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“Big Chest and Back”: Should this really get more difficult with age?

Building a ‘big chest and back’ is challenging enough for many physique developers who are in the prime years of their 20s and 30s. Imagine how daunting it can seem to someone who’s hit middle age.

You don’t even really need to imagine; the evidence is on movie screens. Without mentioning names, it’s evident that bodybuilding movie stars of the past often let the ‘big chest and back’ portions of their yesteryear physiques fall by the wayside faster than anything. They’ll settle for a disproportioned set of vein-popping guns jutting out of their short sleeves than bother fighting the apparent ravages of father-time from stealing the youthful symmetry provided by previously-hefty torso muscles of a ‘big chest and back.’

Torso Muscles
'Big Chest and Back': It's not uncommon to see underdeveloped pecs and lats that are overpowered by muscles of the delts and arms.


But notice I used the word “apparent”… ravages. It’s difficult to determine if losing a ‘big chest and back’ is a side-effect of aging as much as a price of neglect. To whatever degree it’s the latter, you can bet I’m personally finding ways to avert that biological dilapidation.

So let’s look at tricks for retaining (and even ‘building’) a big chest and back, even when we’ve reached an age in which it’s possible we have more decades behind us than ahead.

‘Big Chest and Back’… Regardless of Age

Big chest and back muscles often elude bodybuilders, even in their youth. It’s rare to see someone in the gym that has both the front and back muscles proportionally developed. Even among steroid users, it’s common to see overly-developed arm muscles and deltoid muscles accompanied by non-bulbous pectorals. It’s even more common to see “big guns” and decent pectorals without latisimus dorsi muscles that would balance them out from the back.  

When we add a couple decades to this effect, the imbalance tends to get exacerbated. If a guy had underdeveloped upper pecs in his younger years, he can easily end up with an almost hollow appearance to the upper chest when he gets older. This results in a comparatively protruding middle chest that can give the region a feminized appearance. If the lats are likewise underdeveloped, especially in thickness and their widths ‘downward reach’, it results in the pec region becoming even more front/mid-heavy in appearance.

The remedy to all this is to develop a thick upper chest along with a wide and thick back that comes down low. The pectorals need thickness going all the way to the shoulders and neck. The lats need to appear that their width extends down to the waistline when viewed from the front. Combined, these give the body a muscular, but sleek and youthful appearance rather than a blocky, old and feminized appearance.

But is keeping a ‘big chest and back’ easier said than done… especially when fighting the creeping and cumulative effects of years of daily gravity?

I don’t think so. As of this writing, I’ve got 48 years behind me. My pecs and lats have gained more development in the past couple years than any equal block of time previous to that. Moreover, this has occurred while I’ve kept my waistline under control; it hasn’t expanded. I’ve learned some tricks along the way. Some of those tips and tricks will comprise the remainder of this article.

‘Big Chest and Back’: Tricks to Building the Pectorals

There are two challenges to building great pectorals in the quest for a ‘big chest and back’:

  1. Building adequate size in the pecs
  2. Making sure the size is well-balanced 
With regard to the first challenge, the mistakes that most often prevent adequate pectoral size (that I’ve observed) are…
  • Subpar exercise form
  • Overtraining the pecs (training too frequently)
  • Under-training the pecs (not hitting them with enough intensity)


Download Machine Bench Pressing (click on the link to watch video)

Machine Bench Pressing
'Building Pectorals': Pressing machines that are engineered to move the hands toward each other on the concentric half of the repetition help isolate the chest muscles.


Subpar Exercise Form

Let’s talk about subpar exercise form when attempting to build the pecs. Many guys (and ladies) believe that merely lying back on a bench press and cranking out some pressing repetitions will miraculously build pec muscles. This is not the case except in rare instances where a person has a genetic predisposition for gaining pectoral muscle rather easily. For most of us, good form is a major key.

The things to keep in mind with regard to bench pressing form are grip-width and a focus on slightly pushing the hands toward each other on the positive half of the movement. Too wide of a grip will take the stress off the pectorals and put it on the deltoids. Too narrow of a grip will apply more stress to the triceps than the pecs. The perfect grip for building pecs on any pressing apparatus is one that’s between one and two inches outside having one’s hands in perfect alignment with the delts (when the bar is at chest level).

Once your grip is optimal, you need to be sure to apply inward pressure, as if driving your hands toward one another, on the positive half of each rep. This can be easier done with the use of many modern machines, like those made by Hammer Strength. You’ll notice that these pressing machines are engineered to create this type of ‘inward movement’ without the user having to focus on it. In effect, it should feel as if the pectoral muscles are being squeezed together with each contraction of a bench pressing repetition.

Another category of pectoral exercise that’s subject to a lot of subpar form is flye movements. Many unsuspecting bodybuilders cheat themselves out of bigger pecs by performing flyes in a manner that halfway resembles a pressing movement. During flyes, the elbows should be slightly bent while remaining stationary. The bend should only exist to prevent hyperextending the elbow joints; it should not exist to the point that movement takes place in the elbow joint during the flyes. To the extent that a flye movement becomes a half-hearted cross between presses and flyes, it results in a suboptimal version of either movement and removes potential stress from the pectoral muscles.

Overtraining the Pecs

A major cause for lack of progress in building a ‘big chest and back’ is overtraining. This is even more the case as a bodybuilder approaches middle age and advances to subsequent years. When I see some of these bodybuilding actors on the big screen who’ve lost major muscle size, I personally view it as a mini-tragedy that’s avoidable. It is also likely reversible. They mistakenly believe (or their “trainers” do) that their muscles should be trained with the same frequency that provided results when they were younger. When those results aren’t forthcoming, they likely blame it on advancing age.

What should get the blame is the human error of not adjusting recuperation time to be commensurate with that greater age. Experience has shown me that muscles not only won’t atrophy, but will continue getting bigger if rest days between workouts are added so as to correspond to age and current level of muscular development.

Undertraining the Pecs

As with muscle building in general, building bigger pectorals doesn’t happen without respectable intensity of effort. Simply put, if a person doesn’t work hard enough, they’ll get little or no muscle building results.

In contrast, if the pecs are targeted using the tips mentioned above, along with being continually challenged to lift greater volumes, they can keep gaining in size and shape.

Well-Balanced Pectorals

The most common imbalance in pectoral development is a flat or hollow appearance to the upper pecs in comparison to the mid and lower pecs. This can take the athletic, masculine form that many-a-guy would prefer to have for his body and replace it with a pudgy, Pillsbury Doughboy look. It can cause the front torso to appear fat and/or feminine – definitely not the effect you’re seeking when building a ‘big chest and back.’

So the remedy is to perform more incline/upper pectoral work… right?

Maybe; maybe not! Ironically, a desire to bring up a lagging section of muscle often leads to a bodybuilder overtraining that body part. Needless to say, this can result in a lack of progress that equals not working the area at all. So it’s important to remember that the upper pecs will be partially stimulated when the mid-pecs are effectively targeted. A subsequent, effective targeting of the upper pecs with incline movements should not require an excessive number of sets.

So the keys to balanced pecs when seeking ‘big chest and back’ development are using good form (described above) on inclined pressing and flye movements while adequately working (but not overworking) the region.

‘Big Chest and Back’: Tricks to Building the Lats

If there’s one area of bodybuilding in which my expertise excels, it’s building the lats muscles. While my rear delts and upper back are relative weak points (as of this writing), my lats are thicker and come down lower than those of some pro bodybuilders. I’d attribute this to a bit of built-in latisimus dorsi genetic potential coupled with a LOT of hard work and focused discipline.

Seasoned BodybuilderA lack of that focused discipline is what “cheats” a lot of bodybuilders out of the wide and thick lats that would otherwise jut upward and outward from just above the waistline.  This effect creates the illusion of a smaller waistline while giving the body a more sleek and youthful appearance. Like upper pecs development, the rare trait of thick and wide lats that extend down the sides of the torso becomes even more uncommon in those who’ve reached middle age and beyond.

Unresponsive lats muscles, in my opinion, can mostly be ascribed to ineffective workout technique. Performing rowing and pull-down exercises in a manner that actually targets the lats instead of the arms is tricky. It usually requires reducing the weight used during the exercises and slowing down the movement of the repetitions. That’s because when the arms are effectively eliminated from the movement, only the lats will be doing the work and, thus, less workout weight is moveable. But this is a good thing if you want thick and wide lats. Workout weight should only be ‘heavy’ relative to the use of good exercise form.

How do you ensure good workout form when doing pull-downs and rows?

It all boils down to extreme focus and control at the very start of the movement. This is the pivotal point in which the lats either engage or get missed altogether in favor of the arms. It’s important to begin any pull-down or rowing movement with a slow ‘rolling of the rear shoulders’ until you feel the lats becoming engaged. You’ll know when that occurs because you’ll suddenly feel that you’re pulling from “back there.” This will be evident as your arms feel they’ve abruptly become nothing more than ‘connecting handles’ between the lats muscles and the resistance weight.

That’s exactly how your arms should feel throughout the remainder of the pulling motion. It takes slowing down. It requires using less weight. And it demands a complete surrendering of the instinctive impulse to pull with the arms in favor of consigning the weight-load demand to a possibly unfamiliar (and somewhat dormant) region just below and to the rear of your armpits. As you keep pulling the weight from ‘back there’, pretend that you’re attempting to touch your shoulder blades together at the complete contraction point of the movement. This will ensure that you keep pulling from the back rather than the arms.

Okay, are you discouraged from attempting this important key in building/retaining a youthful ‘big chest and back’ area?

Don’t be! Stick with it. The rewards of becoming skillful at building the lats are well-worth the disciplined effort. This is such an underdeveloped muscle group in so many bodybuilders that having them will make your physique stand out with youthful aesthetic. It will also help you immensely in many of your athletic endeavors.

This key in exercise form for the lats only need be combined with the other two chest-building tips in order for you to build a ‘big chest and back.’ If you use it in conjunction with applying enough intensity of effort while reducing training frequency to meet recuperation demand, your ‘big chest and back’ quest can become unstoppable…

… regardless of advancing middle age.


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