💪🏽 Chest and Back Workout: 8 Exercises, 3 Different Ways.
Chest and Back Workout
Do you have a “chest” day at the gym? Do you have a “back” day? How do you organize your workouts?
If your answer is, “I don’t”, then I think this article will give you some ideas on how to structure a chest and back routine. If you already have some sort of plan in place I still think you will find a workout in this article that will ignite new stimulus for you.
Pairing antagonist muscles together in a workout is a simple and effective method of program design. I like this approach a lot because it covers big muscles groups and you will be able to cut your training time in half.
Your training approach should be about efficiency, not just about duration. Just because someone spent more than an hour at a gym doesn’t mean they trained effectively.
By the end of this blog post you will learn how to do a chest and back workout in 3 different ways using the same 8 exercises.
Push and Pull
A chest and back workout is sometimes referred to as a push and pull workout. When we think of push and pull, we are thinking of movement patterns. Certain muscles contract as you are pushing the weight away from your body, these are pushing muscles. Other muscles contract as you are pulling the weight or resistance towards your body, these are pulling muscles.
Here are some of the muscles that will be involved in the pushing portion of the workout:
- Front Deltoids
The muscles included in the pulling portion are:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Rear Delts
The biceps and triceps are secondary muscles that will support the muscles that I have just listed. If you are someone that just trains just 2-3x a week, then in my opinion is not worth really going to the gym to just train bicep or triceps. Why you say? Well because these are smaller muscles that can also be targeted while performing other exercises like the pull up or bench press.
Exercises that incorporate larger muscles groups require more effort and energy and thus burn more calories and elicit more anabolic hormones for greater muscle growth.
To complete these workouts you will need:
- A barbell.
- Kettlebells or dumbbells.
- A bench.
If you don’t warm up, then I think it’s time to get serious about it. The objective of a warm up is to improve performance, decrease the risk of injury and to wake up our central nervous system (CNS). While warming up on the treadmill does raise our core temperature and increases blood flow, it doesn’t tackle specific muscle groups.
The following warm up drills will directly impact the workouts in this article. The best part is that this entire warm up shouldn’t take you more than 5 minutes to complete.
Shoulder dislocations are a great warm up to improve mobility around the shoulders and to dynamically stretch the chest and lats.
Grab a pvc pipe or a broom stick with a wide grip and place it in front of your hips. With control, bring the bar over your head to the back of your torso. Pause briefly and then reverse the movement to the starting position. Try to keep your arms straight through out the movement.
Note: Make sure you don’t arch your lower back too much when performing the warm up.
Kneeling Thoracic Rotation with Extension
I absolutely love the way this warm up feels after a couple of reps. This is a fantastic movement for thoracic (upper spine) mobility. Like in the previous warm up exercise, you will also feel your chest and lats dynamically stretched.
Get on the floor in a kneeling position. Shoot your hips back towards your heels to avoid lumbar (lower spine) rotation. Place one hand on the back of your head. Opposite hand is placed on the floor. Rotate your upper back towards the ceiling, let your eyes follow your elbow. Rotate inward and repeat the pattern again.
Band Pull Aparts
The Band Pull Apart is a great warm up to activate the upper back musculature and to improve posture.
Grab the band with a overhand grip and pull it apart with your arms straight, bringing the band towards your chest. Make sure to breathe out as you are pulling the band apart.
Note: A common mistake is the arching of the lower back as the movement is performed. This usually happens because the person has grabbed too much tension on the band or because the person doesn’t have the strength to work with that particular band. A quick fix is to grab a lighter band or use a wider grip as to leave more space between the hands when the band is grabbed.
Another common mistake is the elevation of the Trapezius muscles. You want to make sure your shoulders are drawn back and down.
The Pushing Exercises
Dive Bomber Push Up
The Dive Bomber push up is one of the most difficult push ups that you can do. Besides targeting the chest, triceps and shoulders, it’s also a great exercise for back and hamstring flexibility. I love this push up because it requires strength, control, flexibility and stability.
Get in a plank position with your hands about shoulder width apart. Shoot your butt up in the air where you body looks similar to an inverted “V”. Push yourself away from the ground. Your arms should be straight, and your head should be in front of your arms.
The top position of this exercise looks very similar to a Downward-Facing Dog in yoga.
Now with control, lower yourself towards the ground in a swooping motion. Your face should come very close to the ground. Push yourself up with your elbows close to your torso. Lock out your arms at the top with your chest up and your back curved.
Make it harder: Pause for half a second at the bottom position.
Note: The most common mistake in this exercise is the flaring of elbows when pushing yourself up away from the ground. Try keeping your elbows close to your torso.
Close-Grip Bench Press
Lie flat on a bench and grab the bar with a narrow grip. Take the bar out of the rack and slowly bring it towards your chest. Your elbows should be tucked in to your body. You want to inhale as you lower the bar, and exhale as you drive the bar back up. This version of a bench press will make your triceps work harder.
Note: Play around with the width between your hands when you grab the bar. The closer your hands are together, the more effort will be needed to push the weight back up.
Single Arm Kettlebell Press
Lie flat on a bench with only one kettlebell. Press the kettlebell up with one arm. Exhale at this portion of the exercise. You can place the opposite arm on top of your chest or torso. Bring the kettlebell back down with control. Inhale at this portion of the exercise.
Performing unilateral (one side) exercises can help reveal any imbalances between the right and left sides. You will probably notice that one side is more efficient in producing force than the other, or perhaps one particular side is lacking sufficient stability.
It’s hard to be aware of this from bilateral (two sided) exercises like a standard bench press where we are using two arms to perform the exercise.
To prevent from falling as your bring the kettlebell down, the core muscles of the opposite side will contract in order to keep your torso steady on top of the bench. This exercise can also be considered a core exercise.
Bench Plyometric Push Ups
Plyometric push ups require a lot of force and explosive power. They are great for upper body conditioning.
Get on a plank position where your hands are on top of the bench. At the start, lower yourself for 2-3 secs with control and explode up as reach the bottom. You’re going to exhale at this portion of the movement.
Note: The bench plyometric push up is a regression from the standard plyometric push up which is done from the floor. If you wish to do these on the floor, by all means go for it. However, using a bench provides us with a softer landing and can allow us to have more “air time” as we push ourselves away. The air time is important to this version because it gives you time to really squeeze your chest before you return to the bench.
The Pulling Exercises
Pull Ups on Rings
Pull ups on rings are extremely demanding. The instability of the exercise requires more muscle fibers to execute the movement. The smaller muscles of the back work extra hard to keep the shoulder girdle in a proper position to pull. Another benefit for using rings instead of a fixed bar, is the freedom of your wrists to move freely. If you don’t have a pair of rings, you can grab these:
You can also use a fixed bar if you want, but rings will give you more bang for your buck. To start, get underneath the rings. You want to make sure you place your rings high enough so that your feet don’t touch the floor when you grab them. Pull yourself up and let your shoulders come in contact with the rings. Exhale as you pull. Lower yourself with control. You will find that this exercise will also challenge your biceps.
The Bent-Over Row is an exercise that targets a huge portion of your back. It helps develop good posture and helps prevent back injuries. The most important part of this exercise is not the weight, it’s not the angle of your torso, it’s your form. Keeping a neutral spine through out the exercise is crucial for the success of this movement.
You want to initiate the movement by first shooting your hips back and by slightly bending the knees. Brace your abs as you row the bar up until it touches the area between your upper abdomen and lower rib. Exhale as you row.
Note: You can play around with the angle of your torso and this will target different areas of your back. However, you don’t want to stay too upright because this will cause you to shrug the bar up. And in this scenario you will be using your Trapezius instead of the Lats (latissimus dorsi) and Teres major muscles.
Single Arm Kettlebell Row
Unlike the Bent-Over Row, the Single Arm Kettlebell Row requires less work and stability from our spine and hips due to our base of support. Like the Single Arm Kettlebell Press, this is a unilateral exercise. In Workout A, you will pair the two unilateral movements together.
Place one leg and hand on top of a bench. Shoot your hips back and fold at your waist. Pick up a kettlebell (or dumbbell) and row it close to the side of your body. Your torso remains still. Only your arm is moving. Make sure your spine is in a neutral position. Don’t slouch and don’t let your shoulders round forward. Breathe in as you lower the weight and breathe out as you row it.
Note: This simple exercise delivers great value while minimizing the risk of injury. The most common mistake I see in the execution of this exercise is the jerking of the shoulder to row the weight up instead of letting the back muscles do the work. Some people like to rotate their shoulder upward as they are rowing, this is ok, but I would suggest to limit excessive rotation so that the correct muscles can do the lifting.
The Renegade Row is a fantastic exercise that’s great for core stability, strength and muscular endurance. I didn’t place this exercise solely on the push or pull category because it actually achieves both. It requires a bit of coordination and a lot of focus.
Get in a plank position where your hands are holding a pair of kettlebells. The kettlebells should be positioned about shoulder width apart. Your legs should be wide open. The bigger the separation between your legs, the more stability you will find to execute the exercise.
Before you row the kettlebell, lean your body on top of the opposite kettlebell that’s on the floor to get in a more stable position. Once you have briefly adjusted your position row the kettlebell towards your torso. Breathe out as you row.
Note: Use dumbbells instead of kettlebells if you are having trouble with the instability of this exercise.
The first circuit of this workout requires no equipment. But don’t let that fool you, It is extremely demanding, and that’s why I have placed it in the beginning of the workout. Grab a weight that you can lift for 10 to 12 repetitions. This rep range is ideal for hypertrophy (muscle growth). Use the same width and overhand grip in both exercises in the second circuit. If you don’t have access to kettlebells, then use dumbells for the third circuit. If you can’t do plyometric push ups just yet (fourth circuit), do normal push ups instead. The last circuit is the most taxing on your cardiovascular system. I placed it at the end of the workout to ramp up calories burned. Circuits like these are sometimes called workout finishers.
Here are some options if you can’t do pulls ups:
- Do inverted rows with a bar on a rack or on a Smith machine.
- Use an assisted pull up machine, most gyms have one.
- Use a resistance band and place it on top of a pull up rack. Here’s a great video to help you set that up. This is my preferred choice.
This second workout will focus on maximal strength instead of muscle growth. However, muscle growth can definitely still happen. This workout is designed to recruit a large set of motor units. A Motor unit (see image below) is composed of a group of muscle fibers along with a motor neuron (a nerve) that tells them to contract. Recruiting more motor units allows us to get stronger, build more muscle and burn fat. In order to recruit the most motor units you must:
- Lift the weights fast. But don’t bring them down fast.
- Use compounds exercises (like the ones in these workouts). Compound exercises are movements that incorporate multiple joints.
- The weights you lift must be relatively heavy. Heavy enough where you can’t lift the weights for no more than 10 seconds.
In the second circuit you have Dive Bomber push ups. For some of you this exercise is already challenging, so 3 reps will be enough anyways. For those of you that can bang out a couple of these without a problem, perform the exercise where you are lowering yourself for 3 seconds and explode up from the bottom position as you quickly as you can. However, don’t reverse the movement with the swooping motion, simply return back to your Downward-Facing Dog position.
The first two workouts on this post take on a antagonist approach. But what if this particular strategy is too much for your upper body to handle? Perhaps it’s too stressful on your joints, specifically your shoulder joint. Splitting your push and pull muscles on separate days can be useful if this is your case.
Push Pull Split
In a Push Pull Split you would train all your pushing muscles on one day, and your pulling muscles on another. This gives the muscles adequate rest between training sessions. Also, you will be using one day to push heavy and another day to push moderate to light weight. Here’s an example using moderate weight:
In this workout you will be performing between 8 and 12 repetitions and resting between 30-60 secs. You can place this workout on a Monday for example. And on Thursday, you can do the exact same workout but do 5-8 reps. This is somewhat of a heavy rep range but it’s more manageable than 3 reps. You will be resting 60 secs between sets in the Thursday workout.
The rep range and rest periods in this workout are identical to the chest one. You can place this workout on a Tuesday for example. And on Friday, you can do the exact same workout but do 5-8 reps. You will be resting 60 secs between sets in the Friday workout.
We’ve taken 8 different chest and back exercises and turned them into 3 different workouts. If you wish, you can also play around with the order of the exercises. But for now, stick to the order laid out in the current workouts. Want to make the movements more challenging? Do them better. I know that sounds silly. But you should strive to perform the exercises with great form. Not only will this target the right muscles, it will also be safer on your joints and skeletal structure.