Thursday, July 7, 2011

SuppVersity EMG Series - Musculus Pectoralis Major: The Very Best Exercises for a Chiseled Chest

Image 1: The pectoralis major.
(Avandäre:Chrizz @ Wikipedia)
I don't know about you, but about everyone I know (myself included) has, at some point in his/her life, dwelled on thoughts somewhere on the continuum from "Damn, my chest looks flabby!" to "Hell, I got a chest like a chicken". In case you didn't this column probably won't interest you. Otherwise I highly suggest that you read on to learn about the most effective exercises, as measured by electromyography (10 male resistance-trained subjects, mean age 22y, mean body-fat 13%; data from Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)...

Exercises with standard equipment
  1. Bench Presses (barbell)
  2. Cable Cross*
  3. Bench Presses (dumbbell)
  4. Butterfly Mashine
  5. Flys (dumbbell)
  6. Pullovers
* the cable cross exercise should be performed actually crossing one's arms low before your body

Figure 1: Degree of muscle activation in comparison to reference exercise barbell pench press; median rank R of exercise among for all participants (data adapted from Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)
Notice the interpersonal variety in exercise effectiveness for the Butterfly Machine and the Dumbbell Bench Press. While the mean EMG activation was higher for the Butterfly, the average rank, indicative of how beneficial the exercise is compared to other exercises for each subject on an individual level, is lower. This is a tell tale sign that the perfect match of the ergometry of the Butterfly Machine and the individual physique of the subjects, as well as the exercise form during free weight movements are major determinants of the effectiveness of a given exercise.

Body weight movements  **
  1. Dips
  2. Pushups
  3. Flexing the pectoralis in a fly-like position
** a comparison of weighed and body weight movements using EMG measurements would not be fair, because muscular activation increases with load and the load would be constant and, for advanced trainees, low (relative to their strength) in body weight only exercises
Image 2: Different parts of the pectoralis major
pars clavicularis (1), pars sterocostalis (2),
pars abdominialis (3) (image from DocMartin)

Targeting the individual parts
  • pars clavicularis: descending fibers (upper part)
  • pars sternocostalis: lateral fibers (middle part)
  • pars abdominialis: ascending fibers (lower part)
While there are no "upper" and "lower" chest muscles, its a physiomechanical matter of course that different exercise and working angles will stress ascending, descending and lateral fibers to a different degree. So, while it may be impossible to isolate certain fiber strands, it is well possible to shift the main workload from one strand to the other by selecting appropriate exercises.
Figure 2: EMG activation of different areas of the chest muscle (cf. numbers in image 2) by the bench press exercise at different inclines (data adapted from Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)
At first, it may look strange that the inverse(=decline) bench press exhibits the greatest EMG activity not only for the lower chest (as bro-science) would have it, but also for the upper chest. If you do however remind yourself that EMG activity corresponds to the number of motor neurons firing in the area under the electrode, than it is quite obvious that the larger load the subjects were able to handle on the inverse(=decline) bench press resulted in increased motor neuron activation and thus greater EMG values.
Figure 3: Relative activation of different areas of the chest muscle (cf. numbers in image 2) compared to mean activation for each bench press variety (data calculated from Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)
I have compensated for this problem by calculating the relative increase in activation compared to the mean activation across the whole chest muscle for each exercise and plotted the data in figure 3. I suspect, this looks much more the way you expected it, doesn't it? Relative to the mean activation pattern over the whole pectoralis muscle, the incline bench press with an angle of +45° provides a 69% more intense stimulation to the "upper chest".

In summary, the inverse(=decline) bench press is the most effective exercise for the pectoralis major as a whole. The incline bench press (+45°), on the other hand, isolates the upper part of the chest muscle, i.e. the descending fibers of the pars clavicularis (cf. image 1) optimally and will thus - as bro-science tells you - bring up your " pecs".

Navigate the SuppVersity EMG Series - Click on the desired body part to see the optimal exercises.

Image 3: Other than bro-science tells you,
EMG measurements show that the main
difference in grip width is not triceps activation,
but a greater involvement of the "upper pecs"
with a closer to shoulder-wide grip
(image from

An EMG-optimized routine

There is of course a myriad of ways of combining the individual exercises, my personal recommendation for overall chest development (based on EMG measures) would yet be as follows

  1. Decline Bench Press (BB) - for overall chest development + strength (5-10 reps)
  2. Incline Bench Press at +45° (DB) - to emphasize upper chest (8-12 reps)
  3. Cable Cross (making sure to actually cross the cables before your torso) - to get a stretch and peak contractions (12-15 reps)
  4. Bodyweight dips - to wear the muscle out (3 sets to failure)
You may notice that I do not make volume (i.e. set) recommendations. This is due to the fact that I found that everyone has to find what works best for him / her in terms of optimal volume and training frequency. This may also change over time / according to lifestyle factors / nutrition and supplementation.


  1. Wow, interesting article. Not a decline BP fan, always feels like the bar's gonna drop on my head, so I rarely do them. Good to know all the incline BP I do isn't worthless though.

  2. What if the incline was around 80deg as in seated OHP? Would the upper chest still get some activation?

    Though the title "series" promises great things to come! More such info for other body parts would be great.
    Is there a whole book for these EMG studies? Found only German results.

  3. what do you mean by "inverse" bench press? I'm thinking maybe you mean what is generally called a "decline" bench. Am i right?

  4. pretty sure you are right since it says -15 degrees. So if flat bench is 0, then -15 is decline yes.

  5. @Steve: I have no data on 80°, but even the regular shoulder press stresses the upper pecs, especially if you arch your back slightly and look to the ceiling

    and yes, there is more to come - so stay tuned + no, the results of this particularly good study have only been published in German.

    @Ben: sorry, over here everyone says rec´verse - its in fact the decline - edited that in the text

  6. Great article, I'll be trying more decline in the future

  7. Awesome post!

    You should dig up on on back training if there are any around. Would be awesome to get an EMG optimized protocol for all the body parts.

  8. @Ryan: thanks for the compliments, really appreciated; spread the word.

    @JP: back exercises will be up next week. followed by legs, abs and arms - enough stuff for the weeks to come ;-)

  9. Looking forward to the next articles in the series!

    Thanks for all your work, Dr. Andro.

  10. I'd be very interested to hear about the influence hand placement and torso/upper arm angle.

    If you are doing more research I have been curious about exercises like "reverse grip bench press" (some say high upper chest activation) and squeeze press.

    What do you recommend for upper chest, dumbbells or barbells?

    Is there any data concerning inner chest activation (I am not so sure what to think about that).

    Great great great posts!

  11. I would love to comment on the reverse grip, but there is neither scientific data nor can I (without pain) do the movement myself (with appropriate loads) and give you personal feedback on that one.

    wrt to dumbbells or barbells, I would yet always recommend to either switch on a regular base or incorporate both, like a decline bench press with the barbell and an incline bench press with dumbbells.

    the "inner chest" is non-existent - didn't I mention that in the article? BUT the reason many people have problems building the pecs is because they bench from the delts, which will eventually prevent the pecs from fully contracting at the top position and thus lack in terms of "fullness"... what can help here are a) doing exercises with dumbbells b) doing narrow (shoulder width) decline benches c) doing cable cross-overs

  12. other studies show that the barbell and dumbbell EMG are the same, though in your article the barbell has a higher EMG??

  13. doc is it really necessary to do two pressing movements for chest in the form of a decline/flat and then an incline press. if one could take the decline or flat press to absolute failure would there really be a need to do an incline move to, as you say, hit the upper fibres of the chest more directly? would there be even less need for an incline press if one includes seated barbell presses in their shoulder routine?

    1. no, if you train shoulders with some sort of press (not behind the back) I would even recommend to abstain from additional incline presses

  14. that's what i was thinking thanks for the reply. in addition, which do you think is better for pectoral hypertrophy...smith machine or barbell? with which one was the study performed?

    1. the study used the barbell (free weights) bench press and that is what I would suggest as well; the disadvantage of the smith machine is that you can press the barbell to whereever you want and it will still go up, that allows much more involvement of other muscle groups.

  15. ok thanks...would the same thing apply to smith machine squats vs free weight squats?

  16. Dr. Andro,

    What do you think if Jim Stopanni's study that cited 30% more "upper" chest involvement with reverse grip bench press?

    1. I suppose you would see even more chest involvement without hurting yourself, when people finally stopped benching with arms flaired out and the bar going down way too high vs. below then nipples and arms not out as it is supposed to be

    2. Dr. Andro,
      I have been in involved in weight training and fitness for over 18 years and have a college background in physical therapy (love your articles and the research that supports the topic by the way)so I have always been focused on the best way to scientifically build my chest.

      That being said, I feel that my chest lacks midline mass as well as a nice "rounded outter cut" that that creates a nice aquare look. I currently incorporate incline BB and dumbell, decline BB and dumbell, weighted dips and some variation of a fyle (crossovers, pec deck, etc) Train chest once a week with anywhere from 12-15 sets total ranging rep volume/intesnsity.

      Do you have any expert advice on how to either incorporate a new routine, movement, etc to help me attain my desired results?

      Sorry for the long message but I would rather pick your brain then spin my wheels.

      Greatly appreciated

    3. Cable cross are "supposed" to build the inner chest, but if they do that only at the very end of the movement. A way better strategy would be to simply stop benching with a wide grip and rather grab the weight with a shoulder width or even slightly narrower grip.

      Personally I also feel the DB pullover (90° across the bench, old-school style, not the sissy stuff, where you lie down on the bench) - again a NARROW grip and you must make sure you push the weight up, not pull it (actually that may not be perfect form, but it works)... also: Are you sure you lack "chest mass" on the outside? I mean you could well be looking for more serratus mass

      Otherwise you simply do the opposite of what I just told you for the inner chest ;) Wide grip, flys in the stretch position etc.

  17. Cable crossover flys with peak contractions are your best bet for the inner pec. Not so sure for the outside, but you may consider doing pullovers since they also hit the serratus anterior heavily thus giving more definition to that general area.

    I'm no fan of only hitting a muscle 1x/week, but I will compromise for you.

    Decline BB bench - 5x5 for power and overall development
    Incline DB bench - 3x8-10 to hit upper pec
    Crossover cable fly - 3x10-12 for inner pec emphasis
    Lying DB pullover or pullover machine - 3x10-12

    1. Anonymous, ^ that is an excellent suggestion by the way.

  18. I'm wondering why DB is less effective than BB. Is it because you can "click" the DBs together at the top, which means you'd go more to a tricep involved movement from about halfway. So in other words, if you keep the distance between your hands like you would with a BB, would you increase your chest activation?

    1. Not quite. DB allow for a more natural range of motion and require the use of far more stabilizer muscles in the process. This not only decreases the load on the pectoral muscle but also limits the amount of weight you can use. Since EMG measurements look at the activation of muscle fibers, a greater load means the EMG measurement will be higher. Since you can lift more weight with a BB than DB, that may be why BB is higher.

    2. little to add to this excellent explanation other that this is (even if scientists try to compensate) a clearcut downside of EMG measurements.

  19. Dr. Andro,
    Like the previous poster noted, I am having a very difficult time getting a nice"square" look to my chest; especially on the outer/lower portion of the pec. Inparticular, I lack quite a bit of mass composition in the inner/lower area of the pec and I have been trying for a while to develop it better to give me a more sculpted look. I hope I was able to explain this so you understand what I am talking about but to try and simplify it....instead of "square [] []" I have more of a )( if that makes any sense!!! Thanks

    1. Try the recommendation I gave above.

  20. This is very informative and clears up all the BS and broscience non sense I've been brainwashed to. Bookmarked this for personal routine design. I'm currently doing Jim Wendler 531 powerlifting program and I think im going to change my main power lifting lift to Incline BB on chest day and use Decline or Incline DB for assistance work. I was wondering, based on these EMG's, Incline BB still hits mid and lower pec with just a 69%emhphasis on clavicular. If I really wanted to focus on my upper chest, could I just do Incline presses while neglecting decline and still devlop a proportion to mid/lower?

    Also, I found this study to be very interesting too.

    1. Govi, I believe the first question here is whether your at a point where specialization matters and bring up your *upper* pec will be noticeable. That said, any motion of the arms in a horizontal plane will stimulate the pectorals to some degree (after all, Transverse Flexion & Adduction & Internal Rotation is its main duties).

      If you decide to focus on the upper pectoral then do incline presses (5-8reps) and military presses (8-12 reps) with a very short heavy decline or flat bench to maintain intensity (1 or 2 sets of 3-5 reps).

    2. I wonder what you expect from focussing on your "upper chest" I can tell you that it's not going to turn sagging fat tits into an armour plated chest.

      I don't know if that's your problem, but I have seen way to many people trying to "improve their chest by building the upper chest", when the problem was simply to much fat in the lower region

    3. Thanks for the reply, Primalkid. I believe I do Need specialization. I do mainly powerlifting style movement on flat and Bodybuilding style for assistance work. I've been doing PL'ing for 2years now. I do either incline DB or flat db @50% of my 1rep max for 4sets of 10 after my main lift. I have a pretty good flat bench numbers and I beleive im at the point where I should have good pec development.

      Thing is, only thing flat bench actually developed was my Mid chest and not much for lower or upper(I use power lifting form with full range of motion and not locking out completely on reps, bar lowered to my nipples) Its really weird actually because people even say my chest is small in comparison to my lifts. Then again, it could be genetics, but I wont let that stop me :D

      I did chest yesterday after reading this blog( even though it was a rest day) and I started out with heavy inclines using 5 3 1( 5x205, 3x225, 1x245) then decline DB with 80lbs dumbells 3sets of 10( 1,5-2min rest) and low incline guillotine press 3 sets of 10. I have to say, I never felt DOMs in my clavical area before in my life till today. My whole clavical and front delts feel it, its like a straight line of DOMS accross my whole upper chest to my front delts. Also, the pump I got from declines felt incredible. Something I never really felt before.

      I honestly think I should be doing weighted dips or declines. I think im missing out by not including these movments because the overall feel is totally different from flat, if not better( for me atleast). Im starting to think that for me, flat is just a waste of time and Im going to be changing my PL'ing main movement to incline. As for military press, I do those on a seperate day.

      Sorry for the wall of Text.

    4. @ Dr Andro. I don't have saggy tits. I'm 9-11% body fat all year round, so I don't carry alot of fat, esepcially my chest area. Usually its lower back and abs for me. My concern is clavical and lower potions of my chest because thats where Im lacking. I gues it would be silly to focus only on incline. I'm just making incline my main power movement and decline and Mid cable cross overs my assistance work.

    5. You cannot make incline the main power movement in power lifting. The thing with PL's and Oly lifters is that they are restricted to certain movements as demanded by their focus. Contrast this to a recreational BB who can do whatever the hell he wants.

      What is your PL focus? Bench?

    6. Bench, squats, deadlifts, squats, overhead press are my main movements. I also do weighted chin ups. And yes im aware Incline is not a PL movement, im just going to make it my main movement. Im just getting to the point where im focusing on my weakspots. I don't compete in PL or plan to, I just love PL'ing and I do it strictly for recreation and performance.

    7. Oh, well in that case do whatever you want lol

      If you have any specific questions feel free to inquire.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. I'm still curious about reverse grip bench press for focusing on the upper chest fibers. I did read the article by Jim Stoppani that said it is 30% more effective than incline presses alone. Here is my question, with everyone (mostly everyone) trying to focus on the upper region to build that nice platform, why are we not seeing/hearing more lifters incorporating this into their workouts? To cite that 30% more upper fibers are recruited is a game changer so why no mention of it in 90-95% of chect routines?

    1. Probably because it is uncomfortable for most to perform, not to mention unnatural in movement. It may recruit more muscle fibers of the upper chest, but you will ultimately be limited in the amount of weight you can lift, which limits its effectiveness. If you wanted something similar to hammer the upper chest I would recommend incline flies with either cables or dumbbells.

  23. Man! this EMG series is awesome!!
    Evidence for prescribing exercises accordingly to the muscle recrutation
    Can you please show the references that you used to write this articles,
    I'm very curious to read it

  24. The undisputed king of chest expansion for hundreds of years, the bench press has been the standard for increasing strength and size in the chest by experts around the globe.

  25. what is best decline bench angle andro thanks

    1. AFAIK that was -30°, but I would have to check in the book and I borrowed it to a friend

  26. HI Adel, what do you think is the best way to put more emphasis on the upper chest with a cable crossover? By leaning over more or by doing a sort of incline fly like this?

    1. The standing incline fly would put more emphasis on the upper pec than leaning over, but I would recommend (if possible for your situation) that you lower the cable arms and place a 30 degree incline bench in between and perform lying incline cable flies.

      Like this,

  27. Sorry, late to the show on this. Great article.

    Why no standard flat DB or BB press? What about Guillotine Press (which I hear actually beats the Flat DB / BB out for development)?


  28. I strongly disagree with the inclusion of figure 3 and the conclusions derived from it in this article. It skews the view and actually causes one to reach incorrect conclusions.
    Looking at figure 2, you can clearly see that regardless of the muscle area chosen, the Inverse and Flat Bench-presses are clearly superior in producing muscle activation.
    Figure 3 *seems* to indicate that using incline 45 is beneficial for muscle group 1 where figure 2 clearly shows it is not. In fact, it is clear that the incline 45 exercise is a poor chest exercise relative to the others, due to shoulder involvement.