Upper Chest Specialization

Lagging upper chest is a common weak point among bodybuilders. Very few bodybuilders are lucky enough to possess genetic ability to get a full chest just from a single exercise like bench press, but the majority of lifters need a direct focus. Even a genetic phenom like Arnold Schwarzenegger had a weak upper chest as a young bodybuilder. So chances are that your upper pecs also need some focused attention to catch up.

Upper Chest Anatomy & Biomechanics
Clavicular Head And Sternal Head

The pectoral or chest muscles consist of two muscles, the Pectoralis Major consisting of

  • clavicular part (upper chest)
  • sternal part (lower chest)

and the Pectoralis Minor (lies below the Pec major).

Our concern here is the pectoralis major muscle, and particularly the clavicular head. The clavicular head attaches to the clavicle or collar bone (hence the name clavicular) and inserts on the humerus (upper arm) (1). It is smaller in cross-sectional area as compared to sternal head (2, 3), and its function is to assist in shoulder flexion (raising the arm to the front), horizontal adduction (bringing arms towards the center), and internally rotate the shoulders (Barberini, 2013).

Due to a higher proportion of type II muscle fibers (fast twitch, power type), the heavy loading with compound exercises is particularly effective (4-8). Isolation exercises have also shown to produce high levels of muscle activation in the pec major, so single joint exercises are also effective for targeted loading (9-12).  Also grip width, the angle of exercise, and supination/pronation of grip has been shown to have a significant effect on directing the tension on either the clavicular head or sternal head (13-14).

Misapprehension Of Pectoralis Training

Before we get to the good stuff, let’s clear a misconception regarding upper chest training. As the pectoralis major is considered as a single muscle group, and according to ‘all or none’ law of physiology, a muscle fiber only responds when the stimulus exceeds threshold potential. Many coaches wrongly apply this information to the entire muscle group and preach that exercise variation serve no purpose as either pecs will contract as a whole or they won’t.

These lost souls discount the fact that clavicular pectoralis is actually a separate muscle with separate nerve innervations. The angle of muscle fibers is not same across the whole length of pec major, and the line of pull is different throughout different parts of the muscle. This allows the lifter to emphasize different sections of muscle by different exercises.

A Word On Specialization

The specialized training for a lagging muscle puts extra stress on the body part in focus. It creates a demand for extra recovery which makes it necessary to put the rest of the training in maintenance mode. Not only it’s required to facilitate recovery but also to channelize all the growth factors toward the lagging muscle. Consume a good diet, take sufficient sleep, and utilize proper workout nutrition.

Also, specialization requires a bunch of intensification methods and exercise variations, which mandates that the lifter should be well versed in performing basic strength lifts. A beginner should not attempt specialization training until he/she gets a good grasp on basics and becomes well coordinated with the fundamental movement patterns. It is wise to spend some time under the tutelage of a good coach.

Upper Chest Training

One of the biggest reasons for a lagging body part is the lack of sufficient activation in the muscle due to poor neural drive or mind muscle connection. Heavy lifting helps in improving the neural drive but only if the target muscle group activates sufficiently during the exercise. Otherwise, secondary muscle groups take over to finish the lift. Here, the solution is sufficient frequency along with proper exercise choices to ingrain the proper motor pattern.

We recommend conjugated periodization on 3 training days per week with varied loading for pectorals. The training plan is expanded below.

Workout 1: Heavy Loading

A1. Low to high cable cross, 3 sets X 12 reps

A2. Incline Bench Press (Standard 45° incline, medium wide grip), 3 sets X 6 reps

B. Low Incline Dumbbell Press (30° incline), 5 sets X 5 reps

Workout 2: Medium Loading

A1. Standing Cable Fly’s, 3 sets X 10 reps

A2. Smith Machine Low Incline Bench Press (30°, supinated or reverse grip), 3 sets X 10 reps

B1. Pec-Deck Machine, 2 sets X 10 reps

B2. Dips, 2 X 10 reps

B3. Push-ups, 2 X max. reps

Workout 3: Light Loading

A. Squeeze Press, 3 sets X 15 reps

Focus on squeezing the dumbbells together and contracting pectorals instead of poundage.

B1. Low to high cable cross, 2 sets X 20 reps

B2. Dumbbell Fly’s with slight incline, 2 sets X 20 reps

Notes: The notations A1, A2 etc denotes alternate sets; meaning that you perform the A1 exercise, rest, and then perform A2  and so on.

A, B notation represents straight sets; means that you perform all the sets of the A exercise first, and then move on to B exercise.

Progression Plan
Week 1

Follow the plan as laid out.

Week 2

Workout 1: On the last set of the incline press use rest pause technique by racking the bar and resting for 15 secs and again un-rack the bar. Perform as many reps you can, and rack the bar. Again rest for 15 secs and perform as many reps as you can.

Workout 2: Increase one set on all exercises.

Workout 3: Increase 5 reps each set.

Week 3

Workout 1: On the last set of incline press use drop set technique by dropping the weight by 25% twice.

For eg, if you’re using 100 kg on incline press after you complete 6 reps of the superset immediately drop 25 kg and perform as many reps as you can with 75 kg. Rack the bar, drop another 25 kg and perform max reps with 50 kg.

Workout 2: Increase 3 reps each set.

Workout 3: Increase one set on all exercises.

Week 4

Workout 1: Use the same drop set technique on incline press as the previous week. Use rest pause technique similar to week 1 on the last set of dumbbell press.

Workout 2: Increase one set on all exercises.

Workout 3: Increase one set on all exercises.

Focus intensely on squeezing the chest muscles as hard as possible. You can work your other body parts or movements after these exercises or on other days of the week. Follow this routine for 4 to 6 weeks.

Take a de-load week before moving on to a lesser frequency program. During de-load, train chest only once a week with only one exercise without going to failure.

This program will give your dormant upper chest muscles a good jolt and spark new growth in them. Moreover, this program will improve your capacity to recruit and contract upper chest muscles during all chest exercises thus making your future workouts very much productive and effectual.

Exercise Guide
  1. Low To High Cable Cross
  2. Incline Bench Press
  3. Low Incline Dumbbell Press
  4. Standing Cable Fly
  5. Smith Machine Incline Press with Reverse Grip
  6. Pec-Deck
  7. Dips
  8. Push-up
  9. Squeeze press
  10. Low Incline Dumbell Fly
  1. Ackland, D. C., Pak, P., Richardson, M., & Pandy, M. G. (2008). Moment arms of the muscles crossing the anatomical shoulder. Journal of Anatomy, 213(4), 383-390.
  2. Fung, L., Wong, B., Ravichandiran, K., Agur, A., Rindlisbacher, T., & Elmaraghy, A. (2009). Three‐dimensional study of pectoralis major muscle and tendon architecture. Clinical Anatomy, 22(4), 500-508.
  3. Langenderfer, J., Jerabek, S. A., Thangamani, V. B., Kuhn, J. E., & Hughes, R. E. (2004). Musculoskeletal parameters of muscles crossing the shoulder and elbow and the effect of sarcomere length sample size on estimation of optimal muscle length. Clinical Biomechanics, 19(7), 664-670.
  4. Johnson, M., Polgar, J., Weightman, D., & Appleton, D. (1973). Data on the distribution of fibre types in thirty-six human muscles: an autopsy study. Journal of the neurological sciences, 18(1), 111-129.
  5. Srinivasan, R. C., Lungren, M. P., Langenderfer, J. E., & Hughes, R. E. (2007). Fiber type composition and maximum shortening velocity of muscles crossing the human shoulder. Clinical Anatomy, 20(2), 144-149.
  6. McCaw, S. T., & Friday, J. J. (1994). A Comparison of Muscle Activity Between a Free Weight and Machine Bench Press. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 8(4), 259-264.
  7. Pinto, R., Cadore, E., Correa, C., da Silva, B., Alberton, C., Lima, C., & de Moraes, A. (2013). Relationship between workload and neuromuscular activity in the bench press exercise. Medicina Sportiva, 17(1), 1-6.
  8. Schick, E. E., Coburn, J. W., Brown, L. E., Judelson, D. A., Khamoui, A. V., Tran, T. T., & Uribe, B. P. (2010). A comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and free weight bench press. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(3), 779-784.
  9. Welsch, E. A., Bird, M., & Mayhew, J. L. (2005). Electromyographic activity of the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid muscles during three upper-body lifts. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 19(2), 449-452.
  10. Rocha Júnior, V. D. A., Gentil, P., Oliveira, E., & Carmo, J. D. (2007). Comparison among the EMG activity of the pectoralis major, anterior deltoidis and triceps brachii during the bench press and peck deck exercises (200/2005). Revista Brasileira de Medicina do Esporte, 13(1), 51-54.
  11. Saeterbakken, A. H., van den Tillaar, R., & Fimland, M. S. (2011). A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. Journal of sports sciences, 29(5), 533-538.
  12. Schanke, W. (2012). Electromyographical analysis of the pectoralis major muscle during various chest exercises (Doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse).
  13. Barnett, C., Kippers, V., & Turner, P. (1995). Effects of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise on the EMG Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 9(4), 222-227.
  14. Lehman, G. J. (2005). The influence of grip width and forearm pronation/supination on upper-body myoelectric activity during the flat bench press. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 19(3), 587-591.

3 thoughts on “Upper Chest Specialization

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