The bench press is seen as the go-to chest exercise by many lifters looking to build a well-rounded set of pecs, but it has some limitations. Most significantly, it’s not actually a “chest” exercise. It’s a “chest, shoulders, and triceps” exercise because it’s a compound (multi-joint) movement and it lacks the ability to effectively target a single muscle.
This is where isolation (single-joint) exercises can shine. The dumbbell flye is one of the most efficient exercises to really zero in on the chest. It emphasizes development of your pecs while creating less overall demand and lower general fatigue in other muscles. Here’s why you should add this bodybuilding staple to your chest workout.
The dumbbell flye’s range of motion moves the weights further away from your body’s midline, which allows gravity to deliver an even greater challenge to the muscle in the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift.
Step 1 — Set Up On the Bench
Lie on a flat bench while bringing a pair of dumbbells to your chest with bent arms, tucking your elbows to your sides. Keep your feet flat on the floor, set slightly wider than your hips. Press the weights above your chest with your palms facing each other. Keep your head in contact with the bench.
Slightly bend your arms. Retract your shoulder blades by pinching them together and maintain this position throughout each rep.
Form Tip: Before beginning each rep, take one or two seconds to “reset” in the top position and make sure that your body is properly in place.
Step 2 — Lower the Weights into a Stretch
Because this is a flye, not a press, keep your elbows at a consistent angle throughout the movement. Slowly lower the dumbbells out to the side until your arms are parallel with the floor and your palms are facing up.
Your elbows should end up in line with your shoulders. Pause briefly in the bottom position to significantly stretch your pecs.
Form Tip: The bottom position of the flye is where most injuries occur because your joints are naturally most vulnerable due to poor leverage. It is important to remain stable by driving your feet into the ground to increase your stability. Managing your breathing can also help. Hold your breath as you lower the weight, breathe out as you bring the weight back up, and inhale before lowering the weight again.
Step 3 — Lift the Weights to Full Contraction
With your abs and upper back muscles engaged and your lower body driving into the ground, think about pulling your elbows and upper arms across your chest.
Be sure to keep your arms at a consistent angle. If they’re bending and straightening excessively, you’re using your triceps, not your chest, to move the weight.
Form Tip: As you return to the top, imagine that you are giving someone a bear hug. This motion will help to keep your arms and shoulders in a good position and it helps to fully shorten the pecs as you reach the top position.
The dumbbell flye takes some concentration to yield maximum benefits. This also means it is incredibly important to nail the technical component in order to minimize the risk of injuries occurring.
Lifting With Your Arms
One of the most common mistakes is turning the dumbbell flye into the dumbbell bench press. While the press can be an effective exercise on its own, it recruits additional muscles at the expense of chest emphasis.
Bending your arms will reduce overall tension on the chest muscle, preventing the flye from stimulating maximum muscle growth.
Avoid It: Maintain a slightly bent arm throughout the entire exercise. In the bottom position, your hands should be extended away from your shoulders, not near your shoulder in a pressing position.
Lack of Stability
Some lifters will leave their legs completely relaxed, pointed on their toes, or raised completely in the air. This de-stabilizes your body and makes you less effective at performing this exercise due to a lack of stability from the ground up.
When your body is unstable, your muscles cannot produce sufficient force or maintain muscular tension. This creates a poor stimulus for growth.
Avoid It: Your legs allow you to create a base of support for more total-body stability during each rep. This means that you will be able to create more tension on the target muscle and use slightly more weight. Stay flat-footed and drive your feet into the ground during the rep.
Lifting Too Fast or Too Heavy
This mistake is more often associated with people new to training and have not yet mastered flye technique or those who rush through reps and use careless technique.
General poor form, excessively fast reps, or heavy weights can all lead to a significant amount of strain at the shoulder and elbow joints. This can also occur when the arms are locked straight during the exercise.
Avoid it: Keeping your elbows softly bent from start to finish. If the weight is too heavy, your arms will instinctively bend too much to shift the weight. Taking a brief pause in the top position can slow down your reps and ensure your form stays on point.
The dumbbell flye is unique because it allows you to challenge the pecs significantly through the eccentric portion of each rep, making the muscle contract harder in a stretched position.
The dumbbell flye puts the chest under a significant stretch, followed by an intense contraction. That’s a winning combination for muscle growth.
Challenging The Lengthened Range
The dumbbell flye triggers muscular growth by emphasizing tension on the pecs in the stretched position. Taking two to three seconds to lower the weight will challenge the muscle in the lengthened range, which may lead to increased muscle protein synthesis. (1)
This is in contrast to exercises which are more challenging in the contracted range, such as a pec-deck machine or cable crossover.
As an isolation exercise, the dumbbell flye focuses maximum tension on just one muscle — the chest. Several smaller muscles are recruited as well, but not as a primary mover.
Some lifters de-prioritize isolation exercises like the dumbbell flye and overfocus on multi-joint movements. That approach can create lagging muscle groups which are under-trained because multiple body parts are constantly working without regard to balanced development.
The pectoralis major covers the entire chest. Its two heads, the sternal (mid-chest) and the clavicular (upper chest) are both recruited during the exercise. One of the functions of the pecs is to adduct the upper arm — bringing the upper arm toward the body’s centerline — which is exactly the movement performed during the flye.
The front muscle of the shoulder, the anterior delt, is the muscle that assists the pecs in performing the flye motion. If you feel your delts are being worked more than your pecs, decrease the weight and focus on feeling the chest muscles contract and stretch, while your shoulder stabilizes the weights. Also focus on keeping your palms facing up. Don’t allow your hands to rotate during the movement.
While your delts assist your pecs, the biceps are also engaged and put under tension due to the slightly bent arm position. The biceps work to maintain elbow position and stabilize your lower arm (and the dumbbell) during the movement.
The biceps are worked statically because you should not be curling the weight during a dumbbell flye.
The dumbbell flye is a classic muscle-building exercise. Any lifter looking to maximize their chest development should be implementing the movement into their programming. Due to the extended arm position and unfavorable leverages, the exercise is not well-suited to move heavy weights safely.
This type of isolation exercise will assist in developing muscle size and symmetry of the pecs. The dumbbell flye allows the pecs to work with minimal involvement of other muscles, making it an effective way to emphasize the chest.
To prioritize muscle growth, the dumbbell flye should be programmed as a secondary exercise after your main chest pressing. It can also be used as a finisher at the end of the workout to completely fatigue the muscle fibers recruited during the session.
Moderate Weight, Moderate Repetition
Using a standard bodybuilding approach of three to four sets in the six to 12 rep range will assist in driving up training volume for the pecs, which plays a significant role in building muscle. (2).
Low Weight, High Repetition
Using a lighter weight for two to three sets in the 13 to 20 rep range is a great way to practice dumbbell flye technique, especially when you first incorporate it into your routine. This approach will still allow an overall increase in training volume, encouraging muscle growth.
Below are two variations that you can swap into your workouts once you’ve mastered standard dumbbell flyes. While the exercises are still very similar in nature, the subtle differences in body positioning, range of motion, and muscle recruitment can continue to improve pec development.
Dumbbell Foam Roller Flye
Lying on a foam roller instead of a flat bench can improve your ability to retract your shoulder blades into the foam roller itself, because the roller is more narrow than the bench, which permits the shoulder blades to move more freely.
Because the foam roller is round and may want to move beneath your body, it forces you to use more control during the exercise, which can help to keep your shoulders healthy and safe.
Incline Dumbbell Flye
Using a bench set at an inclined angle will shift the focus of the stretch to the clavicular (upper pec) head of the chest.
Although the range of motion at the shoulder joint will be slightly less than the flat bench because the arms move at a different angle, it is still important to work through the active range of motion in which you can maintain tension on the pecs. Lower the weight as far as possible without aggressively stretching the chest and shoulders, and lift to a full contraction.
Some lifters may be unable to perform dumbbell flyes, either due to mobility issues, joint pain, or other individualized factors. There are several alternatives that will similarly strengthen and build your chest.
The cable crossover, or standing cable flye, is the same single-joint movement pattern as the dumbbell flye with two major differences. First, the cable pulley system can be adjusted to varying heights and a variety of arm positions can be used. These slight differences allow “customization” of the movement to accommodate shoulder mobility issues.
Secondly, the cable machine doesn’t rely on gravity or leverage like a dumbbell flye, so it applies constant tension to the chest throughout every part of the rep. This tension also allows you to increase the range of motion by crossing your hands over each other in the contracted position, which can help you to feel the muscle working more, and understand how to fully engage your pecs on any exercise.
The “notorious” pec-deck machine is a staple in any commercial gym, but frequent misuse has built its unfair reputation as a shoulder-killer. This dumbbell flye alternative reduces the need for total-body stability due to the seated and supported position.
However, this added support does not mean you can overload the movement with heavy weights. The pec-deck is best used to finish off the chest muscles after you have already completed your primary lifts.
What should I do if my shoulder hurts when I perform this exercise?
Stop performing the exercise immediately. If you feel pain or discomfort during a movement, do not “soldier on” and push through pain to finish your set.
Pain may not necessarily mean you have an injury, but it could be a warning sign and might actually highlight some areas of weakness which could turn into bigger issues if left unaddressed. Consulting with a medical professional is a good idea.
Can I use dumbbell flyes in every chest workout?
You could, because it’s an effective and direct chest-training exercise. However, to stimulate overall pec development and avoid stagnation, it can be more effective to rotate variations of the flye regularly. Change the movement every eight to 12 weeks or whenever you feel you cannot continue safely progressing in weight.
Flyes for Size
The bench press might be the meat and potatoes of many chest workouts, but dumbbell flyes are an essential isolation exercise when you’re after a more muscular chest. The often-overlooked isolation exercise makes it easier to crank up the pec-training volume with focused precision.
- Schoenfeld, Brad MSc, CSCS The Use of Specialized Training Techniques to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy, Strength and Conditioning Journal: August 2011 – Volume 33 – Issue 4 – p 60-65 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182221ec2
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2019). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 51(1), 94–103. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764
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