Far too often bodybuilders have a conspicuous hollow at the top of their chests instead of thick slabs of dense muscle because they haven’t learned the secret of isolating and building the upper pecs. If you need upper pecs, this article is for you.
In an ideal world every muscle group trained would grow at the same rate. There wouldn’t be any growth plateaus or slow-growing muscle groups. You’d just gradually but steadily add more and more mass to all your muscle groups over time until you eventually looked like a reasonable facsimile of Ronnie Coleman or Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime (especially Arnold’s fantastic chest development, this being a chest article).
There are several factors important for muscle growth. One is training very hard for innervation during your repetitions—innervation being an increased supply of nerve impulses to and in the targeted muscle group so you have a heightened awareness of the sensations of muscular exertion, such as muscle ache and fatigue or the burn of lactic acid buildup. Another is increased blood flow to the working muscle group so you get massive pumps during your sets. You also have to train progressively, handling heavier and heavier weights over time (which you can verify because of the accurate training diary you keep). Finally, it’s essential to use proper exercise form so the mechanical overload is placed squarely on the target muscle group.
If you trained that way, you’d think your chest development would more or less take care of itself, no matter which exercises you used in your chest training.
It should, but more often it doesn’t. One of the first truths to hit home to all bodybuilders when they take up this crazy pastime called bodybuilding is that some muscle groups grow faster and easier than others, while some, annoyingly, hardly seem to grow at all—despite our best efforts. That’s when we realize that there’s more to developing a muscular, symmetrical physique than just copying an exercise routine out of a magazine and following it to a tee.
Simply moving weights up and down and counting sets and reps is no guarantee that a muscle will grow. Some muscle groups need special techniques and know-how to be stimulated into growth, and if you don’t know about those special techniques, you just get confused and frustrated, and the weak bodypart gets more and more out of proportion to the rest of your physique. Far too many bodybuilders find themselves in that scenario, especially when it comes to the chest—and, more specifically, the upper chest.
Slow- and fast-growing muscle groups are an annoying fact of life and understandably frustrating. One wonders why this problem exists in the first place. After all, your muscles all belong to the same body and are governed by identical physical, physiological and mental processes. All are fed by the same food and supplements, and they get equal rest and recovery, so why the wide disparity in muscle growth? Why should your shoulders grow easily and your pectorals slowly, or vice versa?
Blame it mostly on your parents. Chest development can be influenced by heredity, such as having too few cells in the pectoral muscles. It’s also affected by your somatic body type: endomorphic (those naturally heavy, chubby people who carry a great amount of fat), mesomorphic (genetically gifted bodybuilders who have natural muscle size and strength) or ectomophic (naturally slim people who have long, thin limbs and a small ribcage). Other factors include poor neuromuscular pathways that make it difficult to innervate a muscle as you train it, poor blood circulation to a muscle group or a part of a muscle group, which makes it very difficult to pump a muscle fully and take advantage of the blood principle (the better a muscle pumps, the faster it grows), poor nerve force (the inability to make a muscle contract hard), a slow or fast metabolism, different skeletal frames and muscle attachments, the length of muscle bellies and your proclivity for training. Those are the primary reasons why bodybuilders fail to develop a great chest, particularly the upper chest.
Genetics may not be the only explanation for slow muscle growth, but, realistically, it’s a factor. There’s no denying that some people are more genetically gifted for developing muscle mass and symmetry than others. That said, it’s also true that all bodybuilders—even Olympia champions—have one or two muscle groups that don’t grow as fast as the rest of their physique. Few bodybuilders can build a Mr. Olympia–quality chest, but hard work and persistence can overcome many problems. It takes time to learn which exercises and training principles give you the best results, but everyone, no matter how poor the genetic potential, can improve his or her physique in general and the chest in particular. If you peruse a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, you can see that the primary muscles of the chest are the pectoralis major, the pectoralis minor and the subclavius. Most bodybuilders incorrectly call the pectoralis major the lower pectoral and the pectoralis minor the upper pec. Actually, the pectoralis major covers the entire chest, from the lower ribcage to the collarbones and from the sternum, or chest bone, to the armpit.
The pectoralis minor actually lies beneath the pec major. It’s a thin, flat, triangular muscle that arises from the third, fourth and fifth ribs. Its fibers pass upward and outward beneath the pec major and meet to form a flat tendon that inserts under the coracoid, the bones that form the tip of the shoulder.
The subclavius is small and also triangular. It’s located between the collarbone and the first rib at the top of the chest, and its fibers slant upward and outward to where they insert into a deep groove under the surface of the collarbone.
For complete development of the chest you must fully develop all sections of the pectoralis major (especially the upper section), the pectoralis minor and the subclavius, as well as the serratus muscles, which are those long fingerlike muscles under the armpits that frame the chest, and the ribcage should be deep and full.
Most bodybuilders still think of the upper and lower pectorals as two distinct muscle groups. That’s because they seem to respond and grow differently as two distinct muscle groups. I refer to upper pecs and lower pecs all the time and will do so here. As long as you understand that when you refer to the upper pecs, you’re actually speaking about the top section of the pecs major, and the lower pecs as the lower section of the pecs major, there’s no harm done. It’s just a matter of semantics.
The upper section of the pectoralis major is a unique muscle that definitely refutes the idea that when you perform any exercise for the chest, the entire chest is stimulated because all the nerves of the chest share a common source. People who believe in noncontiguous innervation, as it’s called, say it takes only one exercise to stimulate a muscle completely, so there’s no need to do, for example, incline presses for upper pecs; cable crossovers for inner pecs; wide-grip dips, wide-grip bench presses and three-quarter dumbbell flyes for outer pecs; and decline presses for lower pecs. Do any chest exercise you wish, the proponents of noncontiguous innervation say, and the entire chest gets worked. I say that’s a bunch of bull.
It would be a great thing if it were true, but it’s not. The evidence is the great number of bodybuilders who are walking around with big lower and middle pecs and a big hollow at the top of their chests. Years ago I was discussing with MuscleMag International publisher Robert Kennedy the reasons why the upper pecs don’t grow as well as the middle and lower sections. Bob’s take on the problem was that “there is no exercise for developing the upper pecs that is as effective as flat-bench presses are for developing the lower and middle sections of the pectoralis major.” For some people bench presses work too well. Their lower pecs grow too large, while their upper pecs remain flat and puny, causing an imbalance in their chest development.
Bob definitely made a valid point. Incline presses—performed with a barbell or dumbbells or in a Smith machine—incline dumbbell flyes and bench presses to the neck are all fine upper-chest exercises, but they don’t build as much muscle mass as flat-bench presses. To get the most out of upper-chest exercises, you must use good exercise form. If you try to handle weights that are too heavy and start to cheat, it’s very easy to transfer the stress from the upper pecs to the already stronger and better developed lower pecs. That’s the reason I maintain that nearly 99 percent of the time it’s not the exercise that people don’t respond to as much as the way in which they perform the exercise that prevents them from reaping maximum benefit.
Fitness and bodybuilding guru John Parrillo believes that the reason most bodybuilders don’t have good upper pecs is that they have never learned to do their chest exercises properly. For example, when doing flat-bench or incline presses, you should press your shoulders back and into the bench as you press the bar up, with your sternum pushed up. You must get under the weight and support it with your chest at the top of the movement. That places the mechanical advantage squarely on the pecs from top to bottom. Also, the barbell should travel back as you push it up, so at the top of the movement it’s over your eyes, not your chest.
For more upper-pec stimulation John recommends incline presses and bench presses to the neck performed with your chin on your chest, your elbows wide and your deltoids down and back.
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