John Grimek on Building a Massive Chest - Part 2
By Rob Drucker
John Grimek demonstrates a wall cable exercise for building the inner pecs.
In Part One of this two-part series, we explored John Grimek's conviction that building a large chest first requires building a large rib box. Grimek emphasized that the size of the rib box can often be enlarged by performing leg exercises which promote deep breathing and full respiratory action, especially if such exercise is followed by a chest-expansion movement. It was a combination of leg and chest work which Grimek credited to his own large chest measurement.
In Part 2 of this series, we will further explore Grimek's recommendations for expanding the rib box. We will also concern ourselves with how best to develop the muscles of the chest from Grimek's point of view. Finally, we will look at a training program which Grimek prescribed many years ago for those seeking to gain muscular bodyweight and strength.
Joe Lauriano demonstrating the decline barbell press.
John Grimek was a big believer in variety when it came to exercise. Variety, he said, rejuvenates a lifter's training program and stimulates new muscle growth. Without variety, Grimek argued that a lifter goes stale, loses enthusiasm, and fails to develop a fully balanced and symmetrical physique. It is for these reasons that Grimek practiced a relatively large number of chest and other exercises over his long training career. We looked at a few of these exercises in Part One of this series. With the exception of hangs on a chinning bar (one of Grimek's favorites), all other chest-expansion movements described in the previous installment are done on a flat or supine bench.
Roy Hilligenn demonstrating the bent-arm pullover on an incline bench.
The commercialization of the incline bench in the early 1950s brought popularity to this apparatus, and it was described by many as a "new invention" for building muscles. Despite popular belief, however, the incline bench had its beginning far before the 1950s. John Grimek used a primitive form of the incline bench as far back as the early 1930s. It was at this time that the future Mr. America discovered that performing chest exercises while in an incline position can greatly aid expansion of the rib box and development of the chest muscles. Describing the exercises he practiced on an incline bench, Grimek said, "These exercises will affect the muscles more vigorously and in a different manner. Because of their nature and the leverage involved they have the ability to stretch and pull certain muscle groups more completely thus activating them more thoroughly."
Roy Hilligenn performing dumbbell presses on an incline bench.
Grimek held a similar viewpoint for decline bench work. He argued that many movements take on new life when done in a decline position. An example is the pullover. When done on a flat bench, the pectorals, deltoids, and upper back muscles are allowed to relax when the weight is brought up and over the face. However, when the pullover is done on a decline bench, the angle of the weight relative to the body keeps tension on these muscles even when the weight is suspended overhead.
Grimek did not favor doing "bench" exercises in one plane over another. Rather, he opted to do a mix of supine, incline, and decline work. By using all three planes in his chest training (though, not necessarily in the same workout), Grimek believed that he developed his muscles more thoroughly and more broadly than he would have had he solely trained on a flat bench. Furthermore, Grimek often used a variety of different benches and incline / decline positions to ensure that his muscles developed uniformly. He urged lifters to experiment with different bench constructions and incline positions to determine which configurations were most conducive to their particular needs and exercise choices. In Strength and Health, Grimek wrote,
". . . it is best to have a bench that can be adjusted to any desired incline needed, or else have two or three benches of varying inclines. One may find that on certain inclines the two hands dumbell press is easier done although not less effective. While another angle of incline such leverage movements such as the pullover and similar exercises can be practiced more advantageously. Some benches vary in their construction from the floor to the seat, which has a slight advantage for some while it may handicap another. Therefore discover the angle you prefer to perform your exercises and stick to it. On the other hand it is wise, if you have the equipment and time to use all variations of the inclines and perform a set of exercises on each."
Joe Lauriano demonstrating the barbell press on a decline bench.
During his bulk-gaining years, Grimek typically employed six "bench" exercises for building his chest, though only a selected few of these were done during any particular workout. He would often recommend to lifters anxious to build a better chest to include two or three exercises from this group in each workout, selecting a different combination of exercises and / or a different bench position (supine, incline, or decline) each training session. A description of each of these six exercises is given below.
(1) Press with Barbell - Whether done in the supine, incline, or decline position, Grimek considered this exercise to be a superb movement for developing the muscles of the chest, back, arms, and shoulders. He preferred to do this exercise with a relatively wide grip, and he pressed the weight in a straight line upward. Grimek generally recommended doing 12 to 15 repetitions with this exercise.
Joe Lauriano demonstrating the start position of the dislocation movement.
(2) Bent-Arm Pullover - This exercise is done with either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells, and the arms are kept bent. Bending the arms allows a slightly heavier weight to be used without undue strain on the shoulders. As the weight is brought back and behind the head, the hips should remain low on the bench or seat, the back should be kept flat on the bench, and you should breathe as deeply as possible. After a full stretch, the weight is brought upwards and above the head as you exhale. Grimek recommended 15 to 20 repetitions.
(3) Stiff-Arm Pullover - This exercise is done just like the bent-arm style except the arms are kept straight throughout the movement. A lighter weight is employed, and extra focus is placed on deep breathing and stretching of the rib box. Again, Grimek recommended doing 15 to 20 repetitions.
John Grimek demonstrating the bottom position of the dislocation exercise. The dumbbells are brought from overhead to the position shown. Arms should remain inline with the body.
(4) Dislocation or Semi-Inverted Lateral Raises
John Grimek called the dislocation movement "a great latissimus dorsi muscle builder." This exercise not only builds all the muscles of the upper back, it is useful for building the shoulders, the pectorals, and for expanding the rib box. Grimek described how to perform the dislocation exercise as follows,
"Select pair of dumbells which can be handled fairly easily to prevent any shoulder injury. Start movement from thighs and allow arms to swing down, by muscular action of course, and meet overhead [see photographs] . . . . Keep arms moving in line with body from overhead. When correctly executed this exercise will bring about phenomenal development in the entire torso, particularly the great latissimus dorsi. Breathe deeply as weights are carried overhead. Exhale as they are returned to starting position on thighs. 12 to 15 repetitions are necessary."
Roy Hilligen demonstrates the bottom position of the lateral raise exercise on an incline bench. This exercise can be done with the arms held straight or with the arms bent.
(5) Press with Dumbbells - For best results, Grimek recommended that the arms be held away from the body and the elbows be pointed sideways. Using this technique, Grimek pointed out that the pectorals are more strongly stretched, and this greater range of stretching helps to develop these muscles more fully. Grimek recommended using a weight that will allow 12 to 15 repetitions in perfect style.
(6) Lateral Raise - This was a very popular exercise in years past, and it was one of Grimek's favorites. He typically performed this movement while keeping his arms straight. However, he sometimes employed a slightly heavier weight and performed this exercise with his arms bent (today, many lifters call this form of the lateral raise "flyes"). Each style, according to Grimek, affects the chest muscles and pull on the rib box slightly differently, and the bodybuilding star recommended that both versions be done from time to time for best results. If, however, the straight-arm version causes shoulder pain, Grimek suggested doing only the bent-arm version. Regardless of style done, Grimek stressed that a greater muscular contraction can be achieved by bringing the dumbbells upwards until the arms are crossed over the chest. He also recommended inhaling deeply as the arms are extended (dumbbells moved towards the floor), and exhaling as the weight is raised and crossed over the chest. The muscle star recommended doing 15 to 18 counts per set of this exercise.
Roy Hilligen demonstrating the top position of the lateral raise exercise on an incline bench. Note how he crosses his arms.
Grimek cautioned that a lifter should master the correct form of the six exercises described above before concerning himself with using heavy weights. Only after the a lifter can EASILY perform the upper number of repetitions in good style should he increase the weight used for a particular exercise. Grimek urged this practice because deep breathing, as required for chest expansion, is hampered if too much weight is used. Additionally, Grimek recommended this practice to help save a lifter from getting a shoulder injury.
Although John Grimek trained with a variety of bench angles to enlarge his chest, he was particularly fond of decline-bench exercises because, he believed, that the decline position has a soothing effect upon the body. He wrote,
"The decline attitude is very beneficial to the body in general. During the entire day we either stand or sit and gravity naturally exerts its downward force on our organs. In this new position the organs are gently pushed back into their place and [this] relieves the strain from our upright position. Blood circulation is increased in this position without any added strain on the heart. The legs, normally sluggish due to its upward flow against gravity, is greatly increased and replenished with fresh, nourishing materials carried in the blood. Even the brain receives new and larger quantities of blood, clearing the 'cobwebs' for more efficient thinking. Yes, this exercising attitude has some unusual merits, but if you entertain any doubts, try it yourself and you be the judge."
John Grimek's version of the crossover on the supine bench.
To perform "decline-plane" exercises, Grimek recommended using a sturdy abdominal board, or any other board which is sturdy enough to support a combination of your body and the exercise weight. Grimek "hooked" his feet in place by using the straps on his abdominal board. Without such straps, another means must be found to keep the feet steadily held. Grimek suggested that one option is to secure yourself by the crook of your knees, by dropping your lower legs over the edge of the high-end portion of the incline board.
John Grimek demonstrating the crusher apparatus.
Grimek also advised that the bottom edge of the incline board be elevated before practicing exercises such as the lateral raise or the bent-arm pullover. This can be done by resting the board on a sturdy box or bench. Doing this will prevent the dumbbells or barbell from contacting the floor before a full stretch can be obtained. With the exception of a few exercises, such as the partial bench movement described below, Grimek favored obtaining a complete stretch, as he believed doing so aided muscular development.
Grimek was often asked if the shape of the pectorals can be changed. The bodybuilder explained that only the contour of a muscle can be altered, not the basic shape. In the October 1960 issue of Strength and Health, he wrote,
". . . if you expect to find a way to shorten or lengthen the muscles structure itself, let me save you some time and trouble and tell you this is impossible. All muscles have a point of origin and a point of termination. Between these points, it's possible to develop them to almost any size, but nothing will increase or shorten this distance. This is true of all muscles, and this is what governs and gives shape to muscles, not size."
John Grimek performed various versions of the pullover exercise. The pullover was the one exercise he practiced nearly every workout.
Although the basic shape of a muscle is governed by heredity, Grimek pointed out that a targeted region of the pectorals can be emphasized and developed by selecting the right exercise. For example, if a bodybuilder would like to fill in the gap between the pectorals were they meet at the sternum, the York star recommended doing supine, decline, or incline presses, especially with a wide grip. Grimek's experience was that each of these styles of the bench press greatly stimulates the muscle tissue in the vicinity of the sternum. The Mr. America winner also recommended performing lying chest movements for affecting this region of the chest, including the "Flying" exercise with arms bent. For the "flying" exercise, Grimek said, ". . . instead of stopping the dumbbells over the chest, the arms should cross each other in scissors fashion so that maximum contraction of the inner section of these muscles is obtained."
According to Grimek, the inner section of the pectorals are also greatly stimulated by squeezing the two handles of a crusher apparatus together, and by bringing the arms across the chest with resistance from a wall pulley or cable.
Many bodybuilders desire to acquire a sharper outline of the pectorals, especially at the bottom and outer edges. Grimek claimed that various chest exercises are useful to meet this goal, especially if done in the decline position. These exercises include presses, pullovers, and bent-arm lateral raises. The decline position, according to the strongman, helps to stimulate the section along the bottom of the pectorals by increasing the stretch at this area. As stated previously, Grimek emphasized that the "flying" exercise can be made more beneficial by moving the arms past the "sideways" position and continuing until they are crossed over the chest. Crossing the arms over the chest, according to Grimek, greatly increases contraction of the pectorals and helps to bring forth better muscularity and a sharper outline of the these muscles.
Grimek often cautioned readers of Strength and Health against overdeveloping the pectorals. He wrote,
"I am not suggesting that these muscles be ignored . . . they shouldn't be. But neither should they be developed beyond other proportions and infringe upon the body's symmetry. Body symmetry is more important and is the sole factor by which one physique is more outstanding than another - never overdevelopment of some muscle group."The York strongman also warned that overdeveloped pectorals may begin to sag and acquire a flabby look, especially as the lifter approaches middle age and / or if he fails to train regularly.
According to Grimek, the vast majority of bodybuilders can keep their pectorals firm by training them regularly and by not going bulk crazy. However, an unfortunate few lifters may naturally have flabby pectorals due to a condition called gynecosmastia. If a lifter suffers from this condition, exercise alone will not eliminate the flabbiness of his pectorals. Rather, Grimek stated that hormone (testosterone) injections under the direction of a medical doctor, along with exercise, may be necessary before the bodybuilder who suffers from gynecosmastia can overcome this condition and establish a firm set of pecs.
Contrary to popular belief, John Grimek did believe that the bench press is a valuable exercise for bringing about muscular development, but only if this lift is employed as part of a general plan to build a symmetrical physique. Grimek stated,
"Too often this exercise is overdone with one goal in mind: to acquire large and massive pectorals. If this is your aim, then you're wasting your time and energy. Not that this exercise wouldn't develop the pectoral muscles . . . it would. Almost too much so. Your aim should be to strive for all-round symmetry and not for one particular muscle."
John believed that to reap the most benefit from the bench press, this lift must be done without "cheating" of any kind. His protocol for performing the bench press centered around four major rules. Following these four rules, Grimek stressed, will ensure that the bench press stimulates all the muscles of the upper body, not just the pectorals. John's bench press rules were as follows:
Use a weight which you can COMFORTABLY handle for the desired number of repetitions.
Avoid violent starts, arching of the back, raising the hips off the bench, and digging the heels into the floor.
Do any number of repetitions that you find desirable or beneficial. Grimek believed that the best rep scheme depends upon the individual and must be determined by experiment.
Use a grip spacing which feels most natural. Experiment with different spacings to determine which grip width is best suited for you. Some bodybuilders, Grimek stated, do best with a very wide grip (collar to collar); other lifters favor a relatively narrow grip (about shoulder width apart). The majority of lifters, according to John, do best with a grip somewhere between these two extremes.
For building greater upper-body strength, Grimek often prescribed a power system of training based on doing partial reps on the bench press. This system is done by lowering the barbell only about two to four inches from the fully-extended position, and then pushing the weight back up. A weight should be used that is about 20 to 25% heavier than is normally used for the full-range movement, and about five or six reps should be done each set. Grimek recommended that an experienced lifter perform five to eight sets of this exercise, increasing the weight with each set. For safety reasons, I recommend that this exercise only be performed inside of a power rack, or with assistance from a couple of strong spotters.
While the bench press is normally done with a barbell, Grimek believed that doing this exercise with a pair of dumbbells may be better. The former Mr. America pointed out that dumbbells allow free and natural movement of both arms, unlike the barbell which essentially locks the hand spacing.
G.S. Bronx, a reader of Strength and Health, once asked John Grimek, "Why do you and Harry Paschall frown on the bench press? . . . I've seen you a number of times and judging by your pectorals you must have done some bench pressing (or some other exercise to develop them) but please give me some reasons why you don't favor this exercise."
Grimek responded by assuring Mr. Bronx that neither he nor Harry Paschall were against bodybuilders using the bench press. However, Grimek was quick to point out to this reader that both he, and especially Paschall, considered the bench press to be an overrated and often overdone exercise. Grimek said, "Too much emphasis is placed on developing 'pecs' which, although they should be well-developed for physical appearance, should be checked to be in line with other body proportions for symmetry. Too often they are drooping with bulk, making them sloppy looking . . . ."
Grimek warned that too much pec bulk can restrict an athlete by making overhead pressing more difficult. He also cautioned that most fellows with "heavy pecs" look unsightly because they don't have the proper structure to carry them. An exception was granted to George Eiferman: "Eiferman, on the other hand, is constructed so as to carry them well, but his pectorals are not as heavy nor as thick as they seem, but because of their shape they look larger and mold into his physique better."
During his mature years, John Grimek rarely practiced the regular bench press. However, as a young lifter, the bodybuilder said that he practiced this lift often in floor-press form. He once did a floor press with around 375 pounds. This was done in very strict style, and at the time the world record in this lift was 382 pounds and held by Joe Nordquest. Grimek was proud of his press form, but he was appalled by the style of lifting typically exhibited by other bodybuilders as the bench pressed gained popularity. Grimek wrote in the January 1957 issue of Strength and Health, "Watching fellows do this lift today makes you wonder whether they're trying to lift the weight or keep the weight from crushing them!"
Grimek summed up his view on the bench press by saying, . . . I'm not against the lift when it is used properly for developing purposes, but neither do I think this lift should be favored and employed to the exclusion of all other more important exercises - which seems to be Harry Paschall's prime dissent, not condemnation. Employ it as a useful exercise and not as a monster builder!"
Grimek believed that the body responds best when trained as a whole, and he often did whole-body workouts three times per week. Not only did Grimek often utilize a whole-body training program, he prescribed this type of training to beginning and intermediate bodybuilders seeking to gain muscular bodyweight. One of his prescribed whole-body programs was featured in the September 1952 issue of Strength and Health. Grimek also recommended this program to advanced bodybuilders, although he suggested that the advanced fellow may want to add a few exercises, increase the number of sets per exercise and/or alter the selection of exercises to meet his needs. Grimek suggested to the lifter that he only add additional work to this routine if he could still feel "refreshed" after a workout.
|Exercise||Sets and Reps|
|Warm-up - high deadlift, fast||1 X 8-10 (one set, 8 to 10 reps)|
|2 hands curl||1-2 X 8-10|
|2 hands reverse curl||1-2 X 8-10|
|Bent over curl, single arm||2-3 X 7-8|
|Press behind neck, sitting||1-2 X 8-10|
|"French curl", barbell||1-2 X 8-10|
|Squats, fairly light weight||1 X 15-18|
|Pullover on bench||1 X 12-15|
|Squats, increase weight 20 lbs||1 X 12-15|
|Lying lateral raise||1 X 12-15|
|Squats, increase weight 15 lbs||1 X 8-10|
|Pullover on bench||1 X 10-12|
|Squats, increase weight 10 lbs||1 X 6-8|
|Lying lateral raise||1 X 10-12|
|Squats, increase weight 5 lbs||1 X 3-5|
|Two hands press||2 X 8-10|
|Rowing exercise||2 X 8-10|
|Shoulder shrugs||2 X 10-12|
|Deadlift||2 X 10-12|
|Straddle lift||1 X 10-12|
|Side bends, barbell||2 X 12-15|
Grimek's prescribed weight-gain workout shows how the famous bodybuilder incorporated the principles of chest training discussed in this article into a general training program. Note the emphasis on leg and chest-expansion work. Note also that this program affects all major muscles of the body, as Grimek favored symmetrical development above all else.
Grimek recommended using the above training program three times per week, such as on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As a variation to this routine, he offered the following suggestion:
". . . after following the above program for a month or so, vary it by making the following changes: Assuming your training days are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, follow the foregoing program on Mondays and Fridays, but on Wednesday handle much heavier weights, 15 to 30% more in each exercise, and cut down on the reps. Instead of doing five sets of squats, use three. You'll find this added resistance will work the muscles harder and jar them from their usual routine. Also, in this way you will discover which scheme of repetitions your muscles respond to best; heavier poundages and less reps, or lighter weights and more reps."
- Hoffman, Bob, The Big Chest Book, Strength and Health Publishing Co, 1941
- Grimek, J.C., Advanced Chest Exercises, Strength and Health, May, 1948
- Grimek, J.C., More Advanced Chest Exercises, Strength and Health, June-July, 1948
- Grimek, J.C,, A Bodybuilder's Training Program, Strength and Health, September, 1952
- Grimek, J.C., Developing a Spacious Chest, Strength and Health, January, 1957
- Grimek, J.C., Your Training Problems, Strength and Health, January, 1957
- Grimek, J.C., Developing the Chest II, Strength and Health, February, 1957
- Grimek, J.C., Developing the Back, Strength and Health, May, 1957
- Grimek, J.C., Your Training Problems, Strength and Health, July, 1959
- Grimek, J.C., Know Your Basic Pectoral Shape, Strength and Health, October, 1960
- Grimek, J.C., That Controversial Bench Press, Strength and Health, November, 1960