October 28, 2021
To build a solid upper chest, you’ll need to work out with purpose. The best upper chest exercises take into account the movement of the arms and position of the body. If you’ve had trouble building a complete chest, then this is an article you must read. This post breaks down the anatomy and benefits of working the upper chest, plus tips and tricks that will have you achieve a chest that Superman would be jealous of. Read on for the best 12 upper chest exercises and how to program them into your workout.
The upper chest is a portion of the pectoralis major called the clavicular head. The muscle fibers in the upper chest run along a different angle than the lower chest or sternocostal head. Due to the structure and function of the upper chest, you will need to perform exercises that are tailored to stimulate it. Put simply, you will want to perform upper chest exercises that involve some degree of shoulder flexion and horizontal shoulder adduction.
Many people often refer to the chest muscles as the “pecs,” even though three muscles make up the chest. These muscles are primarily responsible for pushing exercises such as the bench press. To properly develop a well-built chest, you’ll need to work each chest muscle in a way that will stimulate the most response in terms of building strength and muscle. Let’s look at the three chest muscles and their functions so that you know how to engage each muscle to elicit the best response to your training.
Pectoralis Major: This muscle is comprised of two heads; the clavicular and sternocostal head. The pectoralis major is often referred to as the “pecs.” This fan-shaped muscle is the largest and most visible in the chest region. The pec major stretches across the entire chest from the sternum (breastbone), clavicle (collarbone), ribs, and finally connecting to the humerus (upper arm). The clavicular and sternocostal head of the pec major work in unison in many movements. However, their functions have subtle differences, largely based on the angle at which the upper arm is moving. Therefore, it’s important to target both heads of the pec major if you want a balanced overall look.
Clavicular Head: This head is more commonly called the upper chest; it begins at the clavicle, as you may have guessed. This upper chest area makes up roughly 20-30 percent of the total mass of the pecs. The main functions of the upper chest are shoulder flexion and horizontal shoulder adduction. You can think of shoulder flexion when you start with your hands at your sides then lift them upwards. Horizontal shoulder adduction is a movement similar to hugging someone. The best movements to hit the upper chest are when there’s a degree of shoulder flexion. Exercises in the frontal and transverse planes will put the upper pecs to work. Exercises like an incline dumbbell press and chest flyes are excellent for working the clavicular head. You’ll also activate the upper chest when doing some shoulder exercises such as front raises.
Sternocostal Head: This muscle is also sometimes referred to as the sternal head, as it attaches to the sternum. The sternocostal head accounts for 70-80 percent of the total mass of the pecs. The major functions of the sternal head are to assist in horizontal adduction and extend your arms in front of you. The lower chest is stimulated better by exercises that enhance horizontal adduction, meaning a wide grip bench press is a good choice to activate the lower chest. One exercise that specifically works the lower chest more are the decline press.
Pectoralis Minor: This triangular muscle is located under the pec major in the upper chest area. This muscle is involved with many movements of body parts on the backside of the body. The pec minor usually starts at the front third to fifth ribs then attaches to the coracoid process of the scapula (hook-like points on the shoulder blade). The main functions of the pec minor are the depression, stabilization, abduction, internal/downward rotation of the scapula. The pec minor will work in concert with the pec major but isn’t the primary mover. Although it’s impossible to specifically isolate this muscle, you can do exercises like dips and decline press, where your shoulder blades are drawn down that will help to engage the pec minor.
Serratus Anterior: This muscle is found on the top sides of the ribs; it wraps around your upper rib cage and attaches to the shoulder blades. This muscle has three parts that are dependent on the corresponding ribs they originate from. The main function of this muscle is to pull the shoulder blades forward. The serratus anterior is also partly responsible for movements such as reaching forward or lifting your arms overhead.
Here are just a few benefits of regularly doing upper chest exercises.
Improved Functionality: Many daily activities involve motions that the upper chest is directly responsible for. Whether you’re pushing open a door or giving a loved one a big ole hug, you will be using your pecs. Keeping your chest strong and mobile allows you to perform better in every day life.
Look Better: Working on your upper chest can help to make your chest look fuller. It’s important to create a good balance in the chest. Building up the clavicular head or upper chest will have you looking better in and out of clothing; this goes for both men and women. Strong pecs also help to improve posture as they help to stabilize the shoulder joint.
Enhance Pressing Power: Adding more upper chest exercises into your workouts will aid in moving heavier loads during pushing/pressing movements. Not only will you be able to bench press more, but you’ll also be able to lift heavier loads when doing an overhead press. Boosting your pressing power ability can improve your athletic performance and prepare you to execute daily activities with ease.
Breathe Easier: Because the pecs are attached to the ribs, strengthening and stretching them through exercise can enhance your breathing.
If you want to stimulate the upper chest, you’ll need to be mindful of certain training variables. Two areas that you can tweak to stimulate the upper chest more relate to your body positioning.
Pressing Angle: You may be aware that an incline bench angle will hit the upper chest more than a flat or decline bench. This study looked at various angles of the bench press to see what muscles were activated more via EMG. The results showed that the optimal angle for muscle activation in the upper chest was 30 degrees, while the flat bench activated the mid-lower chest more. In addition, the 60 degrees incline bench press led to max muscle activation of the anterior deltoid.
Here’s another bench pressing angle study that tested different bench angles and how they affected muscle activation. The researchers also looked at various phases of the exercises related to the concentric and eccentric portions of the movement. The results showed that a flat bench effectively activated the upper and lower chest. Still, the incline angle of 30-45 degrees activated the upper chest more at certain points in the movement.
To summarize, if you want to stimulate the upper chest more when doing pressing exercises, you should aim for an angle of 30-45 degrees. If you use an incline angle greater than 50 degrees, then you’ll be transferring the emphasis from your upper chest to your front delts.
Note: Flat bench press will also work the upper chest although an incline generally stimulates more muscle activity.
Grip Width: Your hand placement on a bar when doing bench press will affect how your muscles are recruited. The wider grip you use when doing bench press will move the tension away from your shoulders and upper chest to the mid-chest. When using a shoulder-width grip during this exercise, your shoulders will be in a greater degree of flexion, which can activate your upper chest more.
Sets, Reps & Load: When working the upper chest, you need to consider that the chest comprises around 60% fast-twitch muscle fiber and 40% slow-twitch. This means that you should be training the upper chest with a variety of rep ranges and loads. Keep in mind your end goals and the general guidelines of rep ranges below:
Note: Due to the muscle makeup of the chest, you also need to give it time to recover, so you shouldn’t work the chest more than twice a week.
To train for optimal results, try to model your upper chest training around these tips and tricks below.
Here are 12 of the best upper chest exercises that you can incorporate into your workout program. Try to use an assortment of them. Frequently, people plateau in their training because they stick to doing the same exercises for months or years. You’ll also find three upper chest exercises that you could do at home if you want to get a good workout done without going to the gym.
Many people might not consider the traditional bench press an exercise to work the upper chest, but indeed, it is. Studies have shown that the flat bench will work the upper chest or clavicular head almost as much as an incline bench, except for certain portions of the movement. Overall, the bench press is a good exercise to work the upper chest because you can push heavier loads than an incline which can stimulate new muscle growth.
Note: Don’t bounce the bar off your chest. You can also perform the exercise with dumbbells for more range of motion.
Related: The Complete Bench Press Guide
The bench will already be at a set angle when doing the incline barbell press, so you just need to focus on form cues. This bench press variation will move some of the tension from the mid-chest to the upper chest compared to a flat bench press. You should be lowering the bar to your upper chest then pressing up back towards your head.
Note: This exercise can also be done with dumbbells to get a greater range of motion.
Related: Best Bench Press Alternatives
3. Reverse Grip Dumbbell Press
Changing your grip from overhand to underhand has a profound effect on upper chest muscle activation. By changing your grip, you can get up to 30% more upper chest activation. Of course, you can do the reverse grip press with a barbell, but using dumbbells will allow for more freedom in the arm movement and more overall range of motion.
Note: Don’t try to touch the dumbbells at the top of the movement; follow through with a full range of motion. Use your thighs to help push dumbbells back and into starting position if using heavier weight.
Related: Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises
This chest exercise provides a complete range of motion that will also work the shoulders. Focus on the technique rather than trying to use heavyweight. You can also do this exercise on a flat bench, but we feel more tension on the upper chest when performing it on an incline.
Note: Use lighter dumbbells and concentrate on contracting your chest to establish the mind-muscle connection.
This cable crossover is perfect for hitting the upper chest. The movement travels in the same direction as the muscle fibers of the clavicular head of the pec major. Moving your arms at this angle optimizes the way your upper chest contracts to bring your arms together.
Note: At the top of the movement, cross your hands over to get a maximum contraction.
This version of the incline dumbbell fly is perfect for targeting the upper chest. You will perform this exercise as you would a regular incline dumbbell fly but with one extra movement. At the top of the movement, you will turn your wrists inwards to produce a greater chest contraction.
Note: The only movements in this exercise are at the shoulder and wrist joints; your elbows shouldn’t move.
You can do low to high flys with a cable machine, dumbbells, or resistance bands. This exercise is perfect to work the upper chest due to the angle of the path your arms will travel in. Using the cables, you’ll be able to put constant tension on the upper chest muscle fibers throughout the range of motion.
Note: Hold the squeeze at the top for 1-2 seconds. Get an extra chest contraction and add a range of motion by crossing over your hands at the top of the motion.
Related: Best Cable Chest Exercises
With this exercise, as you’re pushing up from the center of your body, you will activate your upper chest. Using a neutral grip, you’ll reduce the stress on the shoulder joints because there’s much less external rotation. This exercise resembles the hex press that you could also do with dumbbells on an incline bench. An added benefit of this movement is working the inner chest.
Note: Squeeze your chest throughout the movement while also squeezing the bar with your hands.
Related: Best Landmine Exercises
The pullover is a common exercise that bodybuilders use to build up the chest. This exercise works the chest, lats, and serratus anterior. Many people might think that this exercise works the lats more than the chest, but this study used EMG to show that the pullover elicits more muscle activation from the pectoralis major than the lats. Another benefit of this exercise for the upper chest is that you’re working through an angle different from most chest exercises.
Note: Emphasize the contraction of the chest towards the top of the movement.
The resistance band pushup is simply a pushup with added resistance. This is a great exercise to work the upper chest because you can do it at home and still achieve hypertrophy. In addition, you can play with training variables such as hand placement, foot placement, and resistance level to keep the exercise fresh while targeting different muscles.
Note: Place hands just out above your head to create more of an angle as you push up, which will mimic the motion of an incline press.
The decline pushup mimics the movement of an incline bench press. This is an excellent exercise to work the upper chest at home. The key point with the decline pushup is to make sure you’re keeping your core engaged, and you’re getting a full range of motion as you lower yourself towards the floor. The higher you set your feet, the more you’ll be transferring the tension towards your front deltoids.
Note: Don’t flare your elbows out too far; keep them within 45-70 degrees from your sides.
The pike pushup is another bodyweight upper chest exercise that will also work your shoulders and triceps. The main differences between the pike pushup and the decline pushup are the body positioning and range of motion. With the pike push up you won’t be keeping your body in a straight line. A great aspect of the pike pushup is enabling you to press through a wider range of motion.
Note: You can also do this exercise with your feet on the ground, keeping your body in a pike position.
Related: Best Bodyweight Chest Exercises
We put together an upper chest workout that will give you an insane pump. Remember to switch up the sets and reps every 1-2 mesocycles. Try to do this workout once per week.
Note: Use 1.5-2 minute rests between sets.
2-3 Minute dynamic chest stretch plus warmup sets
2-3 Minute static chest stretch
Related: Upper Chest Workout by Flex Wheeler
Note: Take 1-2 minute rest as needed between sets
2-3 Minute dynamic chest stretch
Dynamic Chest Opener
Before you start doing any upper chest exercises or workouts, you should warm up the pecs through dynamic stretches like this and by doing a few warmup sets with lightweight. Taking a few minutes to complete some dynamic stretches will help get the blood flowing to the muscle you’re working on, thus reducing the chances you injure yourself. This is a simple chest opener that you can do before doing your first warmup sets.
Static Chest Stretch
Do this static chest stretch after your upper chest workout to open up the pecs. You might speed up your recovery time a bit by performing static stretches like this after an intense workout. Static stretching can help to keep your fatigued muscles loose.
Related: Best Chest Stretches
The best pushups to work your upper chest are decline pushups where your feet are elevated on a raised platform of 30-50 degrees. Your hand placement should be shoulder-width apart or slightly wider. Beginners can build upper chest muscle at home by doing pushups, but well-trained people will have to use an external load such as resistance bands.
To target your upper chest at home, you should get into a body position that slightly mimics the incline bench press. Two of the exercises we covered above, the decline pushup and pike pushup, are great bodyweight exercises that you can do at home to work the upper chest. You could also do resistance band pushups at home to help with progressive overload if bodyweight pushups become too easy.
The upper chest needs a little more thought in how you go about exercising it. If you want to build pecs of steel, then you need to start incorporating some upper chest-specific exercises into your workout. The key takeaways that you should remember are:
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