One the first things I noticed when I joined a gym was that on the so-called chest days people would do all three bench press variations – flat for the ego, incline for the upper chest and decline for the lower chest. I thought those guys were total idiots who didn’t know how to train. It turned out to be true, although at the time the reason I believed so was the heavy brainwash coming from the functional movement community.
Can you really target the upper chest?
Technically, yes. The upper chest or the clavicular head does work harder during some exercises. Studies have shown that there is more activation of the upper chest during flat and incline bench presses compared to declines. According to Barnett, C., et al (1995) there is no significant difference in upper chest activation between incline and flat benches, but there is the least amount of chest activation during decline bench presses.
Flat = Incline > Decline
This essentially backs the general opinion in gyms that the incline and flat are better for upper chest development, although it does also show that the flat is just as effective as the incline when it comes the clavicular head.
To be quite fair, we don’t need extensive studies to make the same conclusion.
Place one hand on the opposite pectoral muscle and cover the whole thing from top to bottom. Keep the arm of the covered side pointing down towards the floor. Then slowly perform a front shoulder raise with it.
You will notice that as the arm goes up different parts of the chest get activated. Even if your chest is as small as mine, you will feel a bump under your palm. As the arm goes up, you will feel the same bump in the middle of your hand and then fingertips. This reveals that by changing the angle of the upper arm different parts of the chest are targeted.
But I thought the chest is just one muscle and everything works it?
It is true. You can’t really work your lower chest hard without some upper chest activation. Even if you are doing dips, the upper chest will be working. However, you can shift more stress to different portions of the muscle by changing the angle.
A good example would be the trapezius muscle. There is a big difference between doing shrugs, which work the neck portion of the traps, and performing rows, which focus on the mid part. Both exercises work the whole muscle but the focus is different and the areas of soreness reveal it. Conventional shrugs make your upper traps sore while wide grip rows do the same for the middle part of the back.
What about genetics?
Upper chest development is also very dependent on genetics. You may be doing all the inclines in the world without getting the expected results. Some people are just naturally more “shallow” in that region. I believe it’s because the front shoulders are there to help. The anterior deltoid could be a bully and do the work of the upper chest. That’s why you may end up with less developed upper chest despite all efforts. Technically, that’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way things happen depending on your structure. Some people can develop a full chest by doing just dips, while others have a small gap and naked clavicles but developed mid and lower portions of the chest despite following the same routine.
I heard steroids are largely effective for building the upper chest. Is that true?
It’s true. Evidence could be found among female lifters. Let me tell you something! You will almost never see a woman with developed and popping upper chest that is natural. That’s extremely rare, if not impossible.
The upper chest, the traps and the shoulders are some of the areas that can change significantly under the influence of anabolic steroids because the density of androgen receptors is pretty high. That’s why those areas are known to “blow up” when the lifter is “juicing”.
Sometimes it’s not about angles.
The place where the bar touches your chest on the way down also determines how much of the upper chest is activated. For example, if you touch really low on the chest during the flat bench press, most of the work is done by the front shoulders, lower chest and triceps. If you flare your elbows and touch high on the chest, the exercises targets the upper pectorals more. That’s why people like Gironda used to recommend extreme elbow flaring during pressing. This may work the upper chest more, but the stress on the shoulders is unreal, especially when the weight is heavy.
1. Exercises such as decline and dips target the upper chest less than the flat bench press and the incline, but actually work more pectoral fibers because they focus on the naturally bigger lower portion.
2. If you are doing a horizontal push, you most likely don’t need inclines to bring the upper chest.
3. At the end of the day, upper chest development is largely dependent on your genetics and structure.