When most people think about chest exercises, they think about popular staples like the bench press and the push-up. These are great exercises, of course, but they’re not the best options for developing the upper chest muscles, specifically.
If you’ve been relying only on these exercises to build your upper pecs, keep reading. Listed below are six of the best upper chest exercises that will help you see better results.
- Upper Chest Muscles: The Basics
- Why Should You Do Upper Chest Exercises?
- Should Women Train the Upper Chest Muscles?
- Top 6 Exercises to Build the Upper Chest
- Reasons Your Upper Chest Isn’t Growing
- Start Building the Upper Chest Today
Upper Chest Muscles: The Basics
Before we dive into the specifics of how to build the upper chest, it’s important to understand the basic anatomy of this muscle group.
The pectoralis major (or pec major) is the primary muscle that makes up the chest. It’s composed of two parts: the upper pec (also known as the clavicular head) and the lower pec (also known as the sternal head).
The clavicular head runs at a different angle than the rest of the chest muscles. Because of this, it doesn’t get targeted as directly during a typical chest workout. It requires some extra attention if you want to build it up successfully.
Why Should You Do Upper Chest Exercises?
Strong chest muscles are essential to good posture and improved upper body strength. You should also train the chest if you want to create a more balanced physique, though. Focusing on the upper chest, specifically, helps you to reach your full potential when it comes to growing the chest muscles and improving your aesthetics.
The upper pec muscle is small and quite stubborn. It’s easy for the lower part of the pectoralis major to overshadow it and pick up the slack if you’re only doing exercises like bench presses and push-ups. This, in turn, makes it harder for you to develop the upper pec and will yield a flatter, less impressive chest.
Keep in mind, too, that when you make the upper chest muscles a priority, you can also enhance the overall appearance of the chest. All of the pec muscles work together, so even though you place more of an emphasis on the upper chest, your other pec muscles won’t lag behind. In fact, you will likely see more significant gains since you’re training the muscles in a new way and providing the body with a novel stimulus.
Should Women Train the Upper Chest Muscles?
It’s no secret that men tend to enjoy training the chest muscles more than women do. There’s also a pervasive myth in the fitness industry that women shouldn’t or don’t need to train their chest.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, though. Both women and men need strong upper bodies and good posture, don’t they?
In reality, everyone can benefit from doing upper chest exercises. This is the case even if women don’t see as significant gains from them as men do. They’ll still be better served by increasing their upper body strength and developing a more balanced physique (in appearance and function).
Top 6 Exercises to Build the Upper Chest
Now, let’s get into the exercises. These six exercises are some of the best ones to include in your upper chest workout routine:
1. Incline Barbell Bench Press
Most experts agree that of all the exercises you can do for this part of the body, the best exercise for the upper chest is the incline barbell bench press. The incline barbell bench press involves sitting on a bench set at, you guessed it, an incline. By changing the position of your body under the bar, you can make sure you’re giving your upper pecs the extra attention they need.
The best way to set up for an incline barbell bench press is in a power cage, but some gyms also have an incline bench and barbell combination readily available. In either case, make sure your bench is set up between a 30 and 45-degree angle to ensure your upper pecs are doing most of the work. You might have to experiment with a few different angles to find one that feels the best for you.
When you’re getting ready to perform the incline barbell bench press, be sure to follow these cues so you can stay safe and ensure you’re getting the most out of the exercise:
- Lie down on the bench with your eyes just underneath the bar
- Grasp the barbell using an overhand grip with your hands about shoulder-width apart
- Elevate your chest and press your shoulder blades together as though you’re trying to squeeze a pencil between them
- Inhale as you lift the bar off the rack and lower it down toward your chest
- Don’t let your elbows flare out as you do this, as it causes you to lose tension in your chest
- Lower the bar until it touches the chest
- Exhale and push the bar into the air away from your chest
At this point, you’re ready to inhale and lower the bar once more.
2. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
If you don’t have access to a barbell but still want to target your upper chest, you’re in luck. You can also do an upper chest workout with dumbbells by incorporating the incline dumbbell bench press into your routine.
It doesn’t matter if you want to do upper chest exercises at home with limited equipment or if you just can’t get your hands on a barbell. Either way, this is a fantastic exercise to try.
The incline dumbbell bench press will yield similar results as the barbell variation, but it’s especially good for those who are still working on building strength and can’t quite handle a barbell yet. It’s also helpful for those who have imbalances in their chest and are looking to strengthen their weak side without their strong one taking over (which can easily happen in exercises like the bench press).
As with the incline barbell bench press, start by setting up your bench so it’s at a 30-45 degree angle. Pick up your dumbbells and rest then vertically on your thighs as you sit upright, then follow these cues:
- Lean back with your head on the bench while you bring the weights into position (make sure they’re level with the shoulders and chest)
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together
- On an exhale, push the dumbbells up and toward each other
- They should move in an arcing motion, but be sure to stop the weights when they’re a few centimeters apart (you don’t want them to crash, as this takes the tension out of the upper chest)
- When you’re brought the dumbbells up to their highest point, squeeze your upper pecs together to create additional tension
From here, slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position.
3. Reverse Grip Bench Press
When figuring out how to work the upper chest, most people stop at the incline barbell and dumbbell bench presses. There are some other exercises that are very effective, though, including the reverse grip bench press. This is an underrated exercise that helps to target the upper chest while also minimizing strain on the shoulders.
To do this exercise correctly, be sure to follow these guidelines:
- Lie down on a flat bench with the bar just above your eyes
- Grasp the bar using a supinated grip (your palms should be facing you)
- Separate your hands so they’re shoulder-width apart and make sure your thumbs are wrapped around the bar
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together
- Inhale and lift the bar off the rack, then slowly lower it down toward your chest until it touches
- Make sure your elbows don’t flare out, which will cause you to lose tension in the chest
- Exhale and press the bar back up
- At this point, inhale and lower the bar back down once more.
4. Bodyweight Dips
Bodyweight dips help to strengthen all of the muscles of the chest, including the upper pec. Like the reverse-grip bench press, this is an often-neglected compound exercise that can yield great results.
If you can’t do a bodyweight dip, start by using your gym’s assisted dip machine. You can also loop a resistance band below a set of parallel bars to create your own assistance.
No matter which apparatus you’re using, start by standing between the bars and grasp one in each hand. Straighten your arms, lockout your elbows, and take a deep breath in before following these steps:
- Bend the elbows and lower the body down between the bars
- Don’t let the feet and knees touch the ground, as this will take the tension out of the chest
- Make sure your body is dipping down and rising up at a 30-45 degree angle
As you exhale, push yourself back up toward the starting position.
5. Low to High Cable Crossovers
As far as accessory work for the upper chest goes, try doing some low to high cable crossovers. These act as more of an isolation exercise for the upper chest and can be a good finishing movement to do toward the end of your workout.
To do low to high cable crossovers, start by grasping one cable handle in each hand. Your palms should face forward, and they should form a 45-degree angle with the floor. Then, follow these steps:
- On an exhale, raise your hands to eye level in an arcing motion
- Make sure your hands come together at the chest and your palms face the ceiling
- Squeeze your chest muscles together for a second to strengthen the connection to the upper chest muscles
Lower the cables back down as you inhale and get ready for another repetition.
More like this: Top 8 Cable Exercises for a Solid Chest Workout
6. Seated Incline Cable Fly
Flyes are another good accessory exercise to add to any upper chest workout. The key here is to set yourself up on an incline. Using cables instead of dumbbells also helps to create more tension in the chest, which may lead to more significant muscle and strength gain over time.
To do this exercise, you’ll need to move an adjustable bench over to your gym’s set of dual cables (See here for our guide on the best adjustable benches). Place it between the pulleys and make sure it’s set to a 30-45 degree angle. Adjust the pulleys to their lowest level, too, before following these instructions:
- Lie on the bench and grasp a pulley in each hand
- Bring your hands together so they’re in front of your face with your arms extended
- From here, breathe in and lower your arms out to the side in an arc-shape (keep them slightly bent to avoid overstretching the biceps)
- Squeeze your chest muscles and bring the arms back to the starting position as you exhale
Hold this contracted position for a second or two before inhaling and performing your next rep.
Reasons Your Upper Chest Isn’t Growing
A list of great exercises might be sufficient for folks who have questions like “How do I build my upper chest?” and “What is the best exercise for the upper chest?” What if you’re doing some (or possibly even all) of these exercises already, though? If this is the case, you might be wondering “Why is my upper chest not growing?”
It’s important to note that there’s more to building the upper chest (or any muscle, for that matter) than simply doing the best upper pec exercises. Other factors could be hindering your muscle, growth, including the following:
Focus on Low Reps and Heavy Weights
If your primary goal is to do an upper chest workout for mass gain, you need to make sure you’re lifting heavier weights for fewer reps. Switching to a weight that you can only lift (properly) for about 4-6 repetitions will have a huge impact on your strength and muscle gains. This is especially important if you’re used to lifting light weights at higher rep ranges.
Stay Away from the Smith Machine
Some folks gravitate toward the Smith machine for chest exercises. The Smith machine does have some uses, but it’s not ideal for building the upper chest.
When you use a barbell or dumbbells instead of the Smith machine, you have to use more of your body’s smaller muscles (including the upper pec) for stability. The Smith machine creates additional stability for you and takes out the need for these muscles, which can produce fewer gains, especially in the upper chest.
Slow Down and Prioritize Good Form
If you’re rushing through these exercises, you’re not going to see the best results from them. Instead of trying to pump out as many reps in the shortest amount of time possible, slow down and make sure you’re using proper form. Keep the cues listed above in mind for each exercise to ensure you’re doing them correctly.
Don’t be afraid to lower the weight a bit when you’re learning, too. Yes, lifting heavy is best, but don’t up the weight if it leads to a breakdown in form.
Move Through a Full Range of Motion
Make sure you’re moving your muscles through a full range of motion, too. In the bench press, for example, this means lowering the bar all the way down to your chest. Half reps are going to lead to half gains and won’t produce the type of muscle growth and definition you’re looking for.
Let Yourself Rest and Recover
Finally, make sure you’re allowing for enough rest time in between sets. This is especially important when you’re lifting heavier weights.
Adequate rest is essential, as it allows for adenosine triphosphate or ATP (your cells’ energy currency) to replenish itself. Without enough rest, your form could become compromised, which increases your risk of injury and minimizes your ability to make significant gains.
Start Building the Upper Chest Today
If you were about to give up on building your upper chest muscles, it’s time to reconsider. Keep these upper chest exercises in mind (as well as the other tips to get your chest growing and help you to get stronger) as you begin constructing your new workout routine. You’ll start seeing results before you know it!