it up into three sections (which will become important later on when I discuss training). These sections can be seen below:
Now we need to look at the chest from the point of view of someone who is pre-top surgery, so still has varying amounts of breast tissue. Breast tissue is made up of glandular tissue, but in varying degrees will also contain fatty tissue. Quite a lot of your breast tissue lies on top of your pectoralis major.
Can I Reduce The Size Of My Chest Pre-Top Surgery?
The answer here is simple; it depends how much of your current levels of breast tissue are made up of glandular tissue or fatty tissue. More specifically, I've seen time and time again in those who are carrying a little extra body fat and need to lose some weight, that breast size will massively reduce when weight loss occurs. However, glandular tissue cannot be burnt. It's not a fuel source for the body, therefore it's going to stay put until a surgeon comes along and takes it out. No amount of chest pressing or calorie reductions will change this.
Will I See My Pecs If I Gain Muscle Pre-Top Surgery?
Just like most things in the world of fitness, the answer to this question is going to depend on who is asking the question. If you have very limited amounts of glandular tissue (so your breasts are really small), there's a high chance that, if you can build up enough pectoral muscle, you'll see them before having any kind of top surgery. Unfortunately, for most, this isn't feasible due to the level of breast tissue.
So, Why Should I Train My Chest Before Having Top Surgery?
For two very, very important reasons. The first (and this applies to every human on the planet) is that you'll end up with awfully undertrained muscles, leading to imbalances and, sometimes, injury. Remember, any chest pressing or flying that you do doesn't solely train the pectoralis major. Think of your delts, triceps, pectoralis minor (the little dude that nobody can see), and your rotator cuffs to name just a few. These guys also need training as well.
Secondly, and probably the reason you'll all care the most about, is you'll end up with a nicely contoured chest post surgery. Without wanting to toot my own trumpet here, I came off the surgeons table with very, very obvious pec muscles. Could you see these pre-surgery? Hell no. I had way too much breast tissue. But, you can for sure see them now. That's down to the work I put in for years on the run up to surgery, and the work I continue to put in now. Want to make your surgeons life easier? Train your damn chest.
How Do I Grow My Pecs?
And here we are now, the daddy of the questions. Prepare for the most valuable but easy to understand chest training lesson of your whole life...
Firstly, let's look at the two movement types that will dominate your chest training; presses and flys.
Presses are undoubtedly the most popular, with people bench pressing their lives away. But, is this really the route we should be taking with our presses?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to sit here and tell you to never barbell bench press, but It's an exercise I just feel is badly understood. Let me start out by making something very clear; I don't bench press. I also haven't bench pressed in years. My shoulders feel great and, more importantly, my chest continues to grow month on month. Here's my main issue with the barbell bench press: It rarely matches the user. I mean, what can we actually change on a barbell bench press? Starting height of the rack, and grip width. Now, let's look at the cable chest press.
We can change the cable height, cable angle, starting position, and end position. Meaning there aren't many people on this planet I couldn't set a cable chest press up for. That's really the main thing I try to get across when it comes to exercise, it has to fit you. Not the person who you've seen doing it online. This isn't about to become a post hating on the bench press, I just want each and every one of you to get the most bang for your buck. You're going to be putting in the effort, so I want you to get as much of a reward as possible. Exercise selection is key. So, what pressing options do we have?
• Barbell Bench Press
• Dumbbell Bench Press
• Cable Chest Press
• Machine Chest Press
• Smith Machine Chest Press
• Push Ups
Next, flys. What options do we have?
• Dumbbell Fly
• Machine Fly
• Cable Fly
One thing that is massively underrated in the world of resistance training is the order in which you do things. This is up there with the importance of exercise selection. Here's how I would run a chest based workout, designed to maximise your training...
A) Converging Press
A converging press means your hands move closer together as you press. This can be seen when using dumbbells, a cable machine, and some chest press machines. Why place this first in your workout?
A converging press is the most optimal path of motion when training the pecs. You'll find it's how your hands want to naturally move. However, it's also the most high skill type of press you can do. What effects skill? Fatigue. You'll be more fatigued the closer you are to the end of the session, so putting your converging press first is most optimal in my opinion.
As a side note, there's also something else we want to look for when picking out a converging press, and this is known as an upward arc. We really want our hands to finish slightly higher than they started. With a cable press, this is easy enough to create (just start the pulleys a little lower than shoulder height), However, with a machine, we have to be more careful. The best thing to do? Look for the machines point of rotation. Is it above your head, or on the ground? If it's above your head, you should get an upward arc. If it's on the ground, you'll usually end up pressing downwards, which is something I would avoid in most people. Firstly, because it's not how to chest wants to be trained. Secondly, because it requires a lot of shoulder internal rotation. If this is unchecked, it could lead to niggles and injuries (a good reason to get a good eye from either someone you trust who is in the know, or a PT/ coach).
Second in the rotation for me has to be a fly. We have multiple options here (as listed above) but, as always, there's going to be better and worse options for you personally.
To play it safe, I would generally opt for a seated cable machine fly. This way we can adjust everything to fit you personally by playing with the pulley height and starting position.
C. Parallel Press
Finally, we have our parallel press. This sounds fancy, but it simply means our hands stay in exactly the same place as we move from top to bottom of our press. For this we have a few options, including a barbell bench press, smith machine presses, some machine chest presses (often times the ones with the point of rotation on the ground are also parallel), and push ups.
Reps & Sets
These two come together alongside of things like tempo and form to create your overall weekly volume. This is going to look very different person to person (again, sorry!). Let's say you're completely new to any kind of resistance training, your first focus is going to be on exercise form and tempo. Training until your eyes pop out simply isn't appropriate (or indeed needed) right now. So, in most cases like that, here is what I would do.
Pick out one exercise from each of the three movement categories mentioned above, and perform each exercise for 2 sets of 15 reps. Focussing on perfecting your exercise set up (making sure they all feel good for you), form (making sure it looks damn good), and tempo (making sure your moving the weight with control). Do this two times per week, so you're training 12 sets for your chest in total. Here's the part nobody is any good at...
You have to do this consistently for months (and, do I dare say, years), in order to see changes. However, after 3 months I'd like to think your form and tempo will have begun to drastically improve, and this is where we can look to play around with the rep ranges, weights, and therefore intensity. After 3 months you still might not be in a position to take each exercise to failure, but you should be able to perform some of your sets at a higher weight for lower reps (8-10).
Keep a good eye on your physical progress through tape measurements and photos. 12 sets per week using good form, tempo, and intensity might not be enough for some people. If this is the case, you then have to gradually add in a couple more sets, give it time to see if it helps, and once again make any adjustments you need to.
I'll throw myself in here as an example. Right now I'm actually running 12 sets of chest based exercises per week, however, I've been training for a long time now, and every single one of these sets is taken to failure. This allows me to see physical progress each month. But, that's me! If you're not currently in a position to take things to failure, you might find that you need to add in a few extra sets over time to make up for this.
How About My Upper Chest? Can I Train That On It's Own? Same With My Lower Chest?
First of all, let's link back to what we discussed in regards to the three sections of the Pectoralis Major. It's far too common for people to think this muscle is made up of two areas (upper and lower) when, in fact, there's three different fiber divisions, covering the top of your chest (named clavicular), the middle of your chest (named sternal), and the bottom of your chest (named abdominal).
As the Pectoralis Major is technically one muscle that comes and attaches on to one spot on the humerus (upper arm bone), it's impossible to completely isolate one area of the chest. However, we do have the ability to play with the path of motion of certain exercises and bias one area of the chest over the others. A cable cuffed fly is a really great way to do this. By changing the height of the pulley, I'm able to bring the cable through different parts of my chest, and therefore bias one particular area over the others. Again, the whole chest is working. But one area is just doing a little extra work.
However, in an untrained individual, it's very unlikely one area of your chest is going to need more work than the others. Please spread your volume equally, and focus on training the chest as a whole. There's an obsession with upper chest growth right now, and it's a little too focussed on one area for my liking. Let's just grow the whole damn pec.
Will Anything Change With My Chest Training After Top Surgery?
Once you're fully recovered, nothing should be any different. You'll gradually be able to go back to what you were doing before, only this time you'll be able to actually see all of your pecs!
Did I Miss Anything? Hopefully that's every single chest based question covered! However, if not, drop me a message and I'll be happy to help. Happy chest training!