The 10 Best Upper Chest Exercises for Powerful Pecs

Do you want to build a big and powerful chest?

Then you need to develop both your upper, middle, and lower chest muscle fibers.

Your upper chest muscles are among the most visually striking muscles in your upper body. They are the muscles that lift your shirt and form a raised, proud chest.

In this article, I’ll list ten of the best upper chest exercises and how you can put them together into an upper chest workout.

How to Work Your Upper Chest Muscles

Your chest muscles are one of the major muscle groups of your upper body.

They are almost entirely made up of one large muscle on each side: your pectoralis major, or pecs. Hidden underneath your pectoralis major is its much smaller sibling, your pec minor.

Chest muscle

The pectoralis major is a large, fan-shaped muscle with a wide origin. It is generally divided into two parts:

  1. The sternocostal part is the larger, lower portion, which originates mainly from your sternum (and to a degree, from your upper abdominal sheath and ribs). This is your middle and lower chest.
  2. The clavicular part is the smaller, upper portion, which originates from the first half of your clavicle. This is what we usually mean by upper chest.

Muscle fibers from this whole range come together into one single tendon that inserts on the front of your upper arms.

Depending on the angle at which you bring your arm forward, different muscle fibers of the pectoral muscles will work more or less.

  • Incline pressing will target your upper chest muscle fibers (the clavicular head).
  • Decline pressing will target your lower chest muscle fibers (the sternal head).
  • Flat pressing, like bench pressing, will target your whole chest muscle pretty evenly (the sternal and the clavicular part).
Upper and lower pec muscle activation in bench press
Upper, middle, and lower pec muscle activation at different bench pressing angles.1

When it comes to working your upper chest, you want to use exercises that either have you moving your arm straight forward as these will work your entire chest muscles pretty evenly, or exercises in which you move your arm forward in a slight upward angle as these will emphasize your upper chest fibers.

The 10 Best Upper Chest Exercises

Let’s have a look at ten great exercises for targeting your upper chest, and how you can put together an upper chest workout.

1. Incline Bench Press

The incline bench press is one of the best exercises for your upper chest. Because of the incline, your upper pec muscle fibers are directly in the line of work, emphasizing this part of the muscle compared to the flat bench press.

How to Do the Incline Bench Press

  1. Sit on an inclined bench, unrack a barbell and hold it on straight arms above your shoulders.
  2. Inhale and lower the bar down to your chest.
  3. Press the bar up to straight arms while exhaling.

There’s no need to go overboard with the inclination in the incline press. Around 30° is enough to target your upper chest.2

Incline bench press vs flat bench press line of force

Benefits of the Incline Bench Press

  • Offers a long range of motion for your pecs, making this a great exercise for building muscle.
  • The barbell makes the exercise stable. For even more stability, you might even try the incline smith machine bench press. When an exercise is stable, it allows you to use heavier weights, focus more on the muscles worked, and train closer to failure without risking technique breakdowns to the same extent.
  • A lot of people find that the incline barbell bench press feels more comfortable for their shoulders than the flat bench press. Still, an even greater number of people seem to prefer the next exercise on this list.

2. Incline Dumbbell Press

The incline dumbbell press is similar to the incline barbell press, with the sole difference that you use a pair of dumbells instead of a barbell. This allows a more free range of motion, as your hands are no longer restricted by the barbell.

How to Do the Incline Dumbbell Press

  1. Sit on a bench, and lift a pair of dumbbells up to the starting position.
  2. Press the dumbbells up to straight arms, while exhaling.
  3. Inhale at the top, or while lowering the dumbbells with control back to your shoulders.

Benefits of the Incline Dumbbell Press

  • The dumbbells allow for an unrestricted range of motion. This means that you can move your arms in a way that feels comfortable for you.
  • Using dumbbells ensures that you are working both sides equally hard.
  • The dumbbells are more unstable than the barbell. While this will challenge and develop your ability to stabilize your shoulders, it will also limit how much you can exhaust your muscles before losing balance or technique.

3. Bench Press

While the incline presses emphasize your upper chest, you shouldn’t write off the regular flat bench press. The flat bench press works your entire chest muscles to a high degree and can provide robust growth in both your lower, middle, and upper chest, albeit perhaps not to the degree of incline presses.3

How to Do the Bench Press

  1. Lie on the bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, and slightly arch your back.
  2. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Inhale, hold your breath, and unrack the bar.
  4. Lower the bar with control, until it touches your chest somewhere close to your sternum.
  5. Push the bar up to the starting position while exhaling.
  6. Take another breath while in the top position, and repeat for reps.

Benefits of the Bench Press

  • Works your entire chest muscles to a high degree: the lower, middle, and upper chest. If you’re only going to do one exercise for your chest, the traditional bench press is not a bad choice.
  • Stable enough to work your chest, front delts, and triceps hard. Just make sure to set up safety racks if you fail to complete the last rep.
  • You can’t go wrong with the classics. The barbell bench press has been around for decades, delivering bigger chests in gyms all over the world.

4. Close-Grip Bench Press

Depending on where you position your elbows, the close-grip bench press is another flat pressing exercise that works your upper chest. If you let your elbows come down close to your sides, your upper pecs and front delts will be the main muscles driving your upper arm forward.

How to Do the Close-Grip Bench Press

  1. Lie on the bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, and slightly arch your back.
  2. Grip the bar narrower than in a regular bench press so that your hands are directly above your shoulders or even closer.
  3. Take a breath and hold it, and unrack the bar.
  4. Lower the bar with control until it touches your chest somewhere where the ribs end.
  5. Push the bar up to the starting position while exhaling.
  6. Take another breath in the top position, and repeat for reps.

Benefits of the Close-Grip Bench Press

  • A stable compound lift, that allows you to work a large portion of your upper body muscles in a safe manner (provided that you use safety racks).
  • Not only works your upper chest but is also a great triceps exercise.

Related: Bench Press Grip Width: Close-Grip vs Wide Grip Bench Press

5. Overhead Press

The overhead press is a compound shoulder exercise that not only works your front delts and middle delts, but also your upper chest. The degree of upper chest involvement will depend on how much you’re leaning back when pressing.

How to Do the Overhead Press

  1. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Inhale, lightly brace your core, and unrack the bar.
  3. Let the bar rest against your front delts while you take a step back from the rack.
  4. Press the bar up to straight arms, while exhaling.
  5. Inhale at the top, or while lowering the bar with control back to your shoulders.

Benefits of the Overhead Press

  • Works much of your shoulder muscles in addition to your upper chest, and through a long range of motion.
  • Incorporating overhead work like in the overhead press can improve and maintain your shoulder joint mobility and stability.
  • It’s another classic. The overhead press is one of the most fundamental upper body exercises you can do with a barbell.

6. Low to High Cable Chest Fly

Cable chest fly exercise for upper pecs
Low to High Cable Chest Fly

The cable chest fly is an isolation exercise for your pecs, and when you set the pulleys low and pull the handles in an upward motion, they target your upper chest with constant tension. This exercise is also known as the cable crossover.

How to Do the Low to High Cable Chest Fly

  1. Fasten a pair of handles in a low position of a cable cross. Grip the handles, step forward, and lean slightly forward.
  2. With just a slight bend in the arms, push the handles forward until they meet in front of your chest.
  3. With control, let the handles go back to the starting position.

Benefits of the Low to High Cable Chest Fly

  • Allows you to focus on your upper chest and nothing else, making this a great isolation exercise for them.
  • Because of the angle and type of resistance, you can keep your upper chest under constant tension in order to really build up a pump.
  • You can work your muscles to failure without worrying about balancing heavy weights such as a barbell or dumbbells over your head.

7. Dumbbell Chest Fly

The dumbbell chest fly is another isolation exercise for your chest and front delts, that, like the bench press, works all muscle fibers in your pecs. If you want to target your upper chest even more, you can add a slight incline to the bench.

How to Do the Dumbbell Chest Fly

  1. Lie on a bench, and lift a pair of dumbbells up to the starting position.
  2. With almost completely straight arms, lower the dumbbells out to your sides.
  3. When you’ve lowered the dumbbells as deep as possible, reverse the motion and return the dumbbells to the starting position.

Benefits of the Dumbbell Chest Fly

  • Uses simple equipment, only a flat bench and a pair of light dumbbells, making this an accessible exercise that you can do in most gyms.
  • Offers a deep, loaded stretch in the bottom of the movement, which has been proven important and effective for muscle growth.
  • Works your entire pec muscles, from low to high muscle fibers.

8. Machine Chest Fly

The machine chest fly is another chest fly variant that isolates your chest and front delts. Just like the lying dumbbell chest fly, the machine chest fly works all muscle fibers in your pecs, including the upper chest.

How to Do the Machine Chest Fly

  1. Adjust the back support and handles so that you can grip the handles at shoulder height and get a long range of motion.
  2. With just a slight bend in your arms, push the handles forward until they meet in front of your body.
  3. With control, let the handles go back to the starting position.

Benefits of the Machine Chest Fly

  • More stable than the dumbbell chest fly, which allows you to focus even more on the muscles worked.
  • Allows you to work closer to failure without having to worry about balancing the weights.
  • Another great general chest exercise.

9. Dumbbell Front Raise

The dumbbell front raise is an isolation exercise that targets the muscles that bring your arm forward from a hanging position; namely: your front delts and upper chest muscles.

The key to this exercise is to begin with really light weight and focus on form and muscle contact. If you want extra stability, you can opt for barbell front raises.

How to Do the Dumbbell Front Raise

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells in straight arms, in front of your hips.
  2. With control, lift the dumbbells forward with straight arms, until the dumbbells are at shoulder height.
  3. Reverse the movement and lower the dumbbells with control.

Benefits of the Dumbbell Front Raise

  • Works your upper pecs without incorporating the middle and lower pecs. Can thus be used to target your upper pecs exclusively while still allowing for rest for the lower chest regions.
  • Uses minimal and simple equipment. If you don’t have access to dumbbells, you can use a light barbell, a weight plate, or pretty much any moderately heavy implement.
  • Allows for focus on your front delts and upper chest.

10. Decline Push-Up

Decline pushup exercise for upper chest

The decline push-up is a variation of the regular push-up, in which you’ve placed your feet on an elevation. This makes the exercise heavier and shifts more of the work towards your upper chest.

How to Do Decline Push-Ups

  1. Assume the starting position by placing your feet on a low bench or box, and your hands on the floor. Keep your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Try to form a straight line from head to feet, and brace your abdomen slightly.
  3. Lower yourself as deep as you can, while inhaling.
  4. Reverse the motion and push yourself up to straight arms again while exhaling.

Benefits of Decline Push-Ups

  • You can do this exercise from anywhere, without any equipment other than something to place your feet on.
  • A great chest, front delt, and triceps exercise on its own.
  • Just like regular push-ups, the decline push-up offers ab training as a hidden bonus, because you are holding a plank throughout the exercise.

Upper Chest Workout

In our article on chest training, we’ve put together a workout that not only targets your upper chest, but also your middle and lower. Seeing as your upper chest muscles are only a small part of your whole chest, we generally recommend that you train your entire chest during your chest workouts.

This can be done either by utilizing exercises such as the bench press that works most of your chest at the same time or by using exercises that work your chest from different angles. In this workout, you’ll combine a little bit of both.

Here’s the workout. Why not give it a shot on your next chest day?

StrengthLog’s Chest Workout

  1. Bench Press: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets x 8 reps
  3. Dips: 3 sets x 12 reps (add weight if necessary)
  4. Standing Cable Chest Fly: 3 sets x 20 reps

The workout begins with the bench press, which lays a foundation by working pretty much your entire chest.

You then switch to incline dumbbell presses that emphasize your upper chest, followed by dips that emphasize your lower chest.

Finally, you work your entire chest again with some cable chest flyes. These can of course be done from a low to high position if you want to target your upper chest even further.

This workout is available for free in our workout log. By using a workout log, you can keep track of your reps and weights in each exercise to make sure that you are progressing.

Repeat this workout every 5–7 days and try to add weight or reps each time!

Frequently Asked Questions About Upper Chest Training

Let’s wrap up with some frequently asked questions on upper chest exercises and training.

How do you work your upper pecs?

You work your upper pecs by doing exercises that have you moving your arm straight forward or at a slight upward angle as these will emphasize your upper chest fibers. A good example is the incline bench press.

How do you isolate your upper chest?

You isolate your upper chest by performing exercises that place your upper chest muscles directly in the line of force, such as the incline bench press. While this will still work some other muscles such as your front delts, triceps, and middle chest, your upper chest will get the most work.

Incline bench press vs flat bench press line of force

Do push-ups build upper chest?

In regular push-ups, you are pushing at a slight incline, meaning that they primarily target your lower and middle chest. By placing your feet on an elevation (like a low bench or box) and performing decline push-ups, you can target your middle and upper chest instead.

Is upper chest important?

Your upper chest muscles are important for creating that visible “shelf” on top of your chest and under your shirt. It is also an important muscle in sports where you throw, punch, or push.

Upper Chest Exercises: Summary & Take-Away

Your upper chest muscles are among the most visible muscles in your upper body, and they are used to bring your upper arms forward and upward. You can work your upper chest with exercises that either work all parts of your chest (like the bench press) or target them with specific upper chest exercises such as the incline bench press.

One sure-fire way to grow your chest muscles and increase your upper body strength is to simply get stronger in the bench press.

If you want to improve your bench, check out our bench press programs.

References

  1. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Oct 8;17(19):7339. Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise.
  2. Comparative Study Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(3):309-16. Epub 2015 Mar 23.
    Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise.
  3. Int J Exerc Sci. 2020 Aug 1;13(6):859-872. Effects of Horizontal and Incline Bench Press on Neuromuscular Adaptations in Untrained Young Men.
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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and lifters at the international level. Daniel lives in Lund, Sweden with his wife and three kids. On StrengthLog, Daniel geeks out about all things related to his lifelong passion of muscle and strength.