(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think many people will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: I’ve been working out and making decent progress everywhere except for my upper chest which seems to be lagging behind. This makes my overall chest muscle look uneven and unbalanced.
The lower half sticks out more than the top half because of how small and flat the upper part looks. How do I fix this? What type of workout and exercises should I do to build a bigger upper chest?
ANSWER: Ah yes, the upper and lower chest. They of course go along with the inner and outer chest to form what I like to call The 4 Sectors Of Very Annoying Questions. T4SOVAQ for short.
Why? Well, for starters, it’s just one of those topics that come up over and over again on weight training forums. Is there an upper and lower chest? Does the incline isolate one area and the decline isolate another? Will my chest muscles grow unevenly if I don’t hit it all from every possible angle? How do I target one area and make it bigger?
And then it usually turns into an argument about how the chest is one solid muscle and there’s no such thing as an upper or lower chest. Or how you can or can’t target one area in isolation of the other. Or how you must hit it from all angles for the best results.
At around the 10,000th time you see it, it begins to get annoying. So let’s see if we can solve it once and for all.
Here’s Why You DON’T Need To Build A Bigger Upper Chest
Before we get to the answer you’re probably looking for, we need to begin with the answer you actually need.
You see, in my experience, most of the people asking about building up their upper chest are asking the wrong question. In fact, they really shouldn’t be asking a question at all.
Why? 4 reasons come to mind…
1. Lack Of Overall Muscle
The majority of the people who think they need more upper chest muscle really just need more chest muscle, period. Or just as commonly, more muscle on their entire body, period. So Mr. 140lb skinny ectomorph guy who thinks his upper chest is lagging is mistaken.
In reality, his entire body is lagging… chest included.
2. Body Fat
Then you have the people mistaking chest fat that has accumulated around the lower portion of their chest (thus creating the “man boobs” appearance no guy wants) for a lagging upper chest. Nope, wrong again.
In this case, your chest fat is just making it appear as though your lower chest is big and your upper chest is small by comparison. Building a bigger upper chest isn’t the real solution here… losing body fat is.
Similar to the above scenario, you have guys with gynecomastia, which is the other common cause of “man boobs” that mostly occurs naturally for guys during puberty (where all kinds of wacky hormone stuff is going on), old age (when more wacky hormone stuff is going on) and also as a side effect of steroid use (where again, wacky stuff is happening with hormone levels).
Now while it was just body fat on the lower chest in the previous case, with gynecomastia it’s actual breast tissue that only surgery can remove (not diet or training). But again, the issue here isn’t a lack of upper chest muscle, it’s an abundance of fat and/or breast tissue on your lower chest that is giving you that appearance.
And finally, we have good old reality. What do I mean by reality, you ask?
Well, aside from the huge role genetics play in the shape of your chest (a big reason why one person’s chest can look very different than another’s), actually seeing a person who has JUST a big upper or lower chest doesn’t actually happen.
Even seeing someone with a noticeably underdeveloped upper or lower chest is surprisingly rare. I mean, once you eliminate people who fall into one of the previous 3 categories (plus genetics/chest shape), the number of legitimate cases of people with one part of their chest clearly lagging behind the other is much lower than you think. A lot lower.
And when/if you do see it, it’s often only with bodybuilders who are fairly advanced. They’re super lean and have already built the majority of the muscle they are capable of building… which means this type of symmetrical difference (which of course is something they step on stage to be judged on) can actually be seen.
And in all honesty, you have to be pretty close to fitting that description before any of this upper or lower chest stuff truly begins to matter or make much (if any) visual difference.
Which is just my nice way of saying that worrying about different “parts” of your chest is usually a big waste of time for most people, at least until you’ve built enough overall muscle for it to actually matter. And even then, it’s still not going to matter THAT much.
That’s not to say you should ignore it entirely. For the best overall results, I actually think a small amount of focus should be there. Just not lots of focus, especially the kind that takes the place of focusing on the stuff that matters most.
Which, by the way, is typically what all of this upper/lower chest stuff ends up doing… distracting people from more important stuff. So instead of just focusing on progression and eating to support it, you’re busy worrying if you need more or less sets of incline presses than decline presses.
Now back to the question at hand…
Is There An Upper Chest Or Lower Chest?
To answer this, let’s dive into all aspects of the anatomy of the human chest and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Well look at that… I’ve already bored myself to sleep.
So let’s instead just focus on the basic stuff that anyone reading this will actually give a crap about.
For starters, we have what many people confuse as being the upper and lower chest: the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor (aka “the pecs”). They are in fact NOT fancy words for upper and lower.
Instead, the pectoralis major is the big fan shaped muscle that makes up the majority of your chest musculature. When we talk about the upper and lower chest, we’re actually talking about the upper and lower part of the pectoralis major. The pectoralis minor on the other hand is just a small muscle that lies underneath the pectoralis major.
The words we’re really looking for here are the clavicular and sternal head. The clavicular head is the portion near the top of your chest right below the clavical, while the sternal head comprises the middle and bottom portion.
So while it’s technically all just “the chest” or “the pecs,” there are indeed different “parts” to it. You know, kinda like how the triceps brachii muscle has 3 different “parts” to it as well (the long, lateral and medial head).
And this of course brings us to the next big question…
Can You Isolate The Upper or Lower Chest?
No, you can’t.
Regardless of any of the dumb stuff you’ve seen or heard before, it is impossible to isolate different parts of your chest. That’s a myth.
Instead, EVERY chest exercise will hit EVERY part of it. So yes, that means incline exercises still hit your lower chest, and decline exercises still hit your upper chest. Even if you only did one type of pressing exercise for the rest of you’re life, you’re still going to build your entire chest.
Can You Put More Emphasis On One Area Than Another?
Yes, you can. At least a little.
Let me clarify the difference. What you can’t do is just train your upper chest or lower chest in isolation of the other. But, what you can do to some extent is put a little more targeted training stress on one area than the other. Not isolate… just put a bit more emphasis on it.
And it’s all exactly what you’ve probably already known.
Various decline pressing/fly exercises and dips DO target the “lower chest” a bit more than incline movements do, while various incline pressing/fly exercises DO target the “upper chest” a bit more than decline movements do. Flat exercises fall somewhere in the middle and hit a good bit of everything.
Nothing too surprising there.
But again, it’s not that one exercise targets one part of the chest and NOTHING else. Every exercise still “hits” every part of the chest. There are just certain exercises and certain angles that place slightly more emphasis on one portion than the other.
Do You Need A Flat, Incline, Decline and Fly/Crossover Exercise To Build A Complete Chest?
I can say with 100% certainty that you absolutely DON’T.
So if your “chest day” involves a flat barbell and dumbbell press, an incline barbell and dumbbell press, a decline barbell and dumbbell press, dumbbell flyes and cable crossovers to hit the upper, lower, inner, outer, major, minor, bigger, smaller, taller, shorter and whatever other part of your chest you think needs to be hit (don’t forget the upper nipple!!)… then you’re training like an idiot.
And in that case, you should probably read this: Bodybuilding Workouts SUCK For Building Muscle
The truth is, there are plenty of people who have built an awesome looking chest by doing nothing but flat pressing variations. Their upper and lower chest grew just fine.
There are plenty of people with an awesome looking chest who, because of shoulder injuries, have avoided most typical exercises (flat bench press, incline bench press) in favor of more shoulder friendly exercises like decline presses and floor presses. Again, no portion of their chest ended up lagging. It all grew just fine.
There are plenty of people who have built an awesome looking chest despite doing all of their chest exercises at a slight incline because they just “feel” it better that way. They aren’t all walking around with an amazing upper chest and a big empty space underneath it.
Hell, there are plenty of people with an awesome chest who built it by doing nothing but different types of push-ups. Or just dips.
In the grand scheme of things, none of it really matters all that much. Everything gets hit, everything grows, the upper and lower chest still get built anyway.
Do I think any of these scenarios are optimal for chest growth? I lean towards probably not for a variety of reasons. But, I do think they can all get the job done just fine, and any differences won’t be THAT significant with all else being equal.
So Then, What Is Optimal For Overall Chest Development?
Well, in my opinion it’s some combination of either:
- A) a flat and incline exercise (always a 15-30 degree incline… anything higher becomes mostly shoulders).
- B) a decline and incline exercise (extra good for those who have shoulder issues when flat pressing).
- C) some kind of flat and incline pressing exercise plus an isolation movement (which is the combination I’ve personally seen the best results from).
Specifically for me with “C,” the flat barbell bench press, incline dumbbell press and/or the Hammer Strength incline press machine, and dumbbell flyes. My chest is my best body part in terms of size, and that’s the combination of exercises I’ve used more than any other.
I should mention that I don’t do all of this in a single workout. I also don’t have a “chest day” (and there’s a 99.9% chance you shouldn’t have one either).
It also doesn’t mean you even need all of this in your program at one time. Depending on your set up, you can either get this in over the course of the week (for example, combined from 2 upper body workouts like The Muscle Building Workout Routine does it, or like many of the programs in The Best Workout Routines do it).
Or, you can get these exercises in over the course of weeks/months by adjusting your exercise selection after each training cycle.
The Most Important Part
Of course, all of this chest training stuff is meaningless in the absence of the small handful of things that matter most.
- Actually train your chest. If you do a chest press of some kind and feel it mostly in your shoulders and/or triceps but hardly at all in your chest, you’re probably going to have awesome triceps and shoulders and a not-so-awesome chest. Either improve your ability to actually activate your chest (by either fixing your technique or fixing your “mind/muscle connection”) or adjust your exercise selection so you’re doing exercises that don’t have (or at least minimizes) this problem for you. For me, it’s that combination I mentioned a minute ago. For you, it could be something different altogether.
- Do it safely. Chest exercises and shoulder injuries go hand in hand. So if there happens to be one (or more) that cause any pain, problems, discomfort or just feels as though it may not be perfectly suited for your body in some way, avoid it in favor of exercises that feel safe and right for you. For me, it’s that combination I mentioned a minute ago. For you, it could be something different altogether. And let me tell ya… nothing prevents you from building an awesome chest quite like a shoulder injury that prevents you from actually training your chest.
- Create progressive overload. All of the best “upper” and “lower” and “inner” and “outer” chest exercises in the world won’t amount to (Chris Farley voice) JACK SQUAT if you’re not getting progressively stronger over time. It’s the single most important aspect of muscle growth for any body part, or any part of any body part.
- Eating to support growth. Sure, this has nothing to do with exercises and workouts, but if you’re not eating to support growth, those exercises and workouts won’t matter.
And honestly, if there is anything you’re going to take away from this article, let it be the 4 items on the list above. The rest barely matters.
Summing It Up
So to sum it all up, there IS an upper and lower portion of your chest. You can’t isolate them. Every exercise will always hit every part to some extent. But, certain exercises can indeed put slightly more training emphasis on one part than another.
With all of that in mind, the true keys to building an awesome chest are choosing exercises that best allow you to actually train that target muscle group (as opposed to just your shoulders/triceps), and train it in a way that is both safe (by choosing exercises that feel right for your body) and progressive (by getting stronger over time). And eat to support it, too.
Do that, and you’ll build the most wonderful upper, lower, inner, outer, eastern, western, etc. chest you are capable of building.