Let’s face it, guys tend to train chest and arms more than any other body part. Although similarly to any body part, the frequency is not the only key to development. It comes down to truly understanding how a muscle operates so that you can target it effectively with your training. In this FAQ I am going to break down chest development into the most commonly asked questions.
The chest muscles are made up of the pectoralis major and minor. The major is the largest muscle, but the minor still makes up a part of the overall mass. The pectoralis major as the picture below shows can be divided into upper and lower regions. The upper chest attaches to the clavicle (collar bone), thus is known as the clavicular head. The lower attaches to your sternum, so it is called the sternal head (note that sometimes the lower head is divided into the sternal and abdominal heads). The mass of the sternal head is about 70-80 percent of the pecs, while the other 20 to 30 is made up of the upper or clavicular head. Therefore, developing a huge chest will likely be dependent on the lower head, but for a complete balanced look, you should focus on both!
Upper Chest (Clavicular Head) Movements & Training
While the upper chest has several functions, its two primary movements are horizontal adduction and flexion. Horizontal adduction occurs when you give someone a BIG HUG! Shoulder flexion occurs when your arms are at your side and you raise them straight upwards. The upper pecs have a much better mechanical advantage then the lower pecs do at flexion, keep this in mind when we design training for the upper chest! Movements that can target this muscle will occur in the transverse (horizontal) and frontal planes. Therefore, using exercises such as an incline cable or dumbbell flys, incline dumbbell or barbell press, or even guillotine press are optimal to target this head of the chest. In addition, when training the shoulders with front (anterior) movements such as a dumbbell, barbell, or plate front raises will not only target the anterior head of the deltoids but incorporate the clavicular head of the chest, especially if you incorporate a slight angle backward in your body position.
The upper chest is controlled by a different nerve than the lower chest (lateral pectoral nerve). There are two primary avenues that research has looked at when it comes to increasing the activation of this region. The first is hand placement on the bar and the second is the angle of the bench when training. When selecting hand placement you can use shoulder width, normal width (about 25% wider than shoulder width), and wide ( >50 % shoulder width). In one study Dr. Barnet et al. (1995) found that a grip of shoulder width caused the greatest upper chest activation. The reason is that pressing a barbell or dumbbell at this angle causes you to have much greater shoulder flexion than a wider grip. Remember the upper chest has a better mechanical advantage than the lower chest for flexion. As such this grip is ideal. Other ways to increase flexion will be low cable cross overs. For bench angle, research shows that a moderate incline bench press maximises upper chest activation. This occurs anywhere between 30 degrees (low incline) and 50 degrees (moderate incline) (Barnett et al. 1995, Lauver et al. 2015, Trebs et al. 2010, Luczak et al. 2013). Anything above this will place the load away from the upper chest and primarily onto the shoulder muscles.
Lower Chest (Sternal Head) Movements & Training
The primary function of the sternal head of the chest is horizontal adduction (again hugging motion). They also extend the arm in front of you. This means that if you were to raise your arms to eye level, the lower pecs could bring them back down to your side. While both the upper and lower chest horizontally adduct the chest (hugging motion), the lower appears to be activated to a greater degree the more this motion is emphasized. Lehman et al. 2005 conducted research that showed a wider grip (150 degrees or greater of shoulder width) activates the lower chest more. The reason likely is that this position enhances the amount of horizontal flexion that occurs compared to a closer grip bench. Finally, the lower pecs have been shown to have high activation on the flat bench, and greatest when you perform decline bench (Lauver et al. 2015). The lower pecs also extend the arm, as such pullovers of any motion will assist in the complete development of these muscles.
For Full Chest Development is Incline, Flat, and Decline Enough?
Ben Pakulski is one of the most brilliant minds when it comes to skeletal muscle hypertrophy and angles. He recently was put on record as stating that to optimize pec development you need to train it at every angle possible. As with much of what Ben has stated recent research supports this. In fact, Dr. Fung and colleagues (2009) performed a study where they took cadavers and created a 3d image of the chest muscles. They found that it could be divided into 8 functional segments. Specifically, the upper chest was treated as one, and the lower as seven! Thus, while I suggested that in general incline bench is ideal for upper pecs and flat and/or decline for lower chest, in reality, you should still every training session hit at least one unique angle in between!
What’s better for Growth? Barbell, Dumbbell, or Machine Press?
Compound movements occur when you press a barbell, dumbbell, or machine which ranges from a decline to incline movement. The bench press (barbell or dumbbell) and variations thereof generally form the basis of any chest building program. Intriguingly research shows that on a bench press training program that the pectoralis increases to a greater extent with increasing strength as compared to the triceps and shoulders (Ogasawara et al. 2012). This seems to confirm that the chest muscles are the major muscles responsible for moving the bar during these pressing movements. However, it is important to realize that as long as you are performing a pressing movement that all variations of bench press, be it a machine, dumbbell, or barbell seem to activate the pecs equally, given the relative weight lifted is similar (Calatayud et al. 2015). The take home message is that you should use each of these variations to avoid any plateau in your chest development!
Are Isolation Movements Effective for the Chest?
According to electromyography studies, which measure muscle activation, the answer is YES! As surprising as it sounds movements such as dumbbell and machine flys have been shown to activate the pecs to the same degree as pressing movements (Welsch et al. 2012). The advantage to using isolation movements is that they are less fatiguing centrally (fatigue in your brain and spinal cord). Thus, we recommend using isolation movements on your hypertrophy and recovery days as a way to increase chest size but maximize recovery.
How Heavy Should I lift and What is the Best Tempo?
The pectoralis major is made up of a higher proportion of type II muscle fibers (57-65 % fast twitch in the literature (Srinivasan et al. 2007; Johnson et al. 1973). Fast twitch muscle fibers are worked ideally at faster speeds and with heavier loads. Research using EMG has assessed muscle activation using loads from 60% of 1RM to maximal. In doing so it was found that pec activation was near maximal at 80% 1RM. As such relatively heavier loads (>60%) and lifting at a speed you can control the weight, but that is relatively faster may be ideal. I say this with one caveat, remember that once pec growth slows you may need to start adopting some very high repetition sets if you are to maximize pec growth. Slow twitch muscle fibers grow ideally under very high rep loading schemes (50% 1RM until failure) (Schoenfeld et al. 2013).
I’ve heard athletes like Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker got a huge chest by doing pushups every day, is this enough? These are of course some of the greatest athletes of all time. However, being in the top one-percent it is difficult to compare most people to them. Based on the research, bodyweight pushups, unless you are not well trained will not provide a great enough load to maximize chest development. In fact in a trained population you may only get 30% maximal activation of your pecs (Lehman et al. 2006). Thus, while push-ups may serve a solid role for hypertrophy in the slow twitch muscle fibers you will likely need a loading mechanism to use them for maximal growth. Fortunately, studies show that when you do heavier banded pushups that you can activate the pecs similar to movements like the bench press (Calatayud et al. 2015)!
This article sought to assist you in building the best chest possible. We covered several questions and I believe can summarize them with the following practical applications
1. Training the upper chest requires using a shoulder width grip and a moderate incline of 30 to 50 degrees on pressing movements. If performing flys select the same incline. You can also train the upper pecs via using low cable flys.
2. Training the lower pecs requires selecting a wider grip on the bench or arcing wider when using dumbbells. Flat and particularly decline angles target the lower pecs to a greater degree.
3. Machine and isolation movements can build the chest just as much as compound and isolation. We recommend using these on hypertrophy and recovery days to maximize recovery.
4. The chest can be divided into at least 8 segments. Thus, while incline, flat and decline angles are great for development, using all the angles in between will likely result in complete pectoral development.
5. The muscle fiber makeup of the chest is primarily fast twitch (about 60%). Thus the majority of your lifting (at least 60%) should be performed at greater than 60% of your 1RM. However, don’t ignore the slow twitch fibers. Performing super high rep sets (12-30 reps, giant sets, or super sets) can and still be beneficial.
6. Pushups are a convenient movement, particularly when you are traveling or have little access to major pieces of equipment. However, if you are well trained they will likely do very little for muscle growth if not loaded. Fortunately doing banded push-ups can make up for this. Therefore pack these if you are traveling and don’t have access to a gym!
The chest is a complex muscle group. As with any muscle group they will require an equally complex strategy to optimize growth. While your program should center around the basics, you will likely optimize growth by using multiple angles, and a combination of free weights, machines, isolation movements and rep ranges! Remember, as discussed in previous articles you will need to intelligently periodize these strategies!