The Old-School Bodybuilding Chest Workout

This chest workout turns the typical training approach on its head — with eye-catching results.

Photo: Ian Spanier

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Bodybuilding training is all about finding a good rut. Like clockwork, you want to eat all the same array of muscle-building foods at about the same times each day, and you want to hit your workouts with serious consistency. That said, it doesn’t mean a switch-up isn’t called for now and again to keep your body guessing and adapting.

“The traditional way of thinking when it comes to the order of your exercises within a workout is to start with compound exercises — ones that target multiple muscle groups — and then move on to isolation exercises that hit one specific muscle,” explains Houston-based certified personal trainer and owner of Bombshell Bootcamp, Cari Shoemate. “But you can also get amazing results by flipping that script.”

Take chest, where the usual course of a session is to do presses up front, followed by flye movements later. What happens if you instead do your flyes first? Remember, in a pressing move, your pectorals, anterior (front) delts, and triceps all work together synergistically to lift the weight. But the chest, being the largest and strongest of those three muscles, bears the brunt of the load.

Now imagine what happens when you do flyes first, which focus more wholly on the pecs. They’ll be “pre-fatigued” for the pressing movement — which means they’ll need to step up and work harder during the press to keep pace with the supporting delts and tri’s.

“Reversing the order can more deeply stimulate muscle fibers in your chest as the workout progresses from flyes to presses,” Shoemate says. “You’ll gain more strength and fire up the pecs even better than in the typical bodybuilding-style chest workout.”

To take the following workout one step further, Shoemate also adds a “finishing touch” to the four exercises, making sure you squeeze every last benefit out of each of them. “I’ve found that that the pecs respond well when you play with the pace of the movement,” she says.

The Reverse-Play Bodybuilding Chest Workout

Instructions: Gather two sets of dumbbells (one medium weight and one heavier) and a flat bench. (You can also use towels or a mat and perform the moves on the floor.) After a cardio warm-up of at least 5 minutes to get your muscles activated and blood pumping, you’ll do 3 sets of each exercise listed.

Rest 1 minute between sets and 1-2 minutes between exercises.

Exercise Sets Reps
Flat Dumbbell Flye 3 8-12
Flat Dumbbell Press 3 8-12
Standing Chest Press 3 8-12
Push-Up 3 12-15

Exercise How-tos

Dumbbell Flye

How-To: Lie faceup on a bench or on a mat on the floor, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Start with your arms extended straight toward the ceiling over your chest, with just a slight bend in the elbows and your palms facing each other. Maintaining the same angle in your elbows, lower the weights out to the sides, getting a deep stretch through your chest as you do so. The elbows should reach a point at or slightly below the level of the bench at the bottom — if doing it on a mat, your upper arms will fully contact the floor. Now, reverse the motion by strongly flexing through your pectorals to bring the dumbbells back up in an arc to the top.

Finishing Touch: On your last set, you’ll manipulate the pace of your reps. For the first half of the set (6 reps), you’ll do a deliberate 4 count (“one one thousand, two one thousand…”) on the way up, then use a two-count to lower the weight, with a one-second pause at the top and bottom.

For the second half of the set, use that 4 count on the downward (negative) portion of each rep with a two-count positive contraction (raising the dumbbells).

Cari’s Tip: “Don’t overarch your back during the movement — simply maintain the natural curve of your spine by keeping your core tight. It helps to plant your feet flat on the floor, or you can bend your knees and place your feet on top of the bench for support.”

Flat Dumbbell Press

How-To: Lie on a bench with your feet flat on the floor, holding a dumbbell in each hand just outside of your shoulders — your arms will be at a 90-degree angle to your torso and your palms will be facing down toward your lower body. Powerfully press the dumbbells upward toward the ceiling, stopping when they come to an inch or so away from each other above your upper-middle chest, then slowly bend your elbows to lower the weights back down to a point even with your chest. (If you’re on the floor, the bottom of the motion is when your upper arms are in full contact with the ground.)

Finishing Touch: On your last set, play with the pace the same way as you did during the flyes: Slow down the upward movement using a four-count for half of the reps and then reverse it so you slow down the pace on the downward movement during the second half of the set. Be sure to pause at the top and squeeze as if you’re trying to hug a large ball or barrel atop your chest.

Cari’s Tip: “If you’re really challenging yourself with heavy weight, you may want to ask a friend to spot you — although in that case it’s better done on a bench than the floor. They can do so by supporting you with their hands under your elbows or by holding your wrists to assist.”

Standing Chest Press

How-To: Stand holding one dumbbell directly in front of your chest by placing one hand on each end and pressing together, your elbows bent, lifted up and pointed out to each side. Your feet should be under your hips, your core engaged, and your hips tucked under slightly so you aren’t arching your back. As you exhale, press the dumbbell straight out in front of you by extending your arms (but don’t lock them out at the end). At full extension, pause for a slow two-count, then slowly bring the weight back to your chest.

Finishing Touch: On your last set, increase the challenge by pausing your hold at the end and counting for 5-10 seconds before returning to the start position.

Cari’s Tip: “If you feel your back arching or pulling, the weight is too heavy. This move should be uncomfortable, but you shouldn’t be straining to maintain your upright position during it.”


How-To: Assume a high plank position, your feet together, balanced on your toes, your hands placed wider than shoulder-width and flat on the floor and your elbows extended. Keeping your head neutral and abs tight, inhale as lower yourself by bending your arms until your elbows are at a level parallel with your shoulders — you don’t have to bring your chest all the way to the floor — then exhale as you press through your palms until your arms are straight once again.

Finishing Touch: During the first half of your last set, lower yourself to the floor in four steps — go down a few inches, pause, go down a few more, pause, etc. — until you get to the bottom of your push-up, elbows level with your shoulders. Then, as you exhale, press yourself back up as normal. Reverse the pattern for the second half of the set, rising with the four-step method and then lowering yourself in one smooth motion.

Cari’s Tip: “If it’s too difficult and your form is suffering, it’s ok to drop your knees to the floor. Don’t get discouraged if you can’t complete the full set! In my experience as a trainer, I’ve seen my clients progress easily with push-ups even when they think they can’t. Someone who could only do 5 can suddenly do 30 after a week or so, and that builds confidence.”