The bench press is probably the most overused exercise by people struggling with pectus excavatum.
Even though this is a fantastic exercise for improving your upper body appearance, focusing too much on your bench press can worsen your appearance by causing muscular imbalances, further worsening your pectus posture.
Always make sure to work the back muscles equally with your chest muscles.
What If Your Chest Cant Grow
If you're doing flat, incline, or decline bench press, and you're getting more robust, but your chest still can't grow, don't worry; it may not be because of your pectus excavatum.
I love Paul Chek's idea of classifying exercises as movement patterns, and the bench press is a press and not a chest isolator, which you may need to build muscle around the chest cavity.
Depending on how wide you grab the barbell, the triceps or shoulders can get more stimulated than the chest muscles. You can even burn the triceps before your chest gets involved in the exercise.
If your main goal is to build muscle and have a muscular chest, and you're not a performance athlete, your best bet would be to integrate chest isolation exercises like dumbbell flies. This will take away the triceps muscles of the chest activation.
TRX flies are also a great way to do the movement, and you can also switch hand positioning to target different areas of your chest.
Dumbbells Vs. Barbell
Powerlifting requires you to bench press with a straight barbell. If you're competing in powerlifting, you should use the tool you're going to contend with, and that is a barbell.
Even though I am not a powerlifter by any means, I like bench pressing with a barbell because it allows me to put on more weight on the bar in my power rack in my home gym. Also, I always thought barbell exercises were cool, so I am a massive fan.
However, I believe there is considerable wear and tear on the joints over time when using the straight barbell because I don't think we're designed to press that way.
Nevertheless, it works for many people and is straightforward to execute. I am a massive advocate of performing workouts you like doing the most because that way, you'll be most consistent with the workouts.
I recently feel like I am at a mechanical disadvantage when using the straight bar, so most of the pressing is with an adjustable uni-lateral dumbbell; what I like the most about dumbbells: is the freedom you have with your arms.
Your hands aren't fixed in an unnatural position, which can help you prevent pain or injuries to your joints in the long run.
Barbells Make Progress Easier
If your priority is to build muscle and make your sunken chest less noticeable, the extra weight you can put on the barbell will make a lot of difference. You can't go as heavy with the dumbbells because they are tough to pick up when you go heavy with them.
Also, it is harder to progress with dumbbells, especially if you have a home gym because buying different sets of heavy dumbbells can cost a lot.
Biggest Problem I Had With Dumbbells
I always struggled with picking up heavy dumbbells on the floor, putting them on my knees and laying back on the bench, doing the exercise, and carefully lowering the dumbbells on the ground. You don't have to worry about all this when doing a bench press.
All you have to do is take the bar off the pins, exercise, and put the bar back.
I love the dumbbell lifter that allows you to pick up the weight for yourself without having to do all the extra work; that will be ideal, and you can grow powerful with that. I've seen Juji Mufu use this setup in his home gym, and it looks so cool.
However, that can be expensive.
Stop Using Heavy Dumbbells
If the dumbbells become too heavy for you to lift in a bench press initial position, to the point where you need a partner to assist you in raising the dumbbells for you, you should lighten the weights.
Start working on your core and stabilizer muscles to avoid injuries and messed-up pectus posture. You won't need any separate fancy exercises to strengthen your core. All you need to do is perform the activities with great form, with lighter weights that you can handle.
I rarely train with a workout partner because I usually lift in my home gym. That helped me work the stabilizers and core more because I used to pick up the heaviest weights in the commercial gyms, tell my friend to lift them for me into starting position, and all I had to do was press them and wait until my friends picked them up from my hands.
Bigger Chest Increases Bench Press
People that are new to weightlifting often hit a plateau. I was a victim of this when my bench press was stuck at 80 kg after two years of lifting. At this point, you will need to combine bodybuilding with lifting heavy weights.
Even though strength is a function of the nervous system, there is more to it. The cross-sectional muscle fiber is what you need. Big muscles can endure heavy loads. Muscle hypertrophy won't usually follow as well as bodybuilding-specific workouts when you focus on increasing strength.
After plateauing with your bench press, you must integrate hypertrophy work to improve your strength.
How to Stop Plateauing
Continue lifting heavy, but make sure you add high repetition short rest interval workout in your program.
For example, if you do your serious work with three sets of 3 repetitions bench press on Monday, add a workout on Thursday focusing on high repetitions, a short rest interval workout consisting of push-ups.
You do two sets of push-ups for as many repetitions as you possibly can, and you stop until you reach one repetition to failure. Rest a minute, and repeat to do as many as you can.
If you did 50 in the next set, you would probably do 18 repetitions, totaling 68 reps total for this week.
The goal for next Thursday's workout would be to do more than 68 reps in two sets and aim for 75. etc. A well-known and advised routine that can help skinny individuals with pectus excavatum is WS4SB by Joe DeFranco.
This free program will help you get both stronger and bigger.
Importance of Weight Milestones
Kyle Blandford from hypertrofit.com recommends setting bench press milestones for people with pectus excavatum. That will give you a sense of accomplishment, especially after you hit 225 lbs for the first time.
This is the point where you're no longer considered a beginner, and you have enough strength to add additional exercises to isolate your chest and add muscle mass even more.
Here's a video of Kyle guiding you on how you can achieve a 225 lbs. bench press with a sunken chest.
Biggest Mistake I Did
When I started weightlifting at 16, the sunken chest deformity bothered me psychologically, and increasing my bench press was my biggest priority. I made the newbie mistake of putting as much weight on the bar as possible.
I could barely move the weight, but I constantly tried this almost every day, thinking it would work. My goal has always been bench pressing my weight of 60 kilograms.
I tried putting in 60 kg constantly, but my bench press always struggled, no matter how frequent and intense my bench pressing was.
Importance of Mixing Exercise Parameters
In addition to the maximal effort lift, you need to stimulate the nervous system with fast repetitions with a lighter weight. You can take a medicine ball and throw it as further as you can or do explosive push-ups where you lift your arms off the ground.
Doing speed work will help you make the maximal effort raise, i.e., progressing to reach your goal.
Instead of lifting the heaviest weight daily, try to do this only once a week. In the following workout, you should go lighter, taking 50% off the total weight you lifted on a heavy day, and perform the repetitions as fast as you can, explosively.
Don't worry if you don't get a muscle pump when you do this. The goal is to fast muscle contraction and stimulate the nervous system.
This mixed parameters type of workout worked perfectly for me when I tried it for all major compound movements. It is a popular method used throughout the years, yielding excellent results. I learned this by watching Elliott Hulse's videos on YouTube.
Bench Press and Shoulder Pain
Most people who execute the bench press incorrectly over an extended period experience shoulder pain at some point. The biggest problem can be seen in people who use a barbell.
Hopefully, I will explain this common mistake and help you correct it, saving the health of your posture and joints in the long run, especially if you already have a poor pectus posture caused by your pectus excavatum deformity.
Abnormal Bench Press Cue
People's biggest mistake is pulling the shoulder blades back and down together while moving the bar up and down.
This is the first thing personal trainers recommend you do if you're not doing it already. They say that squeezing everything back together creates stability and a solid foundation to safely press a lot of weight.
The more I learned about biomechanics and anatomy, the more these standard cues for the bench press exercise made less sense.
If we pull the shoulder blades back and down during the pressing movement, we restrict the chest muscles' capability to achieve.
A natural rhythm occurs in the body when performing this movement. This is called scapulohumeral rhythm, or for the arm to move freely, the shoulder blades need to be able to move freely, not being restricted in the shoulders back and down position.
Keeping your shoulder back and down will limit how much you can move your arm. For example, try to throw a ball or a punch with a pinned-down shoulder. You'll feel how awkward your body will be when you do this.
Also, this motion will be very weak because you will lose all your power in this limited range of motion. This restricts natural human movement and shoulder biomechanics altogether.
The tiny muscles in the shoulders, and the serratus anterior, can get inactive over time because of this, leading to impingement or pain.
The Bottom Line
Make it a goal to increase the weight of your bench press. That will translate to better strength in isolation exercises to help you build a massive chest, making your deformity less noticeable.
Ensure to eat many calories if you're underweight, so your bench press numbers will increase. I am a massive fan of barbells, but it is always a good idea to mix cables, dumbbells, and barbells in your workouts, so your muscles and stabilizers get stimulated in different ways.
Thank you for reading; if you have any concerns, please leave them in the comment below, or feel free to contact me.