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Saturday August 18, 2018

Optimizing Chest Development Through Pectoral Angular Science

By Ivan Blazquez, M.Ed, B.S., ACSM, NGA/IFPA Pro Natural Bodybuilder, Triathlete

Natural Bodybuilder Ivan Blazquez Most Muscular PoseIntroduction

When it comes to achieving optimal pectoral development, variation leads to re-creation. One of the many ways to vary chest training is through the manipulation of the angles in which the pecs are trained. Common knowledge has it that flat bench press targets the middle chest, incline bench press targets the upper chest or clavicular fibers and decline bench press targets the lower fibers of the pectorals. However, in this article, a combination of research-based information and personal knowledge will be used to come to a concrete conclusion along with workout recommendations regarding chest training for optimal development.


Flat, Incline or Decline?

The answer to this question simply lies in doing all three angles along with an understanding of the following 3 concepts: Line of resistance, Joint motion and Self-palpation. Line of resistance deals with the line of gravity's pull relative to the targetted muscle's angle of pull on one's body. Joint motion looks at all the possible motions that recruit the targetted muscle group. Finally, self-palpation maybe the simplest, but most effective way to know if an exercise is effectively targetting a certain or particular segment of the chest. Self-palpation is simply touching or feeling the targetted muscle group during the intended exercise motion to make sure it's "firing" by getting taut and tense. If the muscle is flacid, this is usually a sign that it's not being significantly used in the exercise. One way to do this is to simply perform a unilateral exercise with light weight but to just rehearse the exercise motion. While your'e doing the movement, check and feel to see if the targetted muscle group is becoming actively engaged by getting harder to your touch. The biggest thing with training the chest at varying angles is that typically the entire chest musculature will fire, but the difference comes in the way of which segment or area is being "emphasized." In fact, research has suggested that it is possible to emphasize particular segments of a muscle group with varying exercises and angles of lifts (1). In fact, here is a short excerpt from the conclusion of the paper (1):


"The fact that muscle responds in a nonuniform manner indicates that there may be different recruitment patterns with different exercises and as such, it would be advisable for bodybuilders to engage in different exercises to induce hypertrophy of different regions of a muscle. On the basis of the limited available data, it would seem that with regard to the pectoralis major, biceps brachii, triceps brachii, rectus abdominis, and quadriceps femoris muscles, varying exercise selection should be an integral feature of the bodybuilders' training program. For other strength-power athletes (e.g., Olympic-style weightlifters), this may not be as important because the goals are quite different (i.e. performance vs. appearance)."   


Optimizing Upper Chest/Clavicular Fiber Development:

Ivan Blazquez ripped chestAny chest movement from an incline position on a bench will have a greater emphasis on the upper chest fibers. The key is in using different platforms of resistance such as barbell and dumbbell work to get the job done. While some research has found no significant difference in upper pectoral recruitment between decline and incline chest press (4), this shouldn't discourage anyone from still including incline bench work. In fact, other research has shown that there was greater activity in the upper chest during an incline chest press vs. a decline chest press and that a narrow hand spacing also lead to more activity of the upper chest (2). Logically, this makes sense from a joint motion perspective since the clavicular fibers are active in shoulder internal rotation, horizontal adduction and flexion (5). A narrow hand spacing naturally moves the arms into a slightly more internally rotated position and more importantly, more towards horizontal adduction, which creates a "cramming" effect that increases muscle tension based on the shortening aspect of muscle contraction along the muscle length-tension relationship (5). More importantly, the clavicular portion of the pectoralis major lies close to the anterior deltoid, so it works closely with it as well. This is important to know, since chest press technique can further partition out the upper chest from the anterior delts to be emphasized more. In fact, all too often I hear of someone wanting to feel sore in the upper chest, but they end up getting sore in the front delts only. A simply remedy to this situation is to check your postural pre-exercise alignment. Having the shoulders slightly drawn down and back (via poking your chest out) will enhance glenohumeral alignment and stability. Secondly, it will place the chest in the "line of fire" so to speak, so your anterior delts will still get worked, but not overworked. Also, it was found in the Barnett et al. (2) study that the activity of the anterior deltoid increased as the angle of inclination increased. In agreement with this finding, I've personally found that a moderate incline, not a steep incline, is best for working the upper/clavicular fibers of the chest. In further support, another study found that a moderate incline of 44 degrees led to greater activity of the clavicular head compared with 0 and 28 degrees (9).


Furthermore, there's even been a study that showed that a supine or reverse grip led to an increase in upper chest activation during a flat bench press (6). Interestingly, this finding supports my joint motion concept, being that when one's grip is supinated or reversed (palms facing up), this changes the motion at the shoulder to be flexion. Shoulder flexion is a strong initiater and activator of the clavicular fibers of the pectoralis major (5). In fact, I recommend that you try this right now. Palpate your upper chest fibers and simply take your arm and raise it in front of you to shoulder level keeping your arm in line with your shoulder. What you will notice is a distinct and isolated contraction of the clavicular fibers of the chest. In fact, when asked what exercises best train the upper pecs, I typically get a surprised look when I recommend front dumbbell raises. Many know this exercise is great for the anterior delts, but remember, it's shoulder flexion, and from a biomechanical standpoint, this strongly recruits the clavicular fibers of the pectoralis major (5). So the best ways to train upper chest are as follows:


1) Moderate incline, not too steep or shallow.

2) Closer than shoulder width apart grip.

3) Dumbbell front raise and/or Dumbbell incline chest press with a neutral grip (palms facing each other like when performing a hammer curl). This changes the motion to shoulder flexion and with the bench at a moderate incline, you will double the activity in the clavicular fibers. Be sure to keep the elbows close to the body as this will further increase upper chest development since the arms will be in a more horizontally adducted position, which will increase the tension in the clavicular fibers of the pectoralis major.

4) Reverse of supine grip that's slightly wider than shoulder width apart.


Optimizing Middle/Sternal Fiber Development:

Training the mid pecs is a little less challenging and more commonly accomplished by many. Essentially, any kind of flat bench press exercise, be it with a barbell or dumbbells will sufficiently work this area of the chest. In fact, the Barnett et al. (2) study found that the sternal head of the pectoralis major was more active during a flat bench press vs. a decline bench press. Additionally, it has been found that activity of the sternal head of the pectoralis major decreased as grip width decreased when using a overhand grip, but the activity of the sternal head did not decrease when using an underhand grip as grip width decreased (6). Personally, I feel less activity in my chest overall when the grip is wider. In agreement, it was found that close-grip push-ups led to greater activity of the pectoralis major and triceps brachii compared to wider grip push-ups (3). While push-ups are different than bench pressing due to push-ups using more core musculature to support the body in a plank position, the motions are very similiar. In fact, it was found that as the angle of inclination increased during a bench press, the activity of the sternal head decreased (9). Similarly, this supported the finding of Barnett et al. (2), in that as the angle of inclination increased, so did the activity of the anterior deltoid. So in essence, the best ways to train the middle chest are as follows:

1) Flat bench press with barbell or dumbbells.

2) A shoulder width apart or slightly closer than shoulder width apart grip.  

Optimizing Lower Fiber Development:     

The lower pecs are also less challenging and commonly accomplished by many. The easiest way to train them is simply performing decline chest work. One study did find that decline bench press led to greater activation of the lower pectoralis major, however this was in comparison to incline bench press only (4). Either way, I personally find that the decline bench press is a great exercise not only for emphasizing the lower pecs, but also, allowing greater weight to be lifted. I find that one can lift their heaviest when performing decline presses since the range of motion will be slightly reduced as well as greater surface area of the chest being engaged due to the bar path line of resistance being lower on the chest. I also find that decline bench press is less strenuous on the shoulders since the resistance is angled in a position where it's not directly in line with the shoulder. So in closing, the best ways to train the lower chest are as follows:

1) Decline bench press with barbell or dumbbells.

2)  A shoulder width apart or slightly closer than shoulder width apart grip.


While the research can delineate between upper, middle and lower chest activity (2, 9), I've personally that there isn't much difference in middle and lower chest work, but that the main difference comes with incline work for the upper fibers of the chest. So rather than thinking in exclusivity or isolatory terms regarding working upper, middle and lower chest, I'd recommend shifting the train of thought to "emphasizing" upper, middle or lower chest. In reality, the entire muscle will contract, but certain areas will be recruited differently depending on the exercise performed. Also, something I didn't talk about in this article but is very important is to have balance in your training program by incorporating at least a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio for back-to-chest exercises. I've written about this in a previous article (link previous chest article) and the importance of maintaining shoulder health/integrity with proper balance in training and variety such as inclusion of stretching, rotator cuff exercises, scapular work, etc. Additionally, the inclusion of various chest fly exercises are also in order for attaining full development of the chest. I personally find that fly work helps carve in those chest striations as well as pump up the chest even more after the compound chest exercises (i.e. bench press, dumbbell chest press, smith machine bench press) have been completed. Additionally, dips are a great exercise for chest development and in agreement with this article, many of Arnold Schwarzenegger's recommendations in his book "The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding," are quite similar to this article (8). For inner chest, he recommends holding the top of contraction for several seconds and using a close-grip, while for outer chest, he recommends focusing on the lower range of motion, a wider grip and the lower three-quarter movement of a chest exercise (8). Additionally, for rib cage development, he also recommended barbell and dumbbell pullovers (8). He's definitely correct not only from experience, but research has shown that pullovers are great exercise for the pectoralis major (7). All in all, with a proper training approach that incorporates varying angles, one can be one step closer to carving up and claiming the prized and acclaimed, treasure-chest! 

Fitness Writer Ivan BlazquezCopyright:

The information provided in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not serve as a replacement to care provided by your own personal health care team or physician. The author does not render or provide medical advice, and no individual should make any medical decisions or change their health behavior based on information provided here. Reliance on any information provided by the author is solely at your own risk. The author accepts no responsibility for materials contained in the article and will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary, or other damages arising from the use of information contained in this or other publications. Copyright Ivan Blazquez, 2011. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder and author of this publication.

Oliver, GD, Stone, AJ, Wyman, JW, Blazquez, IN. (2012). Muscle activation of the torso during the modified razor curl hamstring exercise, International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(1), 49-57.



1) Antonio, J. (2000). Nonuniform response of skeletal muscle to heavy resistance training: Can bodybuilders induce regional muscle hypertropy? The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 14(1), 102-113.

2) Barnett et al. (1995). Effects of variations of the bench press exercise on the EMG activity of five shoulder muscles, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 9(4), 222-227.    

3) Cogley et  al. (2005). Comparison of muscle activation using various hand positions during the push-up exercise, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(3), 628-633.

4) Glass & Armstrong (1997). Electromyographical activity of the pectoralis muscle during incline and decline bench presses, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 11(3), 163-167.

5) Hamilton, N. & Luttgens, K. (2002). Kinesiology: Scientific basis of human motion. McGraw-Hill Inc., New York, NY.      

6) Lehman, G. J. (2005). The influence of grip width and forearm pronation/supination on upper-body myoelectrical activity during the flat bench press, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(3), 587–591.

7) Marchetti & Uchida (2011). Effects of the pullover exercise on the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles as evaluated by EMG, Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 27(4), 380-4.

8) Schwarzenegger, A. (1998). The new encyclopedia of modern bodybuilding. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.

9) Trebbs et al. (2010). An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(7), 1925-1930.

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