- Hitting your upper chest has a lot to do with elbow position.
- If you are going hard on upper chest, pull back on triceps
- If the goal is hypertrophy, aim for muscle activation
When you used to study for tests back in school, did you just open the book and read anything or did you study specific material that could help you pass?
If you graduated, you prob did the latter.
Exercises are the same way.
You can do them, but if they aren’t hitting the target muscle then said muscle won’t grow.
In this article we’re going to talk about the best neck accessory outside a tie … a jacked upper chest.
Like every muscle group it’s helpful to know 1) what we are talking about and 2) what way the muscle fibers are positioned so you can know how to activate it.
Muscle fibers are aligned in the way they move. If you want to activate them and make them grow, you need to be working them in the way they are positioned.
Just like a woman, your upper chest has three different insertion points. The collarbone, the sternum and your upper arm. And the muscle fibers run slightly up from your arm to the collarbone.
So for you to activate your upper chest you need to bring your upper arm to the front and up.
Nothing new there.
But looking at how the muscle fibers are positioned, we can see how positioning your elbow a bit lower before pressing up and in front activates the upper chest a bit more. Moving your arms out too wide and it becomes more of a front delt exercise.
That point will be helpful later on.
What Exercises Hit The Upper Chest?
Now you know how to activate, the next step is figuring out what exercises you need to do to blow up your upper chest.
First, let’s look at compound movements. The incline bench is an obvious one. Another one you might not think of is the flat bench.
Earlier you learned that elbow position played a role in activating your chest. So, taking that sweet chocolatey bit of knowledge, if you take a narrower grip on your bench press you’ll put more emphasis on your upper chest.
So the incline and flat bench are going to be the best compound movements for your upper chest.
Now let’s look at dumbbells and cables. Anything with “incline” in the name will work here.
Dumbbell incline bench, incline dumbbell fly and cable incline fly all fit the bill. And just like the flat bench, a dumbbell flat bench press also would work assuming your elbows are close to your body.
From a muscle building standpoint, the dumbbell incline bench would be the best option. You have a better range of motion than the barbell version and you can also change your hand position from pronation to neutral to get a more natural movement.
Finally, let’s quickly talk about machines. An incline bench machine or smith machine would work, but they aren’t for everyone. Depending on the machine it can be hard to get in the right position for you which means it’ll be harder to activate the upper chest and at that point you’re just doing an exercise for the sake of doing an exercise.
If you have the goal of building your upper chest, stick to barbells and dumbbells.
The Right Incline Bench Angle For You
There’s two big points when trying to build your upper chest.
Elbow position being the first, which we already talked about.
The second is your incline bench angle.
And just like your porn preference it’s a bit different for everyone.
The bench angle that’s too high is going to make it more of a front delt exercise.
Conversely, a bench angle that is too low and you’re just doing a flat bench and hitting the meat of your chest.
Like a good fruit, the sweetness is in the middle.
Do me a favor right now.
Let your right arm hang down by your side.
Take your left hand and put it on your right upper chest just below where it meets your collar bone.
Keep your left hand there.
Now keeping your right arm straight, lift it up like you are doing a front raise.
At a certain point, where your right hand is about eye level or slightly above you should feel your upper chest working.
That is your optimal angle for an incline bench press.
Once you have that tasty nugget of information, hop on an incline bench and get into your normal position (i.e. back arched, your normal incline bench angle).
Check to see if your hand position is in a vertical plane of movement (meaning your arms go up and down rather than up and back over your head).
If not, adjust the angle of the bench so it does.
You now have the right incline bench angle to fire up your upper chest. Use this angle for all your upper chest building exercises.
Upper Chest Prioritization Process
You now know your best incline angle, you know how to position your elbows, and you know a few exercises. Now let’s put it all together to build your upper chest.
Modify Your Bench Technique
A narrower grip is going to force your elbows into a more of an advantageous position for the upper pecs.
Stick your thumb out like you’re hitching a ride to living your actor dreams in LA. Place the end of your thumb at the end of the knurling.
Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder width.
Drop the weight a bit from what you would normally bench, 10-20% would be a good starting point. Now bench like normal.
Add More Volume
When it comes to the meal that is muscle building, volume and frequency go together like spaghetti and meatballs.
The goal with volume is to do as many sets as you can with being able to be recovered for the next time you train your upper chest.
Start with 3 sets then gauge how you feel the following week. If you feel good and fresh, add another set.
If the following week the weight feels a lot heavier or you can’t do as many reps. Stay at that number of sets. Most guys will need 4-5 sets.
Add More Frequency
And for the meatball of muscle building, frequency, you want to make sure you are hitting your upper chest 2-3x per week.
So you can go Heavy in the beginning of the week then lighter at the end or heavier in the beginning of the workout and lighter at the end.
This will allow you to be stronger in both movements 1) because you are fresh for the heavy movement and 2) the potentiation from the first movement allows you to lift more for the second.
A barbell incline bench on Monday and Dumbbell Incline Bench on Wed or Friday would be a good pairing.
A barbell incline bench with an incline cable fly would be a good pairing for the same workout.
If you really want to kick it up a bit, do a barbell incline bench and incline cable fly on Monday. Then on Wednesday do your flat bench with the narrower grip we talked about.
I know benching on a Wednesday is sacrilege but if you really want your chest to grow sometimes you have to break some rules.
Hit It First In The Workout
If you are prioritizing a muscle group you want to hit it first in your workout.
Once you warm up, jump on the barbell incline bench OR heavy dumbbell incline bench.
Pull Back On Other Exercises
Without proper recovery you won’t grow. If you are pushing harder to grow your upper chest, pull back in other muscle groups.
You can get away with maintaining 2 sets on lower body and 2-3 sets for upper body.
Your body can only recover from so much training so pay attention to how you are feeling each workout. If the weight feels super heavy or you just don’t have the strength to match or exceed the reps you did last week then pull back a bit.
The first muscle group I would pull back on is triceps. If your focus is your upper chest, your triceps are getting added volume with all the pressing movements. Extra volume in the form of specific isolation exercises isn’t needed.
How To Progress
There’s a number of ways to progress each exercise.
First, use a rep range. 6-8, 10-12 etc.
- Pick a weight where you’re 1RIR or failure is the bottom of the rep range (6 or 10 from the examples above).
- As the weeks progress you push for one more rep.
- As you hit or surpass the top of the rep range on your first set, increase the weight by 5lbs on isolation exercises and 10 lbs on multi joint or compound lifts the following week.
This is prob the easiest way to ensure you are progressively overloading the exercises.
Second, you’ll be increasing the number of sets based on how you feel so if you go from 3 to possibly 5 sets over the course of a few weeks which is adding more volume and progressing. This is short lived once you hit the top of your recovery.
Third you’ll be increasing frequency by adding more exercises specifically for upper chest which in itself is progress.
Ultimately, using rep ranges and increasing the weight each time you hit the top of the rep range will be the only progress you need.
If you use Reps in Reserve, you can increase the closeness to failure each week.
Week 1: 3-4 RIR
Week 2: 2-3 RIR
Week 3: 1-2 RIR
Week 4: 0-1 RIR
Week 5: Deload 3-4 RIR
The Most Important Point of this Article
The last thing I want to touch on is a little thing we should have addressed first.
Lifting a shit ton of weight but not activating the right muscles is a great way to get strong, but not to build muscle.
If your goal is to build lean muscle, focus on activating the muscle rather than lifting as much weight as you can by modifying your form.
Your muscle will grow a helluva lot better with a narrow grip 155 on an incline bench press than it will with a wide grip 200lbs.
If the goal is to get strong, optimize for weight.
If the goal is to build muscle, optimize for activation.