Building a large upper chest is the goal of many a gym goer (okay, many a male gym goer). Images of incredibly ripped dudes with that wide fan shape to their chest have inspired many a gym routine. In this article we are going to take a look at the physiology of the chest, and we will also name the six best upper chest exercises for rapid growth.
Is There An "Upper Chest"?
Before we get started, it is important to address the elephant in the room. Many people point out that as the pectoral muscle is just one muscle there is no such thing as an upper or lower chest.
The pectoral is a large fan shaped muscle that extends from your sternum (breastbone) to your clavicle (collar bone). But while it is one muscle it has two heads known as the sternal and clavicular head. The sternal head is lower and makes up the majority of the pectoral, while the clavicular head comprises the upper part of the chest and is relatively small in comparison.
So, while the pectoral muscle is just one muscle, it is comprised of two parts – an upper and a lower portion. Case closed?
Not exactly. When ECG images are taken of the upper and lower chest during certain exercises, they show that both the upper and lower part of the chest are activated during all chest exercises. That incline bench press that you are doing to target the upper chest is still mostly working the lower chest, there is just a bit more emphasis on the upper chest than usual.
When we say that an exercise targets the upper chest, what we mean is that through a manipulation of angles we are targeting the upper chest a little more than usual. But the lower chest is still doing most of the work. However, this adds up to the same thing though. There are exercises that target the upper chest, and you can call them upper chest exercises.
If we wanted to get even more complicated, we could mention the fact that the pectoral muscles will be different for each person. Some people will have a much larger clavicular head than others, which means that a flat bench press would target that head more than it would for someone with a smaller clavicular head. But that’s another conversation for another day.
The Six Best Upper Chest Exercises for Rapid Growth
The following exercises are all fantastic chest builders, and they will also specifically target the upper chest. Some of them are seen as traditional “lower” chest exercises, but they also target the upper part of the chest and it would be crazy not to include them.
Exercise #1 - Incline Barbell Bench Press
To perform an incline barbell bench press you are first going to need an incline bench, the higher the incline the more your shoulders are going to be involved, so we recommend a slight incline rather than one that is too steep.
Lie on the bench with your feet flat on the floor and a slight gap between your lower back and the bench. Pull your shoulders back and grab the barbell with a grip that is slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Bring the barbell so that it is directly over your chest.
Take a deep breath and then lower the bar all the way down to your chest, pause, and then push out while breathing out explosively. Pause at the top and then repeat. This exercise can also be performed with dumbbells, the only difference is that you bring the dumbbells down and back up in an arc which helps to increase the range of motion slightly.
Exercise #2 - Incline Dumbbell Flyes
The chest fly is one of the best chest isolating exercises, and this is why there are three variations of chest flyes on this list. The incline dumbbell fly is the most well-known of the three and a great starting point.
Start this exercise with a dumbbell in each hand while lying back on an incline bench with feet flat on the floor, chest pushed out and shoulders back. Hold the dumbbells up above your chest with a slight bend in your arms. Your palms should be facing each other.
Take a deep breath and then pull your arms apart, keep bringing the dumbbells towards the ground until they are just past parallel to the floor. Stretch your chest out while this happens. Pause, and then while breathing out use your chest to pull the dumbbells back together so that you finish in the original starting position.
Exercise #3 - Telle Flyes
The telle fly is a really interesting fly variation which provides the eccentric movement of the regular dumbbell fly (see above) but allows you to use a heavier weight by switching to a close grip bench press at the end. Okay, that’s going to need some explanation!
Start your telle fly exactly the same as you would a dumbbell fly (except on a flat bench rather than incline). Hold two dumbbells so that your arms are above your chest and slightly bent and your palms are facing each other.
Take a deep breath and then bring your arms apart like you would for a regular fly, keep bringing the weights down in an arc until your arms are past parallel with the floor. Now you would usually bring them back together like you were performing a huge clap.
Instead, you are going to tuck your arms into your sides so that your elbows are tucked in and your palms are facing each other. Now you are going to extend your arms up like you would during a close grip bench press.
Because you are doing this to replace the most difficult part of the movement you can use a heavier weight. This is great because it will really work your chest during the eccentric part of the movement, which is where your muscles really grow.
Exercise #4 - Push Ups
The push up (or press up as it is also known) is the first chest exercise that any of us experience. It is absolutely fantastic, particularly when you are starting out. No equipment is required, and there are hundreds of variations that you can learn. It is also excellent for training the upper chest, though many people think of it as a lower chest exercise.
Place your hands shoulder width apart on the ground, arms fully extended. Your shoulders should be directly over your hands (rather than behind them – a common push up mistake) and your body should be in a straight line with your tiptoes touching the floor and nothing else. Please ensure that your hips are not dropping as this is another common mistake made while performing a push up.
Take a deep breath and then lower your chest down towards the ground, pause when your chest is about a fist distance from the floor (many people ask their partner to place a fist under their chest for this exact reason). While breathing out you want to explosively push your chest away from the ground until you are back in your original starting position.
Exercise #5 - Incline Cable Flyes
This may be the most underrated chest exercise on the list, it really is amazing. Sadly, it is also very difficult to set up for two reasons 1) If the gym is crowded your ability to take up an entire cable station and incline bench at the same time is going to be challenged 2) getting the bench in the right position can take ages!
Grab an incline bench and place it in the center of a cable station with the handles set to the lowest height. Lie back on the bench and make sure that where your chest is, is directly underneath where the cables are going to meet at the top of the arc.
Once you have set this up get into position. Place your feet flat on the ground, grab a handle in each hand and lie back on the bench. Bring the handles together so that they are both together and both are resting above your chest. Bend your arms very slightly.
Now you want to bring your arms apart like you would for any fly, pausing when your chest is fully stretched. Pause, and then bring your hands together again as if you were performing the most elaborate clap ever.
Exercise #6 - Chest Press
The chest press machine is a great chest builder and it can also be an excellent upper chest builder. There are so many different chest press machines out there that it would be pointless to describe all the different ones out there. So let’s keep things general.
Sit on a chest press machine with the handles in line with your chest. Make sure that the seat is set up so that your elbows are below the handle when pushing. Place your feet on the floor (and KEEP them there), take a deep breath, and then push the handles away from you breathing out as you do. Once your arms are almost fully extended you want to pause before slowly returning the handles to the starting position. The slower you do this, the better.
There's no doubt that a thick and full upper chest is one of the corner stones to having a great physique; building your upper chest takes time, but it's not impossible.
Hopefully this article have given you some ideas on where to start - good luck!