Given the focus on constructing powerful glutes and strong biceps within the online fitness community, you might be inclined to disregard a crucial muscle group in your upper body: the chest. However, by neglecting the dumbbell chest fly (also known as the pec fly), along with other exercises that strengthen the chest, you may find it challenging to perform other movements in your resistance training program or maintain good posture.
To assist you in incorporating the dumbbell chest fly into your routine and reaping its numerous health benefits, Shape enlisted the expertise of two fitness professionals to explain how to perform the exercise with proper form. Additionally, they provide variations of the dumbbell chest fly so you can customize the exercise to suit your needs. After learning their advice and understanding the advantages of this exercise, you will never skip chest day again.
How to Perform a Dumbbell Chest Fly
A dumbbell chest fly, or pec fly, entails lying on the floor while holding two dumbbells above your chest and gradually lowering your arms down to the floor beside you. The dumbbell chest fly is an adduction movement, meaning it involves moving free weights toward the center of your body to strengthen your chest, as described by Ash Wang, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. The exercise can be done either on a bench or on the floor, as demonstrated by Rachel Mariotti, a personal trainer certified by the National Council on Strength and Fitness, in the image below.
A. Lie faceup on the floor with a dumbbell in each hand resting on your chest. Bend your knees at a 45-degree angle and lift your toes off the floor. Extend your arms straight above the center of your chest, with your palms facing each other. Optional: Slightly lift your upper shoulders and neck off the ground for additional core engagement.
B. Keep your elbows slightly bent. Inhale and slowly lower both arms out to the sides while allowing your shoulder blades to retract naturally. Pause when the dumbbells reach shoulder height.
C. Exhale and contract your chest muscles to bring the dumbbells back together above your chest, returning to the starting position.
The Key Benefits of the Dumbbell Chest Fly
By incorporating the chest fly into your upper-body workout routine, you will experience improvements in strength, posture, and even push-up performance. Here, the professionals provide a detailed explanation.
Maximizes Chest Growth
Individuals who are seeking to enhance significant chest strength — whether it be for a powerlifting competition or a physically demanding occupation — will typically prioritize the barbell chest press, an exercise that effectively activates the pectoralis major (the largest chest muscle that lies beneath the breast tissue), the anterior deltoid (the frontal head of your shoulder muscle), and the triceps brachii (the muscle on the posterior side of your upper arm), according to the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. That being said, the dumbbell chest fly can play a crucial role in assisting you in achieving your chest strength objective, states Wang. “The purpose of a chest fly is for chest adduction, and that’s not truly something you can obtain from your standard pressing movements,” she explains. “So you can consider the chest fly as auxiliary work if you are focused on maximizing chest growth,” notes Wang.
In other words, the chest fly complements the bench press, and it can aid in strengthening the smaller, supportive muscles (such as the biceps) so you can overcome plateaus during the latter exercise.
While it’s especially crucial to strengthen your back muscles to maintain proper posture, focusing on your chest can also assist you in staying free from slouching. “The fly is excellent because it’s a pleasant chest opener and teaches scapular retraction,” says Joey Thurman, C.P.T., C.S.C.S., a fitness and nutrition expert and author of 365 Health and Fitness Hacks That Could Save Your Life. ICYDK, scapular retraction essentially means the capability to squeeze the shoulder blades together — an action that’s extremely important for countering poor posture from sitting hunched over a desk or cell phone all day.
Helps You Master Push-Ups
If you’re aiming to effortlessly perform 10 push-ups in succession with impeccable form — or at least complete a few without any modifications — the chest fly can assist you in achieving that. Remember: push-ups primarily activate your pectoralis major and anterior deltoid, as demonstrated by research.
Since the pectoral fly assists in constructing power in those identical muscle groups, engaging in regular training of this exercise can result in more superior push-ups, according to Mariotti’s statement.
Muscles Targeted by Dumbbell Pec Fly
As previously stated, the chest fly primarily engages your chest muscles, as well as your front deltoids. However, your latissimus dorsi (which assists in extending and rotating your shoulders and arms) also contributes to completing the motion, according to Wang. Additionally, your biceps play a role in each repetition, as they help stabilize and maintain a consistent angle in your elbow, as reported by the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine study.
Variations of Dumbbell Chest Fly
If the dumbbell chest fly doesn’t align with your fitness level or requirements, you can replace it with one of these modified or advanced alternatives.
Modification: Wide Dumbbell Chest Press
To prepare your body for a chest fly, begin with a wide dumbbell chest press, recommended by Mariotti. With bent elbows, you’ll have more leverage as you press your arms towards the ceiling. However, due to the wider position, the dumbbells will be further away from your center, offering a greater stability challenge. In simple terms, this combination of chest fly and chest press serves as an ideal prerequisite before progressing to the actual exercise.
Progression: Hollow Body Chest Fly
To intensify the core demand of a dumbbell chest fly, perform the exercise in a hollow body hold, as suggested by Mariotti. Instead of placing your feet on the ground, lift them up and position your body in a hollow shape like a banana. In this position, you’ll have less stability, and your core will need to work harder to maintain balance.
Common Mistakes in Dumbbell Chest Fly
One common error Wang observes during the dumbbell chest fly is allowing the scapula (shoulder blades) to slide forward at the top of the movement. This gives the appearance of a rounded upper back. Wang explains that this release of tension at the top prevents the desired contraction of the pectoral fibers.
To guarantee the workout is as efficient as achievable, recollect to maintain your scapulas pulled back and level on the ground while you draw the dumbbells back towards your midpoint, she proposes.
If you’re executing the movement on a bench, exercise caution when lowering the dumbbells too near to the ground at your sides, especially if you’re using heavy weights, says Wang. Doing so increases the risk of a shoulder injury, particularly if you have insufficient shoulder mobility, she explains. “If you want to eliminate that possibility, I would simply perform them on the floor,” says Wang. “That way the floor will halt the range of motion.” Regardless of where you’re performing your repetitions, remember to keep your wrists in a neutral position, as the pressure of the weights may cause irritation if the joint is bent, says Mariotti.
How to Incorporate the Dumbbell Chest Fly into Your Workout
While everyone should consider including the chest fly into their training routine due to those mentioned benefits, bodybuilders, in particular, should incorporate it as it can assist them in achieving their muscle growth objectives, recommends Wang. If you try the dumbbell chest fly and experience any discomfort or pain in your shoulders, make sure to consult your healthcare provider to discuss your concerns and ensure that the exercise won’t increase your risk of injury, she adds.
Ready to get started? Try performing four sets of eight to 12 reps, taking sufficient rest intervals in between to ensure proper recovery, suggests Wang. When selecting your weight, “go lighter instead of heavier,” adds Mariotti. “The distance away from your midline is greater, so you won’t be able to handle as much weight [as in other exercises],” she explains. And as with any exercise, aim to perform the dumbbell chest fly at least twice a week in order to promote muscle growth, says Wang. Follow those recommendations, and your push-ups and posture are certain to improve.
Photography and art: Jenna Brillhart
Model and fitness expert: Rachel Mariotti
Wardrobe: SET Active
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