One of the first observations I made when I joined a gym was that on chest days many muscle constructors do all three bench press variations – flat for the ego, incline for the upper chest and decline for the lower chest. I thought that those guys were total idiots who didn’t know how to train. It turned out to be true.
Can you really target the upper chest?
Technically, yes. The upper chest or the clavicular head works 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. Meanwhile, the decline produces the lowest upper chest activation.
Therefore, Flat = Incline > Decline
This conclusion backs the general opinion in most gyms that the incline and the flat are better for upper chest development. However, it also shows that the flat is just as effective as the incline when it comes to the clavicular head.
To be quite fair, we don’t need extensive studies to make a similar 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 small, 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 at the fingertips.
But I thought the chest is just one muscle?
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 the 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 shrugs which work the neck portion of the traps and rows which focus on the middle. Both exercises work the whole muscle, but the focus is on different areas. The usual sore spots confirm this. Conventional shrugs make your upper traps sore whereas wide grip rows do the same for the middle part of the back.
What about genetics?
Upper chest development is 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. It’s because the front shoulders are there to help. The anterior deltoid often acts like a bully and compensates for a weak upper chest. That’s why you may end up with a less developed upper chest despite your efforts.
Technically, that’s not a bad thing. It’s just the result of your structure. Some people can develop a full chest by doing dips whereas others have a small gap and naked clavicles despite working on the incline for a long time.
I heard that steroids are largely effective for building the upper chest. Is that true?
It’s true. The female lifters provide plenty of evidence pointing in that direction. Let me tell you something! You will never see a natural woman with a developed upper chest.
The upper chest, the traps, and the shoulders are among the areas that can change significantly under the influence of anabolic steroids because the density of androgen receptors there is pretty high. That’s why those areas are known to “blow up” when the lifter is “juicing”.
Sometimes it’s not about arm 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 exercise targets the upper pectorals more. That’s why people like Gironda used to recommend extreme elbow flaring during bench pressing. This may work the upper chest more, but the stress on the shoulders is unreal, especially when the weight is heavy.
1. Exercises like the decline bench press and dips target the upper chest less than the flat bench press and the incline.
2. At the end of the day, the upper chest is largely dependent on your genetics and structure.
3. Some steroids make the upper chest blow up.