Best Upper Chest Exercises for Strong & Powerful Pecs

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: December 28, 2023
FACT CHECKED by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
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Many bodybuilders and professional athletes I work with get to a stage where keeping everything in proportion can become a very difficult task.

They need the right approach to planning the workout for different muscle groups to see the best possible results, especially for shaping the upper chest.

To provide the most effective chest training advice, I collaborated with five fellow fitness and strength coaches, pooling our collective expertise to identify the top upper chest exercises that we unanimously endorse.

Quick Summary

  • To build strong and powerful upper pecs, incorporate exercises like close-grip bench press, incline dumbbell press, and cable crossovers into your routine.
  • Adjusting hand and body position during these exercises can significantly target the smaller, less defined upper chest muscles.
  • A study from the Journal of Physiology suggests that fewer reps with heavier weights, combined with slower movements, maximize muscle hypertrophy and time under tension.
  • In my professional experience, isolating the upper chest muscles is essential for achieving a well-rounded and toned physique, especially for bodybuilders and athletes.

What Exercises Target The Upper Chest?

A person doing chest press workouts at the gym

Bench press and cable machine exercises are among the best ones to target the upper chest muscles.

But it’s important to understand that your posture, body position, and the position of your hands can significantly influence the outcome.

There are multiple pectoral muscles, and the upper ones are smaller and less defined [1].

That means that the bigger lower chest muscles will naturally do more work and become bigger.

What you need to do is make adjustments to your upper chest exercises so that they force the upper muscles to engage more.

I’ll get to some of the best options for doing this shortly, but an example would be an incline bench press.

By pushing a barbell or set of dumbbells slightly upwards, the movement forces the upper pecs and shoulders to take on more of the weight.

And there are many more options.

Best Workouts To Target Upper Chest Muscles

A person doing upper chest muscle workouts at the gym

To enhance your upper chest, focus on three or four sets of seven or eight reps with heavier weights, slowing down each movement to maximize hypertrophy and time under tension, as per a study from the Journal of Physiology [2].

“So if high reps promote hypertrophy and low reps facilitate strength increases, then in theory, the marriage of both rep schemes will bring forth muscular and strength development worthy of the Greek gods.”

- Mike Robertson, C.S.C.S.

Here are the best options to add to your upper chest workout routine:

Close-Grip Bench Press

Close-grip bench press, the first of our upper chest exercises, comes in two variations.

For the first one, you’ll get set up on a flat bench. But for a flat bench press to target the upper chest, you’ll need to get your hands set up in a close-grip position. That means they should be closer than shoulder-width apart. Now, slowly lower the barbell down to your chest and then push it back up with force.

This needs to be a smooth movement all the way down to achieve a maximum range of motion. The variation on this is the incline bench press exercise. You’ll use the same grip but set your bench up at about a 30-degree angle.

Incline Dumbbell Press

A person doing incline dumbbell press workouts

Another great way to work on your upper pecs is with a dumbbell press exercise. As a personal fitness coach, I know that a lot of people don’t feel 100% comfortable with a barbell.

And if you don’t have a spotter while working out at home, then an incline bench press with dumbbells is safer.

Set your bench up at a 30% angle, sit down, and hold a dumbbell in each hand, resting them on your thighs. Lean back and bring the dumbbells up above your head.

Keep your hands close together, palms facing away from you, and then lower the weight down to your chest and then push them back up.

Cable Crossover

For this upper chest workout, you’ll head to the cable pulley machine and set up a handle on each side at about chest height.

Spread your arms like wings and grab onto each handle with your elbows slightly bent.

Keep the bend in your elbows and bring your hands forward and slightly up above your head. Then slowly release the cables back to the starting point.

You should clearly feel this in your upper chest, with some added strain in your upper arm and shoulder muscles.

Related: Best Cable Crossover Machines (2024 Upd.) For Home Gyms

Dumbbell Around The World

A person doing dumbbell around the world workouts

Now, you’ll head back to a flat bench.

Pick a slightly lower weight than you used for the dumbbell bench press, and hold the dumbbells above your chest with straight arms and palms facing away from you.

Lower the dumbbells down above your head, then bring them around your body with straight arms until they touch your thighs.

Now, bring them back to the starting position. You can also do this in reverse as you go through your sets.

Read More: How To Do Around the World Exercises

Kneeling Squeeze Press

You can either use a landmine bar or a regular Olympic bar with weight plates attached to just one end.

The starting position is kneeling on the ground and holding the end of the bar with both hands in front of your chest.

Then slowly push the bar up above your head and lower it back down again.

You’ll find these upper chest exercises work very well for people with limited shoulder joint range of motion [2].

Low-to-High Cable Flys

A person doing cable flys at the gym

This is going to be similar to the crossover upper chest exercises above, but with a slight twist.

You’ll set up a preferred cable machine so that the handles are low, below hip height.

Grip the handles with both hands and then pull them out in front of you and upwards while keeping your arms straight.

This will fully engage your clavicular head, and it will also work wonders to increase your range of motion in the shoulder joints.

I’d also suggest holding the strain at the top of the movement for about a second before slowly releasing it back to the starting position.

Decline Push-Ups

A regular push-up will engage your upper arm, shoulder, back, and chest muscles. But most of the strain will go to the lower chest muscles.

The way you can adjust this exercise is by getting into a plank position with your feet raised on a flat or incline bench.

As you lower your body, more of the strain will shift towards your upper pecs.

Also Read: Decline Push-Up 101 Guide

Pike Push

A person doing pike push ups

This is a slightly tougher variation on the decline push-ups, and you’ll need to build up quite a bit of strength to do this upper chest exercise.

What you do is get into a downward dog yoga pose with your buttocks high up and your legs and arms straight.

Now bend your elbows and lower your body down until your head is about half an inch off the ground.

Then push back up again until you're in the starting position.

You’ll feel these upper chest exercises in your pecs and shoulders at the same time.

Overhead Press

Some people also like to refer to overhead press as the military press, and it’s completely different from the regular barbell bench press.

I recommend that you do this standing up for better balance. Lift a barbell up to your chest with palms facing away and rest the bar close to your upper chest and collar bones. 

Now slowly push the bar up over your head and look up to avoid making contact with your chin. Then lower the bar back down and repeat for your ideal number of reps.

You should instantly feel this in your upper pecs as well as your shoulders.

Front Raises

A person doing dumbbell front raise workouts at the gym

This exercise is great with dumbbells and resistance bands, and you’ll find that it adds a lot of strain to your upper chest muscles and shoulders.

Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, holding them in front of you with your palms facing your thighs.

While keeping your arms straight, slowly raise both weights up in front of you until you reach shoulder height.

Then lower them back down again to the starting point. It’s a great isolation option for your upper-body chest training days.

If you’re using bands, then I recommend making sure you have tension right from the start of the movement.

Dumbbell Pullover

For this exercise, you want to head back to your flat workout bench.

Set yourself up as if you’re going to do a dumbbell bench press with the weight straight above your chest and your palms pointing towards your feet.

Then lower the dumbbells down over your head while keeping your arms perfectly straight. Hold them at the low point for a second, and then pull them back up.

This will give you highly targeted tension in your upper body muscles, specifically your pecs.

Note: Remember, the effectiveness of incline angles in workouts varies; individuals with a steeper sternum angle often need higher inclines, whereas those with a flatter sternum can achieve better upper chest engagement with less incline.

Benefits Of Isolating These Chest Muscles

A person doing upper chest workouts at the gym

From my experience, focusing on the clavicular head, which is often overlooked, can significantly enhance the overall tone and shape of the chest.

The clavicular head is naturally smaller than the rest of your pecs, and by rounding it out more, you’ll create a much more toned physique [3].

While some compound exercises will target your upper arms and pecs, taking an isolation approach to your upper chest is often needed for the perfect toned shape.

“Isolating a specific muscle is sometimes necessary to get it to activate and increase its strength.”

- Tara Laferrara, CPT at Verywellfit.com

Regarding injury prevention, well-trained chest muscles may help reduce injury risks by better stabilising the shoulder joint and the interconnected upper limbs, as noted in the Sports Journal study [4].

Can You Do Upper Chest Workouts At Home?

A person doing upper body workouts at the gym

Absolutely, upper-chest workouts are feasible at home.

In my coaching, I've guided clients to effectively use home gym essentials like home gym resistance bands, alongside barbells and dumbbells. The key is to choose equipment that maximizes muscle tension, aiming for that intense burn around the sixth or seventh rep.

By combining these techniques with a tailored nutritional plan, you're set for impressive results.

You can also add some of the best supplements to boost your performance:

FAQs

What Is The Best Workout For Upper Chest Muscles?

The best workout for upper chest muscles is probably incline bench presses. It’s an exercise that allows you to pile on a good bit of weight so that you start struggling after about six reps and bring on the burn.

Is The Upper Chest Hard To Build?

No, the upper chest isn't necessarily hard to build. It does require some very specific exercises, but that kind of upper chest training is easy to integrate into your weekly plan.


References:

  1. https://teachmeanatomy.info/upper-limb/muscles/pectoral-region/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285070/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525991/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8877248/
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About The Author

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
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Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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