I get this question from a lot of people and it is one that I have thought about myself over the years. The questions and my answer are below.
“I have struggled to make my upper pectoral muscles thicker; and it seems as though no matter what exercise that I do for that upper-chest, it does not grow. Am I doing something wrong by doing all Incline movements, as per what is written in the many bodybuilding books that I have read?”
I have had this problem myself, but I have made improvements over the years; and, yes, this problem does require specialized, thoughtful, bio-mechanically prescribed training. I don’t agree with many bodybuilders and trainers who teach that training the upper-pectoral region requires lots of Incline Bench Presses and Incline Fly’s. Let me explain why their catch-all theories do not apply to everyone.
First, you probably do not have a lot of muscle tissue in that area. This is something that is genetic; however, you still can make gains there; it will just require some extremely intelligent and diligent training.
Your lower pectorals (pectoral major) are probably responding to most of the resistance exercises that are directed toward the chest area; whereas the upper pectoral region responds to little that you have tried; and, this has to do with autonomic muscle engagement. The body is doing this automatically; just as if you were hanging from a windowsill atop a building, the body would call on every muscle necessary to get you back into safety; however, what it will not do is isolate one small group to handle the task and that is why specialized, focused, training is necessary for isolated muscle groups such as pectoral minor.
The ideal bio-mechanical person (which there are very few out of hundreds of millions); would isolate the pectoral division in just the way that the books that you have read are teaching. According to most books (and some articles in other magazines), Flat Bench Presses tend to hit the entire pectorals (pectoral major and minor); Inclines tend to hit the upper-pectoral (pectoral minor); and, Declines tend to hit the very lowest area (of the pectoral major). What would you think if I told you to do the exact opposite for your circumstances? My bio-mechanical understanding of this is quite simple; yet it took me some 20 years (out of 40 years training with weights) to realize three important points when it comes to upper pectoral development for those having this as a problem area.
The most important thing to do is to look into a mirror, with the body sideways and shirtless, so as to see where your deltoids sit on your upper-thoracic region (and how they are situated at the end of the clavicle area, or AC (Acromioclavicular) joint. If you turn your body to either side, looking into the mirror (so that you are looking at your arms, center of the shoulders and center of your neck and ear), take note where your shoulders are in relationship to all of these locations. Now make note of where the center of one shoulder is in relationship to the ear on that side of your head. Is there a direct line from the center of the shoulder straight to your ear? Are the shoulders forward of the center of your neck and ear? Now, take note of the frontal deltoid and your upper pectoral muscles. Are your shoulders forward of your upper chest? Are they situated so the frontal deltoid is even with the upper pectoral area? Now, take your index finger and move it along the clavicle from the center point (where the sternocleidomastoids attach from the back of the ear to the center of the clavicle) and move your finger over the clavicle to the end (at the AC joint). Is there a big curve from midway to the AC Joint? My sense is that your shoulders are forward of both the center of your neck and ear; and your frontal deltoids are forward of your upper chest. Why is this important? It informs me that your deltoids will grow before your upper-pectorals will if you do as the Standard Rule of Pectoral Development teaches (the more the incline of the bench; the higher on the chest the exercise hits; the reverse for declines; and Flat Bench Presses hit the entire Pectoral region). This makes sense for a modicum of those with a near perfect upper-thoracic musculoskeletal design; however, most bodybuilders (and all resistance trainers, for that matter) do not fall into this “ideal” musculoskeletal category. Even if you puff your chest up when doing inclines (by arching your back); there is still too much of a load put on your shoulders because the deltoids are positioned as such that they are forward of the center of your neck, ear and are being worked more than your upper chest.
Now you have two items to attend to. First, you have to start doing more center-back work in order to pull your shoulders back enough for them to be in that straight imaginary line from the center of the deltoid to the center of the ear when standing erect, side-ways, in front of the mirror. What actually has happened here is a lot of musculoskeletal changes. You have gotten a little bit taken by the weak upper-pectoral problem and you have made your upper thorax move enough to make the shoulders change position. The body may seem like a static group of bones held together with some magical glue; however, each time that you emphasize one muscle group more than the opposing muscle group; you will stand the chance of changing the arrangement of the musculoskeletal structure. If I were you and you do have this problem, I would do more work for the middle of your back, such as low-pulley rows done with a bar that allows for maximum squeezing of the scapulars together. You might want to do a couple of sets of those every other day, until you get your shoulders back where they belong. In the meantime, we have to get you to the exercises that are going to hit the upper pectoral area and keep as much of the frontal deltoid out of the picture during the exercises.
Before we get to that, we have to address a couple of other potential bio-mechanical predispositions so that you have the big-picture, albeit one step at a time.
The other two bio-mechanical presets that I am assuming are that (a) you have rather long arms and (b) narrow or medium width (shoulders) across those fairly extreme bends on either side of your clavicles, from shoulder to center to shoulder. First, since the arms are long, you are at a leverage disadvantage when doing almost any pressing, but especially for the upper-pectoral region when doing Inclines as your primary resistance modality for upper-pectoral stimulation and ultimate hypertrophy. This is where your bio-mechanical predispositions; and the way that you have altered your shoulder area are giving you the greatest difficulty doing your present “standard” routine.
Add these two bio-mechanical leverage disadvantages to the small amount of fiber in your upper-chest and you are never going to create hypertrophy in that area until you get at least two of these problems out of the picture. The first answer to your problem is going to be doing Decline Bench Presses. Why? Because this will put you in a position that will shorten the overall length of pressing range, and it will take out your frontal deltoids, which, during this exercise are below the upper-pectoral area. It also allows you to use more weight; and lastly, if you use both barbell and dumbbell Declines, you will find your upper-pectorals being directly stimulated perhaps for the first time in your life. After one warm-up set of a light weight on the bar; do 2-3 heavy sets of 6-8 repetitions for Declines with the barbell. Then do 2-3 sets of 10-12 same way with the heaviest dumbbells that you can handle. You may want to switch these two in prioritization, based on your body’s response. Give this three months and you should notice a major change in both where your shoulders sit on your upper-thorax and how much more tissue hypertrophy you will begin to see in the pectoral minor area. Be sure that you use the heaviest weight possible to get those repetitions that I put in this paragraph. When you can do no more full-reps, do X-reps (extended reps) by moving the bar a few inches up and down until failure.
As a finishing exercise, I would suggest that you find a Peck-deck that has the handles and long arms as a way for maximum benefit. You want to set the seat fairly low so that when you are doing the exercise, your arms (slightly bent) are at the exact height of your clavicles—right straight across your upper-chest. There should be one continuous line coming out from either side of the upper-pectoral area out to both arms and hands; so that when you are in the contraction mode, it should look like a big-tree hug from the top view. Keep your chest up throughout the exercise. Use as much weight as you can and really squeeze that chest on each contraction. Do three or four sets to absolute failure.
Your upper pectoral area will begin to grow within three months using this routine; doing your chest muscles no more than twice in eight or nine days. Be sure to keep your mental focus when training this area, for it will require a great deal of mental and physical isolation to provoke muscular stimulation and hypertrophy.
Also, remember to work on getting your shoulders back into the place where they belong—straight in line with the traps, neck and ear. This is important for both your overall upper-thoracic health, but also your upper pectorals will become more stimulated once the shoulders are back in place (as you try to take out the frontal deltoid by doing those declines).
Best of luck.
Paul Burke, M. Ed.
Contact Paul Burke via email at www.paulburkefitness.com .
About the Author
Paul Burke has a Master’s Degree in Integrated Studies from Cambridge College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is presently in a Doctorate Degree Program at A. T. Still University, and will be a Doctor of Health Education upon completion. Paul has been a champion bodybuilder and arm-wrestler; and, he is considered a leader in the field of Over-40 fitness training. You can purchase his book, “Burke’s Law,” A New Fitness Paradigm for the Mature Male, from any online or Barnes & Noble Bookstore. ** His second book: “The Neo-Dieter’s Handbook,” How We Lost Our Nutritional Roots and How to Find Them Today, will be out in March, 2009 and his third book, “Burke’s Law II,” Quantified Bodybuilding; Finding Your Greatest Muscular Potential through Musculoskeletal Designation (Book Surge/Amazon Publishing, 2009) will be available soon.