One of the tragedies of the ever-undulating aesthetic ideal is how it has forced us into boxes of what is deemed to be attractive and permissible for our given sex.
Men are expected to have big, bulging biceps and washboard abs. Calves that are ripping at the seams of the skinny jeans that attempt to contain them. We’re supposed to be over 6 feet tall, with straight and white teeth, an angular jawline, and thick head of hair.
Speaking as a man, it can be difficult to consistently live up to these standards.
Unfortunately, women have it MUCH harder.
If you’re a modern woman, an hourglass figure is mandatory. Your legs must be long and lean and attach to glutes that are perky and muscular (but not too muscular). Hips should be wide enough to make the waist look small, but not “ant” wide. This prototypical woman’s midsection is flat but not too defined (ripped abs are too masculine). Breasts are in much the same ballpark as the glutes—they’re expected to defy physics by being large and perky and symmetrical. Shoulders must be narrow. Arms should be lean and muscular but not too lean and muscular. And I haven’t even covered the back which is becoming increasingly popular as a source of critique (and pride) among women.
[Disclaimer: This is my interpretation of societal standards for the “ideal” female figure. None of these are MY opinions (Do not come after me I’m begging you)]
Women don’t have it easy. And attempting to live up to these completely unrealistic expectations can lead to irrational decision-making and even body modification.
We see this with the prevalence of plastic surgeries that have become more and more common. Encountering a woman who has had no cosmetic “touch-ups” is pretty much an anomaly nowadays. And it’s becoming normalized at younger and more impressionable ages, too. Whereas 100 years ago, physiques were more-or-less a product of genetics, it’s damn-near impossible to tell nowadays what is natural versus what is artificially enhanced.
[Note: I have nothing against cosmetic surgeries. But the point is the point]
We also see this when it comes to the more acceptable (but no less potentially harmful) form of body modification: resistance training.
Lifting weights and exercising might not be conventionally thought of as body mod, but that’s exactly what it is. And making poor choices in this arena can be consequential. Proper direction, instruction, and education is desperately needed.
When women are examining a training program, which specialization do you think they will gravitate towards?
If you answered anything other than “B”, you haven’t been in this industry long enough.
Part of the irony of coaching so many women is that, no matter the level or experience or long-term goals, they all want the same things from their program: bigger glutes, fuller delts, a smaller waist, and a well-defined back.
Counter to these desires, there is an equally long list of things that are typically avoided: quads, arms, traps, and pecs. (And this list quickly overtakes the former if you’re talking to a bodybuilding competitor).
Quads are presumed to take away from the glutes (Erroneously)
Arms are thought to take away from the pecs (Again, misguided)
Traps are thought of as manly or masculine (Why not an indication of strength?)
Pecs are…Wait what is the issue with the pecs again?
Well, let’s think about this anatomically…With the quads, arms, and traps, you have superficially visible muscles. Development here is going to “pop” and be pretty unavoidable. But with the pecs, the real issue that we run into is that they’re just much less noticeable, even when properly developed, due to being covered (at least partially) by the breasts.
And this feature has often been one of the many reasons put forth for why women don’t need to train the pecs.
Why expend precious effort and recovery resources for a muscle that nobody will even see?
Why attempt to grow a “masculine” muscle?
If the muscles of interest are the delts, glutes, and back, what’s the point of training the pecs anyway?
Training (and fitness in general) has a laundry-list of misconceptions that have slowly infected the collective mind. If you repeat something enough times, no matter how true or untrue it is, it will eventually stick and be presumed true. Many of the myths associated with women and chest work are subtle and just close enough to rationality that they’ve become unsurprisingly unquestioned.
But I think it’s about time we hold these ideas to the fire and see how they do under the heat of some unbiased scrutiny:
Myth 1- If you have a breast augmentation, you should never train your pecs.
This is something I see perpetuated by MANY doctors and surgeons alike. And coming from this source of perceived authority, you’d think that this would be the final word on the matter. But luckily for us (or unlucky depending on your frame of reference), most of these doctors don’t understand training enough to be the ultimate arbiter of truth on this subject.
Depending on a few factors (i.e. size of the augmentation, placement of the implant, etc), there is a very high likelihood that pec training will eventually be able to be resumed, though it’s important to understand that everyone will have a unique experience and response. What takes one woman a year to recover from may take another only 6 weeks. Whereas one woman may never be able to bench press heavy again, another may be able to surpass old PRs.
There aren’t firm and hard rules here. The best advice I can give (and do give to my clients) is to slowly taper the intensity and complexity of the movement up over time and assess tolerance. Avoid exercise that overload the stretch like dips or DB flyes as these will have the greatest likelihood of being problematic.
In my (secondhand) experience, good surgeons will give recommendations based on lifestyle and are able to alleviate most of the potential issues to ensure a swift recovery. In these cases, direct pec training is not only possible, but recommended (for reasons we will get into later).
Myth 2- Training your pecs makes your breasts smaller.
While this was definitely something I believed in high school, I’m happy to report that my critical thinking has matured.
Hypertrophy and fat metabolism don’t work this way. Fat doesn’t turn into muscle and newly formed muscle doesn’t just evict existing fat cells. The way in which this phenomenon works is exactly the same as it would in any other area of the body: general body-compositional changes. It’s not a local effect of training the pecs causing the breasts to get smaller. Correlation has gotten confused with the causation—which in this case is an overall decrease in body-fat percentage. And this, of course, leads to decreased fat storage in the breasts as well.
So if you want to train your pecs and not experience this effect, all you have to do is eat in a slight caloric surplus.
Myth 3- Developed pecs are masculine.
I’m not wasting too much metaphorical breath on this one. No muscle is inherently masculine or feminine. Anatomy is agnostic to the perturbations of societal norms.
If a man tells you that your pecs are too masculine, you should probably show him just how powerful your transverse humeral adduction is.
Myth 4- Training your pecs directly means they will get more muscular.
And this is where it pays to have a deeper understanding of physiology and exercise science (and where I can hopefully step in to fill the gaps).
Even though resistance training is associated with hypertrophy, it doesn’t mean that muscle growth is always the product. There is a concept in exercise science known as “maintenance volume”, or the lowest amount of stimulus needed to sustain present muscularity or performance. Taking the opposite perspective, it can also be thought of as the highest amount of volume that can be applied without creating muscle growth.
Now you might be thinking why the hell this is even a thing. Isn’t the point of this whole charade to improve your physique?
Yes but this isn’t always a linear process. Sometimes it’s useful to understand when you can shift focus to a lagging muscle group while not conceding regression in another. And we can apply this same concept to the pecs for women who aren’t interested in muscular development. By keeping the maintenance volume (and/or intensity) under sufficient thresholds, the secondary benefits of pec training can be realized (as detailed below) without the typical byproducts (i.e. muscle growth).
By this point, we’ve alluded to these “non-hypertrophic” benefits of training the pecs a few times. No more vagaries and mystery.
Let’s go over some of the reasons why intentionally pec training should be included in every woman’s macro plan:
Proportional Upper Body Strength
In delicate and intertwined systems, continuous and/or severe disruption of equilibrium is bad. And our bodies are delicate and intertwined systems. Exclusively performing tons of overhead presses and pulldowns and rows and lateral raises is all fine and dandy, but severe issues will eventually present themselves if the pecs aren’t getting any love.
As a rule of thumb, keeping antagonistic movement patterns close to 1:1 in strength is a good idea. Avoiding all horizontal pressing is a really quick way to fall out of this proportionality. And when one leg of the stool weakens, it doesn’t take much to bring the whole thing crashing down.
Luckily for our situation here, maintaining a baseline level of reasonable pec strength isn’t that hard especially with sufficient overhead (or high angle) pressing. Adding in some regular push-ups, DB presses (all angles), and machine presses (again, all angles) will be an easy way to keep your pec strength sufficient enough that it doesn’t cause catastrophe elsewhere.
Shoulder and Scapular Health
Remember that whole delicate and intertwined thing? Ok let’s reiterate that here and also underline it so there’s no forgetting.
Avoiding use of any muscle group is a bad idea. Counter to our opinions, muscles aren’t there for aesthetic purposes. They actually have mechanical functions for controlling our skeletons (who knew?!). And weakness can lead to cascading issues.
What we think of as the pecs are actually segregated into the Pectoralis Major and Pectoralis Minor. The former is the fan-shaped muscle that we all know and love while the latter is a small, deep muscle that is easily forgotten about.
The Pec Major inserts on the humerus and is going to be our primary upper arm adductor—think bench press, pushups, and flyes.
In contrast, the Pec Minor inserts on the scapula and mostly assists with scapular stability—think straight arm dips or any resisted protraction.
Each of these muscles plays a large role in managing and controlling their respective attachment points and the joints that they cross over. The shoulder joint would be useless without the Pec Major, and the scapular dysfunction would be severe without the Pec Minor there to hold shit together (literally and figuratively). When there are imbalances on different sides of a joint or similar sensitive structure, that leads to compounding negative effects that create problems given enough time.
A primary sources of shoulder stability and scapular health is a strong pec complex.
As an addendum to the above notes on shoulder and scapular function, it’s pretty easy to extrapolate outward to include proper posture in a similar bucket.
Imbalances in strength, mobility, and/or functionality in a given anatomical region will inevitably lead to problems down the road. Some, like wear-and-tear injuries, are going to be more specific and discrete. Others, like compromised posture, are systemic and very noticeable. On the bright side, at least bad posture is easy to visually identify unlike some of the silent killers like tendinitis and degraded soft tissue tensile strength.
Strong and healthy pecs are critical for maintaining an anatomically-proper resting posture. Too much pulling in one way without a corresponding tug in the other can lead to chronic dysfunction in the upper back (cervical and thoracic spine), scapulae, shoulders, and even elbows and wrists.
Keep your pecs reasonably performant through a variety of conditions and avoid the consequences of a slowly decaying posture.
Up to this point, we’ve busted a few myths and been debriefed on the importance of functional pecs. But now we get to put it into practice:
Prepping for Bikini Competition
I’ve worked with quite a few bikini competitors. Every prep has its ups, downs, and curveballs, but one thing is always constant—the demands of the sport. This isn’t a bodybuilding show in the traditional sense. The name of the game isn’t to max out muscularity and conditioning. The judging criteria biases a very specific aesthetic flow; and developed pecs aren’t a part of it.
When an athlete is in prep, they only have so much in the way of recovery resources (i.e. calories and other nutrients), so any extraneous activity that isn’t absolutely necessary or immediately productive should be carefully phased out. A bikini prep is not the time to worry about training the pecs. Let the work that was done in the offseason buoy the months in which direct chest training is intentionally restricted.
Though the suffocation of training flexibility can be frustrating when coaching an athlete through a bikini prep, the intrinsic partiality of the class can actually be leveraged if you know what you’re doing. An intentional reduction in the training volume of less-desirable body parts (e.g. pecs, biceps, triceps, quads, etc) allows for a redistribution towards the muscles that will be critiqued on stage (e.g. glutes, delts, etc). So training that was balanced in the offseason can be localized and specialized through prep without increasing time spent in the gym or total work done. And the best part? Muscles that have been phased out aren’t actually going to regress thanks to our previously established concept of “maintenance volume”.
Let’s look at an example of how I might approach programming for a bikini athlete around a prep:
- Offseason- Relatively normal distribution of volume among the whole body with bias being applied to muscles that need to be brought up on an individual basis. There are more nutrients coming in through the diet which means greater ability to recover. The split in this phase can be much more generalized like U/L/U/L (unless the athlete is on a very high level—then the needs become more specific). Strength should be prioritized across the board.
- First Half of Prep- Strategic phasing out of specific work for non-critical muscle groups. This might mean removing movements like Flyes and Leg Extensions and, instead, opting to get sufficient volume through less-direct variations like Incline DB Presses (for the former) and Leg Presses (for the latter). The split should begin to shift to favor the needs of the sport—something like Upper/Lower/Push/Pull/Legs.
- Second Half of Prep- This is where hyper-specificity really comes in. Recovery resources are sparse. Body fat is low. Cardio/output is high. The goal should be to use the available energy in the most efficient way possible. At this point, direct volume shouldn’t be going towards muscle groups that aren’t being directly judged on stage. Horizontal pressing can be phased out completely. As can direct biceps and triceps work. Quad focused squat, lunge, and leg press variations should shift towards a glute/hip bias. The split at this point should be very specific—something like Glutes/Pull/Full Legs/Delts/Glutes and Lats. This can be modified even further to reduce the number of training days since the systemic maximal recoverable volume will be substantially diminished and non-hypertrophic, energy-intensive activities like posing and cardio will begin to have an negative impact on training.
- Post Show- Here is where the shift back to generality should begin to take place. It should be phased in slowly (just as it was phased out through prep), but I typically like to add in more indirect pec movements like push-ups, assisted dips, and incline presses in this stage. The volume of this work should still be low as detraining will have occurred to some extent. But shifting back to a U/L/U/L split with maybe an added day of Glutes and Delts is a great way to ease into the off-season.
Max Pressing Strength
Contrary to the mini essay that was needed to cover the ebbs and flows of bikini prep, pec training for women looking to achieve maximal strength is very straightforward.
Getting stronger requires technical efficiency and latent muscular potential coming together at the same time (refer to my previous essay on strength vs hypertrophy training for a primer).
Next, add in a phasic approach to training that goes from:
Hypertrophy -> strength -> peaking
General -> specific -> hyper specific
Volume -> intensity -> technique
Then, similar to prep, make sure that the bulk of the focus shifts towards the primary goal, which is increasing horizontal pressing in this case. This means that all other patterns can take a backseat in order to allow more recovery resources to be directed towards the prime movers (pecs, triceps, anterior delts) and more neural connections to be made via additional volume/practice.
Specifically, I might create a plan for increasing bench press strength might look something like this:
Weeks 1 through 4:
Close Grip Bench Press- 4x6
Seated DB OHP- 3x10
Weeks 5 through 8:
Flat Spoto Press- 5x3
Flat DB Press- 2x8
Standing Barbell OHP- 3x5
Weeks 8 through 12:
Flat Bench Press- 3x2
Close Grip Bench Press- 3x4
Weeks 13 through 16:
Flat Bench Press- 2x1
Flat Bench Press (2 sec pause)- 2x2
Outside of this bench press scheme, volumes and intensities for the lower body should be reduced to maintenance levels so they don’t conflict with the primary goal. It’s also important to note here that the mechanisms and strategy for increasing a woman’s horizontal pressing strength will be almost the same as a man’s (with some adjustments to volume, relative intensity, and potentially exercise selection).
We briefly touched on this controversial topic earlier in this essay but let’s really dive in deep in this section.
To start, it’s imperative for women who have recently undergone breast augmentation surgery to be extremely cautious when performing any kind of movement involving the chest and shoulders, as the surgical area needs time to heal properly. From my experience in working with many women through this process (remember, I’m not a doctor or physical therapist), the typical post-op timeline will look like:
Weeks 1-2: Very light physical activity, if any (i.e. walking)
Weeks 3-6: Ease back into the gym but no direct upper body work (i.e. light, isolation lower body movements that don’t elevate the HR too much)
Weeks 7-12: Mobility focused movement through the upper body with cautious scaling up to very light resistance training. Overhead mobility will still be restricted at this point so pulldowns, pull-ups, pullovers, and OHP variations should be titrated in according to rate of healing. There should still be no direct training of the pecs at this point.
Weeks 13+: Intensity can begin to increase through upper body work. Overhead mobility should be nearing pre-op levels and the accompanying movement patterns can be integrated with minimal restrictions (though, overhead pressing should still be moderated closely). Direct pec work can be slowly added but only via controlled horizontal pressing (i.e. no flyes, DB presses, pushups, etc). Machines are the best place to start. Intensity for the direct pec work should be extremely low as tolerance is rebuilt.
Having said all that, it’s important to remember that everyone's healing process is different. Rehab isn’t a race. Rushing back into heavy lifting before everything has fully healed is the worst possible scenario. Even for women fortunate enough to have a really good trainer, there should always be an active line of communication with the primary surgeon and physical therapist throughout the recovery process.
Ok but what about after everything is fully healed without complications? Does training need to change due to the foreign objects that are now neighbors to the pecs?
In my experience, no…
Training can generally resume just as it was before the breast augmentation. This isn’t to say that there won’t be discomfort at times. Or that certain movements may now be contraindicated (specifically those pesky stretch-biased ones). Or that certain leverages and ranges of motion may be impacted (having a few less inches of ROM on bench press ain’t necessarily a bad thing though). Or that your implants might feel like they’re about to rocket into your armpits on occasion.
The key is to listen to and relearn your new body. Things will be slightly different. What feels good today might be no bueno tomorrow.
But properly-healed and taken-care-of breast augs are NOT a preclusion from heavy, intense, and progressive pec training.
This is probably going to be the bucket in which the majority of women fall. As has been touched on throughout this article, pec development in women is just not celebrated or desired the way other muscle groups are. And with that, the natural inclination is the minimum effective dose to avoid negative repercussions of inactivity or weakness but not a set or rep more.
So I’d like to break down what this approach can (and should) look like in practice. We’re not in the game of avoidance. But there are definitely ways in which we can maintain sufficient strength, postural integrity, and mobility while keeping direct pec work as low as possible.
Let’s start with a few guidelines that will inform our decision making when actually creating programs:
- Maintenance of systems (once established) is much easier than most expect
- Pec volume does not have to come from direct Pec work—An integrated, multi-variable approach can be taken
- Chest work doesn’t have to always be in the current program—It can be cycles in and out at regular intervals
- It’s a better use of resources to combine pec work with power, strength, and stability intents rather than direct hypertrophy
- Many of the qualities we’re looking for from reasonable pec training can be accomplished through alternative (I.e. non-traditional) means rather than the standard thought process applied to other muscles in which the goal is hypertrophy
We can extrapolate the above guidelines into firm examples of how these might be utilized in practice:
- Once a foundation of strength, posture, and mobility has been established for the pecs, shockingly little needs to be done in order to maintain these levels. I’d look towards use of an unrestricted, calisthenic-esque horizontal press with very low volume and reasonable intensity. For example: Deficit Yoga Push-ups- 2x1RIR with bw just once per week. That’s really all it takes!
- The beauty of the human body is that nothing acts in pure isolation. Even doing a barbell back squat will place demands on the pecs. So I like to approach this from the “two-birds-one-stone” perspective—Use exercises that primarily bias related muscles like the delts and triceps and allow the pecs to get stimulus indirectly. For example: High Incline DB Press- 3x10-12 will still heavily involve the pecs even though the delts are the main focus. Likewise, Seated Machine Dips- 3x8-12 will inarguably bias the triceps but the chest is still very involved and receiving stimulating volume. We don’t need to do cable crossovers or bench press to effectively (minimally) train the pecs.
- Going back to the “maintenance is way easier than you think” concept, detraining and regression don’t happen overnight. This is why we can phase Pec training out of a program completely during a prep without much worry. So for a women who is not concerned with continuing development, Pec work can be included in spurts rather than continuously. For example: Blocks 1 and 2 are 6 weeks each and contain no direct pec volume. Block 3 is a 4 week, maintenance phase in which 4-6 sets per week of heavy, incline pressing is added (though at lower relative intensities). This will be more than sufficient for maintenance of previously established systems.
- Since hypertrophy isn’t the goal here, we don’t need to attempt to solve this like a muscle-growth problem. 3 sets of 10 reps is counterproductive here. Instead, we should look for ways to cross domains and create stimulus through strength work, power training, and stabilization. For example: Rather than performing sets of 10 on bench press, shift the load up and hit sets of 3-5. That way you’re training the qualities most pertinent. Rather than performing push-ups to failure, do plyo push-ups instead! Build explosiveness and athleticism. Rather than flat DB presses, perform bottoms-up KB presses with your back on a Swiss ball. This will train your shoulder stabilizers as well as reinforce proprioceptive awareness—things that normal hypertrophy work tends to overlook.
- Alternative methodologies is where this stuff can actually get fun. I alluded to it above with the KB presses and plyo push-ups, but the list of exciting and unorthodox ways to effectively stimulate your pecs are essentially never-ending. For example: you can use different modalities like bamboo bars and TRX straps. You can dip into novel exercises like pec minor dips and Svend presses. There are techniques like isometrics and various types or throws that can be implemented to illicit desired effects without promoting hypertrophy. Hell, you can even play around with TENS-type, e-stim units and posing (yes, that kind of posing) in order to contract-relax the pecs.
I’m well aware of the popularity among many women of the minimalist approach to Pec training…But let’s at least make sure it’s done correctly!
While minimalism might be the incumbent, I would really love to see a resurgence in women striving for balanced physiques. This might be a pipe dream in the present (especially noting societal pressures and all that nonsense), but I’m holding out hope that the future will see just as much emphasis placed on developed pecs as cannonball delts. So I’m going to try to speak this utopian vision of mine into existence here through guidelines for incorporating pec training into a complete, balanced woman’s program:
- Even though the goals may be the same under these conditions, pec training for men and women still differ in practicality. And though I detest the idea of “chest days” in general, I could be convinced that a sufficiently developed and advanced man might be best served through this level of hyper-specificity. You’ll never be able to convince me that a woman having a “chest day” is efficacious in any universe. Just don’t do it.
- Women aren’t just “tiny men”—As much as some would like to argue to the contrary, there are anatomical and physiological differences that manifest themselves in idealized training protocols. And this is even more true when it comes to pec training. Women can handle more volume, higher relative intensities, operate within greater degrees of ROM, and recover faster (i.e. need less rest between sets and fewer days between bouts). Women also tend to have proportionally less upper body strength (as a ratio to lower body) and Type 2 muscle fibers (as a ratio to Type 1) compared to men which can dictate differences in exercise selection and loading schemes.
- Progressions for women will be slower due to less absolute strength (on average). What this means is that linearly adding load to the bar week-after-week hits a ceiling in women much quicker than with men. Going from the 40lb DBs to the 50s for a woman is a 25% increase while the same absolute 10lb improvement for a man going from 100s to 110s is only a 10% jump. For this reason, double and triple progression models are preferred.
- Even though we’ve made it a point in this section to think of the pecs as on a level playing field with all other muscle groups, the reality that they’re not a visually-superficial muscle is inescapable. So my contention here would be to treat the pecs with a somewhat hybrid approach between that of the conventionally understood-to-be superficial muscles (e.g. delts) and the invisible, out-of-sight-out-of-mind deep muscles (e.g. rhomboids). It’s hard to convince someone to give the same priority to a muscle group that isn’t going to be seen in all its glory or appreciated when engorged with a skin-splitting pump. Women’s breast tissue covers the majority of their pecs. And this makes a balanced approach a bit more nuanced than it would be otherwise. It is what it is. I’d recommend viewing the pecs in this scenario as a necessary but ultimately “second-tier” muscle group (and this pains me to say but I think it’s reasonable).
So where does this leave us?
Clearly, there are reasons why women would be averse to training their pecs. And I am sympathetic to the societal pressures that impart many of the misunderstood viewpoints that have been allowed to fester. But effective chest training doesn’t have to involve hyper-masculinization. Or pecs bulging out of your turtleneck. Or a misallocation of scarce recovery resources. Pec training also doesn’t preclude you from getting a breast augmentation if that is something you really want to do for yourself (and not just for some ridiculous, implicit judging criteria that rewards cartoonish proportions on stage).
Being strong on horizontal patterns, stable in all others, and functionally competent in normal life is a product of intelligent and strategic pec training.
Avoiding it due to (completely manageable) externalities is not only a poor choice but could also have far-reaching negative repercussions for other aspects of training, as well as your future quality of life.