The Ultimate Upper Chest Workout: 4 Exercises For Strength + Definition

Supercharge your chest day + Expert Training Tips

A strong chest requires plenty of chest workouts involving pressing, pushing, and fly exercises.

With that said, if you do not do workouts for the upper chest muscle fibers specifically, you might be missing out on some of the size, definition, and functional strength you can achieve by adding upper chest exercises to your strength training program.

But what are the best upper chest exercises for chest day? Is there an ideal upper chest workout for chest development? How should you structure an upper chest workout for strength and hypertrophy?

Read on! 

Incline bench press.

How to Program Upper Chest Workouts

The primary chest muscles are the pectoralis major and minor.

The bilateral pectoralis major is a fan-shaped muscle that has two points per side of your chest. The clavicular head attaches along the clavicle, while the sternal head attaches to the sternum, which is the breast bone.

With upper chest workouts, you want to primarily isolate the clavicular head of the pectoral muscles: the pectoralis major as well as the pectoralis minor muscle.

For upper chest workouts for strength gains, aim for 2-6 sets of 3-5 reps of each exercise. 

Use at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should strive for.

The recommendations for hypertrophy (muscle growth / bodybuilding) are to perform three sets of each exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.

The Ultimate Upper Chest Workout

Here are some of the best exercises for upper chest muscle definition to add to your upper chest workout routine to build muscle, just make sure to warm up first!

#1: Incline Bench Press

The incline barbell bench press is arguably one of the key exercises that should be included in all of the best upper chest workouts.

Although the flat bench press and incline bench press work the same general muscles, each variation will target different portions of the muscles or muscle fibers1 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 Research24(7), 1925–1930. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181ddfae7.

The incline bench press better activates muscle groups: upper portion of the pecs2 Lauver, J. D., Cayot, T. E., & Scheuermann, B. W. (2015). Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise. European Journal of Sport Science16(3), 309–316. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2015.1022605 (chest muscles), along with the delts (deltoids) and triceps, relative to the flat bench press.

Moreover, including the incline bench press in your upper chest workouts, you can help strengthen the clavicular head of the pec major muscle and your triceps and anterior deltoids. These improvements in strength can translate to even more powerful flat bench press performances.

Here are the steps for an incline bench press exercise with a barbell:

  1. Place a bench inside a power cage or squat rack and set it at a 45-degree angle. 
  2. Lie back on the bench and grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. 
  3. Lift the bar to unrack it and then raise it up as high as possible. Do not bend your wrists as you lift.
  4. Slowly lower the bar back down towards your chest, keeping your elbows tucked into your sides rather than flared out, and your forearms should be vertical.
  5. Once the bar reaches chest level, press it back up for the next rep.

#2: Incline Hex Press

The best upper chest workouts include exercises that target the clavicular head of the pecs while maximizing your time under tension to help stimulate muscle protein synthesis and, thus, muscle growth.

The hex press (incline dumbbell press) is an excellent mainstay exercise in the best upper chest workouts.

The incline bench position naturally helps to target the upper chest region, and the exercise requires you to isometrically contract your upper pecs the entire time as you forcefully squeeze the two dumbbells into one another throughout the set.

This not only helps increase muscular endurance but also helps recruit all of the muscle fibers in your upper chest.

As the slow twitch muscle fibers fatigue, according to Henneman’s size principle3 Gordon, T., Thomas, C. K., Munson, J. B., & Stein, R. B. (2004). The resilience of the size principle in the organization of motor unit properties in normal and reinnervated adult skeletal muscles. Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology82(8-9), 645–661. https://doi.org/10.1139/y04-081 of muscle fiber activation, type II muscle fibers start to contract to allow you to continue generating force to sustain the contraction.

As time goes on and you continue to hold the squeeze as you press the dumbbells into one another, more and more muscle fibers are recruited as others fatigue, such that you can really activate all or nearly all of the muscle fibers in the upper pecs4 UQ eSpace. (n.d.). Espace.library.uq.edu.au. Retrieved October 19, 2023, from https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:714265.

The Ultimate Upper Chest Workout: 4 Exercises For Strength + Definition 1

Here are the steps for this one of our exercises for upper chest:

  1. Set an incline bench to roughly 30 to 45° and lie back on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. 
  2. Hold a moderately-heavy hex dumbbell in each hand. Note that you will not be able to lift as much weight as with a standard bench press or even incline press because of the isometric squeeze.
  3. Bring the dumbbells up to chest level around your nipple line and forcefully press them into one another as if trying to fuse the ends of each dumbbell into one continuous barbell. Make sure to maintain this tight pressure or squeeze into one another throughout the duration of the exercise.
  4. Press up and back slightly as you straighten your elbows into full extension and bring the dumbbells overhead.
  5. Slowly lower the dumbbells, keeping your elbows tucked into your side until the dumbbells just kiss your chest.
  6. Pause, and then press back up, remembering to squeeze the pair of dumbbells together as hard as possible.

#3: Low Cable Flyes

A great one for the whole upper body, this is one of the most effective upper chest exercises and should be a staple move when you are trying to put together the best upper chest workout for strength and mass.

The lower angle of pull helps keep the shoulder in some degree of flexion, which helps target the pec minor in the upper chest.

Using the cable machine also allows you to have constant muscle activation, unlike when you perform a dumbbell chest fly. 

Here are the steps for this upper chest workout exercise:

  1. Set the handles on a dual cable station just below waist height.
  2. Grab a handle with each hand, with your thumbs pointing upward as you make a fist. 
  3. Stand in the center of the functional trainer or cable machine so that there is tension on both cables, lifting the weight stack. 
  4. Stagger your legs so that one foot is in front of the other, with a slight bend, and bring your arms slightly behind your body, palms facing forward, and elbows unlocked but nearly straight. This is your starting position. There should be tension on the cables throughout the duration of your set.
  5. Sweep your arms upwards and inwards as they come across the front of your body and meet in the middle straight out in front of your chest, rotating your arms so that your elbows are pointing outward at the end position.
  6. Pause and squeeze the end position for several seconds, focusing on contracting the upper portion of your pecs as you drive the upper arm into the sides of your torso.
  7. Slowly return to the starting position, resisting the pull of the cables to control the movement yourself to maximize the eccentric strengthening phase of the exercise.

#4: Dips

Dips are often considered to be primarily a triceps exercise, but they also target the muscles of the chest. 

In fact, the large range of motion when performing dips on parallel bars is a great way to increase upper chest hypertrophy and strength because you are maximizing your time under tension and lifting your entire body weight rather than a percentage as with a traditional push-up.

Moreover, dips are a fantastic exercise to help increase your lockout strength, which can translate to better overhead presses, bench presses, and Olympic lift performances, such as with the snatch.

You can add dips to your upper chest workouts and make it an even more effective exercise for angling chest muscle fibers specifically by angling your body5 Saeterbakken, A. H., Mo, D.-A., Scott, S., & Andersen, V. (2017). The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance. Journal of Human Kinetics57(1), 61–71. https://doi.org/10.1515/hukin-2017-0047 slightly back while you perform the exercise.

Here are the steps for performing this exercise in upper chest workouts:

  1. Grip the dip bars with a neutral grip, palms facing one another, and press yourself upwards until your elbows are fully locked out.
  2. Make sure to engage your upper back and keep your chest up and shoulders down throughout the duration of the exercise.
  3. Once you are up at the top position, slowly lower your body down until your elbows are bent 90°, remembering to keep that forward torso lean to target your lower chest. 
  4. Pause and hold the lowered position, if possible, before pressing through the heels of your hands to return up to the full lockout position. Think about squeezing your upper chest and triceps as you lift your body up and control the descent.

+ Other Notable Mentions

  • Decline Push-Ups
  • Dumbbell Bench Press
  • Dumbbell Fly
  • Dumbbell Chest Press
  • Resistance Bands Bench Press
  • Cable Crossovers
  • Low To High Cable Flyes

For more specific chest workouts, check out our complete inner chest workout guide here.

Dumbbell push up.

References

  • 1
    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 Research24(7), 1925–1930. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181ddfae7
  • 2
    Lauver, J. D., Cayot, T. E., & Scheuermann, B. W. (2015). Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise. European Journal of Sport Science16(3), 309–316. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2015.1022605
  • 3
    Gordon, T., Thomas, C. K., Munson, J. B., & Stein, R. B. (2004). The resilience of the size principle in the organization of motor unit properties in normal and reinnervated adult skeletal muscles. Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology82(8-9), 645–661. https://doi.org/10.1139/y04-081
  • 4
    UQ eSpace. (n.d.). Espace.library.uq.edu.au. Retrieved October 19, 2023, from https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:714265
  • 5
    Saeterbakken, A. H., Mo, D.-A., Scott, S., & Andersen, V. (2017). The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance. Journal of Human Kinetics57(1), 61–71. https://doi.org/10.1515/hukin-2017-0047
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.