The clavicularis, more commonly known as ‘upper chest’ or ‘upper pec’, is just a small piece of muscle. Nevertheless, its proper development is important for the face of the pectoralis major, aka the pectoralis major. You often see good development of the lower part of the pectoralis major and of the anterior delts (the front shoulder heads), but there is a lack of volume in the clavicularis. But what can you do in your chest training to accentuate your upper pecs?
First the anatomical picture. The pectoralis major muscle is one muscle. Whatever chest exercise you do, you always train the entire muscle. However, that muscle consists of three parts and the difference between those parts is the direction in which the muscle fibers lie. By making small adjustments in the execution, you can use the muscle fibers of a certain part during an exercise more than those of the other.
The clavicular part and the much larger sternal part of the pectoralis major start at your collarbone and sternum, respectively. Although the muscle parts have different origins, they are both attached to the humerus and (therefore) jointly responsible for various movements of the upper arm.
You often hear bodybuilders talk about ‘lower chest’. They probably don’t mean the sternal part, but the abdominal part of the pectoralis major. The abdominalis runs from your rectus sheath—the tissue that surrounds your abdominal muscles—up along the bottom of your chest, before returning to the upper arm. It is difficult to accentuate this part of your pecs during your training and usually not necessary. So don’t spend too much time on decline chest exercises.
ACCENTUATE THE TOP OF THE CHEST
Because the pectoralis major is one muscle, it is impossible to completely isolate part of it. It is possible to accentuate a part though.
To what extent you should train your upper chest accentuated, is mainly a matter of looking in the mirror. See the image above: the point is that the area between your collarbone and the middle of the chest is ‘filled’, so that the muscle also has a clear definition at the top. Many gym goers lack volume in this place, which makes the bust look a lot less impressive than it could be. With and without t-shirt.
Here are six tips for better development of your upper chest.
1. LAY A GOOD FOUNDATION
If you want to develop the top of your chest, the first thing you need to do is make sure you train your entire chest properly. With a well-thought-out program you can go a long way and specific upper pec training may not even be necessary.
The most important aspects of such a program in a nutshell.
Flat bench press is the basic exercise for your chest. With this exercise you tackle the pectoralis major as a whole, provided your execution is in order. That includes squeezing and pulling your shoulder blades down, and maintaining this position throughout the exercise. If you do the exercise with your back flat on the bench, you let your front shoulders come into action too much, at the expense of the chest. See here the difference.
Make sure to include at least one flat bench press in your schedule. That can be the traditional barbell bench press, but also the dumbbell chest press. With the latter you train your chest more specifically than the barbell version does. You can also put both variants in your schedule, as long as you do each exercise at least once a week.
In addition to a bench press, also do (at least) one fly movement for your chest. The chest fly is a valuable addition to the bench press. You can choose from a dumbbell fly, a cable fly or a machine fly (pec deck). The cable fly can be done in different variants, where you can place some emphasis on the top of the chest if desired (see below).
At a later stage in your training career, you can also add the (dumbbell) pullover to your exercise arsenal. In addition to pressing and flying, persuasion is a third movement with which you can train your chest.
NUMBER OF SETS
For optimal muscle growth you need about 10 sets per muscle group per week as a beginner. As you get more advanced, your volume requirement grows under the influence of adaptation. Average natural bodybuilders therefore need about 15 sets per week, advanced often around 20 sets or even more.
Note that these are very general guidelines. Volume requirement is highly dependent on genetic and other personal circumstances.
NO ‘CHEST DAY’!
The training frequency for optimal muscle growth is two or three times a week. That means you train each muscle group two or three times a week, with 3-10 sets per workout. Do a maximum of 10-12 sets per muscle group per workout. Anything you do more than that is superfluous; you’re just doing unnecessary muscle damage. So that usually means you do two or three exercises for your chest during one workout.
So say goodbye to the old bro split, in which you train a muscle completely once a week, with many exercises in a row. You have to stimulate a muscle, not completely exhaust it. So bye ‘Monday, chest day’.
The push/pull/legs split is ideal for chest training several times a week. With ‘push’ you train chest, shoulders and triceps, with ‘pull’ you train your back and biceps. With a push/pull split you also train the legs: the quadriceps with ‘push’ and the hamstrings with ‘pull’. But an upper/lower body split or full body are also possible.
In fact, it doesn’t really matter how you structure your training, as long as you do enough sets on a weekly basis and spread them over two or three workouts with enough rest between workouts.
You can do enough sets, but that is of no use if you do not exert enough effort per set. To get enough stimulating reps from each set, train your sets to near muscle failure. ‘Near’ is different than to complete muscle failure: with heavy compound movements like the bench presses, keep two repetitions ‘in the tank’ (2 Reps In Reserve, RIR). With flyes and other isolation work you can train for muscle failure a little shorter and sometimes completely (0-2 RIR).
Compound exercises like the bench press are best performed relatively heavy, in the range of six to ten repetitions. Although you could also do the flat bench press in a slightly higher rep range, in order to perhaps accentuate the top of the chest (see point 3).
For safety reasons and for an optimal mind-muscle connection, it is better to perform isolating exercises such as the chest fly slightly lighter, in the range of 10-20 repetitions. All this taking into account the relative intensity.
- exercises: bench press (with barbell and/or dumbbell),dumbbell fly and/or cable fly and/or machine fly, (dumbbell pullover);
- number of sets: 10 (beginners), 15 (intermediates), 20 (advanced);
- training frequency: 2-3 times a week (3-10 sets per training);
- relative intensity: 2-3 RIR (compound), 0-2 RIR (isolating);
- absolute intensity: 6-10 reps (compound), 10-20 reps (isolating).
2. DO ONE INCLINE PRESS
Does your upper chest keeps lagging, despite a good base (point 1)? Then it may have a genetic cause, so you have to some specific upper chest training.
There is no such thing as isolation exercises for the top of the chest. You can, however, vary the existing exercises, so that the accent of the stimulus is slightly more specific on the clavicularis. The incline chest press is the most obvious option for this. A study from 2020 shows that this variant appeals more to the top of the chest than horizontal bench press.
Incline bench press means that you raise the back of the bench slightly. According to some studies, it’s best to use a lean angle of 30 degrees, although it’s okay to set the back a little lower (15 degrees) or a little higher (45 degrees). If you go even steeper, your front shoulder heads take over more and more of the work. Non-adjustable weight benches are usually set at 30 degrees.
Remember that incline bench press only shifts the accent of the stimulus slightly upwards. Assuming an angle of inclination of 30 degrees, you will still mainly train your entire chest. Recent EMG research also suggests that some of the shift goes to the anterior shoulder heads and not just to the upper pecs.
Coach Menno Henselmans believes that the usefulness of incline pressing is often exaggerated:
With a well set up flat bench press, you’ll likely optimize upper and lower pec activity when you train close to failure, so there’s little to gain from decline or incline bench pressing.
You can actually say that an incline press does not activate the upper pec much more, but especially the lower pec much less. As a result, you could slightly brush away a skewed ratio between the top and bottom of the breast. We therefore advise you to include one incline press in your schedule if you find that your upper chest is lagging a bit.
Oh, and when doing an incline press, always think of your top chest as if it were the only muscle in your body. Because mind-muscle connection really seems to be a thing.
INCLINE BARBELL BENCH PRESS
With the incline barbell bench press, the bar touches your chest slightly higher than with the flat version. The bar should move in an oblique line from right above your shoulders to slightly above your nipples, and back again. With the flat bench press you come out with the bar a little lower, on the middle of your chest. In the lower position, your forearms are always perpendicular to the floor.
How deep you lower the bar depends, among other things, on your shoulder mobility. In any case, the bar does not necessarily have to touch your upper chest. This is often even not recommended – see the video below.
The incline makes the exercise less comfortable and stable to perform than the flat bench press. Save the large weight plates for the flat version and perform the incline version a bit lighter, with more repetitions. This also makes it easier to maintain the back position (shoulder blades squeezed together) and prevent your front shoulder heads from doing even more work.
INCLINE DUMBBELL CHEST PRESS
As with the flat bench press, you can also do the incline version with dumbbells. As already mentioned, you make it a bit more of a real chest exercise, because the shoulders and triceps are a little more quiet than with the dumbbell version.
3. BENCH PRESS IN A HIGHER REP RANGE
This tip is a bit experimental, but it might be worth a try.
While the flat bench press basically targets your entire chest, the exercise may allow you to put more emphasis on the top by using lighter weights. At least that is what we can deduce from an individual EMG study by coach Bret Contreras. This showed that in flat bench presses he activated his upper chest more when he did it in a higher rep range, ie with weights of 10RM-15RM. The advantage of the higher rep range is that you achieve a better mind-muscle connection and, according to Contreras’ research, you involve more upper chest in the exercise.
Now the bench press is typically a heavy weight exercise, usually in the range of 6 to 10 reps for bodybuilders. But how about doing the exercise twice a week, one in a low rep range, the other in a high rep range? Training in different repranges may also have a positive effect on muscle growth in itself: longer sets may cause more sarcoplasmic muscle growth.
4. ADJUST YOUR CHEST FLY
Do at least one chest fly, if desired with a modification for the top of the chest.
The best option is probaly a cable fly, which you can adjust effortlessly to place small accents on certain areas of the chest. With cables you can train in all kinds of ways in the direction of the muscle fibers. You can also train crosswise or unilaterally and thereby increase the range of motion inwards (over the middle of your chest).
For upper chest, low-to-high cable flyes are often recommended. You perform this exercise with the pulleys in the lowest position. You move your arms from bottom to top and outside in, so that you draw an imaginary arrowhead in the air.
However, this variant is not yet optimal for the top of the chest, because the muscle fibers that you want to train are located more horizontally. When you’re flying from low to high, the move is very similar to a front raise, an exercise designed to work the front of the shoulders.
The best direction for the top of the chest is a very slightly diagonal line from low to high – almost horizontal. You can achieve this by positioning the pulleys higher. But it is even better to perform the exercise seated, on a bench with a backrest. This version also offers you the most stability:
By the way, you can make cable exercises even more effective by moving your arms slightly over the center of your chest. With many exercises, including the incline dumbbell bench press, that middle is the end point of the movement, so you still don’t get a maximum contraction of your chest muscles.
YouTube oracle and coach Jeff Cavaliere put together the video below, in which he shows you quite a few exercises that both follow the muscle fibers of the upper chest and achieve maximum contraction. For example the dual cable UCV raise.
5. DO A LESS CONVENTIONAL EXERCISE
We already saw that with the incline press you appeal more to the top of the chest than with the flat bench press, albeit only to a small extent. If you really want to train your clavicularis in a more targeted way, then you will end up with exercises that you don’t often see performed in the gym.
REVERSE GRIP BENCH PRESS
It takes some getting used to and practice, but the underhand grip bench press is much less taxing on your shoulders and puts much more focus on the top of the chest than other chest exercises: according to research, as much as 30% more than with flat bench press with overhand grip.
The reverse-grip bench press will feel a bit awkward at first. Especially lifting the bar is a bit more difficult than when you do that with an overhand grip. And when expressing the weight, it is important to press the weight up in a straight line. The weight then more or less automatically follows its natural curve. If you deliberately press the weight backwards, you run the risk of losing control. That is why it is wise to perform the reverse-grip bench press, especially with high weights, in a power rack or squat rack with safety bars/supports. Or with a spotter.
For some, the reverse-grip bench press does not feel comfortable on the wrists. Make sure there is a very small bend in your wrists. If that doesn’t help, ignore the exercise.
In principle, you can also apply the reverse grip to the dumbbell bench press, taking advantage of the benefits of this exercise – especially moving the arms together, which is not possible with the barbell version.
LANDMINE CHEST PRESS
We don’t have any EMG numbers for you this time, but we can feel our chest burning a lot with this exercise – more so than with the incline barbell bench press. In principle it concerns the same movement, but the grip and grip width with the landmine press may make a difference.
For the landmine press you need a landmine – also called a ‘core trainer’ – and a barbell bar with weight plates. But you can also ‘just’ place the rod in a corner.
You perform the exercise by sitting on your knees and grasping the thick end of the bar, the so-called sleeves, with folded hands. Your upper body leans slightly forward. Now push the bar up and away from you, extending your arms fully. Then lower the weight in a controlled manner by bending your arms.
Practical tip: rest the weight on an elevation such as a training bench. This will make it easier for you to get into the starting position.
The landmine press is also an alternative to the incline bench press if, for example, you train at home and do not have access to a (weight) bench.
Below are some other exercises that according to some coaches can do something extra for your upper pecs. Our advice: give them a try. If you feel your upper chest a little better than normal, it may be an effective exercise for you.
WHAT ABOUT THE GUILLOTINE PRESS?
Yes, the neck press or guillotine press is deadly effective for the upper chest. But while you shouldn’t take ‘deadly’ too literally, the exercise is anything but safe.
With wide grip bench presses to the neck, as the exercise is officially called, you do not lower the barbell to the middle of your chest, but to your neck. The elbows point all the way out, instead of 45 to 60 degrees inwards, as with the regular bench press. This way you stretch your breast fibers the way they naturally lie over your joints. Standard bench press doesn’t do that. In addition, you put your pecs under tension throughout the range of motion, while with the regular bench press your shoulders and triceps take over a lot of the work.
The neck press is known as a risky exercise and many coaches simply advise against it. It’s not for nothing that the exercise is also called guillotine press: you bring the bar to your neck. Losing weight control can have dire consequences.
A second reason why some trainers advise against the neck press is the unfavorable position in which your shoulders are maneuvered. That’s because your elbows are all the way out. Although the neck press is much more gentle on your ‘regular’ shoulder muscles than the standard press, it also forces your shoulders into an extremely internally rotated position, which puts a lot of pressure on the stabilizing muscles (the muscles in the rotator cuff). This doesn’t have to lead to problems immediately, but it might if you do neck press for a long time.
As experts by experience in the field of shoulder injuries, we also advise against exercises that are relatively risky for your shoulders, such as this neck press. The effectiveness of the exercise simply does not outweigh the risk.
If you still want to do the neck press per se, perform the exercise with dumbbells, so that you at least spare your neck. In addition, use a very light weight (so a high rep range), although the exercise is still not safe for your shoulders.