A fully developed, rounded, defined big upper chest is, along with wide delts and a narrow waist, a key trait of masculinity. Few things project power and strength more forcefully. Yet, building such a chest is as elusive for many guys as winning the lottery. The problem for most of them lies with the upper pecs. Unless you develop the upper chest, your whole upper body will look incomplete. In this article, we go beyond the bro-science to bring you the truth about how to create an upper chest workout routine to show you precisely how to build upper chest mass and completeness, share the best exercises for upper chest.
What are the Upper Chest Muscles?
The upper chest muscles are part of the pectorals. It is actually a portion of the pectoralis major. This muscle can be broken down into three parts according to where the muscles fibers originate:
- The clavicular fibers
- The sternal fibers
- The costal fibers
The clavicular fibers originate from the clavicular bone below your throat. This is the part of the pec major we are referring to when we talk about the upper chest. The largest proportion of pec fibers are those that originate on the sternum. The costal fibers refer to a small percentage that originates on the ribs.
All three types of pectoral muscle fibers insert on the humerus or upper arm bone. As a result, all of the fibers of the chest muscles sit between the clavicles and the anterior ribs.
The pec major is a fan shaped muscle that has two sides, separated by the breast bone. The main function of the pec major is to move the shoulder joint. It does so to create vertical, lateral and rotational movement.
The pectorals also consist of the pectoralis minor muscle. This muscle sits behind the pec major and does not contribute to the physical appearance of your chest muscles.
Key Points for Upper Chest Training
From the previous section we can see that there is no separate ‘upper chest’ muscle. It cannot be trained separately from the mid or lower chest. When you work a muscle group, including the chest muscles, the operating lever (in this case the upper arm or humerus) needs to move towards the origin of the muscle fibers. Yet, when you do an incline press, whether it is with a barbell or a pair of dumbbells, you are moving the arms away from the muscle fiber origins.
The best angle to work the upper chest is not an incline press. It is, on the contrary, a decline press with the bench set at an angle of around 30 degrees. When you work at this angle, you will be activating the greatest number of pectoral fibers. That’s because the angle of movement will have the arms moving through the largest amount of pec origin points. So, the best upper chest exercises will move your arms towards, rather than away from, your sternum.
If you are a guy who struggles to get any decent pec development, whether it is in the upper, mid or lower part, you may be inclined to work the area more frequently. It is a natural reaction, but not a good one. Unless you provide your chest with enough time to recover and recuperate from a workout it will never be able to grow and get stronger. The ideal training frequency is to train your chest every 5th day. That means, if you train the chest on Monday, then you should not work it again until Saturday.
The 10 Best Upper Chest Exercises
Decline Dumbbell Press
Set up a bench press to a 30 degree decline angle. Lie on the bench and position the dumbbells directly above your sternum. This will activate the most chest muscle fibers, including those of the upper part of the chest. From this starting position, bring the dumbbells down to your ribs, being sure to get a full extension. From here power back to the start position, contracting the pecs powerfully in the top chest workout position.
Here’s why you should prioritize dumbbells over barbells . . .
When you’re using dumbbells, you’re not restricted by the bar hitting into your torso. That means that you can stretch all the way down, making use of that vital extra two to three inches of range of movement. The dumbbell version also requires a lot more stabilization that the bench press. For a start you’ve got to get the weights up into position to start the movement. Then the small stabilizer muscles of your shoulders are required to keep them in place as you press. That’s a part of the reason you can’t go as heavy. But it also makes the upper chest exercises more effective.
Seated Cable Press
The seated cable press is a very similar movement to the decline dumbbell press, especially if you set the seat angle back to 30 degrees. Using a cable allows you to more precisely control the amount of weight used. Using cables also provides front end loading of the chest muscles. Set the cables at the level of your shoulders when seated and about shoulder width apart. Start with the cable handles back and your elbows out and parallel with your shoulder level. Now, press horizontally forward as you push your arms out to full extension.
Standing Decline Cable Press
Set up a double cable machine to its highest level. Stand in front of the machine, facing away from it and hold the handles with bent arms and your elbows in line with your shoulders. Round your torso and look down to the floor. Now press the handles down to bring them together in front of your groin.
Flat Dumbbell Flye
Lie on a flat bench with a pair of dumbbells extended above your chest with elbows bent slightly. Be sure to keep the elbows locked in position as you pivot from the shoulder joint to bring your arms down and out in an arcing movement. Feel the stretch through your pecs as you come down until the dumbbells are parallel with the floor. Now retrace your movement to bring the dumbbells back to the start position.
Lie on a fat bench with a weight plate pressed between your palms. Starting with the plate resting above your chest, press your hands together as hard as you can as you simultaneously push the weight up to full extension. As you lower the weight, continue to squeeze your hands into it.
Set the cables in their highest position on a cross over the machine. Stand in the middle of the machine with the cables in your hands. Extend the cables all the way back to feel a full stretch through your pecs. Your elbows should be slightly bent and locked in that position. Now pivot from the elbows to bring your arms across your body so that your hands cross over each other. Forcefully contract your pecs in this position.
Pec Dec Flyes
Sit on a pec dec machine set so that your elbows are in line with the rest pads. Place your elbows against the pads and, maintaining an upright torso position, squeeze your chest muscles to bring your arms together. Control the return and repeat it.
Decline Push Ups
Put your feet on an exercise bench and your hands on the floor to position your body in a 45 degree decline push up position. Starting with your arms extended, lower until your chest touches the floor. Contract the chest and triceps to power back to the start position. Use this exercise as a finishing move at the end of your workout and pump out two sets to failure.
Plyometric Push Ups
Get down in a regular push up position. Perform a standard push up, exploding out of the bottom position to bring yourself off the floor by a few inches. When you come down, move directly into your next rep.
Ladder Push Ups
Push ups are a great overall chest builder. Of course, you can’t go as heavy with them as you can with weighted exercises but they still make a great finishing exercise. On the days when you can’t get in your scheduled chest workout at the gym, give this ladder push up progression a go . . .
Assume a regular push up position. Lower yourself to a position where the body is straight but not all the way to the floor. Hold this position for five seconds. Then push up to the start position. Hold for five seconds. Now do two push ups. Continue this pattern, doing three, four, and five push ups after a five-second hold. As you progress you can keep going to 10 push ups, then come back down the ladder – if you can handle it!
The Ideal Upper Chest Workout
Here is a great upper chest workout for mass. This upper pec workout will also work the mid and lower pecs.
- Decline Dumbbell Press – 4 x 20, 10, 8, 6 reps
- Standing Decline Cable Press – 4 x 30, 15, 8, 6 reps
- Flat Dumbbell Flye – 3 x 12 reps
- Plate Press – 3 x 15 reps
- Decline Push Up – 2 x failure
Why No Barbell Bench Press
The bench press is without a doubt the most popular chest exercise performed in gyms around the world. To not see it on a list of the 10 best upper chest exercises may, therefore, seem surprising. But, there are some solid reasons why the bench press doesn’t deserve to be part of your upper chest workout. On a scale of 1 to 10, the bench press rates around a 4. Consider the following:
The bench press exercise involves contraction and extension of the pectoral muscles in a vertical plane. However, the plane of movement is restricted. To see what I mean, take your hands off your computer keyboard and put them out to the sides as if you were benching. Now pull them back as far as you can. Notice how they come back past your chest and almost to your lats? You can’t do that on the bench press. That’s because your range of downward motion is limited by the bar hitting your chest. That means that you are being robbed of two to three inches of movement. When it comes to stimulating your pecs, that is huge. You are not allowing your pecs to fully extend, and, therefore, not giving them the maximal stimulation they need to force growth.
Another problem with the bench press is that it is very easy for the deltoids to take the brunt of the stress of the exercise, rather than the chest. To place the emphasis on the chest, you need to roll your shoulders back and bring your shoulder blades together, while pushing the bar inwards as well as down and up. But most guys do none of those things. As a result, they end up with cannonball delts and puny pecs.
A third problem with the bench is that, for many guys, it becomes an ego exercise. Their sole concern is to lift more weight. Yet, if you are a bodybuilder, lifting more weight should never be your sole concern. Rather it should be to maximally stress the working muscle group. Lifting weight is a part of achieving that goal, for sure. But, if all you are worried about is your bench press number, then you will hardly be thinking about isolating the working muscle. You’ll throw your hips, your back and legs into the obsessive quest to get the bar up. In other words, you will be completely wasting your time!
A fourth and final reason why the bench is not the best option has to do with safety. When you’re training alone, you are taking a chance that you’ll come unstuck under the bar when you go heavy. Every year, people die as a result of benching alone. The simple fact of the matter is that this is the one exercise that it is very difficult to extricate yourself from if you reach failure and don’t have a spotter standing by.
To effectively work your upper chest, you need to work in harmony with the direction of the muscle fibers and the natural biomechanical movement of your pecs. In this article, we have identified the best exercise to do that to get a great upper chest workout in order of best to worst. Follow the program given here to get in, work the pecs to exhaustion with a range of reps, including going to failure, and then get out, feed the muscle and rest for four days. Then repeat. Do that consistently and you will build the upper chest that you deserve.
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