Building the perfect chest: an anatomy-based method


For a few gifted individuals, building a round, wide full chest is as simple as doing a couple sets of barbell flat bench press. For those who have the genetics of an average mortal, it takes a bit more of a scientific, methodical approach to build a chest that resembles slabs of thick striated beef from top to bottom. It's safe to assume that you're probably not one of the aforementioned genetic freaks (better known as dirty lucky bastards), so this article is for you (cheer up, it could be worse...). Today you're going to learn some principles, tips and tricks that, along with your hard work (but that's a given anyway, right?), will serve as your genetic equalizer, so no more excuses for your pitiful undereveloped flabby pecs!

So let's get this party started..

At the end of the day, I enjoy science but I'm a meathead just like you. So from one meathead to another let's go over the chest muscles themselves and what they do. Then you'll be able to make intelligent choices when it comes to exercise selection and execution. I'll keep the nerd talk to a minimum but please, read carefully. This may actually make all the difference in the world for your chest development and putting all these info in an easy to comprehend format took me a freaking ass long time (for our International readers: an amount of time so great that it is no longer measurable by units of time and is instead measured by units of assness).

What we refer to as "chest" is actually comprised of three separate muscles: the pectoralis minor (which is of little concern to us for now), the clavicular head of the pectoralis major, and the sternal head of the pectoralis major. Read, repeat, read again.

Because of its position up near the clavicle (collarbone), the clavicular head of the pec. major is routinely simply referred to by most as the "upper chest."

Many anatomists refer to the sternal portion of the pectoralis major as the "lower chest" but for advanced physique-enhancement purposes we need to further divide this into two regions: the middle and lower chest.

When the pectoralis major as a whole works together, it produces a movement called horizontal adduction. In other words, it brings your arm across the front of your body, as occurs when doing a flyer movement e.g.

A lesser-discussed function of the pecs is to internally (or medially) rotate the humerus. Hold your arms out straight with your palms up, then rotate your arms such that your palms are facing down. That's one example of internal rotation of the humerus (you know, the long bone in the arm that runs from the shoulder to the elbow. Yeah you got a pair too somewhere, look better).

So let's look at the peculiar actions of the upper, middle, and lower pectorals when they work in (relative) isolation as this is where things can get tricky.

Besides horizontal adduction and internal rotation, the clavicular pectoralis flexes the shoulder joint. In different terms, it (in tandem with the anterior deltoid) raises your arm to the front. If you consider the origin and insertion of the clavicular pectoralis, this makes perfect sense indeed.

The lower part of the sternal pectoralis is situated such that it help extending the shoulder joint – the opposite action of shoulder flexion.

Now that we've covered the upper and lower chest, let's take a look at the portion that we'll call the "middle chest". As the muscle fibers of the middle chest run horizontally, they don't contribute significantly to shoulder flexion or extension. Instead, they simply horizontally adduct the humerus.


Upper Chest, actions:  horizontal adduction, flexion, internal rotation

Middle Chest, actions: horizontal adduction, internal rotation

Lower Chest, actions:  horizontal adduction, extension, internal rotation

You most likely have already heard of the "all or none" principle of muscle contraction. Basically, this is what it states: when stimulated, a muscle fiber will either contract, or it will not.

People have blindly adapted the all-or-nothing principle to mean that an entire muscle will either contract or it won't. These stubborn individuals will go on telling you that exercise variations are pointless when training the chest since the entire pectoralis major will simply either contract in full or it just won't.

Unfortunately this is a seriously misguided and deceptive logic to put it gently.

First, although still considered a portion of the pectoralis major, the clavicular pectoralis is actually a separate muscle with a SEPARATE innervation and the angle of the muscle fibers varies enormously from top to bottom. For that reason, the line of pull is different throughout different areas of the muscle.

Luckily, your body (or brain rather) recruits or call upon the portion of the muscle that's best suited to perform the movement in question. So if you were to do a movement in which the lower fibers of the pectoralis major are in the best mechanical advantage to execute the movement, then those will be the primary fibers recruited to do the work. The body is smarter than those people, thank goodness, or we'd be in serious troubles! So yes, you can emphasize different sections of the chest from top to bottom. But please duly notice I said EMPHASIZE, not "isolate".

Now, before you can start building a bad-ass chest, you have to know the visual strengths and weaknesses of your pecs. In all honesty.

For the sake of simplicity let's say there are four basic variations of chest shape/development:

A)Even chest development

B)Poor upper and lower chest + good middle chest

C)Poor upper and middle chest + good lower chest

D)Poor upper chest + good middle and lower chest

Generally speaking, variation "D" appears to be definitely the most common. 

I should also mention that many people mistake fat in the low chest region as being good lower pec development. So, if you really want to assess your development accurately, get decently lean first, then assess properly!

When you've identified your type of chest shape/development, then you can intelligently plan your chest training accordingly and with reason.

I often recommend performing three exercises for chest as part of a body part split where you train chest every 5-7 days. When training more frequently and/or utilizing wicked high-intensity techniques, doing less exercises may be warranted tho. Likewise, in certain other instances going for 4 chest exercises can be a good call instead.

When you pick your exercises, make sure to fully take into account the desired outcome of your choises. Basically if your upper chest is weak (odds are it IS), then why in the hell would you do two exercises that emphasize the middle chest and one that emphasizes the lower chest? This would only perpetuate and even magnify the muscular imbalance that you already have and should be trying to fix! So don't let your ego take control of the situation: we all love to do what we're best at, but this can really feed the issue further here. If you're a beast on the flat bench press but that's making the disproportion even worse, tell "her" goodbye for the moment. Instead, consider doing two exercises that emphasize the upper chest and one that targets the middle and/or lower chest. This will help to even out your chest development sooner rather than later.

Another smart rule of thumb is to hit the weakest part of your chest with your first exercise, when you're at your strongest.

Alright, we can now look at four specialized chest training routines that address all the aforementioned four different types of chest shape/development.


-Decline Dumbbell Press

-Shallow Incline Dumbbell Press

-Flat Dumbbell Flyes

This program starts off with decline dumbbell presses which targets the lower chest but also stimulate the middle chest pretty damn well.

Then, the shallow incline dumbbell press is a great way to target the upper pecs while making it easier to keep the anterior deltoid as much as anatomically possible out of the movement. In order to accomplish this purpose, set the angle of incline bench between 15 and 20°.

Last, with flat dumbbell flyes you hit the chest right square in the middle. Contrary to popular belief, flyes can definitely be a mass-building movement. Simply make sure to let your elbows bend naturally (about 30 to 35°) at the bottom of the movement. Doing so enables you to substantially decrease the stress on the anterior shoulder and at the same time use dumbbells of respectable size.


-Decline Dumbbell Press

-Incline Barbell Press

-Dips (weighted, possibly)

The decline dumbbell presses are a good addition to pretty much any chest training program. They've been proven to activate more motor units (muscle fibers) in the pectoralis major than any other chest exercise you can think of!

The incline barbell press is a great exercise for the upper chest... IF you do it properly. Make sure to keep your chest lifted "up" throughout the movement. This helps to keep the stress on the upper chest as opposed to the anterior deltoids and prevents shoulder injuries very effectively.

You may also shorten the range of motion by about two inches on each end: stop the movement two inches short of lockout and two inches before touching your chest. Avoiding these portions of the ROM (range of motion) keeps constant tension on the upper chest and prevents the anterior delts from taking on the brunt of the load.

Dips (best if weighted if you're strong enough) hit hard the chest, anterior deltoids, and triceps, there's no way around that. However, by using a grip that's slightly wider than shoulders width and leaning forward as much as you can, you can shift quite a bit of the stress from your triceps to your chest.


-Floor Press

-Flat Dumbbell Press

-Shallow Incline Dumbbell Flyes

Many years ago I had a conversation with an old IFBB pro-bodybuilder, that enlightened me regarding how well floor presses can stimulate the upper chest. It made sense. 

At least one study I'm aware of has shown that using a slightly narrower grip improves upper chest activation even more so than an incline bench angle (surprisingly, huh?). This is because using a slightly narrower grip forces the elbows to come slightly in toward the sides (adduction of the humerus, see above) as opposed to them being flared. Subsequently, this puts the clavicular pectoralis in a better mechanical advantage to do its primary functions: flexion and horizontal adduction.

Perform the floor press with a grip width that's just outside of shoulder width and that places your upper arms about 30° away from your sides in the starting position. Then push the barbell up and back in a slight arc such that it ends up over your upper chest.

When it's time for the shallow incline dumbbell flyes, set the angle of the bench to between 15 and 20°. One way to accomplish this is to put two or three Olympic plates under the "head" end of the bench, if you can't set it at said angle by using its own holes.


-Incline Barbell Press

-Shallow Incline Dumbbell Press

-Low to High Cable Flyes

Since the most important functions of the upper chest are flexion and horizontal adduction, use the same grip width mentioned in the floor presses above, just slightly wider than shoulder width.

Low to high cable flyes perfectly mimic the line of pull (and action) of the clavicular pectoralis. It's one of the best exercises around for "filling in" the upper chest up near the collarbone.

To perform the movement, start with two pulleys set in the bottom position and have your palms facing forward. Your upper arms (remember the humerus?) should be at about a 30° angle away from your sides.

Using your upper chest to pull your arms up and in, raise the handles up and together so that they come together at shoulder level or just slightly higher of you wish. The path of the cables should draw an upside down V in the air.

Be smart fellas.

When it comes to training (and life in general for that matter), many people erroneously think that all you have to do to succeed is work hard(er). Unfortunately, this isn't true. You have to work intelligently, most of all!

As Bill Gates said, "Choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” 

The body is dynamic, ever-changing entity that adapts to the stimulation and stress you place upon it. That's why it's important to purposefully select the right exercises that will force your body in such a way as to visually go where you want.

No longer will you think of chest training as a haphazard collection of random press and flye movements. 

See ya'll at the wet T-shirt contest.

Hopefully as viewers rather than contenders 😒