Short answer: Dips are a very effective overall chest exercise, but they do not emphasize the upper chest because the pressing happens at a downward angle facilitating the recruitment of the lower pectoral fibers rather than the uppers.
The clavicular head [upper chest] participates in the exercise, but not nearly as much as it does during pressing movements requiring you to push forward and up. (e.g., incline bench press, decline push-ups…etc.) Consequently, dips should not be the go-to exercise for upper chest construction.
Doesn’t the chest work as a whole? Can we isolate different parts of it?
When I got into this game, I skipped the bro splits and ended up in the 5×5 community right away. One of the notions spread by the 5×5 zealots was the impossibility to isolate different parts of a muscle group – it either contracts as one unit or it doesn’t.
In reality, this is a partial truth.
Yes, the chest contracts as a whole, but its line of pull can be influenced through angle manipulation to the point where different sections of the muscle do more or less work.
The body operates efficiently; it activates the muscle fibers that have the highest impact on the completion of a lift.
In the case of dips, this would be the sternocostal head of pectoralis major or the lower and mid-chest is simpler terms.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the upper chest does not contract during dips. It does. But the strain on that muscle head is low because its big brother is in a more efficient position to complete the movement.
FAQ: Are the upper and lower chest two separate muscles?
No. They are both different heads of the pectoralis major. However, the clavicular head [upper chest] has a different insertion point – it attaches to the clavicle whereas the sternal head [low + mid-chest] connects to the sternum.
Moreover, the clavicular head is innervated by a separate nerve. Therefore, the upper chest has enough “autonomy” to be considered a separate muscle to a certain extent.
But gymnasts do lots of dips and have massive, full chests. How do you explain that?
Gymnasts do all kinds of bodyweight pressing since a very young age. Their training isn’t limited to dips.
Honestly, the athletes competing on a high-level in the sport, don’t even consider basic dips and pull-ups training as those movements are too easy for them and represent a fairly intense warm-up.
Thus, one cannot attribute the chest development showcased by gymnasts solely to dips and basic push-ups.
By the way, I’ve seen professional gymnasts in person. The first observation that struck me were their overdeveloped lower chests. They had slabs of meat hanging off their sternums. With clothes, their pectorals looked like legit boobs, and I’m not exaggerating
Vince Gironda Recommended Dips for Lower Chest
The old-school bodybuilding trainer Vince Gironda had a strong affinity for dips. The following quote is attributed to him:
“Wide grip parallel dips produce a sharp line under the pecs such as no other exercise in the gym can produce.”
In other words, he saw dips as a superior exercise for the lower pectorals.
While I think that people are heavily overrating Gironda’s training principles, and many of the drills promoted by him are potentially dangerous to the joints, one cannot deny his supreme bodybuilding ability to increase the stress on a muscle, or a part of it, by re-engineering a basic exercise.
If Gironda recommended the dip primarily as a lower chest builder, we can lean on his expertise and experience to conclude that this is what the movement is good for.
Still, I wouldn’t recommend Gironda’s dips as they place too much stress on the shoulders. The classic dip is more than adequate for hitting the lower and mid-part of the chest.
More Effective Upper Chest Builders
To emphasize the clavicular head, the humerus has to work at an upward angle. This puts the upper chest in a more efficient pulling position, and the body naturally engages this part of the muscle in the lift. Below is a list of exercises that accomplish this goal fairly effectively:
Dumbbell Bench Press on a Low Incline. One could make a very strong argument that this is the best overall upper chest exercise. It’s more joint-friendly than the barbell version, allows for infinite progression and does not promote ego benching as much as the flat bench. A steep incline is not recommended as it encourages greater participation of the anterior deltoid.
Decline push-ups. By doing push-ups with your feet elevated on a small object, you change the pressing angle and turn the exercise into the bodyweight equivalent of an incline bench press. The more you elevate your feet, the more you’ll stress the shoulders.
This exercise is also hard on the abdominals – a bonus or a distraction from the major task at hand depending on how you look at it.
The Landmine press. The landmine press is also a legit choice as it’s similar enough to an incline bench press done with a close grip. In addition, you’re also squeezing the weight. The result is a fairly decent upper chest exercise.
The scapular protraction (scapulae moving forward) and upward rotation taking place during the landmine press make the movement more shoulder-friendly than the classic incline bench.
You can change the angle from which you’re pressing by doing the press standing or kneeling. Most people use the landmine press as a finisher.
Ring push-ups. The nastiest chest soreness that I have ever experienced was the result of ring push-ups. It happened many years ago, but I remember it to this day. I could feel my entire chest even while going down the stairs. This is how sore it was.
I’m not saying that you will develop some outrageously big chest from ring push-ups, but they’re a movement worth exploring if you have access to the necessary equipment.