Why you need to exercise the smaller, hidden chest muscles

The large and visible pectoralis major gets all the attention during a chest workout, but you need to concentrate on the smaller underlying muscles too

Pulasta Dhar
First Published11 May 2024, 06:00 PM IST
Exercise your chest in the correct way.
Exercise your chest in the correct way.(Istockphoto)

Chest workouts can look (and feel) so similar that constituent exercises are often just called ‘chest exercises’, without any differentiation about specific muscle groups that each exercise hits. This leads to an oversimplification: Are you just exercising a large muscle group called the pectorals, or are you taking a more detailed approach?

When it comes to the chest, there are two main muscles. One is the superstar that is always in the limelight—the showy, spotlight-stealing pectoralis major. It gets all the attention, but deep down, there is the other muscle without which the pec major could not do what it does.

These are the many small muscles that are sometimes grouped together under the term pectoralis minor. These function primarily as connectors between the shoulder blades and the ribcage. If this was football, think of the pec minors as the player that puts in the tackles and wins the loose balls—which the pec major can turn into bodybuilding goals.

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Anatomically, these smaller muscles lie under the bigger chest muscles, which is why it is difficult to always feel them do the work. You’d have to concentrate on specific exercises to keep them healthy and get stronger. A stronger pec minor do not just mean a better chest, but it is important to work on them for shoulder health.

“The primary actions of this muscle include the stabilisation, depression, abduction or protraction, internal rotation and downward rotation of the scapula,” states a Physiopedia article on the smaller of the two chest muscles. It also adds that issues with the pecs minor could lead to a slouched posture and “stiffness and pain in the upper back and increase risk of rotator cuff pathologies.”

While isolating the pec minor is not possible, there are exercises which target it more specifically, like the chest dip—a difficult exercise, but one that is totally worth your while to learn.

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I wrote about this exercise in more detail in another Lounge article titled The Best Chest Workouts For Defined Pecs, because it is more layered than just getting onto a dip bar and repping it out. Just make sure you are using the right angle that follow the fibres as they work both sets of pecs. “Press into the dip bars and depress the shoulder blades. You should feel your shoulder girdle activate as your body elevates,” states a muscleandstrength.com article titled Pec Minor Dip Video Exercise Guide.

Chest flies are another great exercise to add to your routine. The version I prefer is the floor dumbbell chest fly and also the banded single-handed ones. The chest fly needs good technique and is an exercise that will also give you signs in case something is tight in the pec minor.

“Tuck your shoulder blades and keep your chest up to create a stable position. Keep your elbows slightly bent, and hold them in the same position during the entire movement. You want the movement to be in your shoulder joint, by contracting your chest muscles, not in the elbow,” states a stengthlog.com article titled, How To Do Dumbbell Chest Fly: Muscles Worked & Proper Form.

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Jeremy Ethier’s 7-minute video on the exercise not only teaches you the right technique, but also points out five mistakes people make during this exercise. The most common one has to do with the bend. “At the bottom position, the straighter your arm is, the more tension will be applied to your chest. However, the straighter your arms go, the more your biceps also get involved. Eventually, there comes a point where your biceps work harder than your chest is and will become the limiting factor in the movement,” he says.

But the most important part of these exercises is to stretch and activate the pec minor. The wall pec stretch directly targets the pec minors and is a classic post chest-day stretch. If you haven’t been doing it, then start soon, because it tells you how tight that muscle can get, while you have been focussing on the pec majors.

Just place one hand (or both if you have two walls coming together) at the angle the video below shows, and lean into the stretch. You can also do this on the floor, lying down facing the floor, placing one arm at angle and then twisting back against it.

“Control the level of challenge by altering your distance from the wall. You can experiment until you find a distance that allows you to maintain an upright, relaxed posture, but still challenges your abs in getting you there as one spinal unit,” states an article titled, Pec Minor Stretch For Improving Your Posture, published in Very Well Health.

The direct advantage of focussing on the pec minor is the way that this will help the pec major in functioning to its full capacity. Which means lifting more, and a better shaped chest.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.

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First Published:11 May 2024, 06:00 PM IST
HomeLoungewellnessWhy you need to exercise the smaller, hidden chest muscles

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