March 10, 2013

Everything You Need To Know About The 'Upper Chest' And How To Maximize Its Development

Focus on what you CAN control, not what you CAN’T

When it comes to muscular development there are two factors that will ultimately influence the end result in how you look. One of them is genetics, which is completely out of our control, and no matter what we do, we are limited by our genetics in our ability to develop our body to look a certain way that is most satisfying to us. Unfortunately, we had no influence on where are muscles would originate, where they would insert, and how full the bellies of the muscles will become as we develop them.

The other factor is the decisions we make as far as exercise selection, and all the other parameters that go into developing a workout program. Fortunately, we can influence how much tension we choose to subject very specific compartments of our muscles to, with the hopes of it shaping the exact way we desire. Ultimately, our only limiting factor here is our knowledge base. If you don’t know how to modify the exercises to mechanically direct a greater level of tension on the area you wish to see improvements, then progress cannot be expected to be made at an optimal pace.

The obsession with the CHEST

On both men, and women, a fully developed chest, from top to bottom, not only demands the attention of others, but symbolizes power more so than any other bodypart, due to the fact that it covers such a vast surface area on the front of the upper body. There is no doubt, that this is the underlying reason behind the bench press being the most heavily occupied piece of equipment in any gym (besides those where Olympic lifting is the focus), and why breast implants are amongst the most common forms of (plastic) surgery for cosmetic purposes.

Brief anatomy of the chest

To build an impressive chest, at least, as impressive as possible given genetic limitations, it’s of paramount importance that one know exactly how the muscle works, so that the best decisions can be made, as far as exercise selection is concerned.

The chest is comprised of the pectoralis major and minor. The pectoralis major is the most superficial layer of the chest, and therefore is the visible part of the two muscles, while the minor is located deep under the chest, and therefore is not visible. Therefore, if one wanted to build an impressive chest, focus should obviously be on developing the pec major.

The pectoralis minor one function: To protract and depress the shoulder girdle (think moving your shoulders from raised and drawn back, to lowered and drawn together across the midline of the body).

The pectoralis major differs from the minor in that it has two separate heads with separate nerve innervation, which are responsible for multiple functions (transverse adduction, internal rotation, and in the case of the clavicular head, shoulder flexion).

The sternal head of the pec major is the ‘fan shaped’ muscle that covers the greatest surface area of the chest, and is primarily responsible for bringing the arms across the front of the body. There are many variations to which the pec major functions to bring the arms together in the front of the body, the most common being when the arms are stretched out, perpendicular to the body, and then moving towards touching the front of the body where they meet (think of a repetition being performed on a pec-deck).

The weak link

The clavicular head of the pec major is much smaller by comparison to its sternal head counterpart, and therefore usually fails to develop at the same rate. This can lead to glaring structural weaknesses, the more developed that the chest becomes. There are however, some people whose chest seems to develop evenly from top to bottom, regardless of how they train, but for the most part, the upper chest is often relatively underdeveloped. Because of this, the training regimens of many physique competitors, at all levels, heavily rely upon exercises that are supposed to provide the greatest levels of tension to the upper chest.

What you need to understand about the upper chest so you can maximally develop it

As stated above, a very important characteristic of the clavicular head of the pec major is that it is ALSO responsible for shoulder flexion (think of performing a front raise for the shoulder). Because of this function, the muscle is more actively involved in many other non-chest specific movements (like a front raise, and even some bicep curls, if the shoulder is flexed to complete the rep, to name a few), as well as many common everyday movements in which the arms are raised in front of the body. As a result, the clavicular head is generally made up of a higher percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers, than its sternal head counterpart. Simply knowing, and understanding this, is a key factor in being able to understand how to train this muscle to maximally develop it.

The most common flaws to upper chest prioritization routines that others make

Those who want to prioritize upper chest development typically do so by performing an assortment of incline movements (ex. barbell presses, dumbell presses, flyes, machine presses). Logically this makes sense, since movements performed on an incline provide a greater stretch to the clavicular pec head, which then triggers a much greater contraction, but doesn’t mean it’s the most effective way. Performing movements on an incline bench, as opposed to flat or decline, does mechanically place the clavicular head of the pec in a more advantageous position to take on a greater percentage of tension, but does so at the expense of the front of the shoulder taking on a far greater percentage of the weight being lifted.

How to take what is known about the upper chest and use it to your advantage

Taking into consideration that the clavicular head of the pec is generally a slow twitch dominant, shoulder flexor, with a little creativity, it is easy to modify the way in which you perform certain exercises, and adjust the loading parameters that go into developing a program, to get the best results.

The following are some of the most effective modifications in which the clavicular head of the pec can be stimulated.

Close-Grip Presses: Close-grip presses enable a lifter to tuck the elbows tighter to the side than the standard slightly-wider-than-shoulder-width grip that is commonly used when performing barbell presses. Tucking the elbows promotes more of an arc pattern, similar to that of a front raise, which means the clavicular head is lengthened and shortened to a greater degree. Basically, close-grip presses place the clavicular head through a greater range of motion.

*Worth noting is that close-grip presses also heavily rely on the shoulders and triceps, so that must be taken into consideration when developing an upper chest prioritization routine to prevent overtraining.

Wide-Grip Presses To Neck: Wide-grip presses in which the bar is lowered to the neck, and pressed in line with the clavicle, provide the greatest stretch that the pecs are capable of. This results in the pecs (both clavicular and sternal heads) taking on a greater percentage of the weight at the expense of the shoulders and triceps. Because the bar remains in line with the clavicle, the sternal head is placed in a mechanically disadvantageous position, and by default the clavicular head has to pick up the slack.

*Worth noting is that wide-grip presses to the neck increase the risk of shoulder impingement, so that must be taken into consideration when developing an upper chest prioritization routine.

Reverse-Grip Presses: Like close-grip presses, reverse-grip presses also promote tucking of the elbows which greatly increases the stretch and contraction of the clavicular head. Also, because both heads of the pec major act as an internal rotator, by locking the arm/shoulder in external rotation, the sternal head of the pec is inhibited from generating as much force as it’s capable of, and by default the clavicular head has to pick up the slack.

*Worth noting, as with the close-grip press, reverse-grip presses also heavily rely on the shoulders and triceps, so that must be taken into consideration when developing an upper chest prioritization routine to prevent overtraining.

Those three modifications assume a flat bench is being used, but they can also be paired with multiple bench angles to create even more variations aimed at improving the upper chest. By performing those modifications on an incline bench (to which there are many angles that can be used from low, to high incline), you can come up with more ways to stimulate the upper chest to grow. It should be self-explanatory, but I’ll go ahead and spell it out anyway.

Along with the three modifications above, the following are quite possibly the best unconventional upper chest movements to stimulate growth:

Close-Grip Incline Press

Wide-Grip Incline Press To Neck

Reverse-Grip Incline Press

Close-Grip Floor Press

Close-Grip Smith Machine Incline Press

Wide-Grip Smith Machine Incline Press To Neck

Reverse-Grip Smith Machine Incline Press

Shock and awe

The exercises above could even be paired together to perform an improved leverage/mechanical dropset by starting with the most disadvantageous way of performing the movement, and working your way to the most advantageous way to perform the movement.

The reverse-grip press, followed by the wide-grip press to neck, and finished with the close-grip press, performed on either a flat, or incline bench, with either a barbell, or smith machine would suffice. If performing all three variations back-to-back-to-back is too challenging, then simply pick two variations, but be sure to follow the sequence above. For example, reverse-grip presses should always be performed first in sequence, and close-grip presses should always be performed last in sequence. Your options then become reverse-grip followed by either wide-grip presses to neck or close-grip presses, or wide-grip presses to neck followed by close-grip presses.

Don’t get it twisted

While the exercises listed above are certain to provide enough variety to anyone’s routine to keep things new and exciting for a long time, they should not replace the basics. They should rather be substituted into a routine when prioritization is needed to speed up development of a lagging bodypart.

Even though the movements listed above mechanically place the clavicular head of the pec under greater levels of tension relative to the sternal head, they do require that you use less weight than you normally would with traditional basic movements like incline barbell, and dumbell, presses. Therefore, it is implied that the trade off in weight lifted, in return for enhanced levels of tension to the targeted area, is an investment you’re willing to make.

One last thing

This article would be incomplete without at least providing some general loading parameters best suited to develop the upper chest. Because the clavicular head of the pec is generally a slow-twitch dominant muscle, it is not capable of generating as high levels of force as the more fast-twitch dominant sternal head, but is more resistant to fatigue. This means that higher reps, combined with limited rest intervals, are the most effective way to stimulate this muscle to grow. The more slow-twitch dominant a muscle is, the greater its capacity to be trained is. This means that the clavicular head of the pec will respond more positively to more frequent stimulation than the sternal head.

Although it goes without saying, it needs to be emphasized that you can’t completely isolate a specific compartment of a muscle group. Even though the clavicular head is a separate muscle than the sternal head, and has a separate nerve innervation, they collaborate in generating force, so the increased frequency needed to bring up a lagging bodypart should be used sparingly.

In closing

While it is foolish to think we have control of how our muscles will look as we develop them, we do have control in terms of how much tension we expose them to, to get as close to the desired result as possible. Focus on what you can control, and the rest will take care of itself, as it was intended to, when you were created.

If you have any questions about developing an upper chest specialization routing, or any of the exercises outlined above, and how to perform them, or even where to implement them into a training program, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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