Muscle isolation is one of the most important factors when it comes to muscle growth. Just because you are lifting heavy weight does not mean that the muscle you want to lift the weight is actually doing the work and engaged.
This is a common issue and more so in the chest than any other muscle group. Depending on the exercise, grip width and arm positioning will usually dictate how much the triceps and shoulders are active during chest exercises and usually, the answer is both are very active!
You, therefore, might want to isolate the chest for better muscle growth or to try and work around a shoulder injury. This article is going to focus more on the first point and I’ll cover how to work chest without shoulders for purely muscle hypertrophy benefit.
To work your chest without shoulders you’ll need to select movements that do not place the deltoids in a stretched position. The best exercises to work your chest without shoulders are:
- Floor Press
- Chest Fly (Dumbbell, Cable, or Machine)
- Neutral Grip Dumbbell Chest Press
- Reverse Grip Barbell Press
Before covering these exercises in more detail, I’ll first cover why and how you should go about minimizing shoulder activation during chest exercises. Don’t worry, this won’t be a boring biology lesson, I’ll just be giving you actionable tips to better approach your chest training with the end goal of building a bigger chest!
Do Chest Exercises Work the Shoulders
Have you ever done a chest session only to find the next day that your shoulders seem to be sorer than your chest and you can barely raise your arms? I have…
In my early training days, there was a seated chest fly machine in my first gym that I was determined to max out the stack on. I’d lean forward, bend my elbows and even try to use momentum to lift more weight but the actual range of motion and muscle recruitment for my chest would have been minimal.
I didn’t know this at the time of course but something I always noticed was that my shoulders would be sore the next day, especially right at the front.
The reason for this was down to my body position during the movement and the fact that during the eccentric (lowering) portion of the movement, I was placing more stretch on my shoulder than the actual chest muscle (which was again due to my body position).
To target a muscle group, you need to initiate the movement with the muscle group and then fully contract it and fully stretch it.
I’d say most people only do the contracting part right and unfortunately, when training the chest, missing out on the other two parts usually means the shoulder is doing some of the work and impacting your potential gains.
While chest exercises do not directly work the shoulder muscle, poor form and exercise mechanics (as well as exercise selection) usually means that your shoulders are active during most chest exercises to a large extent.
It’s also worth mentioning that the upper chest muscle crosses the shoulder joint. This means that when the shoulder rotates in a certain direction, both the chest and shoulder muscles will be active. Dips, bench press, and even chest flys all involve movement at the shoulder joint so you can never fully isolate the chest.
You can, however, minimize shoulder involvement, which will increase chest activation, by being smart in your exercise selection.
How to Work Chest Without Shoulders
Often, the issue with working your chest without shoulders comes down to exercise selection AND exercise execution. It’s always an easy answer to say your form is wrong but that is no really helpful advice.
The form needed for a powerlifting bench press training for maximal strength is entirely different from that used by a bodybuilder looking to grow their chest. While it’s a fair assumption that form might be an issue, the better answer is that you need to use form optimal for your goal.
I’ve got long legs so my squatting form is not the best, I can front squat and feel the quads engaging, but it’s not optimal. Put a wedge or weight plate under my heels though and I get a deep squat, keep my chest high, and most importantly, feel my quads doing all of the work.
Adjustments to your exercise can be the difference between working one muscle and another. A narrow grip dip with an upright posture will emphasize the traps but if you take a wider grip, lean forward, and bring your legs in front of your body (so that most of your body weight is towards the front) you’ll feel your chest work 10X more.
Therefore, in order to work your chest without shoulders, the key is not only exercise selection but adjustments to each exercise that will place more emphasis on the chest.
Chest Exercises That Work the Chest and Not the Shoulders
It’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate shoulder involvement on most chest exercises because the upper chest crosses the shoulder joint. This means some delt activation (usually front delt) will be active as it’s used to stabilize the weight.
With that said, the below exercises will minimize the most shoulder activation possible and should allow you to train your chest without using your shoulders (to much extent).
The floor press is essentially a chest press with a reduced range of motion. The focus is on overloading the concentric portion of the movement and almost eliminates the stretched portion. For many, the sticking point in a bench press is when the bar is fully lowered and touching your chest.
This is when the pec is fully stretched and reduces the amount of force you can produce. It’s important to work a muscle through its full range of motion to maximally recruit muscle fibers but people will often do “half reps” on the bench press to avoid failing at the bottom.
The floor press is different, while you won’t be doing a full range of motion, the focus is actually on lifting more weight in the concentric portion of the lift. As mentioned earlier, lowering the weight on a press will eventually start to stretch the front delts and bring your shoulders into the movement.
A floor press allows you to use maximal weight with minimal shoulder engagement.
This can be done with either a barbell or a dumbbell thought if you don’t have access to a power rack, I’d opt for the dumbbell floor press as you the safer option.
A chest fly is a chest isolation exercise but only when done correctly. For a chest fly to be effective and activate the chest you need to do two things:
- Fly in the direction that your muscle fibers run.
- Bring your upper arms as close together as possible (elbows together).
When I used to feel my shoulders getting sore after a chest workout it was usually because I wasn’t following the above guidelines.
Firstly, take the upper chest. When performing an incline dumbbell chest fly, most people will bring their arms to but the muscle fibers of the upper chest actually run diagonally and attach at the top of the humerus (upper arm).
To fully stretch and work the chest, you’d need to perform the fly with your hand and elbows coming in a more upward direction. I initially learned this technique from Ben Pakulski so I’ll add a video below to better demonstrate the concept and correct form (the first 20 seconds make the point).
Coincidentally, my second point is that you need to bring your upper arms as close together as possible and Ben has another excellent video that demonstrates this principle.
Training your chest in the fully shortened position is something you can’t do on a chest fly when you are bending your elbows and bringing your hands together. The goal for a full contraction needs to be bringing your upper arms close together.
This one simple trick will fully engage your chest and reduce shoulder involvement through proper load distribution and exercise mechanics.
You can use dumbbells, cables, or a machine for this exercise but just make sure you apply the above principles, the first will fully lengthen your chest while the second will allow for a full contraction.
Neutral Grip Dumbbell Press
Many people will look to use a wide grip when bench pressing in order to isolate the chest but as your elbows come out and you hold a pronated (overhand) grip, your front delt will be stretched and active.
You can experience this without a bar. Simply tuck your elbows by your side and hold your arms out with your thumbs facing upwards. Now just go through the motion and simulate pressing a bar heaping your elbows tucked and thumbs facing forwards and notice what muscle groups you feel moving.
Now, in the same position with elbows tucked, raise them to your sides as though you are gripping a barbell and place your arms as though you are in the bottom position of a bench press. Now simply move your hands further apart whilst keeping your elbow and upper arm in the same position.
You should notice that while you feel a better stretch in the pecs, you’ll also feel a greater stretch in your front deltoid. While a wide grip will better isolate the chest, you are still engaging the shoulders.
A neutral grip dumbbell press will use a bit more tricep involvement but you’ll also get a much greater contraction on your chest and have very minimal shoulder engagement. This exercise also brings your elbows closer together when pressing which will shorten the chest muscle allowing you to recruit more muscle fibers in the best and get a better contraction.
Reverse Grip Barbell Chest Press
The final exercise to work chest without shoulders is the reverse grip barbell chest press. This is more difficult than a regular bench press for the simple reason that it reduces the muscle groups that are active during the movement.
The triceps will be more active during the press but the main focus will be on the upper chest as studies show this is 27% more active than using a standard barbell bench press. The movement setup is exactly the same but you’ll take an underhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
There aren’t too many details to get into with this exercise, you won’t be able to use as much weight but you’ll feel an excellent contraction in the upper chest whilst minimizing shoulder involvement.
It’s not really possible to completely isolate your chest and not train your shoulder if you want to fully train the chest through all strength curves and ranges of motion, which is required for maximal muscle fiber recruitment.
You can, however, make adjustments to the exercises and form that you use in order to better isolate the chest and work it without really engaging the shoulders and the exercises and techniques listed above will help you do just that.
This is an article in a series based on isolating specific muscle groups. If you’ve found this to be helpful, you might also want to check out:
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