Fresh off capturing the heavyweight class at the Nationals, new pro An Nguyen shares the winning formula for pecs powered by inclines
An Nguyen, 36, happily drives the surface streets of Venice, CA, on his 15-minute commute to Gold’s Gym. Though a recent transplant, he’s come to realize what most Angelinos already know: the highways are a nightmare. When he first moved south from Fresno about a year ago, An landed in the Valley, only some 20 miles north of Gold’s — but up to 90 minutes by car in traffic — so he was a bit more careful when choosing his second apartment.
He pulls into the lot across from Gold’s and parks. He jogs across the intersection of Sunset and Hampton and crosses the threshold of The Mecca, just like he’s done nearly every day for a year, but this time something is different: This time he’s a pro.
“I took a few weeks off from the gym after winning the Nationals this past November,” says An, who won the heavyweight class and the overall to earn his pro card. He opens his gym bag, takes out his preworkout supplements — 8 grams of BCAAs and 10 grams of arginine — and slugs them down with water. Then he pockets an extra 10 grams of BCAAs, saying, “I like to take these in the middle of the workout to make sure I have plenty of aminos available.”
He puts his stuff in a locker and heads on to the floor. “Anyhow, I’m slowly getting back into training now, working out three days a week for a bit, then adding
a day each week or two until I’m back to six days a week,” he says. “I haven’t picked a contest yet for my pro debut, but I want it to be memorable, so Charles and I have to make a plan.”
Yes, the Charles he’s referring to is none other than Charles Glass, dreadlocked denizen of Gold’s and notorious trainer to many pros, past and present. “I met Charles the first time I ever came to Gold’s,” recalls An. “I drove to Venice for a weekend and Charles was here. We got to talking, and the rest is history. After that visit I went home and gushed about it to my wife. The atmosphere was amazing, and looking up and seeing all these pictures of the pros on the wall, it was incredible. I knew I needed to be here to do something with my bodybuilding career.”
A few months later he relocated south, but his move wasn’t without sacrifice. “My wife and two daughters live in Yuma, AZ, with my in-laws right now because of finances, and my folks have been helping me with money so that I could turn pro,” says An. “But now that it’s happened, my family will be moving out here next month and hopefully I’ll get a sponsor so that I don’t have to do personal training and can focus 100% on bodybuilding.”
As far as today goes, his focus remains 100% on chest training as he sips his water and heads onto the gym floor.
Typically An works with Charles, along with 2-3 other guys who ebb and flow through the gym, but today he’s solo, getting back into the swing of training and establishing a new mindset angled toward pro status.
“My upper chest has been difficult for me to build,” says An, swinging his arms in big circles as he eyes the bench for incline barbell presses. “I like to start with one or two exercises to target that area. I want to have a watermelon chest; doesn’t every guy want that?”
Though many incline benches aren’t adjustable, when he has the opportunity to use a steeper bench he takes it. “I used to do the standard 45 [degree bench angle], but a notch higher has done wonders for my upper chest,” he says. He slides a 45 on each side and powers through two warm-up sets of 10-12. Moving deliberately through each rep, he pauses at the bottom of each one to fully stretch his pecs, and holds the contraction at the top for a full count. Then he stands, puts another 45 on each side and says, “Normally when I don’t have a spotter or Charles working with me, I do this move in the Smith machine with the stops set for safety. But we won’t go crazy heavy today and I can always get a spot if I think I’m using a challenging weight.”
He settles into the bench, feet spread wide for stability, and takes a wider-than-shoulder-width grip on the barbell. He unracks it, lifts his clavicle with his back arching naturally, and begins. He bends his elbows and lowers the weight slowly toward his upper chest, inhaling deeply. When the barbell nearly touches his body, he presses the weight up forcefully on an exhale, back to the start at a full extension of his arms. He completes 15 reps and racks the weight.
“You know, I like to let the weight sit on top with each rep, just for a second,” he says, as he adds more weight to each side. “I feel like that pause really forces some extra blood in there and gives me a good pump.”
He exaggerates that idea on his next set, pausing at the top of each rep and contracting his pecs hard, grimacing, before lowering into the negative of the next rep. He completes 14 reps for this set, then performs 11 with 315 pounds and 10 with 365.
An chooses a set of 100-pound dumbbells from the rack and one at a time hauls them to an incline bench set at a click above 45 degrees.
“Again, because I’m focusing on my upper chest I like to do another incline move like incline dumbbell presses,” says An, sitting and then wrestling the weights onto the tops of his thighs. “This move is different than with the barbell because I can move the dumbbells inward and squeeze hard in the middle-upper chest; you can’t do that with a barbell because your hands are locked in place.”
He kicks the weights up to his shoulders using his knees and lies back on the bench. Then he forcefully presses the weights upward and inward, straightening his arms and extending until the weights touch over his upper chest with a small click. An then reverses the move, bending his elbows and moving the weights down and slightly to the outside of his shoulders, bottoming out as the inside heads of the dumbbells nearly touch his front delts. He repeats this process 14 more times, then drops the 100s with a thud and shakes out his arms.
“My goal as a bodybuilder is to gain muscle, and in order to do that I have to be able to move the weight effectively and feel each and every rep,” says An. “No momentum, no cheating, no way.”
In the interest of shoulder safety, An recruits a guy nearby to hand him the weights for his next set. With the guy hovering behind for a spot, An pulls off 13 reps without wavering. He trades up to the 120s for 11, then the 125s for 10 and calls it a wrap.
“If I do this one as my first exercise, I’m able to do 150s for my last set,” says An, cleaning up the weights from his area with the help of his intrepid spotter. “But since I already did about 50 reps of incline barbell presses, I don’t have the energy for the 150s!” An thanks the spotter, then jaws a bit about his training protocol and nutrition. The guy asks a question about supplements and suddenly, memory jogged, An takes out his pocketful of BCAAs and drinks them down.
For a lot of guys, the be-all and end-all of chest training is the flat-bench barbell press, but for An it’s far from paramount. “I rarely do flat bench outside the Smith machine,” he admits. “But you know, for some reason today I feel like doing it. I always use perfect form, so I’m not in danger of getting injured like a lot of guys who are sloppy and try to go too heavy.”
He puts two 45s on each side of the barbell and lays down on the bench. He places his feet flat on the floor for stability and arches his back slightly to lift his chest. He takes a wide grip on the bar and unracks it, positioning it over his
chest just above the nipple line. Slowly he bends his elbows and lowers the barbell toward his body, inhaling slowly as he lowers. When the weight nearly touches his chest, he presses the bar back to the start forcefully, not quite explosively, and pauses a split second at the top before moving into his next repetition. He completes 15 reps, then stands and adds more weight to the barbell.
“I like to place my hands wide to target the outer pecs,” says An. “I also like to lower the bar higher up on my chest because I feel like that helps make for a fuller look.” He then performs three additional sets of 15,14 and 12, respectively, increasing his weight each time to top out at 315 pounds, and then moves back to the incline bench.
“Are you sick of inclines yet?” jokes An. “I’m not! I can see my chest growing right now.” [Laughs.] He turns to the mirror and shoots himself a most-muscular.
He inspects his physique, perhaps marveling at the transformation his body has made in the seven years he’s been in the sport. As a teen, An was a footballer, and in an effort to avoid literal physical demolition on the squad he began lifting to beef up. In four years he went from 125-190 pounds; presently he tops out at 240 offseason and 225 contest at 5’8″.
An adjusts the bench, this time to a click lower than 45 degrees for incline dumbbell flyes. “I feel like this adjustment takes some of the pressure off my shoulders,” says An, palming the 35-pound dumbbells. He carries them to the bench and sits down, placing his feet flat on the floor and lifting the weights up over his chest. He turns his palms to face inward and bends
his elbows slightly. Slowly, he opens his arms out to the sides, lowering the weights until his hands reach shoulder level, then squeezes his pecs to bring the weights inward and back to the start. He completes 12 repetitions, and then stands to trade the 35s for the 40s.
“This is definitely not a move for heavy weight,” he remarks, sitting back down with the 40s. “Your shoulders are in a compromised position when you’re at the bottom of the rep, and if you go too low you could injure yourself.” He performs another 10 reps with the 40s, then 10 with the 45s.
OVER AND OUT
An wraps up his workout with an oldie but frequently-seen goodie: the flat-bench dumbbell pullover. “Pullovers aren’t a big mass builder, so a lot of guys these days don’t do them,” says An. “It’s a stretch-and-squeeze move, and I like it to get a pump and give my serratus some work, too.”
He selects a 50-pound dumbbell and carries it to a flat bench. He squats along the broad side of the bench and places his upper back, shoulders and head on the pad crossways, lifting his hips slightly for balance. He then raises the weight over his chest, holding it with both hands on the inner side of the plate so that it’s perpendicular to the floor with his elbows unlocked. Slowly, he lowers the dumbbell toward the floor behind his head, ensuring that he’s maintaining his arm position and keeping his abs tight throughout. When his elbows come to ear level he reverses the movement and pulls the weight back through to the start, exhaling forcefully and squeezing his chest. He repeats this process 12 times, then stands and trades the 50 for a 60-pounder.
“The position of your hips is very important,” he says. You have to keep them lower than your chest to maintain balance when the dumbbell goes over your head, but not too low or you’re sitting too upright.”
He assumes the position once more, and does another 12 reps using the 60. Then two more sets of 10 with the 70, then the 80, and he’s calling it quits for the day.
Sweating, exhilarated and gassed, An downs another pre-measured handful of BCAAs with a carb drink, and sits in the lunch area. As he cools off and sips his drink slowly, he looks around at the machinery, the people, the photographs, and the Gold’s athletes, and then he smiles: He knows he’s in the right place.