A few days ago, I was sharing pictures of old time strongmen on twitter, and some followers made a sharp observation
The men had very developed developed shoulders, yoke, core, and legs, but notably absent pec development. Yet they had very proportionate physiques that inherently LOOK strong.
In fact, none of them had big pecs at all.
Here is Arthur Saxon (1878-1912) for an example
And Here is Eugen Sandow (1867-1925)
And here is Otto Arco
These men developed their physiques decades before anabolic steroids existed. While no doubt had genetic talent for being strong, it is still evidence of what the natural body is capable of.
Regarding the pectoral muscle development though, it is not as if they have NO chest muscle. They clearly have muscle definition. But the “balloon” look of modern bodybuilders is notably absent. Their pecs simply are not that big. If they were judged by modern bodybuilding standards, they’d be considered “shoulder dominant” and be told they need to bring their pectorals up.
This leads to a question: Why did pectoral training become so coveted? Why is the bench press considered the premier standard of upper body strength, whereas as 100 years ago, it was the overhead press? What makes training the chest SO important?
Time a for history lesson…
A History of Chest Training
To understand why Chest development became an integral part of strength training and bodybuilding, you must go back to when it was not.
Up until the 1950s, directly training the chest muscles (ie, the pecs), was an almost nonexistent practice.
For the first 50 years or so of Bodybuilding and physical culture in the 20th century, right up until the invention and the widespread manufacturing of the “flat bench”, training the pectoral muscles was NOT a major focus.
In fact, for almost all of human history right up until the mid 20th century, having huge pecs was not a “thing” that existed.
Imagine though it is 1925. The Roaring 20s. WWI has ended, booze is flowing, and every buster and broad is sharp dressed.
You’re a young man full of spit and vinegar, and you decide to take up some physical training, and visit a gymnasion. What will you find?
It would be DBs, of various sizes. Some weighted barbells, also of various sizes. You might find some primitive dip and chinup apparatus,
But bench press racks and squat racks?
Those didn’t exist. Modern Olympic weightlifting with a barbell didn’t become formalized until 1928 (before that, athletes would perform 1 handed lifts AND 2 handed lifts).
What did these early lifters do for the chest then?
They didn’t do anything.
All of the old time lifting techniques focusing on OVERHEAD lifting. Movement like the bent press, the jerk press, the “2 Hand anyhow”, the Dumbell swing…all these lifts focus on getting weights from the floor to the overhead position.
Legs got trained with some deep knee bends, (ie, bodyweight squats with the heels come up off the floor),usually done for very high reps, but the major focus was on the overhead lifting in all its forms.
Was this functional?
If you look at the physiques of old time strongmen, you’ll see the pec development is notably absent.
Yet they were phenomenally strong men, capable of pressing 300+ lbs over their heads and performing physical feats that are rarely equaled today.
They’ve got immense shoulder development, and while they’ve certainly got defined pecs muscle, there is zero of the “balloon” look that you see decades later in bodybuilding.
Many of them were also champion level wrestlers as well. Arthur Saxon, Otto Arco, George Hackenschmidt, wrestling was a common practice in those days for men, and strongmen always excelled at it
The question then of why didn’t they have bigger pectorals…?
Ask yourself “why would they need to”?
The pectoral muscles only need to be so strong for a man to throw a punch. You don’t need big pecs for that. In fact, overly developed chest muscles INHIBIT punching. The pecs when they are too developed are stiff and they inhibit the movement of the arm.
You’ll never see boxers with big chests for this reason. Outside of lots of pushups, they don’t need more pecs.
Huge pecs also don’t contribute to to the overhead press. Shoulders and back and arm strength are what count.
Same for combative activities like wrestling, throws, submissions, and tacking, the “power” muscles are again the arms, shoulders, back.
(and I’ve talked about in the past, the INCLINE PRESS trains the upper body far more functionally than the flat bench press)
The only lift that existed for training chest was a floor press, and it was considered a novelty lift more than a main lift.
Obviously pushups and dips could be done, but those were bodyweight exercises and there were no strength feats that involved them.
There was never any activity that required lying flat on the back and pushing weight off the chest. As such, what incentive or catalyst was there for a man to suddenly think “I need to lay down on a bench and do chest presses”.
Physical Culture was a Way of Life and Being and Thinking
These men did not think like the lifters of today. They trained before “exercise science” or kinesiology was a field of study.
The development of strength and the development of the mind were wholly connected. They were lifting philosophers, and their perspective was one in which a man must develop whole body power and possess great endurance of mind and body across all domains that he might apply himself.
They were about as far the compartmentalized mindset of modern fitness as you could possibly be.
Physical culture was the development of the man as a WHOLE being.
The form of the body was to reflect its function, and function meant immense practical strength and the ability to apply it to anything
You can understand perhaps then how bizarre it would have seemed to them to prioritize only ONE muscle group on the body and then devote hours to training it, purely for how it looked when developed. And for this training to not transfer over to really anything they did.
And if you back even FURTHER in History
Aside from doing pushups and dips, there are no records of any kind of warrior class doing anything like bench press or chest press.
This was not because ancient and ancestral man did not consciously think the chest muscles were not important. Rather they did not think of them at all.
A mans physique and fitness was determined by his ability to fight, lift, and move. Much like the Physical culturists of the 1800s, ancient man was primarily considered with fighting, grappling, using weapons, wearing armor, and being hard to kill.
And simply said…you don’t need big pec muscles to do any of that.
Legs? Without question.
Pec muscles though? Not really.
I could post up photos of greek statues for days, but you probably get the point.
Why Did Training Chest Become Popular Then?
A few reasons.
By the 1950s, more people were exercising. Bodybuilding was still very niche, but health and fitness were becoming more widespread, especially after World War II.
Bob Hoffman, a weightlifer and fitness entrepreneur and magazine publisher, he had started the York Barbell Company, and he heavily promoted exercise through the usage of Yorks products, ie the barbell and cement weights that you might read about in old time bodybuilder stories.
Early bench press benches used thin barbell that could rarely hold more than 200lbs in weight, and the “uprights”, which are the supports with hooks that you rest the bar on, they were designed narrow, which made it dangerous to load the barbell heavy as it could flip off the bench if the weight was unbalanced, and it made racking and unracking difficult as well.
To get around this, gym owners and lifters simply made their own, custom benches, usually from heavy wood. These benches could handle 300,400+ pounds, and the bench press steadily became a main exercise to do.
Side note-This was around the time that the the first “pulley machines” were introduced as well, what we would call cable machines today. These were also almost entirely custom made by gym owners, and they opened up new ways to train.
At the same time, bodybuilding had grown in popularity over the years, and there was an increasing focus on AESTHETICS.
Whereas the old time lifters had largely been strongmen performers, the newer lifters were a hybrid of the new sport of “weightlifting” ie, Olympic lifting, and they did strongman feats, and they did “muscle control displays”, what we would call posing.
The ideal was becoming one in which EVERY muscle on the body was proportionate in development to the other muscles.
Taken into account, this resulted in the exercise repertoire being expanded. Lifters were doing more exercises, and as any Bro can attest, Bros experiment constantly.
And then One BIG BRO changed the game
Reg Park, the first bodybuilder known to have benched 500lbs, and the first bodybuilder to have the full-chested “bulging pecs” look that would become the norm within a few years. He was a 3-time Mr. Universe Winner, and 250lbs in the offseason. He was BIG, and his chest development that was next level for the time period. (and yes, he took testosterone, although his dosages today would be considered a Testosterone Replacement Therapy dose compared to what modern bodybuilders take)
Park was also a mentor to a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would become famous for his chest development as well. They even trained together for a period of time.
Reg Park was the creator of the famous 5×5 program, 3 day a week that is still followed to this day.
Back Squats 5×5
Chin-Ups or Pull-Ups 5×5
Dips or Bench Press 5×5 (2 warmup sets, 3 work sets)
Wrist Work 2×10
Front Squats 5×5
Standing Press 5×5
Deadlifts 3×5 (2 warm-up sets, 1 work set)
Wrist Work 2×10
Once Big Pecs Became Popular, Big Benching did as well…
Powerlifting was not officially formalized as a sport until 1965, but from 1950 until then, more and more lifters started to make the bench press one of the primary lifts in training.
Along with heavy DB pressing and incline pressing, the physiques of bodybuilders changed dramatically within two decades.
By 1970 and the beginning of the Arnold Era, having a huge chest was a coveted look, and it would have been inconceivable at that point to NOT train chest.
The final culminating series of events would be Bill Starr making the bench press popular in high school weights rooms through his nationwide seminars and then publishing his famous book “the Strongest Shall Survive” in the late 1970s…
Millions and millions of teenage boys benched press for football training in High School
Compound that with everything else, and it is easy to see why the the Bench Press became THE premier upper body lift to perform.