Posted 4 weeks ago

Designing your push day

I’ll admit it: back in the day, I would train chest on a Monday, back on a Tuesday, and so on and so forth. Although the “bro split” was something that worked for me in my early days, after trialling some sessions where I added shoulder work into my “chest” and “arm” days, I have never gone back to dedicating a day per week to a specific body part.

I’m not the only one to have made this switch. In fact, over the past few years there has been a growing trend amongst serious gym-goers to change their training up: many have moved away from the old school bro split, instead replacing “chest days” with an upper body push orientated day, where they’ll train chest, shoulders and triceps in the one session. There are many reasons why you might consider doing this for yourself too – however, as with everything in bodybuilding, there are many different opinions and methods out there, which can make this change a bit confusing. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to talk you through the things you might want to consider when designing your push day.

Muscle groups
Before you get into the gym, you have to sit back and assess your physique, asking: “What is it that I actually want to bring up?”. If you are a female reading this, it is likely that you don’t want to add much tissue to your chest, but that you do want a big cap on your shoulders. In contrast, as a male, you may want to build a big chest as well as big shoulders. Either way, choosing the target areas to prioritise will be the first thing you decide when programming your upper body push days.

This first action point can be where many athletes fail, hindering their improvements for their next season. Do you need to add more muscle to the top line/shelf of your chest? Do you need to bring up your lateral delt/middle part of your shoulder? Are your triceps lacking in size compared to the rest of your physique?

Although there will be specific areas of your upper body you’ll need to bring up, it’s worth noting that your chest, shoulders and triceps all work in synergy. Therefore, it makes sense to put them and train them together on an upper body training day – in this way, you can ensure that you can work each muscle group to the desired level, not leaving any area behind or under-developed, and as such, being able to give it the big beanz. No weak links means better improvements across the board. So you can see already how designing and structuring a push day is a bit more nuanced than just doing a few shoulder, a few chest and a few triceps exercises on the same day.

Make your weakness(es) a priority
This may sound like I’m stating the obvious, but it needs to be said. For example, let’s imagine that you have assessed your physique, and established that your lateral delts lack size, so you’ve decided you want to bring them up in size and density.

It should therefore make sense to place exercises / an exercise targeting these muscles as your first exercise in your workout. This means that when you go into your first set, you are fresh, you’re ready to go, and you can put in maximal force into each set. If you were to place exercises targeting this muscle group at the end of your workout, it’s likely you’ll be going into your sets with an accumulated fatigue, meaning that performance, force output, and muscle fibre recruitment will all be compromised. It is therefore clear that the former option and strategy will be a better guarantee to improving a weak area in your physique.

With specific regard to the lateral delt, it is worth noting that it is a fairly small muscle group that cannot produce much force, but it is also a muscle group which needs to be worked on quite frequently across the week for you to notice progress in this area. Critically, EVERYONE wants a bigger cap on their delts: for competitors, mens’ physique and ladies’ bikini classes emphasise this area; but for the non-competitor, having bigger delts will also help you look wider at the top (and thus, have a smaller waist), helping you build that hourglass shape. Personally, I’ve found that having a lateral delt movement at the beginning of the workout-going and slightly heavier is beneficial, when also combined with using higher rep ranges towards the end. I would often place this type of delt work before any triceps work.

Hitting your upper chest

As a male, I’ve always wanted a big chest, particularly the upper portion: this is what I refer to as the top line. However, adding muscle here can be challenging if you don’t know what you are looking for.

This muscle fibre recruitment of this area is governed by the angle of your sternum, such as an incline press (Figure 1) and the direction of your arms throughout a movement such as cuffed flies (Figure 2).

Figure 1

Figure 2

How often have you been pressing on an incline but then arched your lower back to help with the movement? By doing so you’re actually biasing tension towards the mid to lower fibres of the chest instead of the top fibres. That being said, on any incline chest pressing movement, work hard to keep the arch in your lower back minimal and thus maintain a steep sternum angle to work that top line.

Range of motion on pressing movements
As a kid I was always told that the bar needs to touch your chest on every single rep to ensure you’re working your chest through its full range. As I progressed in the gym, this narrative led me to bounce the bar off my chest to enable me to go heavier, which in hindsight was pretty dangerous.

As the years have gone on though, I’ve learned this couldn’t be further from the truth. Due to my biomechanics, I have found that when I allow the bar to touch my chest, the move becomes more shoulder-dominant as opposed to being chest-dominant (as intended!). By that, I mean that when bringing the bar to my chest, I get less muscle fibre recruitment in my chest and more so in my shoulders.

However, since stopping the bar a few inches above my chest, I’ve found I can contract my chest far better than if I went any lower. You can see an example of my end point for pressing in figure 1. The moral of the story here is that your active range of motion will be personal to you, not what someone else is telling you to do. Pay attention to where you feel the lift before you start risking a broken sternum!

Exercise selection and order
The exercise that you put in your program should not only be designed to bring up those weak areas, but they should also be included with your biomechanical suitability in mind. Just because ‘Big Jimmy’ told you that you must do DB press to get a big chest, it doesn’t mean you need to if that move feels uncomfortable to you.

As always, exercise selection will and should be person dependent, and factors such as biomechanics, ability to contract muscle, exercises you connect well with, and personal likes/dislikes will play a large part in this selection process.

When it comes to exercise order, of course you will bias your weaker muscle groups first. After that, you may want to look down the line of hitting all parts of each muscle group. If we take the shoulders as an example, these are comprised of three heads (anterior-, medial- and rear-delt). Are you hitting them all during your workout? You may even need to ask yourself if you need to hit all three, as some could be overpowering.

Now, before you think that having an overpowering muscle group is a good thing, consider whether it will make your physique look off-balanced. As mentioned earlier, with all our “push” muscle groups working in synergy, it wouldn’t make sense to prioritise an isolating exercise for an already developed area. That is, if the front portion of your shoulder is well developed and strong compared to your chest, is there a need to give this part of the muscle group it’s individual exercise? I would say no, there isn’t, as they will be worked on (as assisting) through other exercises, such as your chest press. You might love shoulder pressing and feel super strong when doing so, but if you want your physique to look its best, you’ll need to prioritise that effort elsewhere.

Triceps not growing
One common trend you may personally experience is that your chest and shoulders are growing well, but your triceps are lagging behind. They may have stopped getting stronger or their size hasn’t increased for some time.

This is almost commonly due to the fact you are hitting them last or near the end of your workout. By this point you might have already smashed a few PBs and therefore are going into those exercises fatigued. If your session is fairly long, you might not go into these sets with great intensity like you did with chest/shoulder exercises that were earlier in your session.

If this is that case, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with flipping your usual workout on its head. By that, I mean working your triceps first, before any chest or shoulder movements. You might instantly say no to this idea, but just trial it, and let me know how you get on. After 4 weeks, I can promise you that your triceps will be stronger and will have shown noticeable growth.

In sum, designing a push day can be fairly complex. However, when we break down what it is that we are looking to bring up and what our weakness are, it can simplify the process. When trying to target your upper chest it is of upmost importance to have a steep sternum angle and stay within your active range of motion. You may also need to consider not giving a dominant muscle group a specific exercise; and if your triceps aren’t growing then look to hit these first in your workout.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons