Training the chest is one of the most common goals for gym-goers. For men, it’s often about gaining more defined, “3-D” pecs. But the importance of upper chest exercises for women shouldn’t be overlooked.
The secret to a great upper chest workout for both sexes is mixing things up. You’ll want to implement a variety of different types of exercises. By the time you’ve finished this article, you’ll be armed with exactly what you need to get started.
But first …
What Are The Upper Chest Muscles?
The main muscle of your upper chest is the pectoralis major, affectionately known as your “pecs.” You have “pecs” whether you’re a man or a woman. Place your right hand over your heart. That’s where your pectoralis major lies. It extends roughly from your collarbone to your breastbone area.1
The pectoralis major is so big it’s divided into three parts: the clavicular pectoralis, sternocostal, and the abdominal parts. Then there’s the pectoralis minor, which is much smaller. It’s located underneath the pectoralis major running up and down the ribs. Finally, there are two more smaller muscles in the upper chest: the serratus anterior and subclavius.2
Why Are Your Chest Muscles Important?
The upper chest muscles are essential for several different functions for both sexes. This is why women also need to work their upper chest muscles.
Your upper chest muscles help:
- Move your shoulders in different directions
- Create stability for the shoulder blades
- Support your posture
- Support better breathing
- Support better upper body strength
- Support your breast tissue (for women)
- Build surrounding muscles (such as the triceps and back muscles)3,4
Any activity that involves lifting, holding, squeezing, or pushing in your life (grocery shopping, picking up boxes, or trying to open a jar of pickles) is influenced by your upper chest muscles. And, contrary to belief, chest exercises will not make women’s breasts smaller. They may actually provide more lift and support.5
The Ultimate Upper Chest Workout
The main thing you want to keep in mind as part of your ultimate upper chest workout is that it should be well-rounded: Think variety. You want to challenge the muscles in different ways –– different angles, different weights, different ranges of motions.
You’ll also want to give those smaller upper chest muscles some attention too, not just the pectoralis major.6/sup>
Here are five of the best upper chest exercises to get you started. They’re friendly for any location –– not just for those who have access to exercise equipment at the gym. Just make sure to get your doctor’s approval before beginning any new exercise.
Upper Chest Workout Move #1: Pushup
It may sound simple, but there’s nothing like a pushup to really work your chest muscles. Push-ups directly target your upper pecs —as well as several other muscle groups.
Step-by-step: Position your body in a high plank position – wrists directly under your shoulders, shoulder-width apart, arms straight, and fingers spread wide to support your weight. Focus on keeping your core tight and your shoulder blades back.
Now, bending at the elbows, slowly lower your body in one straight line until your arms form a 90-degree angle. Then push directly back up until you reach your starting position.
Alternative: If you’re not ready for a full push up, simply perform it from your knees, and once you’re stronger, you can try again. Or, you can do an incline push (where your body is at a 45 degree angle) against a table or even the armrest of a couch.
Reps: Complete three sets of 8-12 reps, with a short rest of around 15-seconds in between each.
Upper Chest Workout Move #2: Medicine Ball Chest Throw
Medicine balls are so versatile and easy to have in your home gym. When thrown, they can improve power and really work those muscles in the chest — not to mention your abs.
Step-by-step: Kneel on a soft mat, and face a wall. Hold the medicine ball with both hands at chest height. Then, with as much force as you can muster, throw the ball straight at the wall. You can also use a partner to catch it, should you have one. As you throw the ball, imagine you’re pressing into a pushup. That’s the kind of form you want to have.
Alternate: If you can’t kneel, you can do this workout standing. Kneeling is just a little more challenging.
Reps: Aim for three sets of 6-8 reps, with a rest in between each set.
Upper Chest Workout Move #3: Dumbbell Floor Press
There are many ways to do a dumbbell press to target your chest – a dumbbell bench press, an incline dumbbell press, or a floor press. Work with whatever equipment you have available to you.
An incline bench press (using an adjustable bench) does tend to work the upper pecs a little better due to the angle, while the floor press (or a straight bench press) builds the entire pec. Either way, you’re getting a solid chest workout.
A dumbbell floor press targets the chest, triceps, shoulders, and core. Here’s how to do it.
Step-by-step: Lie flat on the floor or a padded mat, knees bent, and feet planted. Hold your dumbbells with an overhand grip, bending your elbows so they form a 90-degree angle. Focus on keeping your core strong to protect your back, then press the dumbbells toward the ceiling until your arms are straight. Slowly lower the weights back down until your triceps come to rest on the floor.
Rest a moment before pressing into your next one, so that the pecs can switch off and back on again. If your shoulders come off the ground, your weights are probably too heavy and you should come down a notch.
Alternate: If you find this exercise too easy, you can keep your legs lying flat on the ground.
Reps: Target three sets of 8-12 reps, with a short rest in between each set.
Upper Chest Workout Move #4: Floor Dumbbell Flyes
Dumbbell flyes are a popular chest exercise. Some people like to do them on a decline bench once they become a little more advanced. Or, if they have the machine available, perform a cable fly. These floor-based dumbbell flyes require no extra machinery, and they too help to build those sculpted, strong, 3-D-like pecs.
Step-by-step: The motion involved here is akin to “hugging a tree.”
Lie on the floor with dumbbells above your shoulders, arms relatively straight with just a slight bend in them. Aim to keep this slight angle consistent the entire time.
With palms facing each other, lower your weights in an arching motion (as if you’ve hugged that tree and are now pulling your arms away again). Let your elbows hit the floor and pause. Then squeeze the dumbbells back together like you’re hugging the tree again. Stop a few inches from them actually touching.
Reps: Aim for 8-12 reps and three sets, resting in between.
Upper Chest Workout Move #5: Half-Kneeling Chest Press
Take a knee with this final exercise for some solid chest gains. The half-kneeling chest press delivers a double whammy, as it also works your core while you’re off-balance.
Step-by-step: Grab a resistance band and attach one end to any low, sturdy surface (i.e. a coffee table leg or under a heavy weight). Hold the other end in your hand and come down into a half-kneeling position with your opposite leg forward, knee bent at 90 degrees. The band should be behind you, so you can’t see it. You will be pulling the band from behind you.
Your start position is hand in front of your shoulder, at shoulder height, with your elbow out from your side at a 45-degree angle.
Now, focus on keeping your glutes and core tight, and press your arm out and upwards until it’s fully straight. Then, slowly bend the elbow and return to your start position. It’s super important that you don’t let the band pull your shoulder back. You must always maintain control.
Reps: Aim for 8-12 reps on one side and then repeat on the other side. Rest. Try for a total of 2-3 sets.
Do You Really Need A Lifting Belt?
You’ll often see people at the gym wearing a lifting belt when performing chest and other body exercises. Is this a necessary piece of safety equipment?
Well, weight belts are indeed safety devices under certain circumstances – like Olympic weightlifting. However, if you’re not lifting anything close to these weights, you’re usually better off not using one.
You see, your body comes with its own built-in lifting belt – the transverse abdominis – which surrounds your lower abdomen. Along with other muscles, it works to support and stabilize your spine, especially when you’re lifting. So, when you wear a belt, your core muscles may actually start to switch off (get lazy), increasing your risk of injury when you don’t wear a belt.7
Pump Up The Volume
When you’re new at the gym, or new to a particular type of exercise, it’s easy to feel out of place. But remember, even the guy with the Schwarzenegger-pecs and the woman with the “Sarah Connor” physique started somewhere.
Set yourself up with a solid upper chest workout plan, and incorporate it into your week regularly. Before you know it, you’ll be the pro.
Don’t ever let lack of access to equipment be a barrier. Every machine exercise out there has a non-machine alternative. As always, consult with your doctor before beginning new exercise regimen.