There’s a reason Mondays are colloquially known as “International Chest Day.” An impressive set of pecs can change your whole physique. Beyond wanting to look good at the beach or pool this summer, a strong chest can also help you perform better in everything from powerlifting to gymnastics. While the standard bench press lives up to its reputation for being an all-around fantastic exercise for strength and size, growing your chest can take a more articulate approach than just doing the standard 5×5 workout.
Targeting your upper chest specifically can elevate both your appearance and performance if you know what you’re doing. That said, you can’t just throw in any old exercises and expect to build a shelf you could balance a soda can on. You need the right upper chest exercises. You need these eight best upper chest movements.
8 Best Upper Chest Exercises
- Incline Hex Press
- Close-Grip Bench Press
- Incline Bench Press
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
- Guillotine Press
- Low Cable Flye
- Weighted Dip
- Dumbbell Chest Flye
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Why Do It: Tension is the name of the game when it comes to breaking down muscles so they bounce back bigger and better. And few movements elicit more tension than the hex press — an exercise that has you squeeze two dumbbells together as you press them. Doing the hex press on an incline will angle the weights so your upper chest is doing the brunt of the work.
Equipment Needed: The “hex” in hex press refers to the hexagonal shape of the dumbbells. You can do this move with circular weights, but it’ll be harder to stabilize.
How To Do It
- Set an adjustable bench at a 30-45 degree angle and grab a pair of moderately challenging dumbbells.
- With the dumbbells touching one another while resting on your chest, press up and back slightly.
- Keep your elbows tucked and lower until the dumbbells gently touch your shirt. Actively “squeeze” the dumbbells together for the duration of the movement.
Coach’s Tip: This movement is best performed with hexagonal-sided dumbbells, which have flat sides you can easily press together. That’s why it’s called a hex press.
Set and Reps: Try 2 or 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps to get a good upper chest pump going.
[Read More: Build a Titanic Torso with These Bodybuilding Chest & Back Workouts]
Why Do It: Benching is the bread and butter of chest day, no matter how (or why) you like to hit the weights. For building your upper chest specifically, you should consider bringing your hands in and performing the close-grip bench press instead. Benching with a narrow grip incorporates more motion at the shoulder than a wide grip, which should activate your upper pecs to a greater degree.
Equipment Needed: Find a bench press station or place a flat bench into a squat stand or power rack. You’ll also need a barbell and some weights.
How To Do It
- Set up in a bench press station with your eyes directly underneath the barbell and your feet planted firmly on the floor.
- Grip the bar with a narrow, shoulder-width (or slightly closer) grip, and unrack it from the station by pulling it straight out until your arms are extended directly over your shoulders.
- From here, lower the bar down to your torso while keeping your upper arms tucked tightly to your sides.
- Once the bar makes contact with your chest, reverse the motion, pressing up and back until the bar is at arm’s length over your shoulders once again.
Coach’s Tip: The bar should make contact with your torso a bit lower than you would for your normal-grip bench press.
Sets and Reps: Try out 3 or 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps on the close-grip bench press.
Why Do It: Weight room lore dictates that the decline bench is for building your lower chest; the flat bench is an all-around pec trainer, and the incline station is where you belong if you’re trying to build your upper chest. Luckily, these ideas go beyond bro science. Using the incline bench press to train your upper pecs has plenty of valid scientific backing to it, with some data showing that the incline bench is unequivocally superior to the flat bench for upper pec development. (1)
Equipment Needed: Most gyms have dedicated stations just for performing the incline bench, but you can also roll an adjustable weight bench into a squat rack or Smith machine if you prefer.
How To Do It
- Sit in the incline bench station. Adjust the seat so the barbell is slightly behind your eyes while you look upward towards the ceiling.
- Grab the bar with a wide, beyond-shoulder-width grip and pull it out of the weight rack until your arms are straight above your shoulder joints.
- Bend your elbows to lower the bar down until it touches high up on your chest, then press the weight back to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: During heavy incline bench presses, you may want to recruit a spotter to help you remove and replace the barbell from the rack since it starts behind your head.
Sets and Reps: Try 3 or 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps on the incline bench press, but be sure to maintain good form along the way.
Why Do It: The incline dumbbell bench press is a popular movement among bodybuilders and powerlifters. Pressing on an inclined surface allows for a greater degree of shoulder flexion, which the clavicular head of the pecs (the upper chest) is primarily responsible for. This increased range of motion should dramatically increase fiber engagement in the upper chest. (2)
Equipment Needed: You’ll need an adjustable bench and a pair of dumbbells to do this exercise. You may also want to grab a spotter if you’re going heavy.
How To Do It
- Set an adjustable bench at a moderate incline between 25-40 degrees. With a pair of dumbbells resting on each knee, brace your core and lean back.
- As you fall into position, “kick” the dumbbells into the starting position with your legs and then plant your feet on the floor.
- Press the weights up, slightly back, and inwards towards your midline.
Modifications: You can rely on a workout partner or spotter to cradle your elbows while you perform the movement and learn the technique. Also, a lower incline is generally considered more comfortable for most folks.
Coach’s Tip: The final position should see the dumbbells close together, directly over the shoulder joint, while you actively press your upper arm against your torso.
Sets and Reps: Go for 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps here.
Why Do It: When done properly, the guillotine press is a fantastic exercise for the upper chest due to the intense stretch and limited involvement of the triceps. This exercise is also well suited for performance in a Smith machine, since the ideal bar path is completely or nearly vertical. The Smith machine sometimes catches a bad rap, but research suggests that it can stimulate muscle activation and just as well as free weights. (3)
Equipment Needed: Do this movement in the Smith machine if you can. If not, start with an empty barbell.
How To Do It
- Take a wide grip and unrack an empty or lightly-loaded barbell while lying on a flat or slightly inclined bench.
- Lower the weight slowly straight downwards towards your neck or clavicle while keeping your elbows flared.
- Do not rest the bar on your neck at any point, but hold the bottom position for a moment before pressing back up while attempting to “bend” the bar into a U-shape.
- Stop before any noticeable shoulder discomfort.
Modifications: The guillotine press is very challenging on your shoulders. You may want to stay away from this one if you have a history of pain or injury there.
Coach’s Tip: Start with very, very light weights here. The empty barbell may be enough to begin with.
Sets and Reps: Since you aren’t using heavy weights, try 2 or 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
[Read More: The 7 Best Lower Chest Exercises for Building Strong and Full Pecs]
Why Do It: A good chest day cannot be complete without at least one flye movement — in this case, one specifically targeting the upper chest. By setting the cable attachments at a low angle, you can perform an upper-chest-focused cable exercise like the low flye.
Equipment Needed: You’ll need two adjustable cable pulleys for this exercise.
How To Do It
- With the cables set below waist level, assume a staggered stance. Allow your arms to hang slightly behind the body, palms facing forward.
- “Scoop” the handles up and inwards while rotating the arm such that your elbows are pointing to the sides at the top.
- Squeeze your chest and drive the upper arm against the torso at the top for a strong contraction before slowly returning to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid shrugging your shoulders; keep them away from your ears and allow them to protract, or move forward, during the flye.
Sets and Reps: 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps should do the trick.
Why Do It: The standard dip is one of the few bodyweight chest exercises you can do. Dips, especially with extra weight, target your upper pecs because you must lean your torso forward as you perform the movement in order to protect your shoulder. They’re also a great all-around upper body strength movement and will prioritize your upper chest if you use a narrow grip. (4)
Equipment Needed: You’ll need access to a dip station or a stable pair of dip bars.
How To Do It
- Suspend yourself in the air by placing one hand on either bar and extending your elbows.
- Tilt your torso forward while clasping a small dumbbell between your ankles.
- Descend by bending at the elbows until your upper arm is parallel to the ground.
Modifications: Do this move without weights if you’re new to upper chest training, or are on the heavier side. Dips can be deceptively difficult.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your shoulders packed down and away from your ears at all times. Do not shrug them up as you lower yourself.
Sets and Reps: Blast your upper chest with 2 or 3 sets of weighted dips to failure at the end of your workout.
[Read More: The Best Dumbbell Chest Workouts for Beginners, Strength, and More]
Why Do It: This is one of the best dumbbell upper chest exercises you can do. The flye motion isolates your chest and mostly removes your triceps and deltoids from the equation. Moreover, if you have a pair of adjustable weights, this is an upper chest exercise at home that’s on offer for you.
Equipment Needed: You’ll need a pair of dumbbells and a weight bench for this exercise.
How To Do It
- Lie down on the bench with a dumbbell in each hand your arms held toward the ceiling, elbows straight.
- With your palms facing each other, lower and sweep your arms out to the side until your upper arm comes parallel with the floor.
- Reverse the motion, squeezing your chest together as you return to the starting position.
Modifications: Limit your range of motion during the lowering phase if you have a history of shoulder pain or are new to the exercise. You can also perform chest flyes on the floor if you’re worried about losing control of the weights as you lower them down.
Coach’s Tip: To really emphasize your upper chest, try working with the bench set at a slight incline.
Sets and Reps: Try out 2 or 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps with this move.
Upper Chest Workouts
If you’re ready to start prioritizing your upper chest for muscle growth, the next step is to put these exercises into a workout routine. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered there, too. Here are two upper chest workouts you can do — the first is aimed at beginners, while the second one is for those with gym experience who consider their upper chest a weak point.
Upper Chest Workout 1
- Incline Bench Press: 3 x 8
- Low Cable Flye: 2 x 12
- Dip: 2 x 10
Upper Chest Workout 2
- Incline Bench Press: 3 x 8
- Incline Dumbbell Hex Press: 3 x 12, then 1 drop set to failure
- Low Cable Flye + Close-Grip Push-Up: 2 x 15 each, as a superset
- Weighted Dip: 2 sets to failure
Upper Chest Warm-Up
While it is possible to jump into some workouts and get in the groove naturally, performing a dedicated chest session while “cold” could be a recipe for disaster. A common ailment among gym rats is the “bench presser’s shoulder,” a self-explanatory moniker for the aches and pains associated with too much pressing.
While it is somewhat of a catch-all, the link between excessive pressing and shoulder pain is theorized to be a result of soft tissue aggravation in the pec minor specifically. (6)
[Read More: The 5 Best Inner Chest Exercises]
Since the movements in this article heavily target the upper chest, a proper dynamic warm-up is absolutely critical.
Upper Chest Warm-Up for Stability
When it comes to upper body warm-ups for a heavy chest day, the name of the game is activation and stabilization. Common rehabilitative exercises such as the face pull or rear delt raise are fantastic for “waking up” the small muscles in the upper back that articulate the shoulder.
[Read More: The Anatomy of Your Chest Muscles, Explained (and How to Train Them)]
Afterward, a rudimentary movement that forces the shoulder blades to remain inert against resistance will work wonders for stability: an inverted row, scapula push-up or pull-up, or even a drag curl, focusing on pinching the shoulders back and down while pulling the elbows back behind the body closely mimics the action of the arm during most presses.
How To Train Your Upper Chest + Top Tips
To develop the upper regions of your pecs, you need movements that emphasize that area — but you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Your upper pecs don’t need an entire workout day dedicated to them. Make a few smart swaps and adjust your sets and reps accordingly and you’ll make gains just fine.
Upper Chest Exercise Selection
The best way to shift some training emphasis onto your upper pecs is to simply swap out one or two of your standard chest moves for ones that tax the upper fibers directly. In practice, this can look like switching the incline bench press out for the flat bench press, or finishing your workouts with dips instead of push-ups or cable flyes.
Upper Chest Sets and Reps
Your upper chest is a only a portion of your pecs. As such, it lacks a bit of overall power and many upper chest movements respond better to slightly higher rep sets.
- For Muscle Mass: Shoot for 3 to 4 sets per exercise, with 8 to 12 reps on presses and 10 to 15 repetitions on flyes or bodyweight moves.
Upper Chest Training Tips
Here are a few actionable tips to help you prioritize upper chest growth during your workouts.
- Find Your Incline: A large body of scientific research shows that training your chest while lying on an inclined surface will engage your upper pecs. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the grade of the bench and find the exact angle that lights up your pecs. It probably won’t be the same as your gym partner’s.
- Focus & Concentrate: The mind-muscle connection is a real phenomenon. If you incorporate new upper-chest-focused movements into your training, take time during the first few workouts to really mentally connect with your upper pecs before you start loading those movements.
- Do It First: To bring up a lagging body part (such as your upper pecs), you should target it early in your workout when you’re fresh, focused, and ready to work hard. This can mean performing incline presses before your flat presses, for instance, instead of the other way around.
Benefits of Training Your Upper Chest
Even though targeting small, specific muscles is often the province of competitive physique athletes, including a few upper-chest-focused movements in your training can yield benefits without requiring you to step on a bodybuilding stage.
However, the primary benefit is undeniably visual. Physique icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger were known for their impossibly massive chests, and that kind of reputation only comes from making sure the entirety of the muscle is trained properly. Neglecting the pec minor in your workouts long-term will likely create an imbalanced appearance.
Joint Health & Longevity
That doesn’t mean that targeted chest workout is all style and no substance. Surprisingly, focusing on the clavicular head of the pecs may improve shoulder health since the muscle does attach to — and thus affects the behavior of — the scapula.
[Read More: 6 Best Chest Exercises Without Weights That Build Size and Strength]
More Power & Higher Performance
Finally, all accessory training will have some level of carryover to your main sport or activity, upper chest work included. Since the pec minor is so well-stimulated by performing anterior pressing movements on an incline, doing so will likely augment your pressing power overall, helping you push heavier weights overhead in weightlifting, strongman, or CrossFit workouts.
What Muscles Make Up the Chest
The chest is separated into two distinct components: the pectoralis major, or sternal head, is the superficial muscle most people are familiar with, while the pectoralis minor, or clavicular head, runs underneath and attaches to the shoulder blade. The pecs are the major engine behind many common activities both in and out of the gym, from sled pushes to swimming.
[Read More: The Best Chest and Triceps Workout, Scaled for Every Experience Level]
Since both heads are part of the same muscle complex, their structures are quite similar. However, the different attachment sites (humerus and scapula, respectively) mean that they sometimes perform different functions. The pec major takes a large role in adducting the arm, while the pec minor, your upper chest, is heavily involved in shoulder flexion — raising the arm forward in front of the body.
Bring Your Upper Chest Up
If you want to build an impressive chest, you need to do more than hit the flat bench. The right exercises can help you craft three-dimensional pecs that stand out in a t-shirt and complement your physique as a whole. Use these upper chest exercises to build a chest that Schwarzenegger would envy.
Here are a few common questions about the upper chest that you might want answered.
You can isolate your upper chest by changing the angle of your arm relative to your torso. Shoulder flexion, such as bringing your arm up and pointing straight ahead of you, engages your upper chest. You can also try using a close grip when you perform chest press exercises.
Your upper chest is part of your pectoral muscles as a whole. For most major muscle groups, you should aim to hit them with weights between two and three times per week.
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- Trebs, A. A., Brandenburg, J. P., & Pitney, W. A. (2010). An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 24(7), 1925–1930.
- Saeterbakken, A. H., Olsen, A., Behm, D. G., Bardstu, H. B., & Andersen, V. (2019). The short- and long-term effects of resistance training with different stability requirements. PloS one, 14(4), e0214302.
- Barnett, Chris, Kippers, Vaughan, and Turner, Peter (1995). Effects of variations of the bench press exercise on the EMG activity of five shoulder muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 9 (4) 222-227.
- Van Straaten, M. G., Cloud, B. A., Zhao, K. D., Fortune, E., & Morrow, M. M. B. (2017). Maintaining Shoulder Health After Spinal Cord Injury: A Guide to Understanding Treatments for Shoulder Pain. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 98(5), 1061–1063.
- Bhatia, D. N., de Beer, J. F., van Rooyen, K. S., Lam, F., & du Toit, D. F. (2007). The “bench-presser’s shoulder”: an overuse insertional tendinopathy of the pectoralis minor muscle. British journal of sports medicine, 41(8), e11.
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