By Andrew Heffernan
Before he was the Governor of California, before he was world's highest-paid movie star — even before he was the Terminator — Arnold Schwarzenegger was possessor of the most impressive chest in history. A three-time Mr. Universe and a seven-time Mr. Olympia, this guy made the dubious practice of lifting inert hunks of steel not only acceptable, but fun. Cool. Hip.
So if there's a person on earth qualified to offer advice on how to build Greek-god pecs, Arnold is your man. The Austrian Oak never shied away from hard work in his chest-building efforts. Forget moderation: Arnold's chest workouts — like all of his training — were long, intense, and brutal.
Over years as a competitive bodybuilder, his workouts grew ever more complex and arduous, but he never strayed from a few basic principles — principles you can apply whether you're a gym newbie or an iron vet. You may not be able to handle every set and rep of Arnold's pec-punishing workouts — they were, after all, designed for a guy with extraordinary genetics. But if you put his time-tested principles to work, you're sure to make serious progress on your quest for a superhero chest.
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Arnold's Beginner Chest Workout
During the first few months of your training, Arnold recommends that you stick with just three movements for your chest: the bench press, the incline press, and the pullover.
The first two moves are compound barbell basics — exercises that work the chest in conjunction with the shoulders and triceps muscles, and they're classic strength-and-muscle builders. Assuming your shoulders are healthy, these are go-to pec-building moves for any level of lifter.
Not many iron-pumpers use the third move — the pullover — today, but Arnold believes it helped expand his rib cage to the eye-popping 57 inches it measured at his peak.
Additional benefits to this seldom-used move are the way it stretches the shoulders and lats — areas prone to tightness in many lifters — and its focus on the serratus muscles — the cool-looking ridges on your ribs below and to the outsides of the pectoral muscles.
- Barbell bench press: 5 sets of 8-12
- Barbell incline press: 5 sets of 8-12
- Pullover: 5 sets of 8-12
Championship chest principle No. 1: You'll never go wrong with the basics.
Arnold's Intermediate Chest Workout
After about six months of training, Arnold recommends you add a couple of exercises (the dumbbell fly and the parallel bar dip) into the mix.
These additional moves work the pectorals from different angles, emphasizing different fibers of the muscles for more complete development. Both moves force the muscles into a stretched position, which many old-school bodybuilders believed enhances growth (they may have been onto something).
On this more advanced level, Arnold recommends you “pyramid" each exercise, adding a little extra weight to the bar on each subsequent set, so that, by your final set, four reps feel as tough as 10 reps did on your first set.
- Bench press: 1 x 15 (warm-up), 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 4
- Incline barbell or dumbbell press: 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 4
- Dumbbell flys: 3 sets of 10, 8, 6
- Parallel bar dips: 3 sets of 15, 10, 8
- Straight-arm pullovers 3 x 15
Championship chest principle No. 2: Stretch to win.
Arnold's Advanced Chest Workout
If you want to take things to the next level — and again, these are very high-volume workouts that even Arnold performed only in brief spurts before a bodybuilding contest — you can up the ante by adding volume and working your chest and back together in superset fashion, alternating sets of exercises for your back with sets of moves for your chest.
Supersetting has many benefits: It reduces downtime in the gym, which helps when you're trying to squeeze a lot of work into limited time. When you perform many sets back to back for these two mirror-image muscle groups — a technique known as "antagonistic supersetting" — it also drives a huge volume of blood into your torso, giving you that tight, pumped (we know you want to say "pahhmped") feeling that's very motivating.
- Bench press: 1 x 15 (warm-up), 5 sets of 10, 8, 8, 6, 4
- Wide-grip chin-up: 5 x 10
- Incline dumbbell press: 4 sets of 10, 8, 8, 6
- Close-grip chin-up: 4 x 10
- Dumbbell flys: 4 sets of 10, 8, 8, 6
- Parallel bar dips: 4 sets of 15, 10, 8, 8
- T-bar rows: 4 sets of 15, 10, 8, 8
- Bent over rows: 4 x 10
- Seated cable row: 4 x 10
- Straight-arm pullovers: 4 x 15
Championship chest principle No. 3: Superset for an awesome — and time-efficient — challenge.
Arnold's Top Chest-Building Exercises
Here are the step-by-step instructions on how to perform each exercise included in Arnold's chest workout.
- Lie on a flat bench holding a barbell directly above your chest with your palms facing forward. Your head, upper back, and butt should touch the bench, and your feet should be flat on the floor.
- Slowly lower the bar to the middle of your chest, keeping your elbows directly under the bar.
- Pause, and then push the bar back up to the starting position.
Arnold on bench pressing: “Absolutely necessary for a big chest. There is no exercise to replace it."
Barbell incline press
- Perform the same movement on an incline bench, lowering the bar to a point just below the clavicles (collarbones).
- Holding a medium-to-heavy dumbbell, lay with your back flat on a bench or stability ball with your feet on the floor.
- Keeping your core engaged, extend your arms to the sky, cupping the dumbbell with both hands above your chest.
- Keeping your low back pressed into the bench or stability ball while maintaining a microbend in your elbows, slowly lower your arms overhead until your biceps reach your ears.
- Slowly reverse the move to bring the weight to the starting position.
Arnold on pullovers: “There is an interdependence between chest and back exercises. The chest will not reach its full potential size unless the latissimus dorsi muscles are fully developed."
- Lie back on a flat bench holding a pair of dumbbells at arm's length over your chest, palms facing each other. (Good rule of thumb: Start with weights that are about half of what you would use for a dumbbell bench press.)
- Keeping your elbows slightly bent, slowly lower the dumbbells directly out to your sides until you feel a deep stretch in your chest.
- Pause, then slowly reverse the move, returning to the starting position.
Arnold on dumbbell flys: “Among my favorite exercises."
Parallel bar dip
- Grab the handles on a dip station and lift yourself into the top position: arms straight, shoulders down and back, abs engaged, body straight, ankles crossed.
- Keeping your forearms vertical and your elbows tucked at your sides (not flared), slowly lower yourself under control. Stop when your arms are parallel to the floor.
- Pause, then reverse the movement, pushing yourself back up to the starting position.
Arnold's Top Back-Building Exercises
If you'll be supersetting your chest workout, here are the step-by-step instructions for Arnold's back exercises.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Keeping your core engaged, hinge at your waist and push your hips back, maintaining a slight bend in your knees as you lower your torso until it's nearly parallel to the floor. Let the dumbbells hang at arms length with your palms facing each other.
- Without moving your torso, row the weights up to your sides as you squeeze your shoulder blades together, keeping your back flat and elbows tucked. Your elbows should form a 90-degree angle at the top of the movement.
- Reverse the move, lowering the weights back to the starting position.
- Attach a double-D handle to the loaded end of an Olympic bar in the landmine setup.
- Straddle the end of the bar with your back to the landmine.
- Hinge forward at your waist and push your hips back, maintaining a slight bend in your knees as you lower your torso until it's nearly parallel to the floor.
- Grab the handles and, without moving your torso, row them up toward your ribs as you squeeze your shoulder blades together, keeping your elbows tucked and back flat.
- Slowly lower the handles to return to the starting position.
- Attach an assist band to a pull-up bar. Ensure the band is securely attached to the bar.
- Stand on a stable box or chair and put one foot in the loop at the bottom of the device.
- Grab the bar with both hands using an underhand grip that's slightly wider than shoulder-width, and then slowly pull until your chin is over the bar.
- Adjust the length of the strap or the number of elastic bands in the device to deliver a level of assistance that challenges you to complete 6-8 reps.
Variations: Close grip (performed with your hands a few inches apart); Wide-grip (performed with your hands wider than shoulder width).
Seated cable row
- Secure a double-D handle to a cable row machine. Grip the handle in both hands and take a seat with your feet on the platform, knees bent slightly, and your arms extended in front of you, maintaining tension on the cable. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your chest up and torso stationary, pull the handles toward your torso, squeezing your shoulder blades together as you drive your elbows behind you (don't let them flare out).
- Pause, and then slowly return to the starting position.