Upper chest training …are you doing it?
If the majority of your chest training revolves around flat-bench exercises, you may end up with what looks like an overdeveloped middle and lower chest – in other words, firm breasts.
Obviously, this is exactly what you don’t want.
‘But I go to the gym regularly, and do my chest workouts religiously – I can’t possibly have man-boobs‘. Well, maybe you don’t have the excess fat around your pecs, but what about their shape?
Look carefully in the mirror and take a proper side-on look at your chest. Even better, put on a tight-fitting t-shirt, so you can see the contours of your pecs.
If your upper pecs are lacking, you will see a very flat, diagonal contour running from the clavicle (base of neck) to the mid-part of your chest.
Firm lower pecs, will protrude outwards.
Be objective when judging the aesthetics of your own chest. Imagine you’re looking at someone else’s chest and try and see where improvements can be made. With a more developed upper chest, there will be more of a convex curve shape in the upper region.
This is what you should be aiming for.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some great upper chest exercises for men who want achieve a fully developed chest.
Best Exercises For Upper Chest
The best exercises for upper chest development are those performed with free weights while your upper body is angled upwards. The pectoral muscles spread out like a fan and therefore they respond better when worked from various angles.
But within what angle range should I be working my pecs?
To work the upper chest, an effective range is around 15-35 degrees using an incline bench. It’s also a good idea to occasionally set the bench-angle to outside of these ranges i.e. 10-15 degrees and 35-45 degrees.
To fill out the whole of your chest, work it from all angles.
The higher angles will work the upper chest muscles near the clavicle – the bony area near the base of your neck. This can be a hard part of the body to develop well, but when it is, you’ll be able to see it even with your shirt or t-shirt slightly unbuttoned at the top.
Place an incline bench in front of a mirror, and you have the added benefit of seeing exactly what you are doing. Watch your pecs work during each rep, and make adjustments to your form, if necessary.
Incline Barbell Bench Press
This is where you will do the heavier pressing, especially at the lower angle range of 15-20 degrees.With the bench inclined at greater angles – it’s harder to push heavier weights.
As the incline increases, the deltoid muscles in the shoulders will come more into play and less emphasis will be placed on the chest – it’s just a physiological trade-off and a feature of incline pressing that you should be aware of.
The shoulder muscles aren’t as strong as the chest, so when pressing with bench-angles between 30-45 degrees, factor this into your reps and sets.
- With the barbell racked, sit on a bench inclined between 30-45 degrees, grab the bar with your hand-spacing at around shoulder-width with an overhand grip.
- Pull your shoulder-blades in and push your chest out.
- Push the bar off the rack and extend your arms upwards, inhale and lower it to your chest.
- As soon as the bar reaches your chest, press it back up semi-explosively while exhaling. (Don’t bounce the bar off your chest and always time your breathing according to the speed at which you do the reps).
- Extend your arms, but maintain a slight bend in your elbows – do not lock out your arms – as you will take the stress off the chest muscles. The aim is to keep the work on your pecs at all time; do quality reps and forget about how much weight is on the bar.
- With the bar at its top position, and your elbows bent, immediately lower the bar back down to the chest and repeat as before.
It is important to keep the bar moving. Stopping, at either the bottom, or the top of the range of motion, allows your chest to rest ever so slightly on EACH rep. You might do less reps with this technique, but it is good form and your chest muscles will be worked to their maximum.
Smith Machine Incline Press
Although the barbell press is the superior exercise for building mass on the pecs, the Smith Machine incline press does have its benefits.
The Smith Machine is good for when you are performing high-rep sets and pumping the chest.
Also, by employing a narrow grip, you can use it very effectively for an upper inner- chest workout. Since the bar is guided on a single plane of motion, this eliminates any balancing issues you may have with a barbell – while using a very narrow grip.
To target the upper inner-pecs, you can go really narrow with your hand placement on the bar with the added option of being able to keep your hands loose, pushing with your palms and chest muscles.
Incline Dumbbell Press
One of the great exercises for upper chest, and some of you may prefer this to the barbell press. You can really pile on the weight if you want to stimulate your muscle growth to another level.
How heavy you press, will depend on your current arm and chest strength, and whether you will be able to lift very heavy dumbbells from the floor, up into your starting position.
TIP: How to get heavy dumbbells into the starting position
From a standing position, lift the dumbbells from the floor. Then sit on the bench, and place the flat end of each dumbbell onto your thighs. Get yourself ready.
Now in one movement, thrust your thighs upwards towards your chest, guiding the dumbbells with your hands upwards and out towards each side of your shoulders.
If you use your legs in this way, you will minimize the energy used in moving demanding weights into the starting position.
- Sit on a bench inclined between 15-30 degrees.
- Hold the dumbbells steady, with your palms facing away from you and elbows bent at 90 degrees.
- Pull your shoulder-blades back into the bench and push your chest out. If you have good lower back strength – this position can be even more pronounced by slightly arching your lower back. Otherwise just keep it flush against the bench.
- Now you’re in the ideal starting position.
- Inhale and begin to push your arms upwards, exhaling during the movement.
- At the top of the motion, you can bring the dumbbells together while squeezing your pecs. With heavy weights, this can help you balance the dumbbells during each rep.
- Alternatively, you can keep the dumbbells apart, i.e. don’t allow them to to touch. This reduces the time taken for each repetition – because you begin the next rep earlier- your pecs will work harder with less rest in between.
- Lower the weights back down to either side of your chest and repeat.
Another great thing about this exercise, is that you can vary the position of the dumbbells, relative to your chest.
You can start with them out nice and wide, or bring them in a lot closer to your torso – thereby executing an effective upper inner chest exercise. In addition, pressing the dumbbells on a higher plane of motion, will work the muscles high on your chest near the clavicle.
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Incline Dumbbell Flys
This is a fantastic exercise – if done properly. What you don’t want to do is just ‘go through the motions’ with this one. This is best done slowly and under control.
The trick is to intentionally create a sort of ‘sticking point‘ where your chest muscles have to work hard to overcome the resistance; you can do this by allowing a deep stretch in the pecs when lowering the weights and holding a static position for a couple of seconds until it feels slightly uncomfortable.
This is an ‘isometric contraction‘ – your pecs contract without any visible movement in the arm joints. As you begin to move the weights upwards again – you will find it will require a lot more effort – even with relatively light weights. If you do this slow enough, the exercise becomes even more demanding on your chest.
Dumbbell flys are an isolation exercise, meaning that only the chest muscles are targeted – the triceps and shoulder muscles will not contribute to the movement – unlike your pressing exercises.
Mix these into your workouts alongside your compound exercises. You can do opt to do several sets to pre-fatigue the pecs before doing presses, or do one set of flys followed immediately by one set of bench presses (or dumbbell presses) i.e. a superset.
Set the incline bench at various angles to fully work the upper chest. As the bench angle increases, so does the difficulty.
- With the dumbbells in each hand, extend the arms vertically and keep your elbows slightly bent. If you have a strong lower back, then you can arch it slightly off the bench and stick your chest out more.
- Inhale and begin to lower the weights to the horizontal position. Keep your hands loose during this descent phase; as you lower the dumbbells – loosen your grip, allowing them to rest in your palms, using your fingers to prevent them from slipping from your hands.
- Hold the stretch. You should feel it burn – then really slowly, bring the weights back up, increasing your grip only as they get towards the vertical position. Make the pecs do the work, don’t push with your hands. After 2-3 reps you will begin to feel your pectoral muscles ‘tremble‘ with the stress, each time you move the weights from the horizontal.
- You may be able to do only a few of these using this technique- but they will be quality reps.
If you feel that your upper chest development is lacking, then one way of solving this is to perform upper chest exercises most of the time during your chest workout routine.
For a period of a few weeks, reduce the number of sets of flat bench exercises (or avoid them completely), and focus on upper chest instead. Such a plan will help to stimulate and grow the upper region of your chest, while achieving a more balanced look.