There’s a reason Mondays are colloquially known as “International Chest Day.” An impressive set of pecs can change your whole physique. Beyond wanting to look good at the beach or pool this summer, a strong chest can also help you perform better in everything from powerlifting to gymnastics.
While the standard bench press lives up to its reputation for being an all-around fantastic exercise for strength and size, growing your chest can take a more articulate approach than just doing the standard five sets of five.
Targeting your upper chest specifically can elevate both your appearance and performance if you know what you’re doing. That said, you can’t just throw in any old exercises and expect to build a shelf you could balance a soda can on. You need the right upper chest exercises. You need these seven movements.
Best Upper Chest Exercises
Tension is the name of the game when it comes to breaking down muscles so they bounce back bigger and better. And few movements elicit more tension than the hex press — an exercise that has you squeeze two dumbbells together as you press them.
Doing the hex press on an incline will angle the weights so your upper chest is more under siege. Beware: This movement, when done correctly, is incredibly humbling.
How to Do the Incline Hex Press
Set an adjustable bench at a 30-45 degree angle and grab a pair of moderately challenging dumbbells.
With the dumbbells touching one another while resting on your chest, press up and back slightly.
Keep your elbows tucked and lower until the dumbbells gently touch your shirt. Actively “squeeze” the dumbbells together for the duration of the movement.
Coach’s Tip: This movement is best performed with hexagonal-sided dumbbells, which have flat sides you can easily press together. That’s why it’s called a hex press.
Set and Reps: Try 2 or 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps to get a good upper chest pump going.
Benefits of the Incline Hex Press
Chest activation should be more consistent than when using a barbell.
Requires less floor space than the barbell variation, making it more convenient to set up quickly.
A lower stability demand allows for a better mind-muscle connection.
Benching is the bread and butter of chest day, no matter how (or why) you like to hit the weights. As far as high-value exercises go, you can’t do much better than a good set of bench presses.
For building your upper chest specifically, you should consider bringing your hands in and performing the close-grip bench press instead. Benching with a narrow grip incorporates more motion at the shoulder than a wide grip, which should activate your upper pecs to a greater degree.
How to Do the Close-Grip Bench Press
Set up in a bench press station with your eyes directly underneath the barbell and your feet planted firmly on the floor.
Grip the bar with a narrow, shoulder-width (or slightly closer) grip, and unrack it from the station by pulling it straight out until your arms are extended directly over your shoulders.
From here, lower the bar down to your torso while keeping your upper arms tucked tightly to your sides.
Once the bar makes contact with your chest, reverse the motion, pressing up and back until the bar is at arm’s length over your shoulders once again.
Coach’s Tip: The bar should make contact with your torso a bit lower than you would for your normal-grip bench press.
Sets and Reps: Try out 3 or 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps on the close-grip bench press.
Benefits of the Close-Grip Bench Press
If you can do a standard flat bench press, your technique should carry over to the close-grip variation quite well.
Emphasizes your upper chest due to greater motion at the shoulder joint.
Close-grip benching is generally less taxing for those who have sensitive shoulders or elbows due to better joint alignment.
Weight room lore dictates that the decline bench is for building your lower chest; the flat bench is an all-around pec trainer, and the incline station is where you belong if you’re trying to build your upper chest.
Luckily, these ideas go beyond broscience. Using the incline bench press to train your upper pecs has plenty of valid scientific backing to it, with some data showing that the incline bench is unequivocally superior to the flat bench for upper pec development. (1)
How to Do the Incline Bench Press
Sit in the incline bench station. Adjust the seat so the barbell is slightly behind your eyes while you look upward towards the ceiling.
Grab the bar with a wide, beyond-shoulder-width grip and pull it out of the rack until your arms are straight above your shoulder joints.
Bend your elbows to lower the bar down until it touches high up on your chest, then press the weight back to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: During heavy incline bench presses, you may want to recruit a spotter to help you remove and replace the barbell from the rack since it starts behind your head.
Sets and Reps: Try 3 or 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps on the incline bench press, but be sure to maintain good form along the way.
Benefits of the Incline Bench Press
Allows you to load your upper chest heavily and apply progressive overload with the barbell.
You can safely train this exercise to muscular failure as long as you have a spotter present.
Provides some great muscular stimulation to your anterior deltoids and triceps as well.
Serves as a great way to mix up your chest training if you normally stick to the flat bench.
This incline dumbbell press is a popular movement among bodybuilders and powerlifters as it’s a versatile yet challenging movement that, when performed properly, absolutely torches the chest and shoulders.
Pressing on an inclined surface allows for a greater degree of shoulder flexion, which the clavicular head of the pecs (the upper chest) is primarily responsible for. This increased range of motion should dramatically increase fiber engagement in the upper chest. (2)
How to Do the Dumbbell Bench Press
Set an adjustable bench at a moderate incline between 25-40 degrees. With a pair of dumbbells resting on each knee, brace your core and lean back.
As you fall into position, “kick” the dumbbells into the starting position with your legs and then plant your feet on the floor.
Press the weights up, slightly back, and inwards towards your midline.
Coach’s Tip: The final position should see the dumbbells close together, directly over the shoulder joint, while you actively press your upper arm against your torso.
Sets and Reps: Go for 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps here.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Bench Press
Well-suited for high-intensity loading and can be pushed past failure with the presence of a spotter.
The angle of the bench can be adjusted to suit individual needs or accommodate injuries.
At a glance, this uncommon movement may look like somebody performing a standard bench press incorrectly. However, when done properly, it is a fantastic exercise for the upper chest due to the intense stretch and limited involvement of the triceps.
This exercise is also well suited for performance in a Smith machine, since the ideal bar path is completely or nearly vertical. The Smith machine sometimes catches a bad rep, but research suggests that it can stimulate muscle activation and just as well as free weights. (3)
Benefits of the Guillotine Press
When performed on a low incline, the guillotine press provides an extreme stretch on the pecs.
The unique range of motion allows for stimulus from an angle that is hard to reach with other movements.
It only requires light loading to be effective, saving both time and energy on setup.
How to Do the Guillotine Press
Take a wide grip and unrack an empty or lightly-loaded barbell while lying on a flat or slightly inclined bench.
Lower the weight slowly straight downwards towards your neck or clavicle while keeping your elbows flared.
Do not rest the bar on your neck at any point, but hold the bottom position for a moment before pressing back up while attempting to “bend” the bar into a U-shape.
Stop before any noticeable shoulder discomfort.
Coach’s Tip: Start with very, very light weights here. The empty barbell may be enough to begin with.
Sets and Reps: Since you aren’t using heavy weights, try 2 or 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
A well-designed training program should contain movements that train all the anatomical functions that the muscle performs. Though the pecs are commonly associated with pressing, they also pull the arm horizontally in space.
As such, a good chest day cannot be complete without at least one lateral flye movement — in this case, one specifically targeting the upper chest. By setting the cable attachments at a low angle, you can perfectly mimic the shoulder flexion performed by the pec minor, making the low cable flye the perfect capstone to your next chest day.
How to Do the Low Cable Flye
With the cables set below waist level, assume a staggered stance. Allow your arms to hang slightly behind the body, palms facing forward.
“Scoop” the handles up and inwards while rotating the arm such that your elbows are pointing to the sides at the top.
Squeeze your chest and drive the upper arm against the torso at the top for a strong contraction before slowly returning to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid shrugging your shoulders; keep them away from your ears and allow them to protract, or move forward, during the flye.
Sets and Reps: 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps should do the trick.
Benefits of the Low Cable Flye
Provides more consistent tension throughout the range of motion than a dumbbell flye.
Cables offer quick and convenient load adjustment, making this movement ideal for drop sets or cluster training.
Light, smooth resistance makes this a great option for anyone dealing with an injury.
The standard dip is considered a calisthenics classic, but may be too easy to perform for some athletes. With some minor adjustments to difficulty if needed, it can be a fantastic finisher for your next upper-chest-focused workout. The weighted dip is a great addition to a training plan because it satisfies a range of motion not covered by the other movements in this list.
Even though a wide, straight-arm flye movement tears the chest apart, some research suggests that a closer grip can stimulate the upper chest particularly well when it comes to pressing exercises like the dip. (4)
How to Do the Weighted Dip
First, figure out how to load the exercise. Common options for loading the dip include draping a chain across the upper back, using a weight belt with a loop for plates, or wrapping a light dumbbell between crossed ankles.
Suspend yourself from the handles, brace your core, and depress your scapula.
Once you and the weight are still, descend slowly by bending at your elbows and allowing your upper arm to drift behind your torso.
When you feel a big stretch in your chest, press yourself back up while keeping your arms tucked to your sides.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your shoulders depressed the entire time, tucked down away from your ears.
Sets and Reps: Try 3 to 4 sets of as many reps as possible, but stop about two reps prior to complete failure.
Benefits of the Weighted Dip
The weighted dip is great as a finisher movement since it can be pushed to mechanical failure safely.
It’s scalable in difficulty as even small amounts of added weight greatly impact the challenge.
Highly customizable in technique to accommodate different body types and movement restrictions.
Upper Chest Training Tips
Bodybuilding is akin to sculpture. You start with a large slab of stone and break off big chunks to begin with. The more time and effort you put into your work, the more attention to detail you need to fully realize the art.
The same idea applies to your training; you can build a decent pair of pecs with any combination of exercises, but to highlight your upper chest specifically, you need to take a scalpel to your training.
Find Your Incline
A large body of scientific research shows that training your chest while lying on an inclined surface will engage your upper pecs. However, this is contingent on the angle aligning with your unique anatomy.
Benchmarks are all well and good; you should start by performing incline exercises on a bench set to a roughly 30-degree angle. However, don’t be afraid to experiment with the grade of the bench and find the exact right angle that lights up your pecs. It probably won’t be the same angle as your gym partner’s.
Focus and Concentrate
The mind-muscle connection is a real phenomenon. Training large muscles like your lats, quads, or glutes is easy. You can feel them while you perform rows, leg presses, or hip thrusts without really trying.
However, “finding” a small muscle like your upper chest isn’t as easy. If you only care about pushing weight, you may lose your connection with the target muscle in the process. If you incorporate new upper-chest-focused movements into your training, take time during the first few workouts to really mentally connect with your upper pecs before you start loading those movements.
Make It a Priority
If you consider your upper chest to be a weakness in your physique, you can’t remedy that issue by treating it like an afterthought. Tacking on an upper-chest-focused movement at the end of your push workout — when you’re exhausted already — may not provide a great return on your investment.
To bring up a lagging body part (such as your upper pecs), you should target it early in your workout when you’re fresh, focused, and ready to work hard. This can mean performing incline presses before your flat presses, for instance, instead of the other way around.
Benefits of Training Your Upper Chest
Even though targeting small, specific muscles is often the province of competitive physique athletes, including a few upper-chest-focused movements in your training can yield benefits without requiring you to step on a bodybuilding stage.
However, the primary benefit is undeniably visual. Physique icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger were known for their impossibly massive chests, and that kind of reputation only comes from making sure the entirety of the muscle is trained properly. Neglecting the pec minor in your workouts long-term will likely create an imbalanced appearance.
Joint Health & Longevity
That doesn’t mean that targeted chest training is all style and no substance. Surprisingly, focusing on the clavicular head of the pecs may improve shoulder health since the muscle does attach to — and thus affects the behavior of — the scapula.
For long-term joint integrity, even isolation exercises commonly found in bodybuilding programs can be helpful if they properly stretch the tissues. (5)
More Power & Higher Performance
Finally, all accessory training will have some level of carryover to your main sport or activity, upper chest work included. Since the pec minor is so well-stimulated by performing anterior pressing movements on an incline, doing so will likely augment your pressing power overall, helping you push heavier weights overhead in weightlifting, strongman, or CrossFit workouts.
How to Warm Up Your Chest Before Training
While it is possible to jump into some workouts and get in the groove naturally, performing a dedicated chest session while “cold” could be a recipe for disaster. A common ailment among gym rats is the “bench presser’s shoulder,” a self-explanatory moniker for the aches and pains associated with too much pressing.
While it is somewhat of a catch-all, the link between excessive pressing and shoulder pain is theorized to be a result of soft tissue aggravation in the pec minor specifically. (6)
Since the movements in this article heavily target the upper chest, a proper warm-up is absolutely critical.
Try This Warm-Up Protocol
When it comes to warm-ups for a heavy chest day, the name of the game is activation and stabilization. Common rehabilitative exercises such as the face pull or rear delt raise are fantastic for “waking up” the small muscles in the upper back that articulate the shoulder.
Afterward, a rudimentary movement that forces the shoulder blades to remain inert against resistance will work wonders for stability: an inverted row, scapula push-up or pull-up, or even a drag curl, focusing on pinching the shoulders back and down while pulling the elbows back behind the body closely mimics the action of the arm during most presses.
Anatomy of the Chest
The chest is separated into two distinct components: the pectoralis major, or sternal head, is the superficial muscle most people are familiar with, while the pectoralis minor, or clavicular head, runs underneath and attaches to the shoulder blade. The pecs are the major engine behind many common activities both in and out of the gym, from sled pushes to swimming.
Since both heads are part of the same muscle complex, their structures are quite similar. However, the different attachment sites (humerus and scapula, respectively) mean that they sometimes perform different functions. The pec major takes a large role in adducting the arm, while the pec minor, your upper chest, is heavily involved in shoulder flexion — raising the arm forward in front of the body.
Although heavy compound pressing is always reliable for muscle stimulus, more articulate or isolated work is often needed to really spur the upper chest into growth. This distinction is important because it affects exercise selection — many popular training programs fall short in comprehensive chest development because they don’t account for the differences in structure or function.
Bring Your Upper Chest Up
If you want to build an impressive chest, you need to do more than hit the flat bench. The right exercises can help you craft three-dimensional pecs that stand out in a t-shirt and complement your physique as a whole. Use these upper chest exercises to build a chest that Schwarzenegger would envy.
Chaves, S. F. N., Rocha-JÚnior, V. A., EncarnaÇÃo, I. G. A., Martins-Costa, H. C., Freitas, E. D. S., Coelho, D. B., Franco, F. S. C., Loenneke, J. P., Bottaro, M., & Ferreira-JÚnior, J. B. (2020). Effects of Horizontal and Incline Bench Press on Neuromuscular Adaptations in Untrained Young Men. International journal of exercise science, 13(6), 859–872.
Trebs, A. A., Brandenburg, J. P., & Pitney, W. A. (2010). An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 24(7), 1925–1930.
Saeterbakken, A. H., Olsen, A., Behm, D. G., Bardstu, H. B., & Andersen, V. (2019). The short- and long-term effects of resistance training with different stability requirements. PloS one, 14(4), e0214302.
Barnett, Chris, Kippers, Vaughan, and Turner, Peter (1995). Effects of variations of the bench press exercise on the EMG activity of five shoulder muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 9 (4) 222-227.
Van Straaten, M. G., Cloud, B. A., Zhao, K. D., Fortune, E., & Morrow, M. M. B. (2017). Maintaining Shoulder Health After Spinal Cord Injury: A Guide to Understanding Treatments for Shoulder Pain. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 98(5), 1061–1063.
Bhatia, D. N., de Beer, J. F., van Rooyen, K. S., Lam, F., & du Toit, D. F. (2007). The “bench-presser’s shoulder”: an overuse insertional tendinopathy of the pectoralis minor muscle. British journal of sports medicine, 41(8), e11.
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