They are two of the most-watched muscles on the male torso, so it's worth ensuring your "hugging muscles" are in good working order.
We're talking about the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor, commonly called the pecs. They are two large muscles in the chest, pec major being the larger - in fact, it is very large, extending from the collarbone to the sternum.
It attaches to your upper arm and is responsible for movement of the shoulder joint, flexing and rotating the arm. Because one of its responsibilities is to bring the arms together across the body, it has often been dubbed the "hugging muscle".
The smaller pectoralis minor lies beneath the pec major and connects on top of the shoulder blade. It can move the shoulder blade forward and downward and can also move the shoulder blades away from each other as you cross arms in front of your chest when initiating the hugging motion. Pectoralis minor is largely responsible for the great upper-body development of many competitive freestyle swimmers.
The good news: when you are targeting your chest muscles, the shoulders and arms are very much involved in the workout.
The average person may perform chest exercises three non-consecutive days a week. When your goal is to tone the muscles, you would build up to two to three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions. But if you are into heavy lifting (can only complete six to eight reps), you will need two to three days of rest between strength sessions.
Some of the more common exercises are push-ups, modified push-ups, chest flies and chest presses.
To avoid plateaus, it is a good idea to vary your exercise routine.
How to strengthen pecs
Push-ups are a compound exercise involving multiple muscles - shoulders, chest, arms, core and legs. The modified push-up is a good move for beginners or for those who have limited upper-body strength. It will give the back and upper body more support.
Begin in a hand-knee position. Keeping knees on the floor, walk hands slightly in front of your shoulders and a little more than shoulder-width apart. Straighten arms, balancing on hands and the thighs just above the knee. With arms at full extension and abdominals contracted, bend elbows and lower upper body toward floor; neck in alignment with shoulders. Push back up to a full arm extension.
Tip: When lowering arms, keep the elbows just above the wrist.
Chest press with resistance band
Wrap band around something stable behind you. Holding handles of band with palms facing downward, stagger feet until you feel tension in the bands. Keeping head looking forward, raise hands shoulder height. Contracting abdominals and keeping elbows and wrist in alignment with shoulders, press arms out, not locking elbows. Hold several seconds, release, returning to original position.
Tip: Do not bring elbows too far back on the return movement, as that places too much strain on the shoulder.
Incline chest fly
Lying on a bench with feet flat on the floor (or on the bench if more comfortable), hold the weights above your chest, palms facing inward. Maintaining slightly bent elbows, open arms out to the sides, lowering weights until they are just below the shoulders. Lift the weights back up, pretending you are hugging a big beach ball. The incline version emphasises upper chest while the flat chest fly performed on a flat bench or mat emphasises the middle and lower chest.
To be applied after your workout. If used in the beginning or throughout the day, warm up first. Standing with feet hip-width apart and knees slightly relaxed, place both arms behind your back. Pretend you are holding a golf club, and lift up slightly with your arms, while pressing chest forward. Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds, but remember to breathe. You will feel a great stretch in your chest muscles. This is one of my favourite stretches.
Tips to follow when strengthening the pecs:
- Avoid lower-back strain by contracting abdominals to prevent your back from developing an excessive arch.
- Don't struggle to lift too heavy a weight by forcing the back to overarch or just the opposite, forcing the lower back into the bench. You want to retain the natural arch of the lower back.
- When performing modified push-ups, bend your knees at a 90-degree angle and do not let your hips sag. Lower upper arms until parallel to floor. You do not have to touch chest to the floor.
- When performing arm extensions while working chest muscles, do not lock the elbows; keep them slightly relaxed. Too much pressure on elbow joints could eventually cause tendinitis.
- It's important to keep a slight bend in the elbows and not to lower arms below shoulder level while performing the chest-fly exercise. If arms are too straight, you are exerting too much pressure on shoulders and elbow joints. If arms reach below the shoulder, you could damage shoulder and rotator-cuff muscles.
- Keep shoulder blades on the bench or mat; don't allow them to lift up. Your shoulders need the support.
* Please note: If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning any exercise program.