Compare photographs of bodybuilders and gymnasts, and you’ll see defined and chiseled chest muscles on both athletes. However, how and why they train their chest muscles are vastly different.
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Bodybuilders need larger, more prominent chest muscles so that they stand out onstage. Gymnasts must have the ability to maneuver their bodies through space more rapidly than a bodybuilder. Though they may have defined chests as well, a gymnast’s training is focused more on optimizing the functional movement of the pectoral muscles.
The Function of Chest Muscles
The pectoral muscle’s primary function is to keep the arm attached to the trunk of your body. Meaning that any time you move your arm to the side, as if you were side-arming a baseball, your pectoral muscle activates. Your pecs also activate any time that you rotate your arm across your body or behind your body, flap your arms like a chicken or press weight away from your chest.
When a gymnast performs a routine on the rings, his pectoral muscles are assisting him throughout all of his movements.
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Gymnasts and bodybuilders work all the angles of their chest muscles; the gymnast to maximize function and the bodybuilder to optimize aesthetics. Gymnasts are after function while bodybuilders need to hit every angle they can to build or alter the definition of their muscles. This is why you’ll see many bodybuilders with larger upper chests. The tools that they use will be different, too.
Bodybuilders use barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands and cable machines to isolate their chest muscles. To hit all three angles of the pec muscle, bodybuilders may incline or decline their bench presses and flyes. This allows them to change the angle at which the pecs are stretched and build up the upper region of the chest near their collarbone, or the lower portion of their chest that sits on top of their abs.
Gymnasts may or may not use weights to assist in strength training. For the most part, their focus will be on practicing and performing their routine on the uneven bars, still rings or the parallel bars. A gymnast will perform angled pressing motions with their body weight, as well, but the stress they elicit on their muscles will work the pecs as well as the stabilizer muscles around their shoulders and arms.
Training for Hypertrophy
A bodybuilders primary goal is to induce hypertrophy.
Hypertrophy is what happens when muscle tissue increases the size of its cells due to the tension placed on it by resistance. This will also happen for gymnasts as well at first, but over time, if they’re not progressively adding weight like a bodybuilder or performing higher rep exercises, their chest muscles will not enlarge as their bodybuilding counterparts.
To create a more massive looking chest, bodybuilders focus on increasing the size and definition of the upper pec muscles that attach at the collarbone. Not only does this make their chest look as if it's "popping" off their body, but it aids in making their waist look smaller and increasing the desired V-shape look.
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More Isn’t Always Better
A bodybuilder's goal over his or her career is to build as much muscle as possible and improve the definition of individual muscle groups. Over time, this will increase their overall weight, which can affect their overall athletic performance and speed. Both gymnasts and bodybuilders need strength, but for a gymnast to maintain their isolated movement on rings or bars, they need a mix of endurance and speed. The leaner a gymnast is, the faster he can move, and the more power he can apply to movements.
Gymnasts will need to build muscle and strength over their career, but as opposed to bodybuilders, they’re looking to do it while staying lean and without adding massive amounts of muscle.