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 the upper chest specifically can elevate your entire appearance if you know what you’re doing.
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. if you typically press 50- to 60-pound dumbbells, opt for 25-pound weights.
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Set an adjustable bench at a 30-45 degree angle. Grab a pair of moderately challenging dumbbells, as this exercise is more about contraction and focus than maximal weight. 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.
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. (1)
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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. Plant your feet on the floor, make sure your elbows are under your wrists, and press the weight up, slightly back, and inwards towards your midline.
The final position should see the dumbbells close together, directly over the shoulder joint, while you actively press your upper arm against your torso. Lower until the weights touch the chest if possible, and repeat.
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. The guillotine press is typically performed with a barbell and gets its name from the lowering of the bar to the neck (or even chin). The extreme flare of the elbows puts an incredible stretch on both heads of the pectoralis muscle, but take caution — it requires good shoulder health and mobility, so make sure you warm up thoroughly beforehand.
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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 the neck or clavicle while keeping elbows flared. Do not rest the bar on the 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.
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 h just as well as free weights. (1)
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.
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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. Avoid letting your shoulders elevate at any point.
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 variants. (2)
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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. Whichever method allows for the most stability and focus will work fine. Suspend yourself from the handles, brace your core, and depress your scapula. Once you and the weight are still, descend slowly by bending at the elbows and allowing the upper arm to drift behind the torso. When you feel a big stretch in the chest, press yourself back up while keeping your arms tucked to your sides.
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 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.
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.
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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.
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 (3).
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.
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. (4) Since the movements in this article heavily target the upper chest, a proper warm-up is absolutely critical. 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.
Now that you have a menu of movements to choose from, you can start to assemble a training plan that will surely blow up your chest and have you shopping for new dress shirts. The most important thing to remember when it comes to targeted bodybuilding work is that it requires active mental focus.
If you’re trying to fatigue a small muscle with a specific movement fully, you can’t simply power through each repetition. Strong concentration is essential for a good mind-muscle connection and getting the tension where it needs to go. Once you’re happy with your chest training, feel free to check out these other helpful guides for muscle groups that need a little extra love.
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