Far too often bodybuilders have a conspicuous hollow at the top of their chests instead of thick slabs of dense muscle because they haven’t learned the secret of isolating and building the upper pecs. If you need upper pecs, this article is for you.
In an ideal world every muscle group trained would grow at the same rate. There wouldn’t be any growth plateaus or slow-growing muscle groups. You’d just gradually but steadily add more and more mass to all your muscle groups over time until you eventually looked like a reasonable facsimile of Ronnie Coleman or Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime (especially Arnold’s fantastic chest development, this being a chest article).
There are several factors important for muscle growth. One is training very hard for innervation during your repetitions’innervation being an increased supply of nerve impulses to and in the targeted muscle group so you have a heightened awareness of the sensations of muscular exertion, such as muscle ache and fatigue or the burn of lactic acid buildup. Another is increased blood flow to the working muscle group so you get massive pumps during your sets. You also have to train progressively, handling heavier and heavier weights over time (which you can verify because of the accurate training diary you keep). Finally, it’s essential to use proper exercise form so the mechanical overload is placed squarely on the target muscle group.
If you trained that way, you’d think your chest development would more or less take care of itself, no matter which exercises you used in your chest training.
It should, but more often it doesn’t. One of the first truths to hit home to all bodybuilders when they take up this crazy pastime called bodybuilding is that some muscle groups grow faster and easier than others, while some, annoyingly, hardly seem to grow at all’despite our best efforts. That’s when we realize that there’s more to developing a muscular, symmetrical physique than just copying an exercise routine out of a magazine and following it to a tee.
Simply moving weights up and down and counting sets and reps is no guarantee that a muscle will grow. Some muscle groups need special techniques and know-how to be stimulated into growth, and if you don’t know about those special techniques, you just get confused and frustrated, and the weak bodypart gets more and more out of proportion to the rest of your physique. Far too many bodybuilders find themselves in that scenario, especially when it comes to the chest’and, more specifically, the upper chest.
Slow- and fast-growing muscle groups are an annoying fact of life and understandably frustrating. One wonders why this problem exists in the first place. After all, your muscles all belong to the same body and are governed by identical physical, physiological and mental processes. All are fed by the same food and supplements, and they get equal rest and recovery, so why the wide disparity in muscle growth? Why should your shoulders grow easily and your pectorals slowly, or vice versa?
Blame it mostly on your parents. Chest development can be influenced by heredity, such as having too few cells in the pectoral muscles. It’s also affected by your somatic body type: endomorphic (those naturally heavy, chubby people who carry a great amount of fat), mesomorphic (genetically gifted bodybuilders who have natural muscle size and strength) or ectomophic (naturally slim people who have long, thin limbs and a small ribcage). Other factors include poor neuromuscular pathways that make it difficult to innervate a muscle as you train it, poor blood circulation to a muscle group or a part of a muscle group, which makes it very difficult to pump a muscle fully and take advantage of the blood principle (the better a muscle pumps, the faster it grows), poor nerve force (the inability to make a muscle contract hard), a slow or fast metabolism, different skeletal frames and muscle attachments, the length of muscle bellies and your proclivity for training. Those are the primary reasons why bodybuilders fail to develop a great chest, particularly the upper chest.
Genetics may not be the only explanation for slow muscle growth, but, realistically, it’s a factor. There’s no denying that some people are more genetically gifted for developing muscle mass and symmetry than others. That said, it’s also true that all bodybuilders’even Olympia champions’have one or two muscle groups that don’t grow as fast as the rest of their physique. Few bodybuilders can build a Mr. Olympia’quality chest, but hard work and persistence can overcome many problems. It takes time to learn which exercises and training principles give you the best results, but everyone, no matter how poor the genetic potential, can improve his or her physique in general and the chest in particular. If you peruse a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, you can see that the primary muscles of the chest are the pectoralis major, the pectoralis minor and the subclavius. Most bodybuilders incorrectly call the pectoralis major the lower pectoral and the pectoralis minor the upper pec. Actually, the pectoralis major covers the entire chest, from the lower ribcage to the collarbones and from the sternum, or chest bone, to the armpit.
The pectoralis minor actually lies beneath the pec major. It’s a thin, flat, triangular muscle that arises from the third, fourth and fifth ribs. Its fibers pass upward and outward beneath the pec major and meet to form a flat tendon that inserts under the coracoid, the bones that form the tip of the shoulder.
The subclavius is small and also triangular. It’s located between the collarbone and the first rib at the top of the chest, and its fibers slant upward and outward to where they insert into a deep groove under the surface of the collarbone.
For complete development of the chest you must fully develop all sections of the pectoralis major (especially the upper section), the pectoralis minor and the subclavius, as well as the serratus muscles, which are those long fingerlike muscles under the armpits that frame the chest, and the ribcage should be deep and full.
Most bodybuilders still think of the upper and lower pectorals as two distinct muscle groups. That’s because they seem to respond and grow differently as two distinct muscle groups. I refer to upper pecs and lower pecs all the time and will do so here. As long as you understand that when you refer to the upper pecs, you’re actually speaking about the top section of the pecs major, and the lower pecs as the lower section of the pecs major, there’s no harm done. It’s just a matter of semantics.
The upper section of the pectoralis major is a unique muscle that definitely refutes the idea that when you perform any exercise for the chest, the entire chest is stimulated because all the nerves of the chest share a common source. People who believe in noncontiguous innervation, as it’s called, say it takes only one exercise to stimulate a muscle completely, so there’s no need to do, for example, incline presses for upper pecs; cable crossovers for inner pecs; wide-grip dips, wide-grip bench presses and three-quarter dumbbell flyes for outer pecs; and decline presses for lower pecs. Do any chest exercise you wish, the proponents of noncontiguous innervation say, and the entire chest gets worked. I say that’s a bunch of bull.
It would be a great thing if it were true, but it’s not. The evidence is the great number of bodybuilders who are walking around with big lower and middle pecs and a big hollow at the top of their chests. Years ago I was discussing with MuscleMag International publisher Robert Kennedy the reasons why the upper pecs don’t grow as well as the middle and lower sections. Bob’s take on the problem was that ‘there is no exercise for developing the upper pecs that is as effective as flat-bench presses are for developing the lower and middle sections of the pectoralis major.’ For some people bench presses work too well. Their lower pecs grow too large, while their upper pecs remain flat and puny, causing an imbalance in their chest development.
Bob definitely made a valid point. Incline presses’performed with a barbell or dumbbells or in a Smith machine’incline dumbbell flyes and bench presses to the neck are all fine upper-chest exercises, but they don’t build as much muscle mass as flat-bench presses. To get the most out of upper-chest exercises, you must use good exercise form. If you try to handle weights that are too heavy and start to cheat, it’s very easy to transfer the stress from the upper pecs to the already stronger and better developed lower pecs. That’s the reason I maintain that nearly 99 percent of the time it’s not the exercise that people don’t respond to as much as the way in which they perform the exercise that prevents them from reaping maximum benefit.
Fitness and bodybuilding guru John Parrillo believes that the reason most bodybuilders don’t have good upper pecs is that they have never learned to do their chest exercises properly. For example, when doing flat-bench or incline presses, you should press your shoulders back and into the bench as you press the bar up, with your sternum pushed up. You must get under the weight and support it with your chest at the top of the movement. That places the mechanical advantage squarely on the pecs from top to bottom. Also, the barbell should travel back as you push it up, so at the top of the movement it’s over your eyes, not your chest.
For more upper-pec stimulation John recommends incline presses and bench presses to the neck performed with your chin on your chest, your elbows wide and your deltoids down and back.
When you do bench presses in the usual way, only the muscle fibers of the lower chest are stimulated. You can have relatively poor form when you do bench presses’cheat and bounce the bar off your chest’and yet your lower pecs still get good stimulation, while your upper pecs get zip. The lower pecs just seem to pump up so much more easily than the upper pecs. The upper pecs are difficult to pump, and it’s difficult to sustain a pump long enough to take advantage of the blood principle. You start to get a pump in your upper pecs, and then you quickly start to lose it. Normally, when you lose the pump from a muscle, it’s a sign that you’ve used up the glycogen in the muscle and are overtraining it. That’s not the case with the upper pecs, however. Years ago Larry Scott figured out that bodybuilders were resting too long between sets and were fooled into thinking that their upper pecs had been trained enough because the pump was lessening. So it wasn’t that they were being overtrained; on the contrary, they were being undertrained and needed repeated pounding to be worked properly. Another thing that Larry figured out was that it’s easier to pump up the upper pecs if you first engorge the lower and middle pecs with as much blood as possible. He wrote about this in a 1976 issue of Muscle Builder & Power, the forerunner to Muscle & Fitness. He recommended supersetting bench presses to the neck (3×12, 10, 8) with wide-grip dips or Gironda dips (3×15). Then quickly, before the blood drained, you trained your upper pecs with tri-sets. In Larry’s wise words, ‘You borrow blood from the lower and middle pectorals and force some of that blood into the upper-pec area.’ Larry also said that in order to keep the blood and the pump in the upper pecs, it’s necessary to train very fast, with little rest between sets. He used the following tri-sets:
Incline dumbbell presses 4 x 10 Incline barbell presses 4 x 10 Incline dumbbell flyes 4 x 10
This is a very strenuous routine for anyone who’s not an advanced trainee. I found that because I was doing two pressing movements in succession, my triceps burned out, and I had to greatly reduce my poundages for my third and fourth tri-sets. I modified Larry’s routine and did the following supersets:
Bench presses to the neck 3 x 12, 10, 8 Wide-grip dips 3 x max
Then I immediately did the following tri-set: Pec deck flyes 4 x 10 Smith-machine incline presses 4 x 10, 8, 6-8, 6-8 Incline dumbbell flyes 4 x 8-10
I finished the workout with three sets of cross-bench dumbbell pullovers for 12 to 15 repetitions per set. With the tri-set in my version you still work your upper pecs very hard, but the arms don’t burn out as much because you’re doing three distinct motions: pec deck flyes, which allow you to preexhaust your pecs without too much arm involvement; Smith-machine incline presses, which definitely involve the triceps; and incline dumbbell flyes, which isolate the upper pecs without involving the triceps (a little biceps involvement, if anything). Whether you follow Larry’s routine or mine, you have to motor between exercises and rest no more than 60 seconds per tri-set in order to retain your upper-pec pump. You’ll discover that once you’ve established the blood flow to the upper pecs, you’ll be able to get a better upper-pec pump when you go back to regular straight sets of incline presses, bench presses to the neck and incline dumbbell flyes.
Here are some pointers on some of the best upper-chest exercises.
Bench presses to the neck. You can do this great exercise with a barbell or in a Smith machine. The Smith-machine variation is a little more concentrated, and safer too, because you don’t have to worry about balancing the bar. First, take a medium-wide grip on the bar’a couple of inches wider than your shoulders. Lie flat on the bench with your legs up in the air, bent at the knees and crossed. That keeps your back flat against the bench and prevents arching. Set your chest girdle by rolling your shoulders down and under your body and pressing them down toward your glutes. Thrust your sternum up. Next, pinch your chin to your chest. Lower the bar to the pinch point. Finally, while keeping everything tight, push the bar up to contraction.
Just remember that you’re trying to innervate and pump up the upper pecs and the subclavius. If you don’t feel your upper pecs aching with fatigue and burning with pump, then something is amiss, and your form is probably off. Let innervation and feel be your guide.
Larry Scott’style Smith-machine bench presses to the neck. Larry Scott has come up with some very ingenious methods for putting extra stress on those hard-to-hit upper pecs and the subclavius. I should warn you, however, that this one also puts a tremendous stretch on the deltoids too. If you have a shoulder injury or shoulders that are tight because of a lack of flexibility, you should warm up well and stretch before attempting any heavy sets. It might be wise to do the first sets with lighter-than-normal weights to prevent possible injury. Some people will have to forgo this exercise altogether because of the stress it places on the shoulders, but if you can do it Larry’s way, you can give your upper pecs and subclavius a super workout. The key to Larry’s method is the way he holds the bar on the Smith machine. Instead of gripping the bar the regular way, with his hands around the bar so the knuckles face backward and the palms face forward, Larry twists his hands out about a quarter turn. When you grip the bar with your hands that way, your elbows automatically flare out to the sides in line with your shoulders. That greatly increases the stretch in your upper chest in a big way. By the way, don’t try that grip on a free bar, as your grip isn’t as secure. Only use it on a Smith machine or other bench-press machine.
So you’ve set your pectoral girdle and gripped the bar so it’s running diagonally across your palms. Now you’re ready to begin a set. Lower the bar slowly and with control to the top of your chest area (obviously no time for bouncing the bar). The next key point is to try to keep your elbows high and wide on the pressing motion. Even at the very bottom position’as the bar just kisses your neck’you need to focus on keeping your elbows high and wide. Think ‘elbows high’ all the time.
Here’s another point Larry stresses. If the weight is heavy enough, the bar will tend to stall about two-thirds of the way up. He calls that the ‘pain zone’where the upper pecs are bracing and supporting the majority of the weight. You have to focus all your energies to push through the pain zone to lockout. Larry says that if you just keep pushing very hard, the weight will slowly but surely move up.
Believe me, if you do this exercise right, you can get a fantastic pump in your upper pecs’but only if you restrict rests between sets to a minute or less. The upper pecs and the subclavius are very small muscles and difficult to pump at the best of times. For those muscle groups, Larry says, you have to ‘race the pump.’ Restricting rest time between sets is vital if the upper pecs and subclavius are to fill up with blood and fatigue products.
30 degree incline flyes (Larry Scott flyes). Most bodybuilders know how to do flat-bench, incline and decline flyes pretty well, although sometimes you see guys trying to handle too much weight, so their flying motion looks more like a pressing motion. To do flyes correctly, you have to, as Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘do them as if you are hugging a tree.’ I might add that you should set your pectoral girdle for flyes just as you would for bench presses or incline presses. Pulling your elbows wide and back in line with your shoulders or below your ears gives your pecs a good extra stretch, while bringing your dumbbells back over the chest so they touch helps to work some of the outer and inner pecs. Some people think you should twist your hands outward as you lower the ‘bells, such as Larry Scott (who else?). He has a special way of doing dumbbell flyes and incline dumbbell flyes. I’ve never seen anyone do incline flyes the way Larry does them, but, man, those babies really isolate and work the upper pecs and subclavius hard! To do the Scott flyes, you have to lower the dumbbells with your forearms and palms facing forward, as they would be if you were doing pec deck flyes.
Just to make sure I’m making myself clear on the Scott flye description, you start with the dumbbells over your chest in the standard flye position, with the plates of the dumbbells touching. Your arms are straight, with your palms facing each other. Then, as you begin to lower the dumbbells back, your elbows bend and your palms turn outward, and your hands finish pulled back in line with your shoulders, just outside your ears. As you lower the dumbbells, thrust your chest upward and forward, trying to brace the weight with your pecs. Your hands and elbows are in the position they’d be in if you were doing pec deck flyes or seated dumbbell presses, with your elbows bent, very wide and as far from your head as possible. Key points to remember are that in the bottom position the undersides of your forearms and your palms face forward’toward your feet’not toward your chest. At that point you should feel the pecs bracing and supporting the weight almost entirely. The deltoids should not be involved too much during the movement, with the exception of some stretch in the shoulders as you pull the dumbbells back into position. You then return the dumbbells to the starting position and emphasize squeezing and contracting the pectorals hard for a count of two.
If you wish, you can try to touch your elbows together at the top, which gives greater contraction to the inner pecs. You can’t actually touch your elbows in the finish position, but when you turn your hands in, the elbows follow, and that gives greater stimulation to the inner pecs. You’ll find that if you do turn your hands, the palms and the undersides of your forearms face backward, toward your face. So you go from your palms and the undersides of your forearms facing forward in the bottom position to your palms and the undersides of your forearms facing backward in the finish position.
If you feel you need to develop more outer pec, don’t bring the dumbbells all the way up. Stop the weights 12 to 15 inches from the top position. That’s how Arnold often did his dumbbell flyes.
Cross-bench dumbbell pullovers. This is not purely a pec movement, but it strongly works the serratus. It also strongly works the lats, the upper pecs and even some triceps.
There is a trick to putting more of the stress on the pecs and lats that Arnold used quite a bit. When he did cross-bench dumbbell pullovers, he lowered the dumbbell behind his head as far as possible. Then, before beginning the concentric portion of the repetition, he dropped his hip almost to the floor, which gave him several more inches of range of motion, significantly increasing the amount of stress on his muscles.
Although most people think of the cross-bench dumbbell pullover as a high-rep finishing exercise, with reps in the 15-to-20 range’most pros use heavy weights on them, handling a heavy dumbbell of 90 to 150 pounds for sets of eight to 10. Done that way, the cross-bench dumbbell pullover becomes a good mass exercise.
Cable crossovers. Finally, you can do cable crossovers for the upper pecs. Try to remember that the key point of doing crossovers is the contraction. Let your arms travel up and backward from the pull of the cable. Arch your chest and try to make your pecs contract at the bottom position, with your hands crossed over. For lower-inner chest work make your hands cross at the crotch. For upper-inner chest stimulation use the lower pulleys for crossups. Step forward so you have to reach back for the cable handles and can feel a stretch in your pecs, then bring the cables up and cross the cables over your face. Hold for a count of two and return to the starting position. Try to keep tension on your pecs at all times. Use a sensible weight, one that lets you get 12 to 20 reps. This is no time for using too much weight and cheating. Go for innervation, a hard contraction on each repetition and a pump.
If you follow the tips and exercises described here, you’ll experience much more intense chest workouts for better growth. Change your routines frequently while training progressively, and you should make some spectacular chest gains. IM